Ambiguity, precision and readability: Mill’s critique of Bentham

J.S. Mill criticised Bentham’s later writings for

perpetually aiming at impracticable precision. … He could not bear, for the sake of clearness and the reader’s ease, to say, as ordinary men are content to do, a little more than the truth in one sentence, and correct it in the next. The whole of the qualifying remarks which he intended to make, he insisted upon imbedding as parentheses in the very middle of the sentence itself. … [Eventually] he could stop nowhere short of utter unreadableness, and after all attained no more accuracy than is compatible with opinions as imperfect and one-sided as those of any poet (Mill, essay on ‘Bentham’).

Bentham coming in for a kiss

Bentham coming in for a kiss

Mill’s advice is very valuable. While we should strive for clarity, often we must accept ambiguity in order to stop our writing from becoming unreadably Benthamite, brimming with qualifications, clarifications and distinctions. Making our writing so complicated means that what should be an “aah!” for the reader becomes an “argh!”.

Here’s an example of the late Bentham’s ‘utter unreadableness’, from A Table of the Springs of Action:

Consequences and intentions, – intentions, considered in respect of the consequences, to the production of which they are directed, or at any rate in respect of the consequences which at the time of the intention, a man actually had, or at least ought (it is supposed) to have had in view, – these, together with the acts which the intentions in question are considered as having been directed to the production of, or as having a tendency to produce, – will (it is believed) be seen to be the only subjects to which, in the character of attributives, such adjuncts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can either with speculative propriety, or without danger of practical error, in so far as acts, and springs of action are concerned, be attached.

Yet the essence of this sentence is very simple:

Only acts and intentions can be said to be good or bad.

Bentham should have started with that, then added qualifications in the next sentence if needs be.

I’m not against complexity and precision. I’m against unnecessary complexity and pedantic precision which clouds the meaning of what is written. The late Bentham, alas, is very cloudy.

More spam comments revealed

I’ve previously posted about some of the spam comments that get automatically filtered out by this blog’s software.

Spam mailHere are some more recent spam posts that got filtered out. I promise you, I haven’t changed a word of these!

  1. Toaster oven – Remove shelves and clean who has warm, soapy the sea.
  2. Start by wiping out the home with warm soapy water and rinsing by working with plain water.
  3. I do remember when I saw my fundamental elephant.
  4. Left unfixed, they can backwards up back hooked on your shower drainpipes and even loos and sinks. Live mindfully and creatively – it’s always your birthright.
  5. It is recommended to eat a meal plenty of veggies and fruits instead of animal product.
  6. When it leaks, the lawn expanding over it would certainly become nourished. Isn’t America a cesspool of crass commercialism and greedy, materialistic people?
  7. For the morning with Santa definitely is $50 for uncle and aunts and $34 to master age 2-12.

So, to sum up:

  1. Clean toaster ovens with seawater.
  2. Do not clean your home with seawater. Use ordinary water.
  3. Elephants are fundamental.
  4. It’s my birthright to find creative ways of hooking up my shower and my toilet.
  5. Eat veggies.
  6. American is a cesspool of crass commercialism and greedy, materialistic people.
  7. It’s more expensive to hire Santa for older relatives than for kids.

Annoying aspects of electronic journal and book websites

Here are some things that bug me about publishers’ websites, and a list of publishers who make these errors.

(1) You find the page of an article, log in to access the article (because you’re at home not at university), but then get sent to the publisher’s main webpage, not to the article. Why?

  • Annual Reviews
  • Project Muse
  • Springer

(2) You are browsing through issues of a journal. You get to the bottom of an issue, but to click on the link to the previous or next issue, you have to scroll back up to the top of the page again. Why not have the links at the bottom of the page too?

  • Annual Reviews
  • Cambridge Journalscomputer frustration
  • Oxford Journals
  • Project Muse
  • Springer (which doesn’t even have a link at the top of the page)
  • Wiley-Blackwell

(3) You are accessing a journal from home and need a password to access it. However, the ‘website’ you’re using only remembers your institution for a week, or not at all. Why not longer?

  • Cambridge Journals
  • Springer

(4) Even finding the login page can be hard.

  • Oxford Scholarship (has ‘Sign in’ for personal users at the top, but institutional login at the side – why not put them together?)

N.B. The Elsevier (ScienceDirect) website, which isn’t mentioned above, works pretty flawlessly for me on the above criteria.

Please add more suggestions below and I’ll incorporate them in the list if I can.

[UPDATED 13 March 2015, to include Annual Reviews.]

The return of the Janus-faced cliché

In an earlier post, I scoffed at the academic cliche ‘Janus-faced’. This over-used phrase is largely empty: nearly everything points in different directions. I could get ‘Janus-faced’ into the title of every article and book chapter I have written. Here’s the proof:

  • ‘The Janus face of Hobbesian passions’ – Hobbes says that passions can lead us to make good choices or bad choices.
  • ‘Anti-Janus-faced-Strauss’ – Leo Strauss seems to argue that some people wrote esoterically, but might just be using this as a guide to his own esotericism.
  • ‘Janus-faced uncertainty and the history of ideas’ – uncertainty is both objective and subjective.
  • ‘Rationality and deliberative democracy: a constructive critique of John Dryzek’s Janus-faced democratic theory’ – the real basis of Dryzek’s democratic theory does not imply what he thinks.
  • ‘Hobbes on Janus-faced corruption’ – Hobbes shows that corrupt acts can benefit people in the short-term but not in the long-term.
  • ‘The Janus face of party systems’ – we get different conclusions depending on how we quantify aspects of party systems.
  • ‘Against positive and negative freedom: Isaiah Berlin’s Janus face’ – Berlin says one thing but does another.
  • ‘The Janus face of the British electoral system’ – first-past-the-post’s very strengths could undermine it.
  • ‘The Janus face of fairness and electoral reform’ – different definitions of fairness lead to different conclusions about electoral reform.

Have you ever published anything where you couldn’t get ‘Janus-faced’ into the title? If so, say below.

Or, add your own favourite ‘Janus-faced’ publications, e.g.:

  • Horkheimer and Adorno, Janus-Faced Enlightenment
  • Isaiah Berlin, ‘Janus-faced liberty’
  • Marx, Janus-Gesicht Kapital
  • Robert Putnam, The Janus Face of Italian Democracy
  • David Mayhew, Janus-Faced American Government
  • Plato, Republic: One And a Half Janus Faces of the Soul and the City
  • Paul Kennedy, The Janus Face of the Great Powers
  • Emile Durkheim, The Janus Face of Labour in Society
  • John Rawls, A Theory of Janus
  • Marcuse, Semi-Janus-Faced Man

Leo Strauss conference, Marburg, July 19-20

I’m giving a paper at a conference on Leo Strauss, on July 19-20. The conference, in Marburg, is called ‘Reading Between The Lines: Leo Strauss and the History of Early Modern Philosophy’. Also speaking are Jonathan Israel, Gianni Paganini, Al Martinich and Edwin Curley, amongst others.

My paper is called ‘The Irrelevance of (Straussian) Hermeneutics’. I don’t normally like titles with parentheses, but I reject the idea of a ‘Straussian hermeneutic’ partly because I reject the usefulness of the classic hermeneutic texts – Schleiermacher, Gadamer, and so on. Indeed, my claims about the irrelevance of a ‘Straussian hermeneutic’ (see also this critique of mine) is less important than my comments on the irrelevance of hermeneutics more generally. I reckon we can get far more useful guidance elsewhere on how to interpret texts. People who’ve been following the blog should have an idea of where I think we should look!

Things you only hear on TV, not in real life

Here are some things you only hear on TV (at least, British TV), and never anywhere else.

(1) ‘for ever’. Real people say ‘she changed how we think’. A TV presenter will say ‘she changed how we think – for ever’. Adding a pause for dramatic effect is vital.

(2) ‘of age’. Real people say ‘he’s only 18’. A TV presenter – well, a sports TV presenter – will say ‘he’s only 18 years of age’.

(3) ‘exactly’. Real people say ‘Mary will tell us what happened’. A TV presenter will say ‘Mary will tell us exactly what happened’. Curiously, it always turns out that the word ‘exactly’ is used ironically here.

(4) ‘an historic event’. Real people say ‘It was, like, massive’. A TV presenter will say ‘It was an historic event’. The sad thing is that they think they’re being correct by saying ‘an historic’, but strictly speaking it should be pronounced with a silent ‘h’, i.e. ‘an istoric’, in the same way that some people say ‘an otel’, as opposed to ‘an hotel’. The only people who I’ve ever heard get this right are Quentin Skinner and Tony Blair. Everyone else who says it gets it wrong, hence shooting themselves twice in the foot with one unhistoric bullet.