Gene Expression

Style is timeless

I’ve been reading Critique of Pure Reason and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in the evenings. It should be no surprise that the former is a more tedious read than the latter, David Hume being the better stylist than Immanuel Kant. In faireness, one presumes that translation from the German might add some overhead in terms of obscurity (though I’ve heard that the German isn’t the model of clarity either). Nevertheless, I’m struck by the fact that Kant’s prose reminds me a great deal of Stephen Jay Gould. I think this is interesting because Gould drew so much inspiration from out of favor Germanic conceptions of biological processes and paradigms, in particular the importance of bauplan. An analog to Hume might be Richard Dawkins’, who if excessively simple in his formulation nevertheless gains in economy as a result.

P.S.: I haven’t read Hume since college, and I have to say I’m a lot less impressed than I once was. Dude was wrong a lot!


  1. #1 Matt McIntosh
    July 25, 2008

    It’s been a while since I’ve read him too, but I’d say he was lot more right than wrong. What do you have in mind?

    Kant’s awful prose can’t be blamed on German — there are plenty of German philosophers from Schopenhauer through to Popper who are nowhere near as ponderous. Nietzsche in particular gives the lie to the idea that German writing is a hindrance to style. Kant just sucked as a writer, but was influential enough that a lot of subsequent German writers aped his ponderous style.

  2. #2 razib
    July 25, 2008

    What do you have in mind?

    oh, reading the beginning i had to laugh out loud when he predicted that common sense artists would have more future fame than esoteric philosophers and scientists. i forget who it was, but the philosophers and scientists named i recognized, the artists i didn’t, so he was obviously wrong. in any case, yeah, there’s a lot right in him, but in the end i think he was trying a bit too hard to be pro-common sense and too skeptical of rational systems. of course, that’s a gross simplification of what he was trying to say, but that’s my impression right now….

  3. #3 John S. Wilkins
    July 25, 2008

    Hume’s rightness or wrongness depends a lot on what you do in interpreting him. If you read him charitably, looking for modern equivalents, he was right a lot. If you read him superficially, looking merely at his use of terms, of coruse he was wrong – he used different terms and ideas.

    Last night I attended a lecture on Hume and pride. Despite what “pride” now means, Hume was using it as a kind of rational egoism to tie together the bundles of impressions that go to make up the “self” – in short, it’s an explanation for self-identity if you do not believe in Descartes’ substantive self. That’s pretty cool, although it has its own problems.

    Rule No 64: If you think Hume is being stupid or is obviously wrong, you do not understand Hume.

  4. #4 agnostic
    July 25, 2008

    One thing that’s always puzzled me until recently was why the Empiricists didn’t ask, “OK, let’s check our hypothesis: if sensation (or impression, in Hume’s terms) is the source of ideas, do people who lack the relevant sensation have the idea?” Like, study the blind to see if they know what a line is (extension), if they know what near vs. far is (contiguity), etc. etc.

    It’s not as if the Early Modern period wanted for blind, deaf, and dumb people to study! But after you get into academia long enough (usually two weeks will do), you quickly figure out that there are those who agree that ultimately you test your hypothesis, and those who just want to chat as though life were one unending cocktail party.

    The Empiricists preferred to reason from the armchair, while the Rationalists gained insight from their vast experiences in the lab.

    I haven’t read him sense college, but among the Scottish Enlightenment, Thomas Reid was more on the mark when it came to perception. At least, I recall him pointing out what was wrong with Hume’s points.

  5. #5 agnostic
    July 25, 2008

    that was a freudian slip.

  6. #6 Spike Gomes
    July 26, 2008

    The only thing of Kant that is a good read (in the sense that it’s not physically painful to slog through) is his early work on theories of the sublime. Oddly enough it’s also the stuff which stands the test of time most intact.

  7. #7 Matt McIntosh
    July 26, 2008

    That was about the only thing Reid did right, I think. It’s funny, actually — Hume rather famously inserted a passage into the Enquiry that, had he followed it up instead of weirdly dismissing it, probably would have led him to perceptual constructivism way ahead of the curve.

  8. #8 D
    July 27, 2008

    “Nevertheless, I’m struck by the fact that Kant’s prose reminds me a great deal of Stephen Jay Gould.”

    Is this charitable? Kant was among the greatest of the great. Have you no respect?

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