Wednesday, 10 November 2010


I was reading through Dennett’s Breaking the Spell again yesterday and came across an endnote that raised a laugh. Dennett is reflecting on the value and uses of incomprehensibility, mystification and paradox in religion, specifically as mechanisms for bedazzling the mind (effective marketing strategies or tools of transmission), when he notes in a side comment his first secular experience of this phenomenon.
My introduction to this somewhat depressing idea came in 1982, when I was told by the acquisitions editor of a major paperback publishing company that her company wasn’t going to bid for the paperback rights for The Mind’s I, the anthology of philosophy and science fiction that Douglas Hofstadter and I had edited, because it was “too clear to become a cult book.” I could see what she meant: we actually explained things as carefully as we could.
OK, not funny so far (although perhaps evoking a knowing smile). Dennett then proceeds to explain a related story.
John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: “Michel, you’re so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?” To which Foucault replied, “That’s because in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.” I have coined a term for this tactic, in honor of Foucault’s candor: eumerdification.

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