True, False, or Bloody Stupid*?

Ginny dredged up a lot of bad memories here from when I descended into the valley of the shadow of idiocy in grad school. At one point I wanted to go for a dual Ph.D. in Slavic Linguistics / Literature (I hadn�t decided which) and Physical Chemistry, the idea being to get a job teaching both subjects at a small school. Don�t laugh. I got better (in the mental health sense). I dropped the humanities classes and got an MBA instead.

Don�t get me wrong. I have very fond memories of some of my humanities experience, and if you give a rat�s about my views of the relative worth of my humanities education (not that I expect you to), please read this. But I did take enough grad classes in literature to get thoroughly familiar, and disgusted, with Post-Modernism. While I tend to share Ginny�s denunciations of their attempts to show that nothing is true, I tended to treat them as I treat philosophers – with bemusement. Outside of my religion, I tend not to think about, or deal with, truth with a capital �T�. As Mitch said in the comments:

Pragmatism requires that ideas, explanations, and theories are true only as far as they are useful. They must explain the range of known facts. This kind of truth, though, is conditional.

Yes. Truth is constrained by the boundary conditions of current knowledge. It�s like solving a DE with a Fourier Series � that combination of sines and cosines must approximate the solution within the boundary conditions of the exercise, but God only knows what those functions add up to outside that box. You can�t falsify a theory for all time. At one time, to the best of our knowledge, we thought that light was a wave. Then came the discovery of the photoelectric effect and Newton got resurrected by Einstein. But you can falsify something in a closed system, the closed system of knowledge at any given point in time. Or, as Professor Dutch put it:

What is truth? How do we know it when we see it? How can we be sure our interpretation of it is valid? What about rival claims of truth? These are difficult questions, challenging questions, wonderful questions. They tell us a great deal about the limitations of our methods of inquiry. The one thing they cannot do – what I call the Fundamental Fallacy of Philosophy – is tell us anything at all about the nature of reality or the existence of truth. Philosophy since the days of the ancient Greeks has focused on the grand questions and the limitations of what and how we know, and as a result has remained stagnant. Science focused on what can be known and mushroomed.

I am a scientist, and I do focus on what can be known. So I tend to dismiss Post-Modernists’ drivel about the relativity of Truth as the Academic equivalent of drunken philosophical conversations I used to have as a college sophomore. Except when they overstep their bounds and begin to claim that, even within the boundary conditions of current factual knowledge, there is no truth with a small �t�, and science has no more validity than Dr. Emoto�s hocus-pocus. Aside from the massive waste of public monies on professorships and student loans for useless degrees, I guess that is what bothers me most about Post-Modernism – it gives neo-luddites an Academic gloss for their idiocy.

* Taken from Terry Pratchett’s “Thief of Time“: “Miss Tangerine was one of the faster-learning Auditors and had already formulated a group of things, events, and situations that she categorized as ‘bloody stupid’. Things that were ‘bloody stupid’ could be dismissed.”

7 thoughts on “True, False, or Bloody Stupid*?”

  1. Well, John Jay, you’ve cheered me up with your rosy scenarios. Six weeks ago my middle daughter embarked on what we hope to be a long & happy marriage. They are now packing their books & heading east; with an M.A. in Czech, he will begin work on a Ph.D. in Slavic studies this fall. (Fortunately, the school is going to pay his way – well, at least fortunately as far as we are concerned.) Her B.A. is in Czech/Religious Studies; neither of these, of course, are as useful as, say, an engineering degree. (Indeed, than a Slavic one would be.)

    I will say the Quixotic idea of Ph.D.’s in chemistry & Slavic studies is stunning – impressive but bizarre.

    And, yes, reading is sometimes best when it is not to meet class requirements. Still, the habit of a disciplined approach to an author or an era is often useful & can be learned through the structure of a class.

    Still & all, I would argue that by portraying human nature well, lit has much to give us. In fact, even formulaic television series can be useful. It isn’t so much grand truths we reach through these, but they help us understand human nature – an understanding that helps us in about everything we do in this life.

  2. Ginny, I do not believe that every degree has to have an immediate practical application, so long as some broad skills are imparted. That being said, I do not think that any university or college should offer a degree that did not require at least 2 semesters of statistics – I don’t care how math phobic the student. A few other classes in topics such as logic (or classes that use formal logic) would round out the mental toolkit.

    One of the big problems with the Po Mo revolution is that it has gutted the useful core of what used to be a strong liberal arts tradition. People spend an entire “education” parroting what the instructors want to hear.

    As for the “impressive but bizarre” notion of the dual Ph.D. – that was more indecision than anything else. As the years of grad school wore on, I found that my temperament was better suited to the Chemistry method of academic inquiry, but not the Literary Criticsm one, but I held on because I loved the subject matter so much. Until a visiting Chemistry prof told me that I should actually use both interestes in the business world, but to do that, I needed a union card for the practice of business. His was the best career advice I’ve ever had, before or since.

    If you daughter and SIL feel a passion for the subject matter that overrides their distase for intellectual poseurs and the BS that they generate, by all means they should pursue their dreams. I do not possess such a mind – I am pathologically incapable of suffering fools, gladly or not. Lit Crit would have led me to either have an aneurism or kill someone.

  3. Ginny, I actually took my undergraduate degree in English Literature after realizing my math background was too limited to go into the sciences; I didn’t pass Calculus II until after my son did. A couple of grades in Physics and Chemistry were all it took to get the point across. Maybe it wasn’t useful, but I was paying my own way and I was going to study what I damn well pleased. I figured I could learn a trade later.

    I learned the old-school explication de texte method of literary study, not that this degree of examination is needed to enjoy literature. Moby Dick succeeds as a great story, whether or not you know how Melville pulled it off. The followers of the PoMo and victim-group school of lit crit are more about appreciating themselves than the work in question, and that to me is a travesty. You can argue about whether you need to study the author as well as the text, but there is no excuse for studying the reader.

  4. John Jay, am I right in thinking you’d never had to deal with a government client?

    In my current job, I do. Talk about suffering fools…The best school course that would prepare me for this experience would be (I presume), Macchiavellian politics.

  5. Tatyana – actually I do, but as clients I can put my contempt aside long enough to do business. The key to mental health in an imperfect world is to not have to work day-to-day with such people.

  6. I’m working on a PhD right now, and it’s no picnic. “Valley of the shadow of idiocy” is absolutely apt! I still like your Slavic + science, though: the range of interest is wonderfully ilke the ideal of the Renaissance man, and the modern era is sadly lacking in Renaissance men!

    For your amusement, here are two links on academia:


  7. You can argue about whether you need to study the author as well as the text, but there is no excuse for studying the reader. Thanks, Mitch.

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