‘Fuzzy-Profound’ Words Cause Mental Rot

From The Wall Street Journal:

What are “qualia”? I stumbled on the word recently in the Times Literary Supplement, where a review of novels by Neal Stephenson and Don DeLillo observed that both authors “are much concerned with qualia.” I looked up “quale,” the singular, in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “the property or quality of a thing; Philosophy a quality or property as perceived or experienced by a person; (also) a thing having certain qualities.”

This definition is as clear as mud. Does quale refer to something objective or to something subjective?

The OED gives 11 examples of how quale or qualia have been used, the first dating from 1654. Here are two recent examples. Philosopher A.J. Ayer: “So far as anything can be, qualia are pre-theoretical.” I have no idea what pre-theoretical means. The second is from an essay in the Philosophical Quarterly: “It is possible to hold that certain properties of certain mental states, namely those I’ve called qualia, are such that their possession or absence makes no difference to the physical world.”

The sentences suggest that quale refers to a subjective experience, which is what the philosopher Daniel Dennett says: Qualia is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us.”

I get it! Just as Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” is surprised to learn that he is speaking prose, so I am surprised to learn that my daily life is filled with qualia.

Quale and qualia are what I would call “fuzzy profound” words or phrases. They give the appearance that deep thinking is going on, but usually it isn’t.

Contemporary intellectual life, Saul Bellow implies in “Herzog” (1964), is filled with fuzzy-profound terms. Herzog writes to Martin Heidegger: “I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian.’ When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?”

. . . .

Perhaps the best-known fuzzy-profound word is “modernity.” The OED’s second definition is “an intellectual tendency or social perspective characterized by departure from or repudiation of traditional ideas, doctrines, and cultural values in favour of contemporary or radical values and beliefs (chiefly those of scientific rationalism and liberalism).”

. . . .

Some writers deem the present “late modernity”—and also, believe it or not, “liquid modernity.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG was reminded of George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language:

MOST PEOPLE WHO BOTHER with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language−−so the argument runs−−must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half−conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad−−I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen−−but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative samples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

(1) I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth−century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien (sic) to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate. PROFESSOR HAROLD LASKI (Essay in Freedom of Expression)

(2) Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate or put at a loss for bewilder. PROFESSOR LANCELOT HOGBEN (Interglossa)

(3) On the one side we have the free personality; by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self−secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity? ESSAY ON PSYCHOLOGY in Politics (New York)

(4) All the “best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror of the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty−bourgeoisie to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis. COMMUNIST PAMPHLET

(5) If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may lee sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion’s roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream−−as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes, or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as “standard English.” When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school−ma’am−ish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens. LETTER IN Tribune

Link to the rest at PublicLibrary.UK

PG doesn’t recall reading or hearing the term, “lee sound,” as included in paragraph (5) before.

He searched online and found a reference to “geddy lee sound,” on a website called TalkBase.com which evidently is a place where rock guitarists gather.

He further learned that Geddy Lee Weinrib is “vocalist, bassist, and keyboardist for the Canadian rock group Rush” but doubts base guitars was the image which the author of the Letter to the Tribune meant to evoke by using the term, “lee sound.”

(Although PG must acknowledge that “ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place,” a phrase also included in the Letter in the Tribune, could be talking about a base guitar riff if Langham Place, (“a short street in Westminster, central London, England”) was hosting Geddy Lee rock concerts in 1946, when Politics and the English Language was first published.)

Unfortunately, the creator of the Geddy Lee sound was born in 1953, so that possible explanation fails. Additionally, PG was not able to find anything linking Mr. Lee’s guitar performances to “effete languors”.

20 thoughts on “‘Fuzzy-Profound’ Words Cause Mental Rot”

  1. Isn’t this mostly a concern for literary types?

    Writers of commercial books (both fiction and non-fiction) tend to focus on accessibility and contemporary usage so resorting to obscure archaims is counterindicated for a successful book. Demonstrating mastery of the OED doesn’t add much value to mainstream titles.

    Not sure many contemporary commercial authors have much interest in emulating James Joyce.

  2. I believe that “lee sound” is just a typo for “be sound”.

    Look at the comparative shapes of the letters — that’s just the sort of error that OCR treatment generates.

    I mean, mondegreens may be human audio transcription errors that are fruitful of amusement, but OCR errors are rather more random, having not been processed by (mistaken) intelligence on the way out.

  3. Qualia are the elements of subjective experience that you can not share with anyone else.

    You can agree with people about what object is red and what is green, but you can not be sure that what someone else experiences when looking at red is not what you experience when looking at green, and vice versa.

    • Red/green color blindness.
      Quasi-religious entrenched bias.

      Reality is universal (except in the quantum regime) but perception is personal.

  4. The answer is, know what you can control, and know what you can’t.

    Trying to control the use of language is like standing on the seashore commanding the water from coming in.

    Change is the only constant.

  5. The WSJ piece seems to be bitching about specialists using specialized language when communicating with their colleagues. Give me a moment while I roll my eyes. OK, I’m back. There may be a legitimate criticism to be made of the use in the Times Literary Supplement. Is this a word that the target audience is likely to understand? Probably not. But this is entirely apart from the utility of the word itself, used in the appropriate context.

    • Bitching about what used to be (still is?) pejoratively called jargon is an old story and still as foolish as it always was (except for the justified criticism of the use of specialised language when speaking to lay audiences). However, whilst the harder sciences and mathematics do have well defined specialised language – and that includes qualia which I think Mary defines rather well – a great deal of what now escapes from the academy comes from ideologically driven areas of sociology and involves concepts which are generally not well defined in the first place and whose original meaning pretty much vanishes when they are incorporated into political discussions.

      And as for the TLS, as a one time subscriber I would have hoped that the readership actually understood qualia. Given what I remember of its contents I think that the Wall Street Journal’s writer will have problems with quite a few of the articles, though maybe they stick to the fiction reviews where the vocabulary tended to be simpler. I have to admit though that I share the writer’s uncertainty as to the meaning of pre-theoretical in that particular context.

      • Pre-theoretical: just a guess, but perhaps this is “theory” in the sense the post-modernist crowd uses it? The idea, I am speculating, is that a work’s qualia–how it is perceived or experienced–hits the individual before any of the theory stuff. Don’t quote me on this. In fairness, pulling one sentence out of context then complaining that its meaning is unclear is not really fair.

      • The OP author might want to look into Continental Philosophy.
        Or at least do an online search:


        “…continental philosophers generally reject the view that the natural sciences are the only or most accurate way of understanding natural phenomena. This contrasts with many analytic philosophers who consider their inquiries as continuous with, or subordinate to, those of the natural sciences. Continental philosophers often argue that science depends upon a “pre-theoretical substrate of experience” (a version of Kantian conditions of possible experience or the phenomenological “lifeworld”) and that scientific methods are inadequate to fully understand such conditions of intelligibility.”

        • Setting aside the fact that as a amateur dabbler in philosophy I’ve never found this kind of account of science at all convincing#, it’s worth noting that Ayer – who uses “pre-theoretical” in the OP – was aligned with analytical philosophy and, in particular with logical positivism. This latter (ultimately failing) approach had plenty of continental based supporters but was the antithesis of Continental Philosophy.

          Also, I realise the author of the OP is taking their example from the OED which goes way back in time, but calling an Ayer quote recent is somewhat misleading: after all he died 30 years ago.

          # I do accept that science should not over extend its reach and descend into scientism and am not sure that “intelligibility” falls with the boundaries of science rather than philosphy.

          • He griped instead of just researching. 🙂
            Hard to get much sympathy that way. It’s not as online searches were hard. Ignorance is easy to fix…if you want to.

          • Me, I barely dabble in philosophy. I skew heavity to the practicality of engineering, the third leg of the “reality triad”:

            Philosophy – what we *think* might be real
            Science – what we think *is* real
            Engineering – what we *know* is real

            It’s more of a continuum so the borders are fuzzy but I find it a useful way to distiguish the various kinds of dreamers. Especially on the physic side, where multiverse theories impinge on modal reality. Great story fodder in tbat area of the border.

            Useful philosophy. Who knew? 😉

            • I’ve read a few good stories that assume a multiverse – or at least a number of parallel universes – so as you say they are good for something, even if it is only SF writers plots. However, I think these theories, which have lately been justified as “post empirical” science, definitely fall into the region of the metaphysical with their claim to be part of science mostly based on wishful thinking or special pleading.

              Of course, there is also “Many Worlds” which used to just be one of the many competing explanations of quantum mechanics – none of which actually alter the theory’s equations or the predictions so choosing between them is basically a matter of aesthetics – but there is now a push to view the infinitely increasing new worlds as “real”, whatever that may mean.

              You may have gathered that I am a skeptic about non empirical science and not a fan of modal reality.

              • I’m a skeptic too, but (on principle) I think there is a use for speculative thought whether it be in fiction, philosophy, or theoretical physics.
                We won’t know what is real without exploring what might be and the resultant implications there-of. So there is some use in those kinds of speculation.

                Multiverse theories aren’t quite the same as modal reality but they both stem from the questions behind the anthropic principle. The “why” questions are tough nuts but need answering. In physics, multiverses are an emergent result of the math of M-theories which (so far) map to known reality as well as the standard model. Until one or the other makes an observable prediction that the other doesn’t both remain competing theories in p!ay. One is too flexible and the other too focused.

                (There are reasons to be skeptical of the standard model too since it is more of a catalog driven “curve fit” than a first principles theory. One can find echoes of the 19th century encyclopedists in its approach. It is particularly weak on the “why’s”.)

                Wouldn’t surprise me if both were wrong.

                In the meantime, multiverses, whether type 1,2, or 3, fall into the same category as warp drives and alien space civilizations: “not known to be wrong”. So, fair game.

                Besides, they’re fun and allow exploring “road not taken” ideas. Useful.

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