I was planning, and am still half-planning, to write a post on Alexander Theroux this week. But then my doctoral work got interesting again, and I am wrestling to finish the first chapter of my thesis, which already amounts to a quarter of the whole, just about. For the moment, then, I leave you this to chew on.
Here's what happened. Last Friday, an anonymous man living in New York—let's call him X—was looking at Wikipedia's page on Alphonse Toussenel. From here he navigated to my translation of Toussenel on mole-rats, and from there, began exploring other Varieties. He alighted on 'Surrealissimo', my post about Salvador Dali and André Breton, where he left an outraged comment, under the moniker 'A. Toussenel', suggesting that I rename this venue 'The Onanarium'. (Not a bad name, in some respects.) The next day he returned, despite his outrage, and commented on my post 'Prescriptivism', this time a little more ambivalent with regards to my opinions. He concluded:
At the end of the day, descriptivism, to me, is merely another manifestation of Nietzsche's concept of slave morality, which is the dominant morality of our day. It reflects a frantic race to the bottom, a form of the disease of neophilia; or, to put it another way, of that great logical fallacy of modern times: Post hoc, ergo hoc melius.I replied to some of X's points, but ignored his conclusion. Now, in this post I had cited a piece at Language Log, 'Evil', as an example of that site's approach to prescriptivism. X read this piece, and explored that site for a while, but was evidently dissatisfied, because he sent a private communiqué to its author, Mark Liberman, this time under the soubriquet 'Kevin S.', and concluding:
At the end of the day, Descriptivism appears merely to be another form of Nietzsche's concept of slave morality, which is the dominant morality of our day. Emily Bender's remarks, as quoted in your post of 10/28/06, offer a typically tedious, humorless, and self-righteous example of this type of morality. Descriptivism, like most such ideologies, merely reflects the values and tendencies of the society it serves. In this case, those tendencies are a frantic race to the intellectual bottom, where language and the Humanities are concerned; a perversion of the concept of democracy; a mutation of the virus neophilia; and a telling instance of that great logical fallacy of modern times: Post hoc, ergo hoc melius.Liberman, being the sort of man he is, blogged this and demolished its reasoning, including in his new post a rather dull attack on Nietzsche for racism and bad etymology. Language Hat was intrigued by the affair, and posted on it in turn, commenting at the end of his piece:
Personal to "Kevin": if neophilia were a virus name, it would not be italicized according to AMA style, and "Humanities" should not be capitalized and your Latin is ungrammatical and says the opposite of what you want it to say.Mr. Hat was picking nits. I picked them back in the comments, with no desire to defend X from Liberman's substantive mauling. The Latin is fine, I observed: 'hoc' ['hōc'] is the ablative of comparison, and the entire phrase means 'After this, therefore better than this'. Later:
I might add, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, that it makes rhetorical sense to italicise 'neophilia' both as a non-naturalised word and for speaker-emphasis, regardless of AMA conventions; and even the capitalisation of 'Humanities' serves the purpose of ironic hypostasis. I appreciate that LH and his readers may not like "Kevin's" sentiments, but these stylistic and linguistic nitpicks are simply not very forceful.I was also curious about the origins of 'post hoc, ergo hoc melius'. Google turned up nothing, until I put the apodosis into its more expected order, 'post hoc, ergo melius hoc'—compare the phrase upon which it is based, 'post hoc, ergo propter hoc'. Now I turned up these:
Antoine Augustin Cournot (1801-1877) avait coutume de définir par une maxime latine: post hoc, ergo melius hoc. Ce qui vient après est toujours meilleur que ce qui précède.Thus, in all likelihood the most bloglike piece I have ever written.
— 'Concours d’entrée ENS Cachan 2006' [doc]
Il s'agit là bien sûr d'un sophisme, d'un sophisme ordinaire constitutif de la mentalité proprement moderne, dont Louis Weber [Le Rythme du progrès, pp. 22-24], en 1913, a donné la formule: "Post hoc, ergo melius hoc"—"Après cela, donc mieux (ou meilleur) que cela".
— Pierre-André Taguieff, 'L'idée de progrès' [pdf] (2002).
[Update: James Ashley comments.]