10 June, 2008

ergo hoc melius

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.

'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).
Thus, in all likelihood the most bloglike piece I have ever written.

[Update: James Ashley comments.]


John Cowan said...

Wasn't me.

I swear.

Not me at all.

It's a big city.

There are eight million of us.

Jonathan said...

I was afraid I was going to have call in Brian Leiter to defend Nietzsche's genealogical honor there.

Raminagrobis said...

To respond in the bloggy nitpicking style - it seems to me that the Latin is rather ambiguously phrased, especially in 'Toussenel's' original formulation. 'melius' doesn't have to be taken as the comparative of the adverb, since it is also the neuter form of the abjective 'melior'. So 'post hoc ergo hoc melius' could conceivably mean 'after this, therefore this is better' - which is quite the opposite of what 'Toussenel' intended and presumably what language hat was getting at.

Anonymous said...


Would word order really change the meaning so radically, though? It seems as if the ambiguity would be there, if there is ambiguity, regardless of word order.


Very blog-like. Well done, think I?

Raminagrobis said...

More a case of nuance rather than radically different meaning I'd say. 'hoc melius' is just more likely to be read as 'hoc melius est' - I can't find any instances on Google of 'hoc melius' being readable as 'hōc melius' (mind you, apart from the examples given by Conrad, there don't seem to be any instances of 'melius hoc' being read as 'melius hōc' either, so perhaps your point stands).

Of course, the whole thing could be cleared up by adopting 'melius quam hoc' - of questionable Latinity perhaps, but Seneca appears to have used it once (for whatever that's worth).

Languagehat said...

Whew -- when I saw the title I was afraid I was going to be raked over the coals for my insufficient Latinity! Thanks for sparing me, and thanks also to you, good Raminagrobis, for making the case for my interpretation better than I could have made it myself: I did indeed take 'hoc melius' as 'hoc melius est.'

Incidentally, having looked up "Latinity" in the OED, I find a classic OED small-type remark: "In the first quot. the sense of the word is doubtful, and the text insecure."

Conrad H. Roth said...

John, we believe you. (An APB on a Mr. John Cowan please, possibly an alias.)

R, I agree that 'hoc melius' doesn't have to be taken as 'better than this', but given the history and the context, and the analogy with ergo propter hoc it is surely the natural reading! Despite Seneca, I don't like 'quam'--it's clunky.

Malone said...

This imbroglio must have been enormously gratifying to M. Toussenel. I hope he reappears to stir more tempests in all my favorite teapots!

Gheuf said...

What does "hypostasis" mean here? I remember it as one of the three parts of the Trinity.

Languagehat said...

Hypostasis. Linguistics. The citing of a word, word-element, etc., as an example, a model, etc. Also, a linguistic element thus referred to.
1933 L. BLOOMFIELD Lang. ix. 148 Hypostasis, the mention of a phonetically normal speech-form, as when we say, ‘That is only an if’, or ‘There is always a but’, or when we talk about ‘the word normalcy’ or ‘the name Smith’. One may even speak of parts of words, as.. ‘the suffix -ish in boyish’.

(There is a discussion of both the English and Russian uses of the word here; oddly, I did not mention the linguistic use originated by Bloomfield.)

Anonymous said...

Would it too intrusive to ask if the dissertation in the classics/philology area?

Anonymous said...

Hey, this isn't fair. I expressed inarticulate rage at your Dali-Breton post and I didn't get any extra attention from you at all.

I still think the Dali-Breton piece is, in the final analysis, incoherent--

--may it draw attacks as long as it stands as it is.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Er, who is this, Yusef? Attacks are fine. I like argument. Vitriol without rationale is just dull, though.

Anonymous said...

You made of Dali the best man because the most principled, as when he first recognized the threat of Hitler, (by your account apparently before Breton.) Then you make Dali the best surrealist by being the least principled, unwilling to take any real stand against Hitler, while Breton willingly forsakes surrealism to take such a principled stand. You don’t really see the political problems in this—for you it is reduced to who is better—Dali or Breton. As a way of reducing what was at issue in these most significant events of the twentieth century, this is the angle of snobbism, is it not?


Conrad H. Roth said...

Clever. You reduce my account (and misrepresent it) and then accuse me of being reductionist.

It isn't a matter of being more or less principled, tout court. Dali was the most committed to Surrealist ideals: not the ideals of the Surrealists (ie. Breton) as they evolved, but the archetypal ideals embodied in the original manifesto, and expanded by Dali himself. Dali's universe could tolerate a Surrealist Hitler; Breton's could not. Dali was fully committed to his own irony: not to the sort of dogmatic, Kantian 'moral asepsis' ultimately advocated by Breton.

I don't see what snobbism has to do with it, nor that snobbism (or snobbishness, or élitism) is per se a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to put an accent on the act of reduction...the point I wished to make had nothing to do accusing you of being reductionist nor dodging that charge myself.

Don't you see there's something either very humorous or very amiss in the Surrealists' even having a manifesto? And that it cannot be both at once--both very humorous and very amiss--not even if the intention of the surrealists was to make absurdities?

You want to be able to say Dali was "true" to the archetypal ideals of this original manifesto, but also that to be "true" to them is to be false to them, and so on.
As I understand you, you also want to be able to say this can be the basis of a political action of some sort which avoids being a " Kantian moral asepsis."

I think Breton decided, in the face of the advent of Hitler, he would rather admit the political failure (at the very least that the surrealists had a manifesto admits the surrealists had a political ambition,) of surrealism--he would have rather "reduced" surrealism to an aesthetic movement than risk watching the world fall to Hitler. Dali, on the other hand, either didn't care so very much what happened to the world, or perhaps, self-promoting freak that he was, knew his stature was lessened if his art was "aesthetic," no more.


Conrad H. Roth said...

"Don't you see there's something either very humorous or very amiss in the Surrealists' even having a manifesto? And that it cannot be both at once--both very humorous and very amiss--not even if the intention of the surrealists was to make absurdities?"

I don't find the idea of a Surrealist manifesto either humorous or amiss. Nor do I think that the intention of the Surrealists was to make absurdities; that better characterises the Dadaists. The two groups were hardly the same.

"but also that to be "true" to them is to be false to them, and so on."

I don't know what this means, so I could not have suggested it.

"I think Breton decided, in the face of the advent of Hitler, he would rather admit the political failure (at the very least that the surrealists had a manifesto admits the surrealists had a political ambition,) of surrealism--he would have rather "reduced" surrealism to an aesthetic movement than risk watching the world fall to Hitler. Dali, on the other hand, either didn't care so very much what happened to the world, or perhaps, self-promoting freak that he was, knew his stature was lessened if his art was "aesthetic," no more."

This is very muddy and confused. The First Surrealist Manifesto was essentially apolitical; the group (and especially Breton and Aragon) moved in the direction of engagé politics towards the end of the 1920s. I don't think Breton ever admitted the political failure of Surrealism; it is more accurate to say he wanted to have his cake and eat it, ie. that he wanted to preserve both aesthetic and political (Communist) ideals, which were unfortunately contradictory.

I don't see why Surrealism should have to be 'reduced' to fight Hitler--that doesn't mean anything. Dali always embraced the idea that his art was 'aesthetic': he repeatedly disavows politics, and his sole forays into political thought are essentially aesthetic, notably his lionisation of monarchy and his Surrealisation of Hitler. One of the points I was making in this post is that Dali did not have his head in the clouds: he was consciously refusing to succumb to ineffectual pieties about a grave situation, and chose instead to make Art (the multi-bollocked Hitler, a sublime masochist) out of Politics. What else should an artist do?

Anonymous said...

"The First Surrealist Manifesto was essentially apolitical"

It doesn't bother you to call a manifesto essentially apolitical; it doesn't seem to bother you to consider anarchy a matter of the deepest principles (archetypal ideals), either.

But: if anyone is muddy and confused, it isn't you...it's the other guy.

And: what's wrong with elitism or snobbery? They are, after all, a rather convenient way of avoiding looking at what's amiss with oneself...And what could be wrong with that (excepting everything)?

Oh, I know, I know...

..."smeektipbgredutle" has been incorrectly translated in the unabridged edition of Snrkrimbuncla (vol 2A) I am working from, and thus I expose my ignorance and incompetence.

Anonymous said...

I ("X"/"Toussenel", etc.) am very late to this party, and I imagine that few, if any, will read this, but why not post an addendum for the archive?

By way of background, I apologized privately to Conrad (and to a few others who had to endure my fit of pique about linguistic descriptivism) regarding the needlessly grouchy and combative tone of my post on that subject--though I certainly don't retract the substance of it.

My "Onanarium" comment, on the other hand, was entirely unjust and uncalled-for (I actually had forgotten having written that; I must have been in a really bad mood that evening, for whatever reason!), but, as I explain a little more, below, I do get fed up with the sort of "Andre' Breton was always wrong" comments that seem inevitably to arise whenever an anglophone deigns to write about the Surrealists.

At least, however, my attempt at Latin inspired a post of its own. I am delighted, because I would love to see post hoc, ergo hoc melius, or whatever grammatical variant one prefers, become better known and more often used.

A brief bit of history regarding my own use of the term: As I explained to Conrad, I actually coined the phrase on my own, as I was looking for something in Latin to express that concept and to mirror the famous logical fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Thanks to Conrad, I learned that I wasn't the first, and that others had used a variant of the phrase. Long before I discovered that I was re-inventing the wheel, I had a couple of experts in Latin vet my original formulation. One suggested "hoc melius", rather than the reverse, but I do not recall her reasoning. I simply adopted the suggested change.

By the way, I did reply--again, very tardily--to Professor Liberman's post at Language Log, but I have no idea what, if anything, he did with what I wrote. He certainly did not "demolish" anything, from my perspective (although I am hardly unbiased in the matter, I admit), but I don't think that anyone will ever see my rebuttal (not that it matters). I never ought to have referred to Nietzsche and "slave morality" in my original remarks without explaining further what I meant, because no one--including, or especially, Professor Liberman--seems to have understood what I was implying. The Professor also ought not to have published the contents of a private e-mail without my consent. Since I left substantially the same cryptic remarks in a public forum, however (Conrad's blog), I suppose it doesn't really matter.

Finally, although I found it interesting, I did not care much for the Dali/Breton piece, primarily because I feel that there is a strong bias against and unjustified hostility toward Breton in English-language writings about Surrealism. Where Breton loses the argument with Dali, though, is in the "outside all aesthetic and moral preoccupations" element of the definitions of "Surrealism" that Breton offers in the First Manifesto. So, I actually side with Conrad here, though not at all for the same reasons.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Hmm, so you didn't like the conclusion of my piece, although you agree with it. It sounds like we have very much the same reasons, even if mine are fleshed out at more length. I do not have a 'bias' against Breton, nor any kneejerk hostility towards him: I just think that he couldn't live up to his own ideals, whereas Dali could—and that he couldn't handle this fact. Both are undoubtedly rich and fascinating characters, and more so in apposition.

Anonymous said...

At the time I posted earlier, I hadn't re-read your Dali/Breton piece, so I was working from quasi-unreliable memory. I suppose what I did not like were sentences such as these:

"But to me—the more he lied, the more he swaggered, the more he punctured those pieties of artistic pseudo-integrity—the more interesting, and the more hilarious, he became."

I think that that's a bit harsh, regarding the Surrealists, and just a bit flippant, generally. All that is certainly a matter of opinion and perspective, though.

One interesting comment I read somewhere is that, even as early as the late '20's, Georges Bataille understood Dali and his work better than Breton did. I would agree with that statement.

I think, too, that Dali believed fervently and quite seriously in Surrealism in the early days, and that he was actually quite hurt at his exclusion. I also believe that much of the buffoonery was a mask, at least, in the early period of his time with the Surrealists, one that hid some very serious and deeply held convictions which, at the time, did not merely involve self-promotion over all.

So, again, it's a matter of differing perspectives. Having re-read your piece, I see that we do seem to agree, more than I thought, originally, regarding Dali, Surrealism, and consistency with the early formulations of "Surrealist morality", or the lack of it. I'll certainly take you at your word that you have no reflexive disdain for Breton, but I think you can see how someone "just coming in off the street", as it were, might receive a different impression.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, we can't say fairer than that.

"Georges Bataille understood Dali and his work better than Breton did"

Oh, undeniably; it was filth-worshipping Bataille who wrote an exegesis of Dali's Lugubrious Game in a Documents essay of 1929, and Bataille who defended Dali to Breton in the same period. In fact, Bataille was the most serious omission from the film.

"much of the buffoonery was a mask"

I find this sentimental, in a Hollywood / Charlie Chaplin sort of way. As I tried to say originally, what makes Dali interesting is that he was not merely a prince of insincerity: but rather that the line between the sincere and insincere, the buffoonery and the 'deeply held convictions', was always rather muddled, and soon evaporated. For instance, it is too easy to dismiss his writings on Spain, shit, Catholicism, mysticism, art, celebrity, geometry, etc., as mere jesting: his thoughts are repeated and developed too vigorously, and with too serious an air. So I don't think one needs to talk about a 'mask', implying a separation between the serious and the jocose.

Anyway, thanks for your returning comments here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification, regarding Dali. I agree completely. In fact, your characterization of Dali comes much closer to what I meant in my haste by the "mask" comment. I need to learn to take my time, but I confess to being somewhat new at this whole "blog comment" thing!

By the way, it might amuse you to learn that I wrote my very own exegesis of The Lugubrious Game during high school for a (very indulgent) art teacher's class. I was absorbing Dali and Surrealism in those days, by way of J.G. Ballard.