Monday, June 22, 2009

September 19, 2006: Did Kleist Anticipate Sokal?

To call Heinrich von Kleist a strange writer is to mince around with understatement. There are too many examples of his fiction and drama that leave you thinking, "I can't believe I'm reading/seeing this!" So one has to wonder whether or not one should react the same way to some of his essays. He could have perpetrated the sort of hoax that, in our time, Alan Sokal pulled off in publishing "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in the journal Social Text. As we now know, Sokal tried to "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions" and succeeded. Two hundred years earlier, Kleist published some "learned essays" on topics sufficiently odd for his time to leave the reader wondering whether or not to take him seriously.

My favorite is "On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts While Speaking." The basic thesis is that the thoughts we have "in our head" are, for the most part, vague and ill-formed; and it is only when we try to express them in words that they become concrete enough to be called ideas. (At this point I should not that the fact that Kleist had a thesis at all makes him more credible than Sokal. The editors of Social Text apparently did not require him to have a thesis statement, so he did not provide them with one: He wrote no abstract and avoided anything that looked like a thesis sentence in both his opening and closing paragraphs. Kleist may have decided to explore a weird thesis, but at least he told you where he was going!) After stating this thesis, he backs it up with a series of examples and concludes by reaffirming that thesis. In that respect it is a model essay.

As a matter of fact, I think everyone should read it, not only because it is a model essay but also because I think his examples do support this thesis! Why not? In his "Theaetetus" Plato has Socrates lead Theaetetus to explore the definition of "knowledge." Theaetetus proposes four definitions, each of which is deftly refuted by Socrates, leaving us at the end of the dialog with no definition for knowledge! Perhaps we have such muddled ideas about "thoughts in the head" that Kleist may be right: Those thoughts really are not there and only take shape when we try to express them. In Kleist's own more poetic language, "it is not we who 'know'; it is rather a certain condition, in which we happen to be, that 'knows.'"

So, the next time you encounter an article that does have an authentic thesis, rather than a mere concatenation of meaningless jargon, no matter how absurd it may seem, accord it the respect of a serious claim. Then see if the author can back up the claim with an argument, making sure that the argument is not pulling off any rhetorical sleight-of-hand. If you can drag the claim through that test and it emerges intact on the other side, it may be less absurd than you thought!

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