Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Begging the question of the ding an sich

Don't people realize that misusing pretentious terms makes them sound like not just bores, but ignorant bores?

Take, for example, the term "beg the question." Most of my friends have had to suffer through my ranting about how annoying and pretentious it is to misuse this phrase as a flowery way of saying "raise the question," when really it has a precise rhetorical meaning: to employ circular logic. Whenever I come across its misuse in an article I stop reading, because I know the writer is sloppy and unreliable.

Or take Joan Acocella's egregious and gratuitous misuse of Kant in this New Yorker book review:

But over time the augmented bosom became confessedly an artifice—a Ding an sich, and proud of it.
First of all, barf. What a pretentious sentence. Was she just overcompensating because she was writing about Playboy, so she thought a bit of Kant would justify her whimsical, oh-so-outré subject matter?

Second, I just don't understand what she was trying to say. Ding an sich means thing-in-itself and is a reference to Kant, for whom it means the noumenon, that which the human mind can never perceive directly but only through the phenomenon, the world as experienced. So it is almost the opposite of artifice (well, sort of, though really it concerns a totally unrelated epistemological question of the categories with which the mind orders raw sense data).

I think what Acocella meant was that what had started as an approximation of nature became a goal in itself. The simulacrum became that which is simulated. That is a somewhat interesting observation. But that has nothing to do with Kant, and it certainly doesn't excuse her archly pretentious (mis)use of the German phrase.

Simple language is almost always so much better.


  • At 5:10 PM, Blogger Stroll said…

    Misuse of "begs the question" drives me crazy, especially when people *defend* their misuse of the term, citing among other things, "common usage."

  • At 5:57 PM, Blogger Phoebe Evergreen said…

    I wonder if anyone has ever tried to trace it? Because its use depends on it sounding like the sort of thing that a smart person would say to mean "raise the question", yet virtually no one ever uses it in popular writing to mean just that. I would not be surprised if its popular (correct) use was 90% people explaining how to use it correctly, and 10% people just using it to fault circular logic without comment. Certainly, every time I actually say "begs the question" to describe circular logic, I have to pat myself on the back and explain to anyone who will listen how cool I am for using it.

    I'm not a prescriptivist ninja, but I'll throw down for "begs the question." I would be perfectly happy to get rid of apostrophes, though. Their, they're and there -- can you show me where one all-purpose homonym would cause confusion?

  • At 6:16 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I am a prescriptivist to the point of owning a Webster's Second Edition, and even I won't defend English spelling or punctuation on logical grounds. The Brits spell and punctuate differently and we have no trouble figuring them out. I just think you should do it right for aesthetic reasons.

    And yes, "begs the question" is really annoying. My personal hobbyhorse is "deconstruct," which is pointedly not a verb in its original, poststructuralist sense.

    Very efficient summary of Kant, by the way.

  • At 3:45 AM, Anonymous Margaret said…

    I came for the Kant (explanation that is, and am much appreciative of the clarity) and stayed for the complaints of cant... no, I guess that doesn't quite work.

    An acquaintance recently used the phrase to ask a question in response to a media statement, and it was so appropos, in terms of the words themselves, that I was stopped by the need to consider if I had ever used the phrase correctly.

    Now you've confused me all over again, and I'll have to go look up that phrase (and what my friend said) sometime when I've finished figuring out exactly what is meant by a statement I'm reading that includes 'ding an sich'.

    And come back to read more here.

  • At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Viagra Online said…

    The phrase that I hate is "come again" when people or dont understand the question you made, or when people get confused on something you said.


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