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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The French versus Scottish-English styles in American Writing

The ruckus that I caused with my (admittedly intemperate but, I hope, harmless) Bronx cheer for Judith Butler reminds me of a serious topic -- which is the durability of an Brit-French divide in American political writing.   After pondering the matter deeply (i.e., for at least eight minutes -- practically a research leave in blogtime), it occurs to me that the split may have existed since the 1790s. 

The elements of the 1790s conflict are familiar:  Pro-Scot/English writers accuse the pro-French ones of being doctrinaire, ignorant of real-life experience, excessively abstract, hostile to ordinary conventions (in the 1790s, revealed religion), and willing, in the name of arcane theories, to perpetrate atrocities.   Pro-French writers accuse the pro-English ones of being bigoted, benighted by custom, or (worse) willing to exploit the irrational customs of others for elitist ends.  The classic Tory stylist is often said to be Edmund Burke, but I am persuaded by Don Herzog that this is a mistake:  Burke was, after all, a Whig of sorts and had no difficulty with radical Scottish social theory (e.g., Adam Smith) just so long as the "lower orders" were not exposed to it.  A better example of the anti-rationalist English Tory style is Samuel Johnson's "Taxation no Tyranny" or Hannah More's 1793 "Village Politics."   William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1796) is equally paradigmatic for the Englishman's pro-French style.  A classic example of the gruff old "common-sensical" Tory on the American side of the Atlantic would include Gouvernour Morris (especially his journal on the French Revolution).

Does our modern division in stylistic sensibilities (often misleadingly termed a "Continental-Analytic" division) have any genealogical relationship to the 1790s divide on Theory versus Experience?  Any such argument, of course, would have to come to terms with the influence of Hegel and Heidegger on the French after World War II.   But here's a hypothesis worth considering: The post-1945 combination of the German Hegelianism and Existentialism with a pre-existing French Revolutionary tradition of radical social criticism created a rhetorical style deeply antithetical to the Scottish-English tradition of empiricism, logical analysis, and incremental social reform.   When John Searle and W.V. Quine denounce Derrida or (on a much more preposterously trivial level) when I make snide remarks about Judith Butler, we might be playing out a drama that has been going on since Hamilton and Jefferson tangled over coinage and manufactures.  The new post-'45 element in the familiar donnybrook is that now the Brits and Yanks accuse the French and Germans of not only being hostile to experience but also (ever since they started reading Hegel and Heidegger under the influence of Sartre and Kojeve) also bad writers.

How seriously should we law profs take this rivalry?

May I suggest that we do so in the same terms as the Harvard-Yale game -- good, clean fun, but nothing more? If anyone wants to take a poke at my favorite philosophers -- Hilary Putnam, Quine, Kripke, Donald Davidson -- I'll be pleased to listen, especially if you are funny. (Yes, I think that Butler writes awfully -- but I can understand someone who thinks that Davidson's discussion ‘Schnee ist weiss,’ Tarski's Convention T, and so forth is duller than a stock exchange report). And, in response to Professor Heller: Yes, I'm a fan of Pirandello, too. Not to mention Paul Claudel. As for Heidegger -- no one who loves Arendt's work as much as we both do can afford not to take him seriously. But Sein und Zeit:  Mein Gott!   It just took too much Zeit and made me want to end my Sein

Posted by Rick Hills on June 3, 2008 at 01:50 PM in Rick Hills | Permalink


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Thanks, "Handmaiden": You are probably right that the geneaology is hopeless. But the family resemblance between the post '89 Anglo-French strife and the post '45 Anglo-French feud is striking, at least to me. Maybe we could chalk up the pattern to historical repetition of the "second time as farce" variety?

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 4, 2008 10:23:27 PM

Oops. being a good reader does not necessarily make one a good writer :)

The above was intended to say a very *low* Signal-to-Noise Ratio.

Posted by: newscaper | Jun 4, 2008 10:06:26 PM

I just recently left academia after 6 years as a non-PhD "Instructor" at an accredited university, returning to the professional world.

What is passed off as scholarship, even in a more technical field like mine, is pretty shocking. The Signal-to-Noise ratio is very high, with much so called research consisting of little more than -- to toss out some apropos cliches -- making mountains out of molehills along the lines of the proverbial medieval arguing about angels and pinheads, or glorified word games, superficially impressive rhetorical castles built on sand.

I fully understand the need for rigor and precision in communication (which BTW should serve to make complex ideas come across *more* clearly, rather than less, for the careful reader.) What we all too often get instead is obscurity masquerading as depth or, worse, serving as intimidation against criticism rather than genuinely inviting it.

I am an excellent reader (always 99th percentile just for reference) who, rather than simply not understanding, realizes that frequently, upon closer inspection there really is little "there" there.

The length of some of your earlier replies to the contrary tangentially brings to mind the recent studies showing a suspiciously high correlation between mere essay length and scores granted on the SATs :)

Posted by: newscaper | Jun 4, 2008 10:04:37 PM

The problem with tracing "our modern division in stylistic sensibilities" back to the 18th century is that Hegel was by far the most influential writer in Anglophone philosophy as late as the last quarter of the 19th century: consider Green, Bradley, Royce and Dewey. See Hylton, *Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy*.

Posted by: Handmaiden to the Translational Biomedical Sciences | Jun 4, 2008 1:32:50 PM

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