A Rant: On Hiding Behind Dead Men

It is fashionable among academicians to hide behind dead men. In order to strengthen their position, they need only evoke the name of some bygone philosopher or theologian. “Oh, my position is Aristotelian” they will say in one breath, but in the next “Well, it’s not that Aristotelian.”

If they really wanted to perpetuate Aristotle’s thoughts it would make more sense to quote him or summarize him, rather than blame him for some nuanced, unique, and otherwise unhelpful idea.

Such a strategy is used as shield, but not in a regular military sense of the word. The Romans of old would link shields in forming a turtle like shell, but this was done in order to advance. In other words, it was a part of a multifaceted strategy.

In some modern academic conversations I think this sort of shield is used only to hide the fact that the speaker forgot to bring an intellectual sword to the ideological battlefield.

No one really talks this way in day to day life. We don’t say, “My mechanic is so Platonic” or “The grocer is too Socratic.” Reality has a reductive effect upon our rhetoric. You would never say to a depressed person who feels like life is meaningless, “Stop being so “Nietzschian,” or say to someone who is homesick, “Would you please forgo all these “Freudian” obsessions.”

When an academic egghead hijacks a historical personality as a shield it is to hide a point rather than make one. If ambiguity is the goal, this appears to be a rather successful technique. It removes the speaker’s responsibility to develop a clear position and reduces the listener’s ability to critique it.