Vulgarity, high and low

“All crimes are vulgar, all vulgarity is a crime,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his typically brilliant yet facile manner. Like most of his aphorisms, this is one is to enjoy, not to analyse.

David Hume, a superb writer but…

Any attempt at decortication will show, for example, that not all crimes are vulgar – and nor, contrary to Hanna Arendt’s observation, all evil banal. But Wilde unwittingly raises an interesting question: What is vulgarity?

I’d suggest it exists on two planes: low, instantly obvious; and high, elucidated only by subsequent thought. Only the first type of vulgarity is perceived as such in common usage.

Typically it’s associated with a propensity for telling unfunny salacious jokes or peppering one’s speech with expletives based on sex organs and their use. This is so widespread, not to say universal, that there’s really no point belabouring it any further – not here at any rate.

What interests me is the higher, intellectual vulgarity, especially of the epistemological variety. For we can’t really acquire knowledge if we don’t understand what knowledge is. If such understanding is poisoned with vulgarity at inception, knowledge itself will be vulgar – which is another way of saying that the baby of knowledge will be stillborn.

This is a very serious matter indeed, for, if vulgar definitions of knowledge gain wide acceptance in a society, the society will become intellectually and morally diseased. This is worth pondering because it’s exactly the crossroads at which modernity has arrived after an orgy of crepuscular obscurantism going by the misnomer of the Enlightenment.

For a start, look at chess as a simplified epistemological model. A game is in full swing, one side is attacking, the other defending, and the position is complex. Looking at the weaknesses around his opponent’s king and the deployment of his own pieces, the attacker knows there’s a winning combination there somewhere.

He knows it intuitively, but in this very simple case his intuition is probably based on the recognition of some patterns that have occurred many times before in other games, his own and other players’. One way or another, he knows a killing blow is within sight. But, with the chess clock ticking away, he can’t find it.

The game fizzes out to a draw, and only in the post-mortem analysis does the player uncover the winning continuation he missed at the board. Does this mean he acquires knowledge only then? Or was the knowledge already there during the game, when he sensed its presence intuitively?

The answer is both. It’s just that any cognitive process starts from an intuitive impulse. Archimedes’s bathtub, Newton’s apple and Mendeleyev’s dream may all be apocryphal, but they still ring true. The scientists’ intuition was activated, and the intuition then galvanised a rational process.

Unlike our hapless chess player, they managed to rationalise, or rather post-rationalise, their intuitive knowledge successfully. But knowledge had existed before they managed to do so, just as an oil formation exists before an explorer finds it.

What an intuitive hypothesis is to science, metaphysical intuition is to faith, the knowledge of God. As St Anselm put it, “I believe so that I may understand, not understand so that I may believe”.

This adage alludes to the same cognitive sequence as that activated by Archimedes, Newton and Mendeleyev to such an effect: an intuitive knowledge successfully post-rationalised.

I’d go so far as to suggest that the higher the knowledge, the more it depends on the initial actuator of a powerful metaphysical intuition. Even if the desired outcome of knowledge is tangibly concrete, it descends to that level from the higher plateau of abstraction and intuition.

This gets us back to the subject of epistemological vulgarity, the dominant (mercifully, still not the only) feature of post-Enlightenment thought. Its principal characteristic is contempt for metaphysical intuition and metaphysics in general. This destroys the cognitive sequence of metaphysical intuition descending to the level of rational thought and thereby closing the cognitive loop.

Eventually that leads to the utmost vulgarity of defining knowledge in strictly material terms, to the turgid musings of Feuerbach, Marx, Compte and all the way down to Popper, Ayer et al. Yet not all epistemological vulgarity is vulgar stylistically – David Hume is a case in point.

One of the best writers of English treatises, Hume couched his epistemological vulgarity in the beautifully shaped prose of his essays. That makes them eminently enjoyable, without in any way mitigating the underlying vulgarity of Hume’s epistemology. To wit:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

My friend Peter Mullen points out that Hume’s statement is contradictory to the point of being nonsensical because it itself contains neither experimental nor abstract reasoning. That’s true, but the statement is also vulgar.

Therein lies the problem no materialists can solve. They can be brilliant people, but their understanding of life forces them to push their thought down to the quotidian level, away from first principles and last things, where post-rationalised metaphysical intuition reigns supreme.

That’s why a materialist philosopher is as much of an oxymoron as, say, an atheist theologian. Materialists can be physicists, physicians or physiologists, and they can even be social commentators. But whenever they venture into the discipline circumscribed by its quest for the truth of first principles, they sound out of their depth and, well, vulgar.

Is this the kind of vulgarity Wilde would describe as a crime? Probably not. But it’s the kind that has a lethal effect on the collective intellect, including its practical manifestations in morality, politics or economics. Intellectual vulgarity explodes at the epicentre, but its shockwaves travel wide.   

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