Put-down writing and other side-issues like “influences,” “schools,” and “movements.”

I am going to comment on the book by Alexander Gray, The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin, 1946. What I say about this book can also be said about many other books as well.

On the one hand, I find the book very valuable for several reasons. Among these is its listing and coverage of a host of socialists and its classification of socialisms, and its bibliography. I also find valuable the exposition of the ideas covered, and for the critical commentary.

However, on the other hand, I find the book annoying for its attempts at psychological and sociological commentary, and more so for Gray’s — what can I call them? — put-downs. As examples of put-downs which annoyed me are: “The fundamental trouble with the anarchist is that, though he may be highly intelligent, he has no sense.” (p. 381) “Anarchism is rather the charming dream of an innocent child.” (p. 495) Without explanations, these are simply ridicule and insult.

This reminds me of the famous description of Noam Chomsky [Paul Robinson,”The Chomsky Problem,” The New York Time, Feb. 25, 1979.] as “arguably the most important intellectual alive today.” This is followed by a criticism of his political writings. It leaves the impression that the writer is using the following put-down: “How is it that such a brilliant linguist is so politically naive?”

There are other things in Gray’s book which annoy me. They could be classified under an attempt at psychology and sociology.

Let me begin with psychology. Instead of just stating and evaluating an author’s ideas, he also attempts at trying to understand what caused him to have these ideas. Thus he looks into a thinker’s biography for what are called “influences.” Instead on focusing on the ideas or claims themselves, Gray seeks some sort of assimilation from someone else’s writings — perhaps a “borrowing” or “stealing” from someone else. What is being ignored or postponed is an exposition of an author’s position — his ideas and claims. Where they came from — other than from his own brain — is a different question — perhaps a question of originality, plagiarism, or subconscious assimilation. But this is a separate matter from understanding the ideas themselves.

In reading a piece of argumentative writing, for most of the time, I have no idea who the author is — and I really don’t care. Why? Because I am able to critically evaluate what I am reading regardless of who the author is. To think that the character of the author has some bearing on the truth or value of his writings is to commit the genetic fallacy. [See my similar criticism: “A bullshit argument against the writings of Karl Marx by Stefan Molyneux”]

The other sort of irrevancy relative to an understanding of an author is the matter of his “influence” or “impact” on others. And here Gray introduces the ideas of “schools” and “movements.” I suppose a “school” exists when two or more thinkers have similar ideas as a result of talking to each other. And as to a “movement,” I don’t know what to say. Perhaps it requires some kind of association — a party, a club; or perhaps a periodical or periodicals with a broad readership. I associate the word “movement” with the flowing of lava from a volcano, land-slides, floods, a tsunami, an approaching storm with moving clouds, a herd of reindeer or buffalo moving over a grazing ground, or a crowd of people moving in some direction. All I know is that talk of human “movements” is a sociological matter, which is in principle a matter of numbers and percentages.

Gray seems to be very interested in “schools” and “movements.” I am not. I am foremost interested in the ideas themselves — not in how many people held them or what “influence” they had.

A further criticism. There seems to be some kind of expectation by snobbish writers that all readers are fluent in at least three languages: English, German, and French. And that a knowledge of Greek and Latin goes without saying. Sometimes it is expected that the reader also knows Russian and Italian. This is bullshit. If you are writing for an English reader, translate everything into English beside the foreign quotations and citations!

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