Plain English

Posted on January 4, 2007


Kantian aesthetics made a controversial appearance in the annual ‘Golden Bull’ awards after the Plain English Campaign gave their annual award for “the worst examples of written tripe” to Germaine Greer. The award was given for the following passage from the pages of The Guardian.

“Art exists for no purpose beyond itself. The first attribute of the art object is that it creates a discontinuity between itself and the unsynthesised manifold.”

While the sentiments are disputable, compared with other Golden Bull winners this prose is positively limpid. As David Oakey notes, the sentence structure is quite simple. Greer’s article – about the pernicious influence of fashionable trends on modern artists – also contained a number of references to a different artistic movements, not all of which are terms familiar to the layman. From the mudslinging this provoked on the Guardian website, you’d think this was as difficult to understand as Ezra Pound’s Cantos read by Arnold Schwarzenegger after a month-long crystal meth binge.

So, why does dropping a piece of Kantian terminology into an article on modern art cause such consternation? It’s fair to say that the Plain English Campaigners have their own agenda, and it’s tempting to think that they saw an opportunity to boost their own profile by involving former Celebrity Big-Sister Greer, who is arguably one of the more prominent UK academics, and certainly one of the most recognizable to followers of celebrity culture. For the purposes of the CPE PR exercise, Greer seems to be deputising for the whole camera obscura of academia.

Partly this results from a problem with the notoriously difficult Kant, but the fault also lies with Dr. Greer for bashing others with the ‘any-reasonably-educated-person -would-understand’ stick. It is, in fact, not at all uncommon for experienced postgraduate students of philosophy to be unfamiliar with aesthetic theory or the detail of the three critiques, since this is not demanded by a curriculum which favours specialisation. In addition, given the uncertainty of job prospects for the philosophy graduate, many students take philosophy as an occasional or joint-honours pursuit. The first encounter a ‘reasonably educated’ person might have with the phrase ‘unsynthesised manifold’ might well be in the pages of an art review.

While it would be quite impertinent to suggest that Prof. Greer is a woman who is lacking philosophical acumen, she is by no means a specialist in Kant. This begs the question: why aren’t professional philosophers the ones discussing Kantian aesthetics in the popular press (and, if necessary, receiving awards for their bad English)? This is not to say that only card-carrying professional philosophers should be the only ones permitted to comment on matters philosophical, but does raise the question of whether a bona fide philosopher would have been able to get the phrase through the CPA radar.

Communicating philosophical ideas to the layman is by no means an easy feat, but there are some useful rules of thumb: an infinite regress can often result when one attempts to explain jargon with more jargon. She ends up guilty of both ‘dumbing-down’ and ‘sexing-up’ Kantian aesthetics in the hope that between the two her meaning might become clearer. For the sake of the sanity of the Plain English Campaigners, lets hope Greer doesn’t treat us all to a dose of Hegel anytime soon.

Posted in: Language, News, Philosophy