Philosophy, Top Stories

Deepities and the Politics of Pseudo-Profundity

The word deepity, coined by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, refers to a phrase that seems true and profound but is actually ambiguous and shallow. Not to be confused with lies, clichés, truisms, contradictions, metaphors, or aphorisms, deepities occupy a linguistic niche of their own. The distinguishing feature of a deepity is that it has two possible interpretations. On the first reading, a deepity is true but trivial. On the second, it’s false but would be mind-blowing if it were true. 

Consider, for instance, the phrase “love is just a word.” On one reading, this is true but trivial. It’s no deep insight that “love”—like “Ethiopia” or “subdermatoglyphic” or “word”—is just a word in the English language. But on a second reading, “love is just a word” asserts something mind-blowing if true: there is no emotion called “love,” and everyone who thinks they’ve felt love is either lying or self-deceived. If true, this would change everything we thought we knew about our emotional lives. But it’s plainly false. Whatever love is—an emotion, an illusion, a pattern of neuronal firings—it’s not “just a word.” By virtue of its ambiguity, the phrase “love is just a word” doesn’t even achieve coherence, much less profundity.

The problem with deepities is not that they are arguments that initially seem convincing but collapse under scrutiny; it’s that they aren’t even arguments to begin with. Once you disambiguate a deepity—that is, once you notice it has two distinct meanings—you see that it contains no real argument at all, only an empty space where an argument should be. (Think of phrases like “love trumps hate” and “everything happens for a reason.” Do they seem both true and important after you disambiguate them?)

Yet, despite their emptiness, deepities often pass for profound insights. They achieve this effect because the listener switches back and forth between their two different interpretations unwittingly, and each interpretation seems to make up for what the other lacks. Upon hearing a deepity, the skeptical part of the listener’s mind is pacified by the true (but trivial) reading, while the emotional part of the listener’s mind is stimulated by the mind-blowing (but false) reading. Before the listener has a chance to realize that the allegedly deep insight is actually pseudo-profound bullshit, the speaker has already moved on.

Although the famously atheistic Dennett introduced the concept of deepities in order to deflate the rhetoric of theologians, it’s equally useful for deflating the rhetoric of intellectuals, politicians, and pundits—rhetoric designed, as George Orwell put it, to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Below are some contemporary examples. 

“All Politics Is Identity Politics”

Identity politics is often criticized because it presumes our interests, values, and beliefs are attached to immutable traits like race and sex. By way of rebuttal, some commentators resort to a rhetorical judo-move of sorts and assert that everyone engages in identity politics.

All politics is identity politics,” argues Ezra Klein of Vox, “all voters—even white ones—have identities. The question is which identities are being activated in any given election.” Matthew Yglesias, also of Vox, has made a similar argument: “People have identities, and people are mobilized politically around those identities. There is no other way to do politics than to do identity politics.” On this view, there’s no standpoint from which to criticize identity politics without falling victim to one’s own critique. Indeed, being a “critic of identity politics” is itself an identity, and therefore an expression of identity politics.

Like all deepities, this only seems profound because it’s ambiguous. In one sense, it’s true that all politics is identity politics, because politics involves people, and people have identities. But this is a trivial banality. By way of illustration, Yglesias offers a useful example. When “President Obama talks about how he likes Star Trek,” Yglesias claims, this is Obama engaging in “representational identity politics.” On behalf of which identity group? Scientists! If “scientist” is an identity and “black” is an identity, the rationale goes, then advocating for scientific research is identity politics in the same way as demanding, say, reparations for slavery.

But this is to misunderstand critics of identity politics, who object specifically to politics based on immutable identities—like “black,” “white,” “male,” and “female”—not mutable identities, like “scientist.” If we redefine “identity politics” to include mutable identities, then, at a glance, it’s true but trivial to observe that all politics is identity politics. A second reading of this deepity, however, reveals the controversial proposition that politics based on immutable traits (like skin color) are morally equivalent to politics based on mutable interests (like scientific research.) This dissolves a category distinction between advocating for slavery reparations and student loan reform, or between demanding a white ethno-state and NASA funding. None of these can be criticized for focusing on identity, because they are all expressions of identity politics. Such a moral equivalence is plainly false and nobody with modern ethical sensibilities—Yglesias and Klein included—would endorse it. But it would have profound implications for ethics and politics if it were true.

To be sure, there are coherent ways to defend identity politics. You could argue, for instance, that black identity politics is necessary because blacks lack political and cultural power, whereas white identity politics is detestable because whites already have power. That’s a real argument with premises and a conclusion. Indeed, it was more-or-less the rationale behind the Civil Rights Movement. But the premise no longer holds; it’s no longer true that blacks lack political and cultural power:

Yes, racism exists, but it’s no longer an obstacle to success. Times have changed. And with the passage of time, yesterday’s indispensable arguments have become today’s anachronistic delusions.

The claim that “all politics is identity politics,” is not coherent. On one reading, it says something that’s true but irrelevant. And on another reading, it says something that’s false, but would be highly relevant if true. Like all deepities, there is no third reading—one that is both true and relevant at the same time. Indeed, the phrase “all politics is identity politics” no more defeats the critique of identity politics than the phrase “love is just a word” disproves the existence of love.

“No Human Being Is Illegal”

On one reading, this claim is undeniable. Legality is a concept that applies to actions, not people. People can be male or female, introverted or extroverted, blind or sighted; but they cannot be legal or illegal. Like the claims, “no act of kindness is red” and “no prime number is lethargic,” the claim, “no human being is illegal,” is simply a category error.

The term “illegal immigrant” is similarly misleading. It’s not the person that is illegal (whatever that could mean) but the act of moving across a border without following certain procedures. Since the claim “no human being is illegal” is neither true nor false, it literally cannot be denied—that is, you can no more argue that “some human beings are illegal” than you can argue that “some prime numbers are lethargic”—and because the claim is undeniable (in the literal sense), it can sound plausible, and even obvious.

But the second reading of this deepity asserts something extremely controversial: everyone should be able to go anywhere on Earth with no legal or procedural barriers; every border should be fully permeable; strangers should be able to occupy your property—after all, no human being is illegal, and strangers are still human beings when they’re on your property. Needless to say, even advocates of open borders would not endorse this view in full. But if the view were ethically correct, then it would have profound implications for property law, the existence of nation-states, and the very concept of personal space.

“Science Is Just Another Belief System”

On one reading, this claim is obviously true. The enterprise of science rests on a set of specific beliefs—that reality is intelligible, that our deepest intuitions about rationality cannot be doubted without contradiction, and we can increase our understanding of the world by testing hypotheses against reality. Other belief systems—like Greek mythology, Hinduism, and Shamanismalso rest on specific but different beliefs. In this sense, it’s trivially true that science is “just another belief system.”

But a different reading makes a mind-blowing claim: the foundational assumptions of science are no more valid than the foundational assumptions of Greek mythology, Hinduism, Shamanism, or any other belief system. If this were true, we might look to Zeus, Vishnu, or our local witch doctor to cure cancer and combat climate change. But we don’t do that; we look to science for solutions to such problems, because no other belief system has led to the invention of vaccines, airplanes, antibiotics, and the countless other life-and-labor saving technologies that the world enjoys today. In this sense, science is not just another belief system; it’s a belief system with a track record—measured in increased prosperity, diseases eradicated, and lives saved—that puts every other belief system to shame.

“We Must Come to Terms with the Legacy of Slavery”

In our national conversation about racial inequality, we are often reminded that history matters. A recent example comes from New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Recalling the brutal Tulsa Pogrom of 1921, Blow claims, “History doesn’t stay stuck in the time that it happens. That is only where it is born, after which it is alive and moving with us through time and space.” Such reminders, however, tend to take the form of admonitions such as “We must come to terms with the legacy of slavery” or “We must grapple with the enduring, embedded, entrenched legacy of segregation.”

Although this message can be rephrased in various ways, nearly all such historical reminders are deepities. Yes, it is obviously true in a trivial sense that history matters. If you start watching a sports match in the middle, then you won’t understand why the score stands where it does. The same is true everywhere in life. Without knowing what has already happened, it’s impossible to understand why anything is the way it is—racial disparities included. But this is just to say that causes precede effects. If you want to know what caused something, then you must study the past, because every cause, by definition, is in the past. This observation is hardly profound.

Interpreted a second way, however, historical reminders of this sort (falsely) imply that knowledge of America’s checkered past will provide us with the answers to today’s pressing and complex policy questions. It won’t. Which crime reduction techniques work and which ones don’t? What is the best way to reform the criminal justice system? Which social programs work and which ones don’t? What are the ongoing causes of racial inequality of outcome? To all such questions, history, on its own, responds with silence.

To the vague demand that we “come to terms with the legacy of slavery,” I give the same response given by the writer John McWhorter: What terms, exactly? We can all agree that slavery and Jim Crow happened; and we can all agree that racism exists. But what terms and conditions, specifically, must we sign onto in light of these facts? Mere deepities about the legacy of decades-old (or centuries-old) crimes answer none of the hard questions about racial disparity that we face today.

But then, deepities are not meant to answer the hard questions. They are meant to make the speaker seem like a person of high moral character while lulling the listener into a complacent slumber.

 

Coleman Hughes is a Quillette columnist and an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University. His writing has also appeared in the Spectator, City Journal, and the Heterodox Academy blog. You can follow him on Twitter @coldxman