Polemic is Hard

One can only take so much bludgeoning-of-bad-ideas before growing weary of a book.

Assumed Audience: Anyone who cares about the art of persuasion.

I am both frustrated and bored by Mary Midgley’s Evolution as a Religion. Were I not committed to reading it for Winning Slowly1 I would put it aside entirely and not return to it.

A curious feature of the book: I agree with Midgley’s specific claims more often than not (so long as she isn’t talking about Christianity: her grasp of the subject is as bad as her interlocutors’ grasp of philosophy) — but I am also profoundly annoyed by the book.2 Why? Because the book is a polemic, and writing a polemic well is hard. Very hard. So hard that I’m actually unable to come up with any purely polemical book I’ve read that I actively liked.3

Polemic has this primary difficulty about it: it generally has no positive case to state, only a list of grievances lodged against a disliked position, or (more tedious) a disliked person, or (yet more tedious) someone who holds a disliked position, or (most tedious of all) a disliked someone who holds a disliked position. A successful polemic knows what it is about. It gets in, properly disposes of its subject, and moves along. But successful polemics are rare. Polemics seem inevitably to be written by people who are so incensed by the subject of their polemic that they cannot simply have done with the matter.

Thus: Midgley is perfectly justified in the bludgeoning she gives to scientists who mistake science for an all-encompassing philosophy. That goes especially for those who attribute to evolutionary biology some kind of teleology it not only does not but cannot warrant as a bare description of historical biological processes. Scientism is ridiculous nonsense, and anyone who has made any serious effort to understand the basic issues of epistemology and metaphysics involved can see as much. But instead of spending her 191 pages making not only a clear and cogent criticism of the position but also a positive case for some other epistemic stance, it seems so far (67 pages in) that Midgley is really only interested in, well, bludgeoning.

That relentless attack may have felt satisfying to the author, but it turns out to make for an extremely unsatisfying book to this reader.

  1. We’ll discuss the book on the upcoming episodes 8.16 and 8.17, in September. ↩︎

  2. I originally said here that I agreed with this more than most other things we’ve read this year. Then I picked the book back up and realized it wasn’t really true. I agree with much of her critique of scientism and evolutionism, but she bludgeons widely. The key point — that even agreement doesn’t make this much bludgeoning palatable — stands. ↩︎

  3. True story: Baptist polemics were a serious part of what led to my becoming a Presbyterian. That’s a true story for another day, though. ↩︎