Today Alice von Hildebrand, widow of Dietrich von Hildebrand and philosopher in her own right, turns 90 years old. In honor of the occasion, we asked her permission to republish an article of hers that we first came across about 25 years ago. It's influenced our thinking ever since.
ON THE PSEUDO-OBVIOUS
— by Alice von Hildebrand
It is no rare occurrence in the history of philosophy that a thesis which is neither proven nor evident has nevertheless been accepted by many, without further examination, simply because of its persuasive ring. And this has taken place in spite of the fact that these assertions were false, sometimes evidently false, and even self-contradictory.
We are thinking of statements such as: “We can only know contents of our own consciousness”; or “everything must be proved”; or “sense knowledge alone yields valid information”; or “everything is relative”; or “our ideas are determined by the society in which we live.”
The uncritical acceptance of such assertions is a fact that deserves our close attention. To this topic we shall devote the following essay.
A unique kind of error
We are not concerned here with the problem of error in general; we shall thus not examine the nature of error, the different types of errors, or the reasons why they have had such a success in the history of philosophy. We shall limit ourselves exclusively to one specific problem: the one we shall term “pseudo-obviousness”, i.e. statements and conclusions which are accepted as possessing unquestionable certainty even though they are totally stripped of all the marks of true knowledge.
This pseudo-obviousness should be set in sharp contrast with many wrong theories which have been supported by complicated and involved arguments, such as the awesome philosophical apparatus with which Kant defends his immanentistic position. Hume, on the contrary, introduces some of his most important theses with the words: “It is obvious…”; Or “It cannot be denied…” The assertions he makes tacitly claim to belong to the realm of things which are so clear, so obvious that any further probing would be both superfluous and uncritical.
From the very beginning we must distinguish between the popular appeal of pseudo-obvious statements and conclusions, and the attraction they exercise on their author. For whereas the public is a victim of these intellectual traps, their author is the culprit, for he is the one setting them. Nevertheless, he is also victim of his own wits because, subjectively speaking, he is convinced that he has made an important philosophical discovery.
In this essay we are exclusively concerned with the datum of pseudo-obviousness as it presents itself to the public, and with the effect it has on it.
We shall begin with an analysis of the nature of this pseudo-obviousness, and hope to show how and why it differs radically from the luminous self-evidence proper to certain states of fact, and to strictly deductive conclusions.
Pseudo-obviousness lacks even the appearance of self-evidence
It could be assumed that the statements characterized by pseudo-obviousness have such an attraction for the human mind because they are characterized by a “pseudo-evidence” and a “pseudo-intelligibility.” But this is not the case, for whereas pseudo-obvious statements sound convincing, they are totally deprived of both an apparent self-evidence and apparent intelligibility (if such things existed). The main feature of pseudo-obviousness is that it cheats the mind into believing that its assertions need not be discussed further; “of course, they are so” or “they sound perfectly plausible.” They lull the mind into taking them for granted. Pseudo-obviousness resembles true intelligibility as little as darkness resembles light. But, as Plato as shown in Book VII of the Republic, both darkness and light can have a similar effect on the human eye, namely prevent it from seeing. This accidental similarity does not entitle us, however, to treat them as identical.
As Saint Augustine has shown in his work De Libero Arbitrio, self-evident truths judge the mind, “…upon them no one passes judgment.” On the contrary, they objectively condemn the one refusing to accept evidence. He who fails to see that two contradictory statements cannot be true simultaneously does not thereby give a blow to this truth; he only proves the absolute impotence of his own mind.
It has sometimes been claimed that there are objectively false evidences, i.e. that a statement can appear to have all the marks of necessity and intelligibility even though this is in no way the case. But this must be emphatically denied: truth is evident; only an existing state of fact can possess the marks of absolute necessity and luminous intelligibility. It was Descartes’ correct contention that every self-evident knowledge is true by necessity, for the voice of being itself cannot err.
Pseudo-obvious statements neither seem intelligible nor necessary; they only trick the mind into not examining them carefully. As soon as it probes into them, it will discover that pseudo-obviousness is completely stripped of both necessity and intelligibility. Pseudo-obviousness not only radically differs from evidence; it is strictly opposed to it. There is an abyss between the noble voice of truth commanding us to accept it, and the siren-like quality of pseudo-obviousness talking us into accepting it blindly.
On "Seeing" and "not seeing" something
Much has been made of the fact that not everyone will grasp an evident statement to be such. It is true that evidence can at times be difficult to apprehend immediately. The reason for this is erroneously believed to be that the statement in question lacks evidence, for “were it evident,” people reason, “then, of course, everyone would see it.” But this is a totally erroneous proposition. Evidence is always luminous, but just as there are nearsighted men and blind ones, there are nearsighted and blind thinkers. But nearsighted men know they have a physical defect; nearsighted and blind thinkers, far from realizing their weakness, will accuse others of being visionaries [i.e. of hallucinating].
In his Pensees Pascal has expressed this admirably in saying that, whereas he is filled with pity at the sight of a limping man, a limping mind irks him beyond measure. And he accounts for this by saying, whereas the limping man knows he is limping, the limping mind accuses him—Pascal —of limping.
The man who perceives an evident fact to be such has truth; the man who does not perceive its evidence is by definition incapable of passing judgment upon whether it exists or not. For not seeing entitles us neither to say that what we do not perceive exists or does not exist. Not seeing is erroneously considered to be on one level with seeing; it should, however, be clear that the only authentic opposite to seeing that “something is such and such,” is seeing that, “it is not so,” and not, “not seeing it.”
Numerous are the reasons why a luminous, intelligible statement is not always perceived to be such. Apart from the aforementioned nearsightedness and blindness, we should not forget that light has a blinding effect on man’s eyesight, as Plato has admirably shown in book VII of the Republic. Many men, used to semi-darkness, are incapable of perceiving the light of truth; it hurts their spiritual eyes just as too strong a light hurts their physical eyes. But instead of acknowledging that this defect is on their side, men prefer to put the blame on the object, accusing it of obscurity.
Objects are there for men to see, and one wonders whether gains in philosophical knowledge are not best achieved by overcoming more and more the obstacles preventing us from receiving what is given. This is the reason why Plato stressed unceasingly the importance of purification in intellectual knowledge.
It is crucial to become aware that the immediate, spontaneous assent to a proposition is not a guarantee that this proposition is evident, and that an evident proposition will not necessarily be immediately recognized to be such. Not infrequently, the evident character of a statement will be perceived only after a painstaking intellectual probing. This work may consist in removing prejudices, in shaking off stifling intellectual habits, in eliminating equivocations, in purifying and deepening our approach to being.
Pseudo-obviousness differs not only from the type of evidence proper to necessary, highly intelligible and absolutely certain facts, (such as Augustinian Veritates Aeternae) but also from the obviousness typical of empirical facts. For the perception of these facts (such as a feeling of pain, or the seeing of color) possesses a certain type of evidence, the one proper to what is immediately given. William James has expressed this by saying: “I see what I see,” meaning thereby that he would allow no theory to act as a screen between himself and his immediate perception. What matters in our context is to understand that pseudo-obvious statements also totally differ from this type of evidence.
Thus it would be completely erroneous to confuse these pseudo-obvious statements with what might be called “objective appearances,” for example optical illusions. Skeptics have made much of the fact that a stick put into water appears to be bent, whereas in reality it is unbroken. But the crucial point here is to notice that even though we become aware of this optical illusion, the stick still looks bent. What stands in need of correction is our judgment that the stick is bent; not our perception of this appearance. Similar examples are to be found in the case of hallucination.
Sham obviousness constitutes a radically different case: for it is totally deprived of what we have called objective appearance. There is absolutely no trace of objectivity in pseudo-obviousness; it only cheats us into believing that it is objective. It is a typical case of sham objectivity, and it is also typical that as soon as this delusion has been unmasked, we marvel at the fact that we have fallen prey to such a crude mistake. Our becoming aware of the sham character of this misleading appearance is necessarily coupled with a clear apprehension of the radical falsity of this statement. Far from still appearing to be obviously right, it now presents itself to the mind as obviously wrong. It no longer has a semblance of objectivity: it is univocally understood to be false.
The person perceiving a stick as bent when submerged, perceives it the way it objectively looks when put into the water. The person falling into an intellectual trap is guilty of an intellectual failure; his mind has fallen prey to error. As noted above, it is typical pseudo-obviousness that its power on man’s mind rests exclusively on its capacity to lull the mind into accepting it at first sight, relinquishing its right to investigate further.
Reducing the higher to the lower
A specific mark of pseudo-obvious statements is their cheap plausibility. It is very revealing that they usually reduce the higher to the lower, and not vice versa. In statements such as “everything is relative,” or “we can only know the content of our own consciousness,” or “all love necessarily derives from self-love,” or “all men necessarily choose what they prefer and are therefore necessarily selfish,” the data of man’s experience, be it the transcendence of our knowledge or the selfishness of true charity, are replaced by something ranking much lower in the ontological scale, or in the hierarchy of values. To see all things a la baisse is typical of the shallow plausibility referred to above.
The cheap plausibility proper to pseudo-obvious statements will be thrown into sharper focus when we examine some of the reasons why such statements are so readily accepted, and the effect they have on the minds of those endorsing them.
Let us begin with the effect that this intellectual downgrading often has on man’s mind; it will shed light in turn on the uncritical acceptance of pseudo-obvious statements.
To view things a la baisse, which is, as we saw, a characteristic of pseudo-obvious statements, is experienced as the shattering of deeply rooted delusions. It is erroneously assumed that this reduction of all things to the lowest possible denominator is achieved in the name of a sound realism. In his book Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougement brilliantly remarks that there is a wide-spread tendency today to reduce thought to the brain, love to instincts, etc. To this type of mentality, the body is a more “serious” type of reality than the soul, instincts more substantial than feelings, light waves more important than colors.
We need but little intellectual acumen to perceive the subtle irony concealed in the statement that the body is a more serious reality than the mind; for one needs a mind to make such keen observations; it is thanks to the mind that we know we have a brain and the superiority of the former over the latter reveals itself in this very fact. This false realism is itself typically pseudo-obvious.
In many people, this false realism goes hand in hand with intellectual pride. They feel they are those allowed to go backstage, and thus to discover that the brilliant show offered to a gullible public is “nothing but” a trickery of wires and movable panels made of cardboard. In this context, Mandeville’s position is extremely illustrative; he claims that all human decisions are based upon the preference given one thing over another. But, he adds, men differ in their likes and dislikes. Some of them prefer virtue, others favor pleasure. The so-called virtuous people are those who find their pleasure in doing “selfless” actions.
Such a position is an invitation to go backstage of human motivations, and to make the startling discovery that things which strike the spectator as being essentially different are, in fact, two varieties of one and the same reality. Virtue is in no way “better” than selfishness; it is another form of it, but this “obvious” fact is not perceived by the uninitiated.
The assertion is typically pseudo-obvious and, as we saw, gains its appeal from the fact that it plays on an equivocal use the word prefer. Mandeville tacitly identifies preferring one thing over another with “finding greater pleasure” in it. He assumes that every act of preferring is necessarily motivated by pleasure. In fact, the decisive moral difference lies in the motives why one thing is given the preference over another; these reasons can be radically opposed to pleasure.
Feeling clever vs. the joy of discovery
The above-mentioned claim to a superior wisdom has an enormous appeal for many persons; it both heals intellectual inferiority complexes, and feeds the illusion of omniscience. This exhilarating feeling of intellectual power is mistakenly interpreted as being the joy that accompanies the discovery of truth, and this creates another confusion worth our attention.
The discovery of truth does indeed have an exhilarating effect on the human mind. This has been admirably brought out by St. Augustine who excels in showing the relationship which exists between the discovery of truth or an insight into truth and happiness. The point we are stressing here is exclusively that the quality of joy experienced is radically different in the case truth and that of pseudo-obviousness. For the joy over the grasping of truth bears all marks of transcendence, coupled with gratitude that such a gift has been granted to us. This joy can be just as intense when we grasp a truth through the help of another person (for example, while reading the admirable dialogues of Plato), as when we discover it by our own unaided powers.
It is not so in the case of the exhilaration proper to pseudo-obviousness. Not only is it deprived all the marks of transcendence, but it springs from the satisfaction of feeling clever.
The attraction that pseudo-obvious statements exercise over the human mind bears a striking resemblance to the appeal that a show of self-assurance has over young men at the age of puberty. At that time, they are overly impressed by it, easily fall for grandiloquent assertions, and are awed by flamboyant statements. Similarly, pseudo-obvious statements, particularly when combined with self-assurance, brilliance and pseudo-depth, impress people to such an extent that they are incapable of putting up any intellectual resistance. They are intoxicated by these intellectual performances which usually claim to combine novelty with astuteness, and herald a new age in which all past errors will be unmasked and rejected.
But as we mentioned above, not everyone accepting pseudo-obvious statements shares this mentality. Many fall prey to pseudo-plausible statements, whose content depresses them deeply. Although accepting these assertions with resignation, they nevertheless endorse them, be it because of the fascination exercised by false realism, be it because of their fear to fall into illusions.
This fascination grants to pseudo-obvious statements a kind of plausibility which in turn accounts for the fact that many people endorse them, regardless of whether their content appeals to them.
In doing so, people feel that they have their feet on the ground and have avoided the pitfalls of illusions and wishful thinking.
The inability to refute error
Another important reason for accepting pseudo-obvious statements is people’s inability to refute them. This often has the unfortunate effect of making the person in question believe that if he cannot refute statement, it must be irrefutable. Beginners in the field of philosophy tend to identify “I cannot do it,” with “it cannot be done.”
This incapacity also explains why pseudo-obvious statements whose content is unattractive or even depressing are nevertheless accepted as being true, reluctantly as this submission may be made. History reveals that intellectually speaking many people have felt compelled to accept pseudo-obvious statements believing them to be “sad” truths, but truths nevertheless. Such people feel that they have no choice; honesty requires their facing truth, however depressing its content may be. In fact, they are simply over-impressed by arguments they are incapable of refuting.
Objectively every error, however subtle it may be, is refutable. A Platonists might be tempted to say that the refutation to every error exists objectively, prior to its being concretely refuted. But not many men are intellectually equipped to unmask errors, and this accounts for the fact that many of these have enjoyed intellectual immunity for quite a time before being actually refuted. But their hour of intellectual disgrace did come; it had to come; truth alone, as Plato said in Gorgias, while it can be attacked, can never be refuted.
Intellectual laziness always has a decisive share of responsibility in the fact that pseudo-obvious statements are swallowed whole, unquestioned, with all their consequences. For they appeal to what the French aptly call “la loi de moindre effort,” that is, the path of least resistance.
This human tendency often goes hand-in-hand with the afore-mentioned inability to refute errors. Intellectually speaking pseudo-obvious statements knock people down on account of the cleverness with which the blow is dealt. The way pseudo-obvious statements are presented is thus an important factor accounting for their widespread acceptance. If such statements were introduced as mere hypotheses, they would never enjoy such popularity. But when presented with a contagious enthusiasm, a sweeping dynamism, the firm conviction that they are indubitable, coupled with a show of brilliance and cleverness, they have a stunning effect on the human mind. They produce a state of intellectual capitulation, regardless of their content.
The affinity with slogans
The role of this "mundtot gemacht werden" (as Germans would put it), i.e. this state of being knocked out, becomes particularly apparent when we realize that many pseudo-obvious statements are opposed to the dictates of common sense. At times, they even contradict man’s most basic experiences. We now see how strikingly pseudo-obvious statements resemble slogans.
It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that the more stripped of precise content slogans are, the better their chance of being universally endorsed. Slogans are accepted exclusively because of a quality they possess which can generate enthusiasm at a moment’s notice. They produce enthusiasm the way onions produce tears. For enthusiasm in such cases is a mere effect and in no way a response.
Pseudo-obviousness would have no power over man’s mind if it did not cater to several of its weaknesses, such as intellectual laziness and superficiality, the tendency to confuse one’s inability to refute a statement with its truth, and, last but not least, a false realism, i.e. the belief that the lower a thing stands in the ontological scale, the more does it deserve to be taken seriously.
Pseudo-obviousness has played a great role in the history of philosophy, and one of the most important tasks on one’s way to wisdom is to become aware of the danger it constitutes and to oust it systematically from the realm of human knowledge.
From Wahrheit, Wert und Sein; Festgabe für Dietrich von Hildebrand zum 80. Geburtstag, ed. Balduin Schwartz (Regensburg: Josef Habbel, 1970), pp. 25-32.