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Posted by on Mar 23, 2007 in clarity, pseudo-profundity, thinking tools | 5 comments


Here’s something from a new book. Thought it might interest those following the very odd comments (scroll to the end) on my posting an Anselm’s argument.

Around the globe, audiences sit at the feet of marketing experts, life-style consultants, mystics, cult-leaders and other “gurus” waiting for the next deep and profound insight. Audiences often pay a great deal of money to hear these words of wisdom. So how do these elevated individuals come by their penetrating insights? What is the secret of their profundity? Unfortunately, in some cases, the audience is duped by the dark arts of pseudo-profundity.

The art of sounding profound is fairly easily mastered. You too can make deep- and meaningful-sounding pronouncements if you are prepared to follow a few simple rules.

First, try stating the incredibly obvious. Only do it v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, with a sort of knowing nod. This works particularly well if your remark has something to do with one of the big themes of life, love, death and money. Here are some examples:

Death comes to us all
We all want to be loved
Money is used to buy things

Try it yourself. If you state the obvious with sufficient gravitas, following up with a pregnant pause, you may soon find others start to nod in agreement, perhaps muttering “How true that is”.

Now that you have warmed up, let’s move on to a different technique – the use of jargon. A few big, not fully understood words can easily enhance the illusion of profundity. All that’s required is a little imagination.

To begin with, try making up some words that have similar meanings to certain familiar terms, but that differ from them in some subtle and never-fully-explained way. For example, don’t talk about people being happy or sad, but about people having “positive or negative attitudinal orientations”. That sounds far more impressive and scientific-sounding, doesn’t it?

Now try translating some dull truisms into your newly invented language. For, example, the obvious fact that happy people tend to make other people happier can be expressed as “positive attitudinal orientations have high transferability”.

Also, whether you are a business guru, cult-leader or a mystic, it always helps to talk of “energies” and “balances”. This makes it sound as if you have discovered some deep mechanism or power that could potentially be harnessed and used by others. That will make it much easier to convince people that if they don’t buy into your advice, they will really be missing out. For example, publish an article entitled “Harnessing positive attitudinal energies within the retail environment”, and Lo! another modern business guru is born.

Finally, if someone does get up the courage to ask exactly what a “positive attitudinal energy” is, you can always give a definition using other bits of your newly-invented jargon, leaving your questioner none the wiser. If all your jargon is defined using other jargon, no one will ever be able to figure out exactly what you mean (though your devotees may think they know). And the fact that buried within your pseudo-profundities are one or true truisms will give your audience the impression that you must really be on to something, even if they don’t quite understand what it is. So they will be eager to hear more.

Unfortunately, some cult-leaders, business gurus, mystics, life-style consultants, therapists – and even some philosophers – make use of these techniques to generate the illusion that they possess deep and penetrating insights. Now you can see how easy it is to generate pseudo-profundities of your own, I’m sure you will be rather less impressed the next time some self-styled “guru” suggests that your attitudinal energies need balancing.

[TEXT BOX: Another secret of pseudo-profundity is to pick two words that have opposite or incompatible meanings, and combine them cryptically, like so:

Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

Try it for yourself. You’ll soon start sounding deep. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty Four, the three slogans of the Party are all examples of this sort of pseudo-profundity:

War is peace
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength

A particularly useful feature of these remarks is that they make your audience do all the work for you. “Freedom is a kind of slavery” for example, is interpretable in all sorts of ways that probably won’t even have occurred to you. Just sit back, adopt a sage-like expression, and let your audience figure out what you mean.

None of this is to say that such cryptic remarks can’t be profound, of course. But given the ease with which they are generated, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.END OF TEXT BOX]


  1. This shows a tragic lack of understanding of the hermeneutic “principle” that to interpretively “understand” a matter requires taking account of one’s “own” situated participation in the matter. As every fule no, all “proof” should be regarded in an heuristic and hortatory sense, rather than as logically dispositive, because matters of belief and “faith” cannot be disposed of, ahistorically and extra-culturally, by technical refinements in logical argumentation; rather they can be disposed of only by an arduous process of hermeneutical genuflection, crepitation, and transinstantiation. When dealing with impassible ideas which can neither be proven, nor entirely disproven, then the most one can do is examine how such concepts function in relation to other concepts to get a sense of what they might mean and observe the matter quasi-behaviorally in terms of how the holding-to of such a concept might be lived-out in the “stream of life”.See?

  2. Ok, this really burns me. I was going to say that Law’s point applies to half the philosophical canon and 90% of what’s published by the academic humanities.And Ophelia not only beats me to it, but effortlessly crushes my puny little literal exposition.::notworthy::

  3. “If you state the obvious with sufficient gravitas, following up with a pregnant pause, you may soon find others start to nod in agreement, perhaps muttering “How true that is”.”This reminds me of the film Being There Frightening, if you compare some the message in the story to certain political realities.”Also, whether you are a business guru, cult-leader or a mystic, it always helps to talk of “energies” and “balances”.”And don’t forget how all those balances and energies have been “confirmed” by scientists in the field of quantum physics. I believe Deepak Chopra has recently added this angle to the repertoire he uses when explaining human (and universal) consciousness.BTW, maybe I’m missing it, but I don’t see the new book on the U.S. version of Amazon.To OB: And here I thought mind bending flashbacks were only available through the use of psychotropic drugs. Uh, thanks…:)

  4. You missed out random name-dropping. Always good to invoke a little spurious authority by quoting Shakespeare or Sun Tzu or Duns Scotus or almost anyone with a Greek-sonding name (except perhaps Onassis) depending on audience.

  5. I always thought the point of communication was to be understood. As such both ends of the channel (speaking/writing listening/reading) need to put in effort.While I believe there is a tendency towards passive reading/listening these days; I think more alarming is the style of some of the writing on the Anselm blog. The aim of which seems to be to maximise the syllable count of the passage rather than share ideas. I think Stephen was being overly generous with his time to try and understand someone who did not want to be understood (or wanted to seem intellectual).Despite the obvious benefit of learning lots of new words, I failed to read even one post by a certain contributor on the Anslem blog. This makes me feel bad because I may have missed a good idea, and a hypocrite because I often state to friends – that readers must put effort in.

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