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Friday, August 17, 2012

Nothing is obvious

"Obviously, Hindī speakers can distinguish the present from the past, although they have a single word to express both 'tomorrow' and 'yesterday'…"(quote from a paper of mine, alas!)

I tend to strongly dislike these uses of "obviously", because, in fact either something is really obvious —and in such cases no one needs to write about it— or it is not —and the fact of saying that it is is a miserable trick to avoid having to demonstrate it. In the best cases, "obviously" is useless (just say what you want to say, instead!), in the worst ones it is wickedly-used in order to make the reader think that she should know and that, would she ask, she would be asking a stupid question. This is all the more the case when one deals with Sanskrit language and thought, which are far remote in space and time. Nothing about them is "obvious" and, if it looks so, one should re-think about it and ask herself whether she is not projecting her own notion of X onto something altogether different (e.g., one's concept of God on a different religious milieu).

For my essay in understanding "religion" in a way different than the devotional Western ones, see for instance this post and this post (on the Caṅgam corpus).


Dominik Wujastyk said...

Obviously you are right :-)

I'm so glad you said this, Elisa. I too am an obviously-hater. I consider this and similar fillers to be vapid, and to show only that the author is making an unfounded status claim about intellectual heirarchy and his or her place at the top of it. Worse, these verbal fillers are trying to make alternative arguments inadmissible through shaming them, rather than through reason and argumentation.

In rare cases, "obviously" might actually mean that something is obvious. In that case, the author might question why it is being stated at all.

With "obviously" belong, often (with some contextual exceptions), "of course," "naturally," "admittedly," and others.

Wikipedia says that, "Clearly, obviously, naturally, and of course" are often "excess verbiage," though I think I would call them "Puffery".1

Thanks again for saying this! Let's all write better (and therefore think better).



elisa freschi said...

Thank you Dominik, very well expressed.
Whenever I "surprise" myself writing that something "goes without saying" (etc.), I am guilty of wanting to persuade my reader, without going into the trouble of really doing it. As you say, it is dishonest because it implies that one is not "allowed" to disagree. (If, by contrast, one is really making an obvious statement, she should rather save time and ink.)

And I very much agree that avoiding a muddy way of writing implies thinking in a clearer way!

अश्वमित्रः said...

I don't think that this is always the function of obviously. I think it's often used apologetically, to raise a point that superficially looks contemptibly obvious but which the writer wants to use in a novel way. "Obviously Hindi speakers know the difference between yesterday and tomorrow, but we still shouldn't be so sure that the fact that a single word covers both meanings is completely insignificant." That sort of thing.

elisa freschi said...

good point, Aśvamitra. Still, I think that spelling out what you suggest would have been better than just suggesting that something is obvious (also because the reader runs the risk not to pay enough attention, given that the sentence starts with "obviously").

Kurt said...

I think "obviously", "of course", "it goes without saying" and the likes are often used because the author is not sure about his readership. Thus it also can express something along the lines of: "Sorry for stating the obvious, and I am aware that most of you know this already; but because in order to understand what I want to say in the following one must know this and because there actually may be some readers who don't, I feel it could be helpful to state this obvious thing here."

elisa freschi said...

Thank you, Kurt. You are right and this is often the case, most of all in the case of younger scholars.

However, some (most?) of them do it because they want to say something, whereas at the same time they pretend to be part of the élite who already knows about it. For instance, "Nepali manuscripts are, it goes without saying, usually authored by less learned copyists than Kashmiri ones" actually means, I am afraid, "Please notice that I am part of the élitarian club whose members all already know everything about Nepali and Kashmiri manuscripts".

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