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It doesn’t go without saying

Adam Kotsko’s investigation of the concept of the obvious reminds me of a story. One fine morning at a newspaper I used to work for, a global style edict came down from the editor. It sought to ban any use of the word “obviously” in the paper. “If it’s obvious,” the email complained, “we shouldn’t be saying it.”

I thought that was silly then, and still do. Very often, in order to lead the reader through some line of thought to some (as we hope) subtle conclusion, it is first necessary to state the obvious, so that we can all agree on our starting point. Surely it can’t hurt to signal this rhetorically by starting with “Obviously…”. ((We ought to distinguish starting with the word “obviously”, as in “Obviously, bees can fly”, with shunting “obviously” into the middle of a sentence, where it is more often exploited as mere phatic emphasis, and indeed will often be read as protesting too much – as, for example, if I were to say: “Oliver Kamm is obviously an obituarist and music critic of rare talent.” You might even be alerted to a particular weakness in that very statement, compared to others I make around it, by my own decision to buttress it with a pleading “obviously”.)) I think that to do so is actually a courtesy to the reader. The message of “obviously” is: “I know this is self-evidently true, but please be patient, I do not mean to insult your intelligence: I state this because I am going to do something with it in a minute that you might find more interesting.” ((I distinguish this use of “Obviously” from the more radical rhetorical apology for obviousness, “It goes without saying”. If it really does go without saying, then there is no need for you to say it.))

Similarly, it isn’t a redundancy to say of some claim, “That is obviously false”, compared with saying “That is false”. By adding “obviously”, you mean that it is not false in any subtle or sophisticated way, just plain wrong. At the same time, you also imply a criticism of the person making the claim (who should have seen that it was obviously false).

It is also quite common for the negative connotation of “obvious” to be used for suspense. If you are working rhetorically through some problem, you might well say at an early point, “The obvious answer is p“, deliberately invoking the idea that what is obvious is not necessarily the case (because, indeed, you plan later to refute it).

We know, after all, to be suspicious of what is obvious. Often, too, “obvious” is a term of disapprobation in artistic criticism: you can lament that the painter or screenwriter, as it may be, did the obvious thing, not some other thing that might have been more unusual and piquant. Meanwhile, to conclude of some claim, “That is obviously true”, is very often to take a position of superiority, to affect the pose of having no time to waste on simple facts that are evident to all.

Perhaps the difference between the courteous and the critical uses of “obvious” or “obviously” is simply this: it depends on who is making the claim you are describing as obvious. If you’re making it yourself, then to call it “obvious” is an apology for starting from basics (as well as, perhaps, a tiny boast that what follows is going to be less than obvious, in some satisfying way). ((A more comically boastful use of “obvious” is available, too, as when a mathematician or chessplayer calmly announces that the solution to some tortuously anfractuous puzzle is “obvious”. Sure, it’s obvious to you, because you’re a genius!)) But if someone else has made the claim, then to call it “obvious” seems nearly always to be an attack on that person. It’s not clear to me why this asymmetry should exist.

What are your favourite uses of “obviously”, readers?

  1. 1  Jasper Milvain  February 1, 2009, 3:24 pm 

    Your editor was following in the tradition of Myles na Gopaleen’s thoughts on the use of “of course”. I can’t locate them right now, but the gist was that there are two sorts of “of course”:

    i) Those attached to a clause that isn’t a matter of course; when you come across one of these, you should delete it

    ii) Those attached to a clause that is a matter of course; when you come across one of these, you should delete it along with the clause it was attached to.

    Myles’s rule is no more solid than your editor’s, although it is funnier, at least if you have it in his elegant phrasing rather than my windy recollection.

    In my experience of subbing newspaper features copy, “of course” and “obviously”, although obviously not redundant, are overused; partly it’s that putting them in a not-quite-appropriate place gives a sense of cleverness (as with your maths genius). The most I’ve come across is 8x “of course” in an 800-word piece; it needed to be a 700-word piece, so I was grateful.

  2. 2  Dan Bednarz  February 1, 2009, 4:23 pm 


    This post recalls a famous sociology article called, “That’s Interesting! Towards a Sociology of Phenomenology and a Phenomenology of Sociology.” This article begins:

    “Question: How do theories that are generally considered interesting differ from theories that are generally considered non-interesting?

    Answer: Interesting theories deny certain assumptions of their audience, while non-interesting theories affirm certain assumptions of their audience. ”

    You end up with three responses to information: that’s absurd; that’s obvious; that’s interesting.

  3. 3  Steven  February 1, 2009, 4:38 pm 

    I’m glad to learn of the existence of said paper. I suppose it’s possible for something to be obviously interesting (as opposed to “surprisingly interesting, given that it’s about gnome-moulding techniques”).

    Alternatively, though, “interesting” can also be used in such a way that it obviously means “bollocks”.

    In my experience of subbing newspaper features copy, “of course” and “obviously”, although obviously not redundant, are overused

    Of course, “of course”! (I overuse that myself, obviously.)

  4. 4  matthew  February 1, 2009, 5:38 pm 

    The asymmetry seems to me a natural negation. Obviously, if I must annotate another’s claim as “obvious,” he has not done so himself. Though I may insert apologies in my own work, I can only point to their absence in other’s.

    Consider by contrast laudatory adjectives. Attesting to another’s intelligence, beauty, piety, it generally goes unquestioned that I have faculty to so judge. But should I speak of my own intelligence or beauty, I am seen not only as vain but either dishonest or deluded.

  5. 5  hey zeus  February 1, 2009, 6:28 pm 

    I was tapped on the shoulder half an hour before finishing my shift at the factory last week and told to visit the Adecco office where the Manager said to me

    “right , obviously we’ve called you in here to have a chat with you. Obviously we’re losing money at the moment and so, given your record of absence, obviously, we’re going to have to let you go.”

    my pointing out the lack of obviousness was met with blank stares.
    I say let’s ban the stupid word, or at least file it under other redundant phrases that come out of the mouths of stupid people like a slang tourettes. along with “as i say” and “so…”

  6. 6  abb1  February 1, 2009, 6:58 pm 

    Logic, deductive argument; for example in this form: obviously A, and so if B then C. You have to state the obvious major premise (e.g. “all men are mortal”) to comply with the form, to have the complete argument.

  7. 7  C. Reaves  February 1, 2009, 7:28 pm 

    In the technical circles I used to hang around in, when a paper stated that something was “intuitively obvious” it was a red-flag denoting: “Please don’t think too hard about this part – the authors didn’t”.

    My point being that if a writer can get the reader to skip over a statement without giving it very much thought, it may escape critical evaluation.

    In technical papers this is sometimes done because the researchers got lazy and didn’t look at that area, but in political commentary it is sometimes used to get a controversial statement accepted as fact. Some writers (William Kristol comes to mind) are masters at inserting ideological mines in their articles, almost as throw-away sentences, and getting the reader to accept them as “obvious”.

  8. 8  john c. halasz  February 2, 2009, 4:54 am 

    As for asymmetries, there do seem to be a lot of such embedded in the micro-rules of speech acts. For example, “enough”, implying sufficiency, operates differently in the positive/favorable case from the negative/unfavorable case.
    -“Did you enjoy your meal?”
    -“It was good enough.”
    -“It was bad enough.”
    The latter requires some explanation or qualification in the form of a prepositional phrase or indirect object. I once asked someone who had undergone a presumably laborious education at a prestigious university what he thought of the quality of his education, (though I must have phrased it ambiguously, in dumb American diction, such as “howdja like it” or “whadja think of it”). The answer came, “I hated it just enough”. Er, enough for what? Er, even leaving aside the deliberate exploitation of the ambiguity to answer the hedonic question in place of the intended “qualitative” question.

    In a somewhat later context, that same individual addressed me with a non-explanation/-apology: “I’m sure you’ll understand, coming from foreign-born parents, I just really needed to make it”. “I’m sure you’ll understand” is a really strange locution, since, any other non sequitur aside, if understanding is assured, there would be no need to mention it. Unless, “of course”, there is no such assurance, and the issue is being forced. How often do such locutions as “I’m sure you’ll understand” occur, given that they are either redundant or self-stultifying or -negating?

    The upshot is that there are all sorts of micro-rules embedded in the exchange of speech-acts with attendant asymmetries, some of which might serve the assumptions involved in effective communication, and some of which might be subject to manipulation to obstruct the same.

    Then again there is that old Wittgensteinian saw that what is most obvious, nearest, is thereby what is most overlooked, if not exactly mysterious, then passingly strange. Obvious to whom? Obviously, to us passing strangers.

  9. 9  richard  February 2, 2009, 6:09 pm 

    This business of assigning obviousness really is the heart of unspeak, isn’t it? Before one can subject anything to enquiry one has to make it non-obvious, and that’s hard work (because generating the obvious is an act of filtering we all do automatically, like breathing). Complaining that something is obvious is really complaining that’s it’s not interesting, but more devastating, because it appeals more to a level of cognition below discourse.

    That said, what does “Self-evident” mean? Isn’t the finding and assigning of evidence a human act? Isn’t it a category error (and political act) to claim that the “evident” point or argument resides in the object? I must get around to reading Wittgenstein.

  10. 10  Steven  February 2, 2009, 6:20 pm 

    Matthew — that sounds good to me on the reason for the asymmetry.

    hey zeus — sorry to hear it. It’s a good example of how “obviously” can also be used to disclaim responsibility. (It’s not my personal decision but a thing that is obvious to all of us, so you must accept it.)

    john — personally, I think I use “I’m sure you understand” in a way somewhat similar to the responsibility-disclaiming use of “obviously”: “I’m sure you understand” is a rhetorical device to solicit agreement via flattery.

    richard —

    what does “Self-evident” mean?

    Good question! How can a thing be self-evident? Surely the only thing that can be self-evident is a person? I am, I suppose, evident to myself (let us here lightly skate over the massive problem with differentiating “I” from “myself”); but I don’t see how a rock can be evident to itself, unless we can agree on the truth of panpsychism.

    I must get around to reading Wittgenstein.

    He’s very funny.

  11. 11  Craig  February 3, 2009, 10:52 am 

    Obviously, if we stop stating the obvious, we’ll stop questioning it, too.

  12. 12  ejh  February 3, 2009, 3:16 pm 

    One of my old Oxford history tutors used to get very annoyed if I used “not surprising” in an essay: she’d say that it was history, you can’t talk about things being not surprising if they’ve already happened. She had a point, though she possibly applied it a little dogmatically.

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