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Saturday, June 14, 2008 -- 4:23 pm

One of those things I find utterly baffling is people's happy faculty for declaring certain things to be "obvious". What does it mean to say that? It doesn't lend any clarity or persuasive force to the utterance, nor does it provide any reliable corroboration of the sentence it accompanies. Obviousness seems to be a trait that is very much in the eye of the beholder, related to notions of "provability" and "certainty."

It seems to me that people say something is "obvious" when they believe it to be true, perhaps even fundamental, but don't actually have any way to prove it. This is not simply a matter of being at a loss for evidence or argument, however, at least not generally. It seems to go deeper than that: you call something "obvious" when you wouldn't know how to go about proving or disproving it, or perhaps even imagining a world in which it weren't true. "2+2=4" falls into this category for most people, I think; note the difficuty of really conceiving what things would be like if the statement were false, and the correct version were "2+2=5". Perhaps a tendency to declare things to be "obvious" is merely an indication that the speaker, then, has a particularly impoverished imagination that prohibits them from anticipating situations different from what they believe to be the case.

I wonder whether, ultimately, people will decide that using the word "obvious" is more about enforcing social norms than it is about truth. The person who can declare a fact "obvious", and get away with it, is likely either in a position of authority, or trying to be. If they declare something to be "obvious" and get away with it, they've just shaped reality ever so slightly in their favor. If they are criticized and corrected for doing so, someone else has blocked their gambit and asserted their own authority.