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In Defence of Pretentiousness

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Written by Neil Levy

In Paul Brok’s book Into the Silent Land, the English neuropsychologist tells the story of Michael. Following a head injury, Michael is disinhibited. When he first returned from rehab, he lived on a diet of fish fingers and Led Zeppelin.  Michael experiences the change as a return to authenticity. “He’d always liked these things and now he didn’t feel he should pretend otherwise.”

I remembered Michael when a friend told me about how her child is really into James Joyce. He’s 11. I can’t help suspecting that his Joycean phase is something of a show. He isn’t so much into James Joyce as into the idea of being into James Joyce, and being seen to be into James Joyce. In The Examined Life, Robert Nozick recounts how as a teenager he used to carry a copy of Plato’s Republic around Brooklyn, cover facing out. He found the book wonderful, he says, but it wasn’t enough to read Plato: he wanted to be seen to be reading Plato. “How much I wanted an older person to notice me carrying it and be impressed, to pat me on the shoulder and say… I didn’t know what exactly.”

Michael doesn’t think he should pretend anymore. We understand and sympathise with Michael. How much are we pretending when we listen to classical music rather than pop; when we drink expensive wines; when we go to art galleries or to dance performances? Are we being pretentious?

Roughly, we might think of things this way. I am being pretentious if part of my motivation for reading Plato or for listening to Penderecki is a certain idea of myself as someone who does these things, rather than because I find these things more satisfying than Netflix or Billie Eilish. If I can’t listen to classical music without being motivated to post on social media about it, then I may (like the teenage Nozick) be motivated in part by being seen to be a kind of person, rather than by a love for Bach. Even if I feel no temptation to exhibit my cultural aspirations, I may still be motivated by the idea of myself as a certain kind of person. It may be me I am trying to impress.

I see myself in that pretentious 11-year-old kid (except I was slower: my Joycean phase was a good decade later). Of course, 11-year-olds can be forgiven a lot. But I’m far from sure that my musical tastes are completely untainted by this desire to be the sort of person who listens to…. (I won’t fill in the ellipsis).

No one likes being described as pretentious. But some degree of pretention is probably a good thing. My motivation to be a certain kind of person (the sort who listens to classical music and nods knowledgeably) might be necessary for becoming that sort of person. Appreciating ballet or Pendericki or fine wine may require long exposure before we fully have the taste we aim to acquire and also a continual self-challenging: an exposure to elements that we don’t yet appreciate because we don’t fully understand them. I may become capable of appreciating Pendericki because for months or years previously I listened to him (or perhaps to composers who serve as bridges between him and work I do appreciate) without the capacity to grasp what makes it valuable.

If that’s right, some degree of pretension might be required for coming to appreciate a range of goods. If, as I suspect, these goods are valuable, then pretension is defensible: it is instrumentally valuable and inevitable. Being pretentious is faking it, to some extent, but faking it is the only way for most of us to make it.

Perhaps pretentiousness is objectionable when it is excessive. Perhaps it is objectionable when it is too showy: when it is directed mainly at appearing to be a certain sort of person (the kind who reads Plato, say) rather than being that kind of person. But its complete absence might indicate a lack of a desire to better oneself, to cultivate one’s tastes. Between ostentatious pretension and a diet of (nothing but) Led Zeppelin and fish fingers, there is a happy medium to be struck.


This article will be published in Think. It appears here courtesy of the Royal Institute of Philosophy.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Just a thought: is there a class bias in our perception of some things as pretentious? We think nothing of children playing at being things we take for granted, such as children who play with dolls and toy trucks, or who endure organised sport. In fact the main defences of these activities is that they help children develop personalities as well as skills that are thought to be good for them. We also think nothing of people who deliberately wear clothes they don’t like in order to “fit in” at work, or who watch organised sport in order to “fit in” to a social milieu. Isn’t “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” just an encouragement to pretentiousness? All these I think match the description of doing things to develop personalities, tastes and insights described in the article, including to be thought well of by others and to model a self we want for ourselves. We are in fact pretentious all the time, we just don’t notice until someone pretends to intellectual and cultural pursuits that are considered markers of class identity (or perhaps claims to a certain level of intellectual acuity that is itself treated as a class distinction), then we start to judge whether they are entitled to those markers, slapping down anyone who’s pretention may be to social mobility. Interestingly we seem to do this regardless of which side of that barely visible divide we reside on.

  2. One part of the problem might be an overly broad definition of what qualifies as “pretensious”. It is true that some things need to be tried for a bit before they are fully appreciated. There is nothing wrong with deciding that some things are more worthy of time and effort so you can learn to appreciate them.

    That’s one reason one students around the world are required to read certain things in class that they wouldn’t if left to their own devices: So someday they will appreciate it!!!

    I remember a summer when my father was pushing me to read “Grapes of Wrath” by Steinbeck, while friends were pushing me to read “Dune” by Frank Herbert. I was definitely being pushed out of my “Horse Novel” and “Babysitter’s Club” filled comfort zone in a big way!!!!

    In time, I did come to appreciate “Grapes of Wrath” and how it does and doesn’t line up with the more complex history of The Oklahoma Dustbowl. However with time and experience I became more skeptical of some of the premises and claims associated with “Dune”. Ironically, while “Dune” was being promoted to me as the “ultimate ecological science fiction novel”, I would later come to understand that “Grapes of Wrath” depicted a real life ecological disaster from a certain POV.

    As for “Dune”? Well, now another movie version is coming out at least I can do a nuanced critique!!!

  3. If you wanna get properly philosophical about it, you’re basically describing Pascal’s Wager: It would be good for me to eventually love X (a god who requires my faith/love in order to give me salvation), so I should go to church fake it until I become the sort of person who is no longer faking it. I’m saying this because all the standard objections to Pascal’s wager also apply here, except for all that stuff about infinite utilities. If we remove that distraction, we basically boil it all down to the question “is it good for me to love X?” If it is, then my program of faking it until I actually love X may be justified – but not otherwise. But what realistic individuals know that X is good while they feel no attraction to X? I don’t think that’s the usual causal path to pretention. More realistic pretention seems to me more like this: I want to be seen as an X-lover, and my sincere effort to give X a real chance is mainly reduce my unpleasant awareness of my pretense/hypocrisy.

    The real reason why you should sometimes fake it until you feel it, and why you’re in retrospect happy you did, is when you have a good reason to believe you’d enjoy X (say, based on testimony of someone who generally shares your taste and how it lines up with your introspective awareness of yourself), but X has a barrier to entry. That barrier might be an off-putting aspect like an unfamiliar flavor, a stigma, an unfortunate association, etc. I didn’t like coffee or beer when I first tried it, but by any reasonable epistemic theory, I knew I eventually would. But pretentious people don’t read Joyce and say: Well, for now I find it gross, but I carry it with me to more quickly rewire my taste for what now seems like longwinded drivel, because I know I’m destined to be a Joyce lover eventually, and I will be happy I did this in retrospect. The way you described pretention in the piece is exactly right, but in justifying pretention, you need to be sure you’re justifying actual pretention (pretense done for purposes of signaling plus a Gatsby-like hope that the pretense-stage will end) and not the self-interested steering through a barrier to entry, undertaken for self-regarding goals. Both involve elements of trying something and hoping you’d eventually be into it, but they’re distinct, even if there might be overlap.

  4. I have strong negative associations with pretentiousness because I associate it with moral pretentiousness, which in turn I associate with a kind of anti-social redefinition of what morality is and then enforcing it on others.

    As an example, there was a LessWrong post about the “moral wrong'” of pleasure wireheading a few months ago. I found it infuriatingly pretentious. It’s position was that if you could directly stimulate pleasure in the brain in a sustainable and harmless way, it would be morally objectionable to do so instead of deriving your pleasure from complex activities like musical instruments, learning foreign languages or honing your skills at sophisticated strategy games. They tried rationalizing this a bit by pointing to the value of transferable skills, and how this makes one a good ally to the decent people one is allied with, etc. etc.

    But the core motivation was clearly just to appropriate other people’s time and leisure, by judging them for not spending it in a certain way that looks good, and instead spending it to optimize one’s own well-being. The part that struck me as the most anti-social was the constant use of moralism language without any consideration for the self-ownership, liberty or basic control of one’s own leisure.

    A certain amount of pretentiousness can’t be avoided, but we have obviously far too much of it, especially when it comes to moralism, of which we have far too much in general.

  5. 11-year olds can learn and love Joyce. Dubliners is excellent reading at around that age, A Portrait can be too for clever kids. Ulysses and Finnegans can come at a later age (or infancy, either one). Perhaps the author’s inference of the child being pretentious is some kind of compensation? People often call pretentious what they feel is too far from them. These things generally regarded as good, are, in fact, good. The cynicism in assuming anything abstract or slightly obscure is pretentious is strange

  6. Curious that perceptions of pretentiousness also seem to be culture sensitive. e.g. The very sugary approach apparent with many Americans (which has its advantageous cultural value) can be perceived as pretentious by those from different cultures. The English reserve. (partially class – noted by Steven – as well as holistically perceived) can be seen as unfeeling or pretentious. Interestingly, because interpreting culturally based actions of people as pretentious exhibits bias, does that mean sensitized political correctness does have some value… in a different way to understanding pretentious actions as a route to learning.
    David’s presented points and use of Pascal’s wager in this context may be further complicated by adding the contrast between:
    The perspective presented by faith based systems which extend existence after death into the realm of a deity beyond the physical world (there is no personal demise), thereby allowing for a reduction in the mental impact of death, whilst, because of heaven and hell, revealing a given, existing, faith based moral/ethical framework with its penalties ready for rote learning, and also opening the potential to reduce the value applied to physical life;
    And those faith perspectives where because of the continuity of energy differing forms of physical existence are seen to continually regenerate, some of them allowing individuals to make their own decision regarding a continuing personal existence, yet still presenting pre-made moral/ethical frameworks supporting those conceptual views.

    In the context of this blog articles concept of pretentiousness even pretentious international political agreements ostensibly recognize the requirement for a freedom of choice in things like beliefs, which are subject to change, and like privacy become individually necessary psychological mechanisms in most complex and free social worlds.

    So yes, pretention does have its uses. But only if a recognition is continually maintained and it does not blind you to something else which you are seeking but missing within yourself. e.g. imagine two people broadbanding their conversation (constantly speaking at the same time) rapidly asking and understandably answering questions of each other sequentially and simultaneously whilst ignoring the synchronization of each vocal expression, and yet not being able to comprehend any peripheral input beyond the well known and practiced subject publicly, but actually privately under discussion between themselves; or other persons attempting to receive everything going on within a room whilst missing that sought for broader reception by not seeing a great deal of what is actually happening beyond the immediate agendas. The routes to knowledge will be varied, and specialism has its advantages, but that price can be ameliorated by maintaining a wider self awareness and improving individual value, which can freely and indirectly result in an improvement in group value.

    It has to be observed that pretention can also be seen to illustrate softer aspects of privacy which are largely lost as is much complexity, when posting on social media where, as in life unrecognized (intellectual, circumstantial or competitive) pretention may appear (or even develop) as a level of pompousness, which can lead characters to bombasticity when the demands of time intrude or levels of knowledge facilitating argumentation fail. It is probably possible for most people to think of examples of those types of developments and hopefully how such individuals may be assisted towards more inclusively comprehensive views.

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