The Inseparability Of The Form And Content Of Arguments

Is it more important for philosophers to argue well than it is to write well? Posed this way, the question sets up a false dichotomy for you cannot argue well without writing well. Logic is not identical with rhetoric, but the logical form of an argument cannot be neatly drawn apart from its rhetorical component. (Classical rhetoric has been insisting forever that we cannot separate form and content.) We define validity and soundness of an argument in formal semantic and syntactical terms; and unsurprisingly, those notions find their greatest traction when evaluating arguments expressed in formal languages. But philosophical disputation takes place using natural  languages; and arguments are made in order to persuade or convince or induce other changes in the epistemic make-up of our interlocutors.

We argue with someone, somewhere, in some time and context; we argue to achieve some end, whether moral, political, economic, legal. Any evaluation of the arguments we make must take these factors into consideration; without them at hand, our evaluations are sterile and pointless. (Why, after all, do we concern ourselves with notions of epistemic justice if not for the fact that some arguments are more likely to be ‘heard’ than others?) Fallacies abound in natural language arguments; correcting them is not just a matter of paying attention to the abstract logical form of the argument ‘underlying’ the sentences we have deployed; it is a matter too, or making sure we have chosen the right words, and deployed them appropriately in the correct context To use an example from an older post, we reject a smoker’s argument that we should stop smoking on ad-hominem grounds, but the smoker really should have known better than to try to convince someone to quit while puffing away merrily and seemingly enjoying deep lungfuls of smoke. Good argument; terrible form. The same smoker would find a more receptive audience if he spoke with some feeling about how miserable his health has become over the years thanks to his smoking habit.

(On a related note, consider that when programmers evaluate ‘good code,’ they do so on the basis of not just the effective functionality of the code in accomplishing its task, which is a purely technical notion, but also on aesthetic notions: Is the code readable? Can it be modified easily? Is it ‘beautiful’? No programmer of any worth elides these notions in evaluative assessment of written code.)

There is a larger issue at play here. Philosophers do much more than just argue; sometimes they just point in a particular direction, or make us notice something that we had not seen before, or sometimes they clothe the world in a different form. These activities have little to do with arguing ‘correctly.’ They do, however, have a great deal to do with effective communication. Writing is one such form, so is speaking.

Note: The examples of great philosophers who are considered ‘terrible’ or ‘obscure’ writers–by some folks–does not diminish the point made here. Hegel and Heidegger–with due apologies to Hegel-and-Heidegger-philes–achieved their fame not just because of the quality or depth of the arguments they offered in their works but also because they wrote from particular locations, in particular times. (Some think they made terrible arguments, of course!) The sociology of philosophy has a great deal to say about these matters; more philosophers should pay attention to it.

Work Ain’t Working For Us (And Hasn’t Been)

‘Work’ is a four-letter word, variously used to describe an activity for which a bewildering array of pejorative adjectives have been deployed over the years. Slogans abound, on bumper sticker and office cubicle alike: we’re working for the weekend; thank God it’s Friday; a bad day fishing is better than a good day working; and so on. We all hate Monday mornings; hump days signal relief lies ahead; Sunday evening gives us the blues. When we do enjoy that which brings home the bacon, we rush to reassure others that ‘it’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work.’ And yet, peculiarly, our moral values and sensibility are fully imbued by precisely those qualities that make us better workers: thrift, industriousness, patience being but a few. We are praiseworthy if we have a ‘good work ethic.’ We are told that ‘early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ The worst abuse that can be directed against a the consumption of a psychotropic substance is that it makes you ‘unproductive’ and induces ‘amotivational syndrome.’ Apparently, we are to be instructed that we are good if we consign ourselves to the bad. Something seems amiss. Sure, work is described as ‘virtuous’ in order to make the above stipulations of our moral ordering work, but the irony and perversity remains: we are good if we find the boring and pointless and tedious fulfilling and engaging and worthy of devoting one-third or more of our lives to.

This clash of the ideology of work with our lived experience of actual working situations is seemingly as old as the hills, as are the litanies of protests–practical and theoretical–directed against it. (For the latter, we may consider as historical examples provided by the dual, converse critiques to be found in Karl Marx‘s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; for the former, we need only consider the long and troubled history of labor relations.) But we continue to work, harder and harder, afraid that if we stop poverty, and what’s worse, moral approbation, will come crashing down on our heads.

Ideologies are powerful, and so we are resigned to this state of affairs: we need all that we are working toward, we cannot give up the comforts work provides us, the fate of our civilization, our world, depends on out work. Nose and shoulder back to the grindstone and wheel, please. Periodic irruptions remind us that this resignation is sometimes an uneasy one; the intolerable can only be tolerated for so long. We murmur uneasily at the deluded troublemakers, casting quick glances at them, before returning to work; their rabble-rousing threatens to disrupt our work. You know, the thing we despise and cannot wait to be done with.

Man is a curious creature, capable of tolerating many contradictions and ironies, material and formal. Here is another one; a daily presence in our lives. We’ve learned to live with it; we teach our children how to.

Goethe On The ‘Inexhaustible’ Poet

In Marx’s Concept of Man, Erich Fromm credits Goethe as having “developed the idea of man’s productivity into a central point of his philosophical thinking….all decaying cultures are characterized by the tendency for pure subjectivity, while all progressive periods try to grasp the world as it is, by one’s own subjectivity, but not as separate from it.” Fromm then cites Goethe directly on the ‘poet’:

As long as he expresses only these few subjective sentences, he can not yet be called a poet, but as soon as he knows how to appropriate the world for himself, and to express it, he is a poet. Then he is inexhaustible, and can be ever new, while his purely subjective nature has exhausted itself and ceases to have anything to say….Man knows himself only inasmuch as he knows the world; he knows the world only within himself and he is aware of himself only within the world. Each new object truly recognized, opens up a new organ within ourselves.

The ‘purely subjective nature’ of man comes about because of a radical dissociation of man’s place in the world into a subject-object model and relationship; there is the world as object, and here is man, as subject. Man remains divorced, cast asunder; he can only view, and interact with, the world passively. It is finite, bounded, separate. When man sees the world as one of his own making, acting back on him to make him anew, he sees the world as the poet does, as one awaiting completion, because he himself is not complete; this world will, in its ongoing becoming, change him too. That ongoing, and yes, dialectical, relationship means that knowledge ceases to have limits; new depths become visible because there is no bottom here, other than that imposed by a static vision of an inert world awaiting discovery. Small wonder that Blake could see “a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower” and “Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” The world becomes an invented one; poets–and all those who encapsulate a ‘poetic vision’ in their being in this world–are inventors.

Goethe will not be studied in philosophy reading lists as a philosopher; we will insist on pigeonholing him as ‘only a poet’ or ‘artist’ or ‘dramatist.’ But he shows us here, quite clearly, that he is a philosopher; moreover, he tells us that philosophers are poets too–when they make us see this world anew. Perhaps by offering us an ‘insight,’ perhaps by using a ‘new language’ or ‘vocabulary.’ Science too, can do the same: its equations and wondrous panoply of unobservable objects show us one way in which it may conceive of the world in an entirely new scheme.

When we step back and observe the scene before us, we realize the triviality of the distinctions and boundaries we seek to impose on our knowledge–which is but another name for all those ways in which we interact with the world and continue to conceive it for ourselves–and see instead, its unity.

Freud As Writing Stylist And Pedagogy Instructor

In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture¹(Oxford University Press, New York, 1978), Peter Gay writes:

All of Freud’s biographers devote an obligatory page to the efficiency and beauty of his prose–not without reason. Freud’s stylistic achievement is all the more remarkable considering the spectrum of his publications…Freud’s case published case histories–a genre that normally repels grace or wit–are classics in the literature of detection. Freud was a born writer who never neglected the essentials of his craft….his earliest surviving letters demonstrate that his energy, wit, and lucidity were not painfully acquired but were part of his character….He disciplined his ear by reading French and English all his life…He read continuously and intensely…Freud could derive instruction even from the laborious syntax and rebarbative vocabulary of academic writers; he learned what to avoid. But his real teachers were stylists who were enemies of obscurity and strangers to jargon….he highly valued, and rapidly absorbed, the qualities that distinguished other favorite authors: vigor, precision, clarity. [pp. 50-51]

Gay, of course, read Freud in the original German, so he knows better than I of what he speaks, but even I, who have only ever read Freud in translation,² via the usual Standard Edition route, have not been left unaffected by Freud’s limpid writing style. The Good Doctor is a pleasure to read; I unhesitatingly assigned large tracts of primary texts to students in my Freud and Psychoanalysis class a few years ago, telling them that while the material was ‘dense,’ it was clear and would reward close attention. The case histories–of, for instance, Dora, or the Rat Man–I recommended as short stories of a kind; they are literary in every way, and draw us all too quickly into their artfully constructed worlds. His later ‘cultural-literary-anthropological’ speculative essays are masterworks of erudition expressed with grace and style; they can be profitably read by any intelligent person.

My mention of teaching Freud brings me to Freud’s special qualities of exposition. (His Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis is a widely acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and still provides the best entry point to psychoanalytic theory.) Gay makes note of his talents in this domain and thus provides direction for not just writers but teachers in the classroom too:

He kept [‘the mode of discussion’] intact by employing devices that have been, the envy of professional writers: informality, surprise, variations in pace, adroit admissions of incomplete knowledge, patient handling of knowledge, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors. [p.55]

Indeed. When I look back at any successful classroom teaching–or academic conference presentation–these devices have always played a crucial role. They forestall boredom and stultification; they invite interactive inquiry; they provoke creative responses. We should all be so lucky to have our writing and reading and conversation informed and infected by ‘surprise,’ ‘variations in pace,’ and an ‘inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors.’ The world springs into sharper focus and becomes anew; what more could we want from our learning and teaching?

Lastly, Gay is a masterful writer himself.

Note #1: For some bizarre reason, the title of Gay’s book is missing an Oxford comma.

Note: #2: Here are a series of posts on the wonders of translations.


Shlomo Breznitz On ‘The Mystery Of Courage’

In First Words: A Childhood in Fascist Italy Rosetta Loy cites Shlomo Breznitz‘s Memory Fields:

The fascination of hiding doesn’t amount to much compared to the mystery of courage, especially courage on behalf of others. It is when fear tells you to run and your mind tells you to stay, when your body tells you to save yourself and your soul to save others, that courage goes to battle with fear, its eternal companion.

Breznitz wrote these words in response to the memory of a Catholic mother superior in Bratislava who, after hiding him in her orphanage’s infirmary, not only denied his presence to the armed German soldiers who came looking for him, but also did not allow them to enter her abode, all the while yelling at them to cease and desist, despite being confronted by several large, aggressive, snarling bloodhounds. The mind boggles.

There are a couple of familiar notes struck here, both worth revisiting.

First, bravery is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act as required in the presence of fear. As I wrote once elsewhere:

True courage or bravery is the ability to overcome…entirely rational fear and to overcome it in order to achieve the objective at hand. A little reading of memoirs penned by mountaineers, military heroes, and adventurers of all stripes might convince those who imagine that a brave person is some sort of automaton who blithely and idiotically subjects himself to danger. We respect these men and women because while they feel the fear that all of us do, they are able to get over and on with it.

Second, there is the intoxicating power of righteous anger, which can overcome fear, perhaps even induce a kind of hypnotic trance, and allow actions to be taken that would otherwise be inconceivable. Once, as a pre-teen, I got into a shouting match with a couple of grown men who had refused to let my mother use her reserved sleeper berth in a train; they were bigger than me and could easily have knocked me out cold with a couple of punches, but I was infuriated beyond measure, and let myself be overcome by the anger that overcame me. Much to my surprise, the two men backed down from their earlier confrontational stance; perhaps I had shamed them with my display of outrage, something that reached out and touched an inner sensibility that would have otherwise lain dormant.

Most interestingly, Breznitz alludes to the ‘mystery of courage.’ Sometimes courage beckons seductively, inviting us to enter its precincts, to see what may lie in store for us; perhaps we have imagined such a journey lay beyond our capacities and have declined all such entreaties in the past; but then, on some crucial occasion, our curiosity is overcome. We cannot hold off the urge any more, we cannot put off any longer the desire to see what would happen if we were to don the mantle of the brave and sally forth. We are willing to entertain the uncertainty of the outcome, to put behind us the certainty of timidity and reticence–especially if we know we are to act ‘on behalf of others,’ to gain moral laurels as a possible reward. And so we act. Courageously.

On Being Advised To Not Take A ‘Girl’s Role’

Shortly after I began attending a boarding school in the ninth grade, I was approached by our ‘senior master’ and asked if: a) I could ‘act’ and b) if so, was I interested in trying out for the annual school play. I had done some acting in school and youth club plays in the sixth and seventh grades, so I answered in the affirmative to both questions. On  hearing this, the senior master asked me to attend a ‘reading’ that night where we would go over the play’s script. I agreed. When I told my classmates about this invitation, I received many congratulations. Acting in the school play was a prestigious business; being invited to act in it was an honor not accorded to many. I was suitably pleased, and resolved to write home to my mother as soon as I could that I had begun to rack up laurels here in my new school.

That night, I showed up at time in the school library for the reading. I was handed the play’s script, and the reading began. (If I remember correctly, that year’s play was Joseph Kesserling‘s Arsenic and Old Lace.) The senior master pointed at me and asked me to read–again, if I remember correctly–Elaine Harper’s part. (I do know it was a young woman’s role, and Elaine Harper is the young woman in Arsenic and Old Lace. My school was a boy’s boarding school, and we did not import actors or directors for the school play.) I did not mind being asked to play a woman; I vaguely remembered my father telling me that: a) in Shakespeare’s time, boys and men often played girl’s and women’s roles and b) that he himself, in college, had played a woman’s role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the college Shakespeare Society. If my father–a man who would go on to fly fighter jets and fight in two wars–could do it, so could I.

Our reading went on for two hours. By the time I returned to my dorm, it was after ‘lights out;’ everyone in my dorm was in bed, and seemingly fast asleep. I quietly changed, went over to my bed, and lay down. As I did so, my neighbor stirred and spoke.

“What role did they offer you?”

“I”m supposed to be a young woman.”

“Are you going to take it?”

“Yeah, it sounds interesting.”

“So, this is just something I want to tell you. Every year there is a school play, and every year, someone has to play the female parts. The boys who play those roles, they become the sissies in school. No one ever lets them forget it. They get teased and bullied all the time. They get called ‘girls’; people copy them walking and talking and putting on make-up. Last year, X did the girl’s role, and no one has stopped teasing him since. You’ve just joined this school; you still haven’t made that many friends. Some people don’t even like you because you’re from the Rector’s old school, and they think you’re his pet. I wouldn’t do it. This is just my friendly advice.”

[Or something like that.]

I lay there in bed, listening to that seemingly disembodied voice whispering at me in the dark. The vision it conjured up for me was equally gloomy; I knew exactly what he meant. I had already seen examples of how quick and efficient and cruel my school’s bullying and teasing was; many boys were permanent outcasts, shunned and sent off to the margins for faults imagined and real. I knew X was an outcast; now I knew why. I lay under a thick blanket, but I shivered nonetheless. I didn’t want to be a girl in a boy’s school.

The next day, I told the senior master I couldn’t do the role. It went to a boy a year younger than me. He was a wonderful actor and brought his role to life. For the next year and a half, every time my class mates and I walked past him on campus, someone would wiggle their hips, giggle, put on a falsetto, and call out his name. He never returned our gaze.

American Exceptionalism And Political Violence

Adam Shatz offers some interesting thoughts on dreaming of political violence in the Age of Trump-Bannon:

It’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era. American exceptionalism may be dead, but it lives on as a habit of mind…in the unprecedented horror we imagine ourselves to be experiencing….It might be useful to think about these fantasies in wider terms, as a way of trying to understand the citizens of other countries, particularly those whom Americans have for the most part refused to sympathise with. We might try, for example, to understand why Palestinians have carried out violent attacks against the people who have occupied them for…half a century. They have been under military rule, without recourse to elections or a fair legal system, much less citizenship, for roughly 600 times as long as we have been under Trump.

Indeed. And we would do well too, to look inwards and closer as well, at the state of communities that have already, for ages now, suffered the kind of political and legal regime we imagine the Trump-Bannon era to resemble. The crisis of mass incarceration and the systematic evisceration of the US Constitution that it has both relied upon and facilitated provides the grimmest reminder that arbitrary search and seizure, detention, arrest, show trials, and cruel prison sentences are already the norm for some American citizens. Innocents make plea deals that send them to jail for years; families are torn asunder; no one reading the formidable corpus of literature on America’s prison and penal system, or the manifestos issued by Black Lives Matter, would imagine that much worse could happen to a black American in the Trump-Bannon era. The heavy-handed knock on the door in the middle of the night at the end of which a young man goes missing, and sometimes ends up dead in police custody? Been there, done that. The road-stop followed by the gunshot, which leaves an unarmed man dead? Been there, done that too. The ACLU received $24 million in donations in the weekend following the issuing of the disastrous ‘Muslim ban’ Trump executive order; it certainly could have used some of those dollars in holding the tide against the assault on the Constitution that drug warriors have been mounting for close to over three decades now.

Why, again, would such an openly declared war not provoke fantasies of violence? America is lucky, very lucky, that the millions of guns floating around in its cities and suburbs have not yet been turned against the armed constabularies who, on the pretext of conducting a War on Drugs, have felt free to promiscuously wage war against entire demographics instead.

The Trump-Bannon era calls for resistance, and resisted it will be. But let us not imagine that this era is exceptional, that the political and legal crisis it showcases is. To do so would be to lapse all too easily to facile self-congratulation, and to let the real work remain undone.