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.

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.

Women In Philosophy And Reconceptualizing Philosophical Method

This past Monday, on 20th April, Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, delivered the Philosophy Department’s annual Sprague and Taylor lecture at Brooklyn College. The title of her talk was ‘How Women Changed The Course of Philosophy’. Here is the abstract:

The story we tell about the development of early modern philosophy was invented by German Neo-Kantians about 150 years ago. Created to justify its proponents’ version of philosophy, it is a story that ignores the complications of seventeenth-century philosophy and its sources. In this lecture, Professor Christia Mercer uncovers the real story behind early modern rationalism and shows that many of its most original components have roots in the philosophical contributions made by women. [link added]

At one point during the talk, in referring to the contributions made by Julian of Norwich, Professor Mercer began by saying, “Julian does not offer an argument here, but rather an analysis…”. During the question and answer session, focusing on this remark, I offered some brief comments.

There is at the heart of philosophical practice, a fairly well-established and canonical notion of philosophical method: the construction of arguments, hopefully building up to a ‘system’, which are to be subjected to an examination for weaknesses. The successful arguments emerge from this crucible all the better for their trials. From this conception of philosophical method we may also derive a fundamentally adversarial conception of philosophical activity–when two philosophers meet, they are engaged in a form of intellectual conflict, with each attempting shore up the defenses of their own system and expose the deficits of the other. But perhaps philosophers could do more than just offer and refute arguments. Perhaps they could offer observations and insights that make us view the world in a different light; perhaps they could show how one thing relates to another; perhaps they could analyze a situation or a state of affairs, not in the destructive, decompositional sense, but instead, by way of showing us what has to come together, and how, to make the situation ‘hang together’; perhaps, as Wittgenstein is said to have done, they could ‘point’ and ‘lay things out for us to see.’

If understood in this way, then the business of ‘bringing more women into philosophy’ might not be just a matter of reaching out to women to ‘pull’ them in, but also of expanding our understanding of what philosophy is and how it is to be done so that its ambit will include women and the ways in which they might have been philosophers. (I could imagine, all too easily, responses along the following lines being made to some of Professor Mercer’s examples of philosophical work in the period she was discussing: Why is this philosophy? The reasons for the exclusion of women from philosophy would not just be the denial of educational opportunity or participation in philosophical institutions  but also a straightforward failure to recognize their intellectual contributions as being philosophy in the first place.) Such an understanding of philosophy and its methods and practices would, of course, bring it closer to literature and poetry as well.

Professor Mercer seemed to respond rather favorably to these remarks. I look forward to her forthcoming book on Anne Conway, in which some of the fascinating commentary she offered on reconceptualizing so-called ‘early modern rationalism’–by way of showing its dependence on bodily experience and affect–will surely be recapitulated.