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.

John Nash On Thinking Rationally As Dieting

In A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, p. 351), Sylvia Nasar writes:

Nash has compared rationality to dieting, implying a constant, conscious struggle. It is a matter of policing one’s thoughts, he said, trying to recognize paranoid ideas and rejecting them, just the way somebody who wants to lose weight has to decide consciously to avoid fats or sweets. [link added]

This is a particularly perspicuous analogy for Nash to have made. For the failure rates of diets provide one grim indication of the difficulties of the task at hand: thinking ‘rationally’–whatever that may be, and for the time being, I’m going to elide the difficulties of providing an adequate definition–is almost destined to fail for most people. We get on the wagon, we fall off, we get back on again, straining and striving, only to find out at the most inopportune of moments that our reserves of resilience have run dry, and that we have relapsed.

This slip back down the slope, back to where the rock waits for us, waiting to be pushed back up the slope, is suggestive in more ways than one.

First, the ultimate objective, a lower weight, a more rational mind, remains a contested goal: we might not want to get to the top. We have received conflicting signals about the desirability of it all. Sure, a lower weight will transform some statistics pertaining to my health in a favorable manner, but perhaps my aspiration for it is grounded largely in vanity and low self-esteem, in a failure to accept myself for what I am. And as the Underground Man suspected, thinking rationally isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either–especially if it ends up excluding vast domains of experience and reflection. Or, as another master of suspicion might have wondered: Why should we think ‘rationally’? Who wants us to do so? What is in it for them? Perhaps, I could define ‘rational’ in a way that is more suited to the achievement of ends that I have freely chosen for myself; if I have to ‘overcome’ myself, let me do so my own way, driven by my own needs and wants.

This further suggests then that the dieting and reasoning Sisyphus might, while only partway up the slope, let go of the rock himself. Not only are the doubts about the destination overwhelming, but so is the promised relief of the downhill journey back to the rock. We should not forget that Sisyphus has the  pleasures of an easier task ahead of him now; sure, the agonizing task of pushing the rock back up the slope awaits, but for now, sweet release awaits. (Let us not forget the pleasures of the early stages of the ascent too.)

Perhaps rationality, like dieting, only ‘works’ if it’s not seen as such; if it’s not a program of self-improvement, but an ongoing way of life. That ongoing way requires constant decisions and choices, each consuming considerable cognitive resources; pitfalls abound along this path. Failure is more common than success; as it should be, given the ambiguities noted above. And much as we use the data pertaining to the failures of diets into our reckonings of what a ‘good weight’ is, and what ‘success’ in a diet amounts to, we should reconfigure our notions of the desirability and possibility of rationality as well.