Thursday, February 16, 2006


Considering all the stuff we know about argumentative strategies, you'd think we'd be above a little rhetorical manipulation.

Philosophy is fun, but it should be funner, c.f. bad grammer. I'm probably abnormal in my sensitivity to agressive argumentative strategies and the use of rhetorical manipulation. Afterall, I feel dumb all the time, and when someone tries to make me feel dumb without addressing my argument fairly, I can't help the overwhelming sensation to go cry in my office [or smash some teeth in]. Don't get me wrong, rhetorical manipulation is often quite useful, and it's often a great source of humor, see current administration for both types. But most of the time it's just annoying and unproductive. Sure it can get us immediate gradification--when our objectors storm off or become silent we're the winner right? Ultimately its use just makes one look like an ass; intellectual perhaps, but no less stinky butt. Further, it's use makes us bad philosophers.

I suspect that these argumentative strategies are unintentional, and so I doubt they'll go away. Heck, it's so prevalent in the literature and at conferences you'd think it was expected of us. But I'm inclined to think that it's in everyone's best interest in this department to call each other out when it happens, in class and in posts. Keep each other philosphically accountable, so to speak.

But perhaps I'm being overly idealistic to suppose that in a philosophy department we'd want to win our arguments based on soundness or cogency, rather than an appropriatly timed ad hominem or straw man (to mention some popular forms). Perhaps it's not in everyone's "best" interests after all. I'm open to counter-examples. Heck, I probably am one.

Any thoughts? (Note: I know I've even used some in this post, point them out!)


  1. I think I agree that such manipulation is usually unintentional (at least in the realm of philosophy) and the best approach is to call it out when it happens. The sticky part is separating rhetorical flare from informal fallacies. Life would be boring if we all just argued in tight proofs (not to mention really difficult). There is gratification in reading beautifully written philosophy, and a few minor informal fallacies might be a necessary means to that end. Bertrand Russell, for instance, in many of his essays, writes with graceful prose, and his personality really comes through, but he's not always 100% fair to his opponents. I would be sad to see such writing disappear in an attempt for everyone to emphasize soundness and cogency. The key, then, would just be to identify all such instances when the art of argument overtakes the soundness of argument.

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  3. I'm pretty sure we're not dissagreeing here, Arthur, but just to make sure, let me put my main point another couple ways.

    No doubt rhetorical flare is important to maintain writing styles, and as I said, it's often humorous. But rhetorical manipulation is my concern, and by that I mean the attempt win or succeed at an argument by means we'd take to be logically unrelated to the truth of the conclusion. It's no big claim, and it's the same claim as most common definitions for informal fallacies. I don't run across many informal fallacies that are dramatic or stylistic choices. I do see humourous cheap shots, but no one suspects the author's argument rests upon the success of that cheap shot.

    What I do get concerned about is primarily the argumentative styles of people, not on paper, but in person. That's where I think people are most often offensive to one another, and it's not really necessary to maintain anything more than one's dominant personna. I'm the intellectual bad-ass of the group, and you can tell by the way I yell and scream and puff out my chest or just plain try to make you feel dumb by making your view look dumb. The way I don't listen to you when you speak because I already know what's coming out of your mouth and I have the perfect rebuttal. Congradulation to all that feel they've accomplished such feets, everyone else just laughed behind your back, and formed not only an opinion of your argument, but of you.

    So the point, at the end of this, is to be more self reflective or aware of simply how we're behaving when we discuss philosophy. It seems to me that you can tell the difference between a graduate student and a faculty member often times by the way they act in such environments. And from what I've heard from professor's visiting the Policy Center, the same is true around the country.