Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Oh I'm sorry this is abuse.

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling writes:

Sir Karl Popper, a very successful philosopher, once explained his success in the following words...

"This success of my endeavours was due, I believe, to a rule of method: that we should always try to clarify and to strengthen our opponent's position as much as possible before criticising him, if we wish our criticism to be worthwhile"

This sounds pretty obvious, I well remember David Braddon Mitchell saying much the same thing almost as an aside in the first few weeks of Stage 1 Metaphysics, but as Michael Cloud says "obvious means overlooked", and in philosophy overlooking this simple maxim is entirely to your detriment. More than any other discipline, philosophy is about arguments. Sometimes putting forward novel ones of your own, but more often than not examining the arguments of others. If you don't examine other people's arguments correctly you will simply be marked down, no matter how innocently. It's no different from transposing a number in maths.

The thing about philosophy is that it is a sort of universal acid, it seeps through everything. The skills one learns in philosophy, of analysis, of spotting logical fallacies, of skillful argumentation, can be used pretty much anywhere there is a need for analysis, argumentation, or the spotting of logical fallacies. Simply put, if giving your opponent the best shot at being right is good enough for a debate in philosophy, then it is good enough for politics, economics, history, physics, biology, anything.

Unfortunately, The Blogosphere and Karl Popper's quote are alien to each other.

Take the recent furore over txt speak in exams. In both of the previous links not only the bloggers, but many commenters simply got stuck in to NCEA without any attempt to analyse just what the decision entailed, and if there was a strongest argument that could be put forward for allowing text speak to be used (incidentally something I did try to do, as did Hewligan)

Now, go back to the Popper quote, and read it again. What is the most important word?

It is the last one he uses.


If you do not give your opponent at least the courtesy of a decent showing, then your criticism is not worthwhile, and you are wasting your time. Why? Because those you are arguing against will simply say "that's not my argument" and ignore you. You have wasted your time.

Let's take a look at another example of this happening in practice, and since I have already criticised a right winger and a libertarian we'll look a left winger now, namely the blog of Jordan Carter. Around a month ago now, Jordan complained
that his views were not taken seriously, that he was seen as simply a mouthpiece for the Labour Party and so on.

Jordan thought the reason for this was because the views he put forward were the same as those of the Labour Party, or because he doesn't comment on certain things, but to my mind both of those are irrelevant. Even if Jordan only comments on certain things, and if the things he comments come from a (well argued) Labour Party line, he would deserve to be taken seriously. Jordan's problem is that he simply does not give his opponets any weight. As is evidenced by this post where he labels the National Party as being dedicated to reshaping New Zealand's society and economy in a direction of less fairness, less opportunity and more inequality and poverty.

This is not the stuff of worthwhile criticism. No matter what you think of the National Party, the best case to be made for them is not that of a bunch of people sitting around thinking of ways to wreck New Zealand.

It might be said that I am missing the point. Jordan might not give a shit what people think of him, and he might be using his blog as a bit of catharsis, letting raw emotion and raw opinion off his chest, and saving more refined analysis for other forums. That is fair enough - but given the post he did complaining that people didn't take him seriously I don't think my criticism has been misplaced. If you are not interested in your criticism's "being worthwhile", then Popper's maxim doesn't apply to you - no big deal.

I should also point out that I'm not just having a go at Jordan, although I might have focussed on him here, I could have picked anywhere from Sir Humphries, Tony Milne, or Martyn Bradbury (especially) to prove my point, amongst many others.

So how about a group effort to get The Blogosphere creating a little more light and a little less heat, and take some time to give your opponents a fair go. And here is the inevitable Monty Python reference for those who have made it through to the end.



Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

Hewligan, you old fashioned fool. Everyone's a schill for some party politic these days. I'm just waiting for a bigger enough checque to come through so I, too, can throw my metaphysical hat into the figuarative ring.

In re Phats: how, pray tell, does Popper's argument become stronger if we make the antecedent of the condition 'our criticism to be meaningful?' Popper argues thusly:

P1. If my criticisms are to be worthwhile, then I should always try to clarify and strengthen my opponent's position as much as possible [whilst keeping to their intent].
[P2. I want my criticisms to be worthwhile]
C. I should always try to clarify and strengthen my opponent's position as much as possible [whilst keeping to their intent].

Popper is arguing that the best thing for him to do (and Mr. Olthwaite wisely advises us to emulate Popper) is extend the Principle of Charity to other people (especially since we, presumably, would want others to do the same for us). I think you have misconstrued Popper here; Popper is not talking about the aims of his arguments but rather the treatment of his interlocuters. Sure, you might want to put forward a bad version of an argument to get a response, but in that situation you aren't actually engaging in argument but rather you are engaging in an act of provocation (the definition and place of rhetoric is a treacherous subject best left to another time). Indeed, I could argue that what you are doing in this circumstance isn't really anything that a philosopher would consider argumentation theory but rather amateur psychology. That isn't, in itself, necessarily a bad thing but don't confuse testing responses for finding out what or why people believe in a given proposition; its a fairly well supported theory in Psychology that if you engage people in low-level argumentation that they respond in kind; crap in equals crap out.

Josh said...

Or, in one sentence: "Don't use Straw Man arguments".

Personally, I consider argumentation and rhetoric to be two different things -- as different as faith and reason. The purpose of rhetoric is to convince people that you're right; the purpose of argumentation is to find out if you're right. In an "argument" of rhetoric, there's a winner and a loser; in a "real" argument, everyone's a winner -- being proved wrong is just as good as being proved right, because the object is to arrive at proof.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

Popper isn't referring to Straw Man arguments, though. In a Straw Man you argue against a mischaracterisation, whilst Popper is describing his process of refining an argument into its best possible form (ala the Principle of Charity).

Josh said...

Just for fun, here's a bit of Aristotle:

“Rhetoric is useful because the true and the just are naturally superior to their opposites, so that, if decisions are improperly made, they must owe their defeat to their own advocates; which is reprehensible. Further, in dealing with certain persons, even if we possessed the most accurate scientific knowledge, we should not find it easy to persuade them by the employment of such knowledge. For scientific discourse is concerned with instruction, but in the case of such persons instruction is impossible.”

He seems to be agreeing with you, Phats - some people won't listen to reason, so you'll have to use rhetoric to convince them. The problem with that sort of thinking, as Hewligan says, is that you'd better be damn sure you are actually right first.

On another note, a quick survey of Ye Blogosphere will show that rhetoric generally fails to convince others - all it does is get emotions heated and polarises discussions even further. Thinking back on those old addict.net discussions, while I respected the detail of Zum's arguments (even though I generally didn't agree with them), what really put me off was his rhetoric - he could get very sanctimonious when he was trying to convince us that it was morally bankrupt to not support the removal of Hussein.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...


You seem to be misunderstanding the debate here (which is ironic, since you started it). We (Eric, Josh, Hewligan and myself) are taking Popper's line that the best attitude towards other people's arguments is charitiable reconstruction. You misconstrued Popper and started going on about how you would use rhetoric to get points across. Fine. If that is what you would like to do then so be it. It does not refute Popper et al, however. The best attitude for engaging in an argument is always going to be dealing with the best possible version of your opponent's viewpoint.

The question you want to grapple with is whether we should use 'quick and dirty' tricks when we are unable to set out an argument properly. This is a question in the field of Ethics, and, notably, the examples you choose are the kinds of examples that appeal to an intuition that sometimes it seems appropriate to break ethical guidelines (normally we would not steal food EXCEPT when a life is at stake). Whilst these are interesting examples that test our intutions they can have the adverse effect of making it look as if you are using emotive reasoning to prove a point rather than dealing with the minuiate of your theory.

Which, in this case, I suspect you are guilty as charged.

I am a trained public speaker (as well as itinerant argumentation theory lecturer). I'm well aware of the use of rhetoric because I was, at one stage, being trained as a speech writer (and speech writing tends to work almost solely on rhetorical grounds). I have an implicit mistrust of rhetoric; if someone uses it on me I get very annoyed and I think less of the person. In most cases people will have the same reaction and thus it is, actually, in our own interests to argue properly. When we seemed pressed for time, et al, we can always use an analogy (which, when decompressed properly, can be reconstructed as a fuller argument proper).

As for your comments about trolling earlier in the comments... Well, I've been guilty of that in the past, but, as I also stated earlier in the comments, such behaviour has no guarantee of getting you closer to how or why people think. Often all it gets you is a mischaracterisation of their view.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

The reason why I claim you misconstrue this debate is simple. The basis of Mr. Olthwaite's article is that the position of most esteem for any arguer in the world is that of analysing the best version of an opponent's argument. Your contribution to the debate is, when most charitably reconstructed, is that it can be appropriate to use rhetoric on opponents given certain circumstances. Your point is unrelated to Popper. We can hold Popper's view to be true whilst accepting of dismissing yours (and we have all spent many words dismissing yours).

Popper is concerned with what is the best attitude to take towards dealing with opponents. You have said nothing in this debate to challenge that and have, in fact, gone off in some other direction. Because you keep dealing with irrelevant material we have, basically, not engaged in it as it is not salient to Mr. Olthwaite's proposition. Thus, I hereby conclude this messy comments strand.

Agreed Brother Morthos?

That Morthos Stare said...

Agreed, Mr. Ransome. Very much agreed.

Josh said...

I think he's right, Herr Ransome - the idea that "it can be appropriate to use rhetoric on opponents given certain circumstances" was the part of Phats' original comment that Hewligan and I took issue with, but it wasn't the full extent of that comment.

I took that Popper quote to be talking about argumentation only (not rhetoric or criticism or whatever else two people presenting opposing viewpoints might be). Eric's mistake was to then start talking about the Internet, where argumentation is somewhat thin on the ground...

While it would be possible to generalise Popper's statement to cover more than just argumentation (which I gather was Phats' original intention - am I right there?) and that would make for better advice in the real world, I think Ransome and I prefer to confine ourselves to the rarified abstraction of "real" arguing, which is why we're all talking at cross purposes here, I suspect.

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling said...

To me, the crux of Pooper's statement is

"if we wish our criticism to be worthwhile"

If you do not wish your criticism to be worthwhile, and are engaging in trolling or (pure) rhetoric, then the principle of charity needn't apply to you.

If you are engaging in worthwhile criticism (I disagree with phats in that this means you acheived your purpose in whatever sense) then one of the best tools you can use is the Principle of Charity. It won't gaurantee success, but it will give you the best chance of it.

Sure, anyone can think of cases where you don't have to apply the Principle of Charity, like if someone held a gun to your head, but just as you chastised Hewligan for being too hard on your arguments, I think you are being too hard on Popper.

But, thank you Phats for giving it a go, and to Hewligan, Horansome, Morthos, and Josh for fighting the good fight. I might return to this topic in another post with regard to justifications for the Iraq War, the difference between Straw Men and the Principle of Charity, and something Hewligan asked of Horansome somewhere else - why Objectivists are bad people (Hewligan himself gives the answer, he just doesn't know it yet).

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

If it will shut you up; your interpretation of Popper, Phats, was pants. Not just pants, but arse-flavoured pants.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

Also, the only reason why people have been focussing on what you consider the side-issue of your comment is that the side-issue of your comment is the only part of what you have said that has any substance to it.

Matthew R. X. Dentith said...

I get more excitable when pants come down.