Monday, 20 April 2015

Philosophical Rhetoric: A Beginner's Guide to Perelman's Quasi-Logical Arguments, Part I

When I first read The New Rhetoric by Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, and later The Realm of Rhetoric by just Perelman, I was struck by how elegantly these books describe the kind of arguments that are being used all around us. The second realization, was that this system, for different reasons, is often not used in areas where they could provide the most help. Part of the problem is that these books are sometimes seen as difficult or inaccessible.

Therefore, I have tried to make a "beginner's guide" to the system Perelman describes in The Realm of Rhetoric, beginning with his classification of what he calls "quasi-logical arguments."

Quasi-Logical Arguments
As far as I can tell, he calls them quasi-logical because they resemble formal logic, but are not as restrictive. More than anything, what we are dealing with here seem to be essential patterns of thought when we try to deal with a concept in some way (53). Perelman had a background in formal logic as an analytical philosopher, but he found that system to be too restrictive (for example, there was no way in that system to argue about what the meaning of justice should be). These, loosely defined, are "logical" patterns of thought that still do not pass the over-rigid test of formal logic. The point is that Perelman saw these as valid methods of reasoning, and felt it would be a mistake to overlook their effect just because of an over-rigid definition of logic.

1. Contradiction and Incompatibility
In formal logic, as in math, you can prove a system to be nonsense if you can find a contradiction in the system. This is not the case in general argumentation. In argumentation, as in life, one can allow for nuances which show that it is just an apparent contradiction rather than a real one (54).

In real life, what we really experience are not contradictions but incompatibilities which force us to choose in a conflict which rule will be followed. It is the fear of ridicule or disrepute which makes us try to avoid incompatibilities in our statements, and which makes us try to resolve them once they appear (55). The standard example, may be the charge made in the 2004 election that "John Kerry is a flip-flopper." This historical campaign ad shows how incompatibilities can be exploited to invoke ridicule against an opponent.

A version of arguments of incompatibility on stereoids is called "autophagia." An autophagia is when a rule is incompatible with the conditions or consequences of its assertion or application. If you prove that this is the case you retort the former argument.

Here are some prominent examples of how retorts have been formulated by pointing out autophagia:

Positivists famously have stated that, “To be meaningful, a proposition must be either analytical or empirical.” This claim was made by A. J. Ayer and many other prominent positivists. To this a critic can simply respond (and many have): “Was that statement you just made analytical or empirical?” Ayer's statement is a statement of definition or preference, but there is nothing analytically or empirically verifiable about the term "meaningful proposition" that gives it the meaning Ayer is endowing it with. In other words, Ayer is himself breaking the rule that he wants everybody else to follow! The very assertion of a rule of preference violates his rule against assertions of preference.

Similarly, the postmodernist may claim, "I have just discovered that all knowledge is subjective and everyone just sees what they want to see." But the critic can answer, "If all knowledge is subjective, how can you make a claim to know what everyone else sees? And how could you discover anything? Aren’t you also just seeing what you want to see? Perhaps only your knowledge is subjective." The claim that "all knowledge is relative" requires a perspective that is able to view knowledge somehow from the outside, from an objective vantage point. The philosopher Ray Bhaskar has argued for example that in order to even consider such a point as Thomas Kuhn's "incommensurability," you automatically imply the existence of an objective reality outside of the incommensurable theories of science.

Here are a few simple examples you may have heard:
A: Communication is impossible
B: Then why are you talking?

A: I’m not talking to you!
B: You just did.

Philosophers love to use this method to "catch" others in faulty thinking. This sketch illustrates the principle of autophagia in philosophic rhetoric:

So how does one solve an apparent incompatibility? Perelman mentions a few common strategies, though I am sure there are more.

- Escape from contradiction comes by interposing time

We recognize that the world is in flux, and so are our beliefs, values, and perspectives. Therefore, by interposing time we can show two incompatible statements to actually be compatible with a changing world and people who develop and grow. We constantly hear that the views of politicians "have evolved." That is an attempt at explaining apparent incompatibility by interposing time. Here are a few more examples:

A: You said that we didn’t have to worry about Russia, but now you say we do have to worry?
B: Well, back in 1994 we didn’t! Things have changed.

A: You said that Germany is the most evil country in the world, and now you praise them?
B: Yes, but that was during the Second World War. It is a totally different country now.

- Insist on the situated nature of the decision

We are human enough to realize that people make different situations when they are differently situated. The situation looks different on the ground than it does from space, we excuse a colleague who is frustrated on the day after his mother died, we condone some criminal actions perpetrated under situations of intense stress or fear. This is why insisting on the situated nature of a decision can be effective. Some examples:

A: Do you agree with what this platoon leader did?
B: I leave to the soldier on the ground to decide what action the situation requires.

A: You claim that you believe in law and order, but in 1998 you pardoned a murderer.
B: It was a young boy who saw his friend get beat half to death in front of him. In that situation I did not feel the mandatory sentence fit the crime.

- Hide the incompatibility

Of course, this is the least robust method, since all it takes for it to fail is someone to find the incompatibility and point it out. Still, if the incompatibility can remain hidden then one may never have to deal with it. All political parties are a walking incompatibility since they try to be a home for people with very different beliefs, personalities, and statements. We ourselves are walking incompatibilites since we have all done things that another part of ourselves would never do. Millions are spent every year to hid information that would expose incompatibilites about candidates, parties, companies, etc. But once this effort is exposed, the result is devastating. Nothing is more glaring than a lie to cover a lie.

2. Definition and Analysis
To give a name to something is actually an argument. That is clear in the example of “He is a RINO (Republican in name only),” but less clear in statements like “a human is a rational animal” or “this was an accident” or even “I am a student.” Still, these are arguments, not simply statements of fact. This is the case because a definition chooses some aspects and leaves out others. Yes, the person may be a student, but what he studies may be how to break into people’s cars. It is because terms are not defined once and for all that we have to make an argument for them.

For example, “Equality does not mean that there is no difference between people, nor does it mean that we should not treat people differently based on our relationship with them. How could we? Equality rather has to do with a fundamental respect for people, and that before we know anything else about them we see them as being just as deserving of that fundamental respect as we are.” This is one definition of equality. There are other definitions, some that seek economic metrics for it, others that are more philosophical. Still, the nature of the word "equality" means that anytime people are talking about it they are implicitly making an argument for what the word means or should mean.
As Perelman writes, “Every time an idea can be defined in more than one way, ‘to define’ comes to mean to make a choice” (62).

For example, Jeb Bush said that illegal immigrants/undocumented immigrants (whichever term you prefer) bringing their kids illegally to USA constituted "an act of love." That is one definition of the act. The video below is making an argument of definition to oppose that definition and replace it with its own.

- Analysis

Perelman writes that, “All analysis is directional, for it aims to make certain expressions interchangeable by leading the audience toward conceptions that conform to what the speaker has in mind and by setting aside what different interpretations another person might want to give to the statements being analyzed” (63). By making definitions we make some arguments, but the interpretation of the implications of those definitions are also arguments. Bertrand Russel wanted to claim that statements had an implied fact content, but Perelman argues that Russel is very selective in choosing exactly what implied fact content he claims the statement has in real life. Indeed, the very question of fact content does not come up in the statement itself before Russel discusses it. Just because someone says "the King of France" does not mean that France necessarily has or had a king. A statement doesn't have to have any factual correlation to the real world, as Russel claims it does. I might just as well have said "the King of Goose Egg." So when someone says they are only "doing analysis" remember that they are actually "making an argument for what this should mean." Here are two examples "analyzing" the same situation based on two definitions of the same population:

A: We are a nation of laws and do not reward lawbreakers. Illegal aliens have broken laws and are therefore criminals. If we reward people who break the law then we by implication make the law something that does not matter. It is an invitation to lawlessness. (analysis of term illegal alien)

B: We are a nation of people and we treat people as people, not like animals. Undocumented immigrants are people just like us, since we are a nation of immigrants. The only difference between them and us is a piece of paper. If we remove that disparity, we can restore them to the dignity that humans deserve. (analysis of term undocumented immigrant).

Arguments of incompatibility and definition work because of basic and almost universal patterns of human thought. Most people yearn for consistency (which is why incompatibilities are so frustrating and confusing) and for a clear concept of identity (which is why definitions are so powerful). These desires may be but symptoms of our overarching desire for order. Consistency and stable identities make our world more manageable, and we trust what we can easily comprehend. As John Dewey writes in Art as Experience:

"Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder—in a world where living creatures can go on living only by taking advantage of whatever order exists about them, incorporating it into themselves. In a world like ours, every living creature that attains sensibility welcomes order with a response of harmonious feeling whenever it finds a congruous order about it" (13).