False Arguments

I had mentioned in an earlier entry a work I greatly admire, Schopenhauer’s The Art of Controversy. I find it very appropriate because in it he analyzes the various spurious ways people can construct an argument, how they can manipulate words and strategize rhetorically to cover up their lack of knowledge, or their ideas that have little base in reality. It is a reference book for me. I will quote now, from the opening, and mention a few of the stratagems he examines. I will do this in two parts. I highly recommend reading the entire essay. (I have it in a version entitled The Pessimist’s Handbook: A Collection of Popular Essays, published by U. of Nebraska Press, 1964).

“Controversial Dialectic is the art of disputing and of disputing in such a way as to hold one’s own, whether one is in the right or the wrong–per fas et nefas. A man may be objectively in the right, and nevertheless in the eyes of bystanders…he may come off worst….

If the reader asks how this is, I reply that it is simply the natural baseness of human nature. If human nature were not base, but thoroughly honourable, we should in every debate have no other aim than the discovery of truth; we should not in the least care whether the truth proved to be in favour of the opinion which we had begun by expressing or of the opinion of our adversary. That we should regard as a matter of no moment, or, at any rate, of very secondary consequence; but, as things are, it is the main concern. Our innate vanity, which is particularly sensitive in reference to our intellectual powers, will not suffer us to allow that our first position was wrong and our adversary right. The way out of this difficulty would be simply to take the trouble always to form a correct judgment. For this a man would have to think before he spoke. But, with most men, innate vanity is accompanied by loquacity and innate dishonesty. They speak before they think; and even though they may afterwards perceive that they are wrong, and that what they assert is false, they want it to seem the contrary. The interest in truth, which may be presumed to have been their only motive when they stated the proposition alleged to be true, now gives way to the interests of vanity: and so, for the sake of vanity, what is true must seem false, and what is false must seem true.”

Has anyone put it better? Not in my mind. Anyway, after some more eloquent discussion of why people resort to rhetorical stratagems, he gets to the stratagems themselves.

I–The Extension. This means taking your opponents’ arguments and carrying them further, beyond what they had intended, to other subjects, to other areas of discussion, giving them as wide a sense as possible and so exaggerating them to the point of caricature, or falseness. At the same time, you keep your own arguments narrow and limited in scope. The more general things become, the easier it is to find weaknesses and points of attack.

II–Begging the Question. This is a kind of a rhetorical shell game. You subtly shift the subject in question, or the argument of the opponent, to something related but easily refuted. This is also known as petitio principii. In essence, you begin with a false premise, such as all liberals want us to pull out of Iraq, and from the false premise you derive logical and sound conclusions. I cannot emphasize how common this is–in the media, among political strategists of all sides, and those who make very eloquent arguments against my books by beginning with premises I had never iterated.

III–The ad hominem attack. The most common one of them all. It centers around personal attacks, at the man himself, his character. This can be done overtly or subtly. This can take the form of–Schopenhauer was quite misogynistic (true), and therefore everything he says is tainted by this and apparently false. Or Mr. Greene writes of manipulation, therefore he is a man who manipulates in everything he does, and so his writing is manipulative as opposed to truthful. He wants to deceive and create followers, as opposed to revealing something elemental about human nature. You see, attack the character of the man, and from that all kinds of beautiful syllogisms will follow.

We shall continue this in Part Two.

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