Internet Disputation – #1

I thought we’d have a look today at some web-argumentation – and what better example could we choose than our favourite litblogger and master of eristic, Stephen M? His post of November 2nd, in which he dismisses Richard Holmes’ analysis of the differences between c17th and c18th science vis-a-vis the general public, is a gold-mine of crafty ploys and strategems, in which he employs a veritable arsenal of our most cherished forms of argumentation.

Before we set about examining his arguments, however, what is most important to note in (and learn from) Stephen M’s technique is that he does not seek to attack Holmes’ book itself, but only a very short precis of the views contained therein, as reinterpreted by someone else. This is in fact a variation on one of the most important and useful of all arguments, Argument 1:

This consists in carrying your opponent’s proposition beyond its natural limits; in giving it as general a signification and as wide a sense as possible, so as to exaggerate it … because the more general a statement becomes, the more numerous are the objections to which it is open. The defence consists in an accurate statement of the point or essential question at issue.

These are the principles of extension and retraction and they must be learned by heart if you wish to progress in internet debate. The basis of these principles is simple: you must attempt to extend your opponent’s principles, while at every opportunity seeking to retract your own. – Thankfully, as a blogger, you can, of course, under normal circumstances, assume there will be no attempt at a defence by your opponent – particularly if he/she works primarily in the print media.

So, having now saved himself the trouble of arguing against (perhaps, we may say, “reading”) the whole of Holmes’ book, which at 554 pages is likely to have hedged its central tenets around with all kinds of irritating caveats and equivocation, Stephen M can now safely argue against a 4-line summary of the same:

[The scientific] revolution was very different from the one previously wrought by the mathematical and philosophical works of Newton, Locke and Descartes. Those scholars certainly changed our vision of the cosmos, but in a distinctly elitist manner. They used only Latin or mathematical terms to describe their work and limited their numbers to a small circle of savants. The public were excluded.

Stephen M’s first attack is a fine example of Argument 26:

A brilliant move is the retorsio argumenti, or turning of the tables, by which your opponent’s argument is turned against himself.

Our opponent here concludes that “the public were excluded” from c17th scientific discovery. This allows Stephen M, by brilliantly twisting the argument from one of elitism to one of simple geography and at the same time considerably extending the meaning of the term “scientific discovery”, to retort:

In 1770, Captain Cook set foot in Botany Bay. The public were excluded.
In 1911, Amundsen reached the South Pole. The public were excluded.
In 1953, Edmund Hillary climbed to the summit of Mount Everest. The public were excluded.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. The public (without television) were excluded.

(Though perhaps the last line is a trifle weak and should have been omitted).

While no contradiction of anything, Stephen M’s achievement here is to make a mockery of his opponent. This is in fact one of his favoured methods, and he employs it again under a slightly different guise, this time using Argument 25:

This is a case of the diversion by means of an instance to the contrary. With an induction, a great number of particular instances are required in order to establish it as a universal proposition; but with the diversion a single instance, to which the proposition does not apply, is all that is necessary to overthrow it. This is a controversial method known as the instantia.

Our opponent has stated (or at least implied, which is good enough for our purposes) that Newton, Locke and Descartes “used only Latin or mathematical terms to describe their work”. As you may already be able to guess, this is a poorly formed piece of argumentation, completely open to the simplest of attacks: – a single instance will see it overthrown; and, what is more, it will then appear to the casual reader that your opponent’s entire position has been refuted. Stephen M naturally wastes no time:

Descartes was French and he wrote Discourse on Method in his native language (not Latin as suggested by the article)

You will note here that, by an exercise of legardemain, Stephen M – given the either/or statement “Latin or mathematical terms” – seeks to concentrate only on one of its terms. Logically, therefore, his argument is no refutation; – but, as must be made clear, we are not dealing in the realms of logic here, we are concerned only with good argumentation. It would be better, of course, to contradict both possibilities, but you may discover there are occasions (which will arise particularly when you find yourself in the wrong) when you will have to rely on merely refuting one of two possible arguments, as Stephen M does here, and hoping that no-one notices the fact. It is a fine art however: for instance, if you are brave or your opponent is foolish (or unlikely to respond anyway) you can try to imply if you like that the term you aren’t refuting isn’t worth the effort of refutation; but the danger inherent in that, of course, is that you actually draw attention to it.

We are in fact a little puzzled by Stephen M’s thinking around this piece of argumentation. Certainly he has provided a work of Descartes which wasn’t written in Latin, but he leaves himself open to the following 2 simple attacks from his opponent: 1. the retraction: that the Discourse on Method is hardly a significant work of Descartes; that it is, in any case, more autobiography than philosophy; and that he still wrote all his significant philosophical works in Latin; 2. that mathematics is still at the heart of Descartes’ philosophy, mathematical terminology is certainly present even in the Discourse on Method, which as we have said is the least of his works, and this point has not been addressed.

It’s a mystery to us why Stephen M didn’t pick instead on the more obvious case, Locke, as the weak link. (ed. Perhaps because he’s persona non grata among certain company, eh?) After all, Locke didn’t write in Latin and he didn’t base his philosophy on mathematics. In fact, he was an ardent populariser of his own ideas and spent a good deal of effort making them accessible to the general public. We even found a good quotation by Locke on the very subject:

“My appearing in print being in purpose to be as useful as I may, I think it necessary to make what I have to say as easy and intelligible to all sorts of readers as I can. And I had much rather the speculative and quick-sighted should complain of my being in some parts tedious, than that any one, not accustomed to abstract speculations, or prepossessed with different notions, should mistake or not comprehend my meaning.”

– Oh, yes, sorry, we forgot. That would leave Stephen M open to Argument 16:

Another trick is to use arguments ad hominem, or ex concessis. When your opponent makes a proposition, you must try to see whether it is not in some way (if needs be only apparently) inconsistent with some other proposition which he has made or admitted, or with the principles of a school or sect which he has commended and approved, or with the actions of those who support the sect, or else of those who give it only an apparent and spurious support, or with his own actions or want of action.

since, of course, the rest of his argument – and indeed his general philosophy – is in direct contradiction to this position of Locke’s.

He rounds off this whole short piece of argumentation, like the critical gymnast he is, with a final extensio combined with reductio ad absurdum:

[If Descartes had not been so elitist] every chimney sweep and parlour maid from London to Lindisfarne would have devoured it and discoursed merrily on dualism?

There are a couple of other good arguments he uses in this short passage (he certainly packs them in) but we shall leave these for another time.


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