May 07, 2004

Truth and consequences

In his post on grammatical complexity and electability, Geoff Pullum linked to a press release from the Requisite Organization International Institute. As Geoff points out, this is an odd name, congruent with the odd ideas to be found at the other end of the link. I was especially struck by the breezy carelessness which the Requisite folk shift among propositions and actions, logical inference and causation, truth and effective policy.

Thus a "Serial" argument is said to be one of the form "I think that so and so is true because if we do it, it will lead to X, and that will then lead to Y, and that will then cause Z". This makes it seem like "so and so" is an action, since it's something we can do; and that X, Y and Z are events, since they're things that get caused by doing "so and so"; and that the argument for the position "so and so" depends on considering its consequences. But in the research summary that the press release links to, "Serial Processing" is defined as having the form "Idea A → Idea B → Idea C = Position", which treats A, B and C explicitly as ideas, and puts the "Position" (the result of the processing) at the opposite end of the chain of reasoning. Of course, it's not clear whether "Position" is supposed to be equated with Idea C, or whether the structure is something like "(A→B→C)=Position", in which case maybe the order doesn't matter, since equality is a symmetric relation?

But I'm overinterpreting here. The Requisites' ideas about the structure of arguments are clearly careless and even incoherent -- or at least their ways of writing about their ideas about the structure of arguments are careless and unclear. However, I'm not trying to make them seem foolish, or to dismiss their ideas, which might well have some real value underneath the incompetent presentation. Instead, I want to suggest that the strangeness of this material is the collective fault of philosophers and linguists.

It's partly our fault because we've allowed the educational system to turn out PhDs who think and write like this about the structure of arguments. It's pretty clear that if the Requisites ever took a course in logic or philosophy of language, not much of it stuck. We've come a long way since grammar, rhetoric and logic were viewed as the trivial foundations for any other sort of education.

It's also our fault because we've left a vacuum in public discourse about political arguments. There are plenty of us who are capable of thinking and writing clearly and coherently about the structure of arguments, and some of us who even put this ability into practice, but none of us has looked systematically at the rhetorical structure of political discourse in an insightful way.

(I don't count here the analyses of George Lakoff and others, which deal with political metaphors rather than political arguments).

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 7, 2004 07:36 AM