Institutionalized Sophistry, Jamming, 21/07/2014

I think a reason most ancient Greek sophists could get away
with such cheap rhetorical tricks in their city assemblies is
because democratic political culture of this sort hadn't yet
developed a worldly sense of cynicism in the West. So
people were more easily bamboozled.
In terms of individual page views, this post from last July is still my most popular. I even noticed that, with no help from my own social media feeds, it experienced a sudden surge in page views this May. It’s about a terrible problem that philosophy departments and programs face because they tend to attract a particular type of undergraduate student. If you’ve hung out in a philosophy student society long enough, you’ll see them: they’re combative, arrogant, finding any excuse to argue with people. They are precisely the people that drive a lot of women and generally kind people out of studying philosophy, and most of them will feel good about having done so.

Having spent most of my twenties encountering such people, I became thoroughly tired of them by the time I began my doctorate in philosophy. Whenever I encountered such confrontational and argumentative people in the classes I taught, I quickly shut them down with the two weapons against which they can’t defend, a smile and an open mind. I even encountered the occasional philosophy professor whose confrontational attitudes had survived his (and it was always a man) impetuous youth. 

I mention this dislike of the undergraduate sophist that philosophy departments tend to produce now and then because of a curious comment in Michael Gilbert’s Coalescent Argumentation that demonstrates how correct my old professor David Hitchcock was when he said I’d like that book.

Gilbert describes just the same attitude of argumentative hostility that I just have, but identifies it specifically as arising in critical reasoning classes. These classes are the bread and butter of most philosophy departments in universities that allocate budgets according to course enrolment numbers. They’re relatively simple courses as well, which focus simply on the rules and techniques for examining and analyzing arguments, the composition and relation of premises to conclusions in day-to-day argumentation.

But critical reasoning as it's typically taught tends to forge or reinforce the aggressive argumentative habits that drive more reasonable people away from philosophy classes. One analyzes an argument, in the typical critical reasoning class, to find its flaws and mistakes. You analyze an argument not to see how it functions, what its aims are, and why it's being made when it is, but only to discover what's wrong with it. More than this, such antagonistic argument is sometimes described as being fun. Most people who have spent any time hanging out with enthusiastic young male philosophy undergraduate students will usually have experienced one person who takes unnecessarily aggressive stands in favour of arguments he (and it is always he) doesn't even really believe in, just to be devil's advocate. Gilbert critiques this model insofar as it reduces all critical thinking to a kind of nihilistic cynicism that's more interested in tearing down what someone else has built than building in your own right.

There's another problem that the book diagnoses in critical reasoning. Critical reasoning classes are themselves often perceived as bird courses, which is really a shame because their basic task — identifying the formal structure of arguments in everyday discourse — can be enormously difficult. When I took elementary logic and reasoning courses in my own undergraduate years, I found these tasks most difficult. You had to cut through a lot of extra material — appeals to emotion, social and political context, the particular relationships of the individuals making the argument — to identify each particular formal element in each person’s argument for his case and the logical rules by which the argument transitioned from one such element to the next.

Gilbert’s idea for reform of critical reasoning would have made this procedure easier in one sense and more difficult in others. One of the concerns of Coalescent Argumentation is to reform critical reasoning classes to make them more practically useful. You don’t understand how an argument actually functions in the world when you strip away all those contextual elements to grasp its essence as its skeletal logical structure. So Gilbert brings the resources of argumentation theory and related academic discourses to analyze both the logical skeletons and the operative political, social, and personal flesh of an argument. As he says in the title of chapter three, his focus is just as much on the arguers as the arguments.

This, however, does make critical reasoning analyses more difficult because you now not only have to extract and analyze the framework of that logical skeleton, but understand as well all the functions and relations of the contextual elements that is physically making that argument in the world. 

Well, philosophy is hard, and so is life.

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