Monday, December 11, 2006

Philosophers at a dinner party

The scene is a lovely dinner party (thanks to Catherine), hosted by philosophers for philosophers, non-philosophers, and some precocious children (who were introduced during the evening to the concept of a "wet willie," no thanks to Greg). What do philosophers talk about when they get together off the clock, so to speak? Temporary and accidental intrinsics? Modal adverbials? Borat and how funny we find his racist humor in spite of ourselves?

Not these philosophers. They talk politics. One of their number, Ivy educated and with an AOS in metaphysics, proclaims herself a libertarian. Not that kind of libertarian. Not the kind whose main concern is to secure reproductive freedoms. Well, yes to those liberties, she concedes, but our primary political problem is taxation, and all the lazy folks who rely on welfare because they would rather not work a real job.

Another dinner party-goer, defending some of the folks who are on disability and drawing social security, offered up some personal experience in support of government support for those unable to find or hold a job for medical reasons. Another, a criminal defense attorney who deals with people on federal assistance, also tried to defend the importance of federal aid to maintaining civil order (at the very least). But our libertarian friend held her ground.

Why? Because she doesn't accept "appeals to authority" as good reasons. And now we come down to it. For what do we teach Introduction to Logic?

A logic professor brushing aside personal testimony (first- and second-hand) with the 5-cent fallacy "appeal to authority" has lost the key to epistemology. How can there be knowledge if we don't base it on experience? If all appeals to authority were suspect, we would know precious little, including how to interpret our own experience.


Anonymous said...

2 points.

First, I recommend the practice of requiring justification in order to declare instances of informal fallacies or other sorts of procedural objections. Otherwise, one levels the epistemic playing field to the lowest common denominator at a mere uncritical utterance. Truth does not live there.

Second, I warn against casually allowing a person to change the truth criteria during a discussion. Acceptance of a declaration of an informal fallacy requires that the discussion adapt to the standards of formal logic. All previous discussion becomes potentially invalid, and many domains of inquiry suddenly close if they are not sufficiently open to the new standard. Declaring a fallacy is often a discursive power-play.

In short, put rhetoric and the sociology of knowledge to use.

Catherine Hundleby said...

Khadmir: Certainly allegations of fallacy must be supported; it shouldn't just be an effective form of name calling, or discursive power play, as you say.

However, I don't think standards of formal logic provide the background for discussions of informal fallacy. Arguably, informal logic with its concerns about clarity and consistency is the necessary background for any considerations of formal logic. What doesn't make sense can't be valid.

Anonymous said...

I have not been clear in my statement regarding fallacies.

When I say that discussion of informal fallacies "requires" that the discussion adapt to the standards of formal logic, what I mean is that a standard for the arbitration of discursive truth has emerged in the conversation. Now, participants are much more likely to feel inclined to deal with the spectres supposed by traditional logic, i.e. fallacies, non-contradiction, etc. than they were before. It alters the discourse in a way that I do not think to be necessarily helpful.

I take Dr. Brister's concern in the attached article to be a case in point. I hear a concern motivated more by logical concerns, though I presume that it extends beyond.

Note that "clarity and consistency" is mentioned, but I ask by what standards are these to be defined. If the backdrop of modern logic has been invoked and takes a significant place in the discussion, then standards of logical inference and validation will probably result. This is in contradistinction to standards of hermeneutic understanding (arguably).

Why is it that "what doesn't make sense can't be valid?" The relativity of this question is precisely my point.

Or, more generally, I was just surprised that such an occurrence at a dinner party would engender such a question as was asked. Informally, why let someone get away with an appeal to informal fallacy to end a discussion. Personally, I would have tried to uncover what in the person's constitution lead to the particular point of view proclaimed. But then, that sort of discussion might be difficult to enact...


Evelyn Brister said...

My point, actually, was not that an appeal was made to an informal fallacy. It's not that uncommon, is it, for one of us to call out another in this way: "Hey, what does her politics have to do with her research? That's just ad hominem!"

My real concern was that a LOGIC PROFESSOR confuses the informal fallacy "appeal to INAPPROPRIATE authority" with an appeal to ANY authority whatsoever.

Her interlocuters in this case had real authority on the subject of what federal assistance contributes to society and why it is necessary, and she doesn't. She did not consider their testimony and reject their evidence. No, she refused to hear their testimony in the first place. And the reason she gave was a cop out. Because if ANY appeal to authority was fallacious, we would have no source of knowledge except personal experience.

Granted, personal experience is an important source of knowledge, but the basis of social epistemology is the observation that even interpreting our own experience assumes integration into a complex social environment.