Friday, April 18, 2008
Stephen Burt has an interesting post at the Columbia UP blog: “Against Argument”.
The academy thrives on argument, at least in the traditional humanities: arguments get us noticed. Travel guides and scientific discoveries may both sell books, but to get attention within the realms of the arts and the humanities now, one almost has to make an extended argument: to take issue with some dominant view, to explain why what we already knew was wrong, or (especially in literary studies) to demonstrate some big connection between features within some literature, and features of history or (more rarely) philosophy or natural science outside it.
There’s nothing wrong with making extended arguments, of course, and I spend much of my time (at least during the school year) teaching our students how to do just that. Yet our sustained interest in arguments might be making us keep at arm’s length, or under a cloud, the reasons why we care for the arts at all, the smaller-scale features that distinguish works of art from one another, the features which help us explain (if it can be explained—can it?) why we care for this one, not that one.
Ten years ago twentysomethings in top graduate programs were being taught (wrongly) to look down on an influential book called Understanding Poetry even as they were reading, and recommending (rightly), a then-new book called Understanding Comics, a book (itself in comics form) that remains the foundation for the arguments about that art form advanced by groups like the Michigan Comix Collective.
Yes, if you admire McCloud it is quite pointless to turn around and snub Brooks - at least on the usual kick-the-New Criticism-even-though-it’s-been-down-for-50-years methodological grounds. But I don’t quite agree with the first bit. You might think I am going to balk at ‘against argument’. But actually, in these sorts of contexts - yeah, ok. The problem I have is really twofold: first, I don’t buy Burt’s opposition between ‘argument’ and ‘description’. What you want is: discernment, insight. He and I might compromise on ‘good close reading’. (I don’t think I’m actually disagreeing with what he is getting at.) This is a small bone to pick, then. But there is a point to picking it. Because ‘being insightful’ isn’t really a method. ‘Noticing interesting things’ is not really a method. And yet it is teachable, to some degree. And is, to a very considerable degree, the thing we really want to teach. This brings me to my second point. I do not at all agree that the humanities ‘thrives on argument’. Probably this is my philosophy department bias showing through. But I think it would be more accurate to complain that humanists always say they are arguing, but often they are doing, instead, precisely that thing Burt says they should be doing instead of arguing - being insightful, describing, close reading (call it what you will). I think this tends to be an expression of discipline envy. Someone asks you what you are doing. You say ‘I am trying to construct a rigorous argument’. That sounds better than ‘I am trying to be insightful’, or ‘I’m reading carefully’. But, actually, the latter would be truer. And, on the whole, insights tend to be more insightful if they are not cluttered up by erroneous advertisements about their argumentative status. So I would say: let’s be ‘against saying you are arguing when you are not’.
In a way, it was precisely this problem that doomed the New Criticism to its bad reputation. Brooks and others were careful readers, but they - rather defensively - felt obliged to pretend that there were strong arguments warranting their practices, i.e. their hermetic attitude towards individual texts. In fact, the arguments were all pretty terrible. Still, Brooks really understood poetry.
There’s a chance you’re not exactly tuning-in to Burt’s point, I think. Put it this way: there is, in English, often a consensus with respect to writers and issues. It’s possible to write books that simply reiterate that consensus (introductory guides, for instance: ‘irony is very important in Austen’, ‘in Gulliver’s Travels Swift uses the Yahoos to satirise human bestiality’). But it’s not possible to write books that earn you institutional or disciplinary credit only by writing those sorts of books. To do that, to get promoted, to gain a reputation, you need to write books that say something ‘new’; a requirement that is very often construed by academics as disagreeing with the consensus in the argumentative sense that Burt is proposing. ‘Austen, it transpires, is a deeply unironic writer’; ‘the Houyhnhmns are Swift’s critique of proto-fascistic Enlightenment oppression; we’re much happier, he is saying, wallowing in the muck with the Yahoos’.
Put it another way: if I spend six months ‘reading carefully’ (paying close critical attention, marshalling my insight) Henry James’s novels, and end up thinking: ‘yes, everything criticism has said about these novels is spot-on’, then I have not spent a productive six months—not in career terms, that is, howsoever pleasurable it has been for me as an individual. I’m not going to get a monograph out of that sort of conclusion, now, am I.
From the titular wisdom of a mediocre book on rhetoric: Everything is an argument. Even in “being insightful” one is making a contention (or two). By taking the time to note an insight one is at the very least making the argumentative claim that it is worthy of note. At the same time one is making the claim that this subtextual insight is, in fact there in the text, and not (solely) in the mind of a unique reader.
So, I think that’s a muddling element of Burt’s ...er...argument--At what point can we separate argument from description?
But what I think Burt is talking about that is under scrutiny here, is whether or not “argument,” that is to say, “disagreement,” has been an undue focus of academic work. I think it is very hard to say that it has not been. Description is fine and very many people employ close readings as the primary source material for their own work. However, I think a casual perusal of any scholarly journal will find that what is in there is essentially a shouting match. Sometimes people are at odds with the argument inherent in descriptions. Sometimes they are at odds with more straightforward arguments.
I simply think it’s wrong to be against argument. It is true that there is value also in approaching arts from an unassailable personal aesthetic, to treat art in print with the original love that drove one to study it, but no one essay can be all things to all people. Argument is argument and it has value and art qua art essays are valuable as well.
Certainly Burt knows that and since he doesn’t provide a metric for measuring which of the two approaches might be more valuable, I think he must be responding to what appears to him as an unfair imbalance. I don’t think there is any argument in the world that can remove the rightness of that insight, since it is, after all, a part of his unassailable aesthetic.
Hi everyone! Yes, “good close reading” is a fine compromise. To clarify: I’m not against argument in the sense that I’m against (for example) people hitting other people in the head with bricks. I think, rather, that we often overvalue (and “professionalize” our students so that they overvalue, or feel they ought to overvalue) argument (narrowly defined) as against other aspects of what we do, and that this overvaluing makes it at least a bit harder than it ought to be for literary studies w/in the academy to do justice to works of art. For example, in order to get credit for aesthetically sensitive descriptions, we might have to pretend that those descriptions are, first of all, consecutive arguments (whether or not they are, or should be).
I don’t think that John Holbo and I disagree much here (or if we do it’s a matter of emphasis).
I note that just around the corner, our Daniel Green has contributed a post about a recent article Brian Boyd has published in The American Scholar. Boyd distinguishes between meaning and pattern: “One conclusion I draw from this analysis of the origin of art and story is that attention—engagement in the activity—matters before meaning. Aristotle understood this. So do artists, authors, and audiences.” The distinction is not the same as that between argument and description, but one might link the two distinctions by suggesting that one provides arguments to justify meaning and descriptions to point out patterns.
As I indicated in an email to Boyd:
The problem, of course, is that literary texts are complicated, the patterns are many, many of them are not obvious, and we’re good at seeing patterns that aren’t there. But I think those problems are tractable, with some help from the newer psychologies (cog, neuro, evo).
The good thing is that we can identify patterns without necessarily being able to explain them, just as naturalists were able to describe the anatomy and lifeways of flora and fauna without necessarily being able to explain them. They did that for 3 or 4 centuries and along came Darwin, heir to all that descriptive work, and he was able to find a “meta” pattern in it all, and that pattern told us how to construct explanations of all those patterned organisms. I think we, as critics, need to sharpen our skills at identifying and describing patterns. And we need to put a lid on the urge to encapsulate them in meanings.
Those descriptions of flora and fauna didn’t just happen. Nor was the method behind them obvious (there are some remarks in The Order of Things and, more recently, an entire book, Brian Ogilvy, The Science of Design: Natural History in Renaissance Europe). Naturalists had to figure out just what to include in their descriptions (which, of course, included drawings) and how to organize them. Thus I’m not sure John is quite right in asserting that “‘Noticing interesting things’ is not really a method.” Perhaps not yet.
I actually very much agree with what John’s saying here, his, erm, description of the state of play. (I also hear what SB is saying as well, especially vis a vis professionalization).
But just to take John one further. A lot of what people are doing when they think they’re arguing nowadays in lit studies is actually something closer to, what to call it, paradigm assertion. Subfield marketing. The ostensible argument of book after book takes the form: “The right way to look at X is through these goggles.” Or perhaps, “See, X shows us that these goggles are good goggles.”
These are arguments, yes, but not very interesting ones.... It’s a sort of methodological fetishism. Sort of heartless too - the heart is usually in the, yes, descriptions. When we’re shown what we can see through the goggles. But the follow-through, into why we should care about what we’ve seen (another way to describe argument) gets forced out by the stump argument about method.
Make sense? I’d love to show an example, and I’ve got one that many around here would be familiar with, but it seems too mean to do it. But it does seem to me that it’s one way to think about the lost battle for the book table at the front of the store. Hard to imagine a general reader getting all that excited about a book that argues that textual materialism is a good approach to the renaissance etc.
(And of course, there are interesting thoughts to be thought about how this played out in during theory’s high tide...)
A lot of what people are doing when they think they’re arguing nowadays in lit studies is actually something closer to, what to call it, paradigm assertion. Subfield marketing. The ostensible argument of book after book takes the form: “The right way to look at X is through these goggles.” Or perhaps, “See, X shows us that these goggles are good goggles.” These are arguments, yes, but not very interesting ones.... It’s a sort of methodological fetishism.
Paradigm assertion followed by paradigm institutionalization and enforcement, with paradigm monopoly the unattainable dream, seems to be the pattern for academic history. And since there’s no established paradigm for arguments about paradigms, it look more like porkbarrel power politics than anything else—the victor is able to deliver jobs to his students. Brian Leiter has described / created philosophy’s pork distribution system.
On “argument”, a step below argument is “making a case”: arguing a point in explicit indifference to its truth, or even knowing full well that it’s false. There have been fanatical or credulous times when devil’s advocates performed an important, necessary liberating function, but in our time they’re thick on the ground and devils-advocacy is more or less a party game.
And devil’s advocates gave us Guantanamo, too. And Hitler.
This meta-argument seems to me to be highly inflected by scientism. In science, I think that a good deal of advanced education consists of teaching students how to make arguments about what the world is like, and teaching them what kinds of evidence can be used. Because, yes, an investigation that verifies exactly the results that everyone else had already published is not going to make anyone’s career. But the arguments can be settled; that’s the important thing. You design an experiment, or suggest an observation, that will disconfirm the prevailing hypothesis and that matches yours, and, a while after, that’s pretty much it.
Philosophy arguments seem to me to be different, because there isn’t really the expectation that any of them will ever really be settled. Instead there’s a culture of argument, a sort of sense that argument is what philosophers do, so they should be good at it. At least, that’s my outsider’s view; the actual philosophers here can say whether it seems accurate.
What I don’t really understand is why literary studies type humanities people should argue. What do they get out of it? Well, it’s clear what individuals get out it: academic prestige of some sort. But what does the field as a whole get out of it? It’s not clear—not clear to me, anyway. Yes, obviously literary studies people need to be insightful about literature. But it’s not clear to me that X insight about a literary work or field or genre necessarily says anything argumentative about Y insight.
This kind of thing was what I saw a lot of the Theory discussions here as being about, basically. Theory seemed to be about the importation of continental philosophy, however defined, into literary studies. So it would come with a version of philosophy’s culture of argument, but since there was nothing really to argue about, the arguments would be about who was really interpreting Superstar Theorist Z correctly.
Having just written a book that makes an argument and that also tries to get at “the reasons why we care” in the first place, I’d have to call bs on SB’s false dichotomy. Doesn’t The Well Wrought Urn make some arguments? That’s probably better than Understanding Poetry as an example. Being a textbook, the latter just doesn’t make critical arguments in the same way, and, I would argue, doesn’t foster appreciation as much as TWWU either.
I continue to be puzzled—sincerely!—by the notion of an “argument.” Apparently there are a lot of contexts where there are claimed to be arguments, but there are not, in fact, arguments. But then it sometimes seems as though the problem is simply that the arguments in those contexts are bad arguments. This very post seems to include both points of view. Are bad arguments not arguments at all? Or is it that if you can’t make a good argument, you shouldn’t try to make an argument?
In most cases that I can imagine John not finding “arguments” per se, it still does seem to be the case that the author is attempting to persuade the reader of some point, and in my view, calling that attempt, in aggregate, an “argument” seems fine. Or maybe they mean “argument” in something like the sense of “general theme,” like in old books where a summary of the chapter is called the “argument.” One’s “argument” would then be “the point one is trying to make”—indeed, outside of analytic philosophy, that may well be the dominant meaning of the term “argument.”
Could this all be a case of logomachy?! Could it?!
I’m assuming arguments are predicated upon disagreement. Not all dialectic is, I suppose.
It seems to me like we could easily be supplied with a rigorous definition of an “argument,” if it’s such a discrete and relatively rarely-done thing.
Or another approach: in this article, am I making an argument or not? If not, what would I have to change to make it into a proper argument.
There has to be at least an implicit or potential disagreement, the idea that someone might object or think otherwise, but I was taking argument here in its most neutral sense: puting forward a particular position.
Adam K: if it weren’t for bad arguments, many people would have no arguments at all. And, sometimes, it is more charitable to regard them as lacking in such. (I am nothing if not interpretively charitable in my dealings. I think you know this about me.)
Before I attempt to define ‘argument’, a clarification. You write: ‘One’s “argument” would then be “the point one is trying to make”—indeed, outside of analytic philosophy, that may well be the dominant meaning of the term “argument.”’
Sometimes I tell my students that it is not enough just to have a point you want to make. If it is the sort of claim that the reader cannot be expected to accept, then you should try to argue for it. By this I mean: you should attempt to provide reasons to accept the claim as true or warranted. By your account, however, my pedagogical practice is exquisitely nonsensical. For by the mere fact of claiming anything whatsoever, my students are offering arguments for those claims. Namely, the claims themselves.
Do you, indeed, think it is exquisitely nonsensical to suggest to students that it is not enough to make claims. It is also important to justify them?
In short, I think you are conflating ‘logomachy’ with ‘justification’. They are no more synonymous than ‘claim and ‘argument’.
So are there methods other than “argument” for supporting a claim?
CR, thank you for agreeing with me.
Bill, I see the distinction you are drawing but I don’t think arguments are any more correlated with debates about meanings than with debates about patterns. Hermeneutics is often a matter of ‘insight’: I see this. And patterns are often ‘how things work’ sorts of issues that are highly amenable to argument.
"So are there methods other than “argument” for supporting a claim?”
Well, yes. You can just sort of glare at the person and act as though they would be an idiot not to accept what you say.
Okay, so in your opinion, humanities scholars outside philosophy departments are generally making free-floating claims without support. Yet somehow, when I read such books, I feel like I’m able to agree or disagree—and more than that, I feel like I am able to give reasons why. Is this feeling simply an illusion on my part? Has my upbringing so deprived me of arguments that I don’t even experience their lack, like someone who believes that Burger King is the pinnacle of cuisine?
Also, Adam K, by your own account ‘argument’ is not a way of supporting a claim at all. You stated that you regard ‘argument’ as synonymous with ‘claim’ (’point you are trying to make’). Do you now recant this semantic testimony?
Quickly-- Jonathan Mayhew is right about Brooks’ Urn, and right that there’s no hard and fast line between description and argument in my sense (or any serious sense)-- I do think that there’s a continuum… and I’m not calling for anyone to stop making arguments! I’m just calling for more respect given to descriptions of aesthetic objects… or, if you prefer, I’m calling for more respect given to the subcategory of arguments called “descriptions,” arguments consisting largely of independent, rather than consecutive and dependent, claims about the aspects that distinguish a given work of art from many or from all others, claims “tested” as much by other people’s reactions to and knowledge about that work of art as by their status with respect to arguments previously offered elsewhere.
The point of my comment was that argument, like most natural-language words, is polysemic to a certain degree. Drawing a hard line between the “claim” and the “argument” that supports it is a very elegant solution to the polysemy. But in practice, many people use the term “argument” as a way of referring to the claim, or to the combination of the claim and the attempt to support it.
Pinning me to one particular definition of “argument” and then pointing out a contradiction is inappropriate, given that I was claiming, or arguing, that “argument” in fact has multiple definitions.
Adam K. “Has my upbringing so deprived me of arguments that I don’t even experience their lack, like someone who believes that Burger King is the pinnacle of cuisine?”
It is hard to be sure.
For starters, I did not say - as your comment implies - that humanities scholars outside philosophy departments are making ‘free floating claims’. (Zizek, yes. Humanities scholars generally, no.)
If I declare ‘“Hamlet" is about skepticism” that is not ‘free-floating’. (A bit abrupt, maybe.) But it may be a way of encapsulating a reasonable view of the play. this view may be the product of deep engagement with the text (not free-floating at all). It may be that you are able to agree or disagree with my claim. You may be able to give reasons for or against my claim. Nevertheless, as it stands, it is not an argument. It is a claim.
An argument is a justificatory structure. I don’t think it has anything per se to do with disagreement or dialectic, although it comes in especially handy in those cases. An argument gives you reasons to believe something.
Let the cross-posting continue. Adam K. “In practice, many people use the term “argument” as a way of referring to the claim, or to the combination of the claim and the attempt to support it.”
Adam K, would you ever seriously defend yourself against an accusation that ‘you’ve got no argument’ by arguing that, in a polysemous sense, every claim is its own argument? If you would, then I think that is very odd of you. if you wouldn’t, then why are you dragging all this in?
As to pinning you to a particular definition. You said that a certain sense of ‘argument’ was ‘the dominant one’ outside of analytic philosophy. You now admit that this sense is contradictory. Apparently you think that the dominant sense of ‘argument’ outside analytic philosophy is contradictory. But do you really think this, or don’t you?
By “free-floating,” I mean unsupported by “arguments,” in your restricted sense of the term. I assumed you were not saying that humanities scholars generally are trotting out claims without any support at all, so I wondered if there are methods other than “argument” (strictly so called) of supporting claims. Apparently not. But then, why this fetishization of “argument” as something that people apparently so often fail to do, despite the fact that they are claiming to do it?
By ‘fetishization’ do you just mean ‘focus’?
Okay, let’s approach this differently, because I really am confused by your apparently quite restricted sense of “argument.” It seems to me to be restricted even within the confines of “reasons for believing a claim”—that is, there are many ways in which people believe they are supporting a claim, but are not in fact offering arguments at all.
So taking the article linked above: I make several claims. For instance, Butler’s notions of performativity and interpellation are tied up with her critique of theology. Butler’s reading of Althusser is not too good. Anselm’s text is partly an example of what Butler is critiquing under the name “theology,” but also partly not. In each case, I mainly offer textual evidence to support my claims. Yet years of interacting with you leave me uncertain as to whether you would detect arguments in my article. It’s a bit of an imposition to ask you to read the thing, I realize—but this “argument” thing has come up so often that I need some closure!
Also, why do you regard ‘free-floating’ as the only alternative to ‘argument’?
I continue to think that a lot of the problem with varying meanings of “argument” come down to the hidden expectations that people have over whether a type of argument can be settled.
So, in theology, say, surely “argument” has to shade into “claim” because everyone tacitly realizes that there is nothing about an argument that could ever really settle anything. You could make a bald claim, or you could work out a life-long highly elaborated justificatory structure, but for both it’s impossible to ever really say whether they are wrong or right. So why bother to distinguish? Arguments then simply become long claims; claims then become short arguments.
And a lot of the animosity between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy—quotes used because I know that they aren’t really so distinct and well defined—is that analytics generally appear to me to be saying, we know that our argument will never be settled, but look at how well we do it. Each step on our road to nowhere is well-paved! While the continentals implicitly agree that if you’re never going to get anywhere, what does it matter what kind of steps you take?
Cross-posting again. And now I’m going to bed, so I’ll try to sign off on a friendly note. Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit. Suppose you’ve only ever seen it as a duck. Now I say: look, there’s a rabbit in there too. And now you see the rabbit. I have, if you like, ‘supported’ my claim that there is a rabbit. I have invited you to see it. You have seen it. But have I argued that there is a rabbit in there. I don’t think I have. Nor do I think that ‘there is a rabbit’ is just free-floating.
I don’t have time to read your article tonight. Maybe tomorrow.
Rich, There are debates within theology about what kind of arguments are best—perhaps one could name the poles as something like scholasticism vs. imaginative construction. The scholastic would say that theological claims should be measured by how well they cohere with the general claims of reason and the authorities within the tradition—negatively speaking, you can’t outright contradict either. The imaginative constructive people would say that theology is good to the extent that it inspires people in various ways (or whatever). Neo-Thomism vs. Unitarian Universalism, maybe.
So I don’t think the debate is qualitatively different from that in philosophy writ large. You could equate the scholastics with the absolute most hardcore analytic types and the imaginative constructors with the most decadent “theory” types.
But in both cases, I think that the people at the more “hardcore” pole really do think you can make progress through definitive arguments. It is reportedly not so much the case anymore in analytic philosophy, but from what I understand, there was an impulse toward breaking down the problems into solvable units, which would allow accumulative progress in philosophical reasoning. And certainly dogmatic Roman Catholics believe that there is the possibility of testing and verifying new theological claims.
’Argumentative’ is sometimes taken as a synonym for ‘bad tempered’ I suppose. As, for example in this thread?
I wonder if there’s a doubling in, and tendency to slip between the different senses of, ‘argument’: ‘I am arguing with you’ meaning both ‘look, I’m only supporting my claim with evidence, backing up what I said’ and ‘look, I’m only clashing my ram horns against your horns in order to see which of us two rams is stronger’.
WRT Roman Catholics, it comes down to my belief in what they really believe, which I recognize may be mistaken. I believe that there has been a historical shift in theology such that people used to believe in the possibility of having something important proved by theological argument, but that no educated person really does any longer. If they say that they do, what they’re really doing, I believe, is reinforcing their assertion of basic dogmatic belief in their faith—a sort of “I believe in my faith so much that I’ll even believe in theological extrapolations from it”.
WRT Unitarian Universalists, they are certainly argumentative, but I’ve never really known one to think of an *argument* as inspiring, despite the jokes about the two signs with “This way to Heaven” and “This way to an argument about Heaven.” That kind of creative theology is, I think, more like literary creation, not really like argument. A good novel may inspire you, but you don’t really view it as the argumentative basis for some belief.
You’re right that the majority of educated Catholics nowadays hold their faith rather loosely—the “dogmatic Roman Catholics” I referred to are actually very often adult converts (for instance, the founder of First Things). I’m a convert as well, and I went through a very annoying dogmatic phase—but now I joke that I’ve finally become a “real Catholic” because I never go to church.
The comparison with literary creation is apt. Don’t you think there’s a sense in which literary works can be not only “inspiring” but also persuasive in some way? Not exactly an argument—in either John’s sense or any other usual sense of the word—but trying to get you to do something. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the most obvious example, and I understand the Gospels to be making a kind of “narrative argument” as well, if such a thing is possible.
On the first day of my intro philosophy class I give a ‘what is an argument’ session. I riff on the Monty Python argument clinic. In the skit arguments are in room 12a and abuse is in room 12b, which is pretty funny. I explain that it says something that people think argument is next door to abuse.
Anyway. Sense 1: fight. You call the police to say ‘the neighbors are arguing again’ if they are throwing chairs at each other at 2 AM.
Sense 2: two or more people contradicting each other. That is, saying yes no yes no yes no as in the skit.
Sense 3: a set of at least two propositions, at least one of which is a premise, at least one of which is a conclusion. If it is a good argument, the premise provides a reason to accept the conclusion. “A series of connected statements intended to establish a proposition.” I think that’s how it is put in the skit.
Sense 4: a debate. That is, an issue concerning which people tend to take different sides. As in ‘there is an long-running argument about the dating of Platonic dialogues as early, late or midle.’
I really don’t think that Adam K’s sense of ‘argument’ as a mere synonym for claim or thesis statement is a particularly significant usage, even though he thinks it is the central sense outside of analytic philosophy. (Doing a quick google for definitions of argument, I don’t find ‘claim’ or ‘assertion’ as even one of the senses.)
There is the poetic sense: summary of what happens in a poem. An abstract. I guess that’s what Adam K. means.
But in my intro discussion I say 3 is the central sense, for purposes of philosophy work. It is quite obvious that Burt is talking about 3, hence obvious (pace Adam K) that my post is primary about 3. Of course 1-4 tend to get all mixed together. Still, they can be distinguished conceptually and often in practice.
If someone asks you what your argument is, in an academic setting, they are not asking you who you are in a fight with. Nor are they asking for an abstract of your paper. They are inquiring after a justificatory structure.
Adam K. “Don’t you think there’s a sense in which literary works can be not only “inspiring” but also persuasive in some way?”
But persuasion is not necessarily the same thing as argument.
I think, despite Adam K’s hints that I am ignoring the polysemy hereabouts, the shoe is on the other foot. He is confused by my post because he is looking for a blanket sense of ‘argument’ that covers anything and everything. He is inclined to make everything come up argument. I, by contrast, am inclined to distinguish between argument and persuasion, which is often non-argumentative. And argument and pointing something out. And argument and description. And argument and close reading. So forth. Argument and glaring at someone until they say ‘yes’. It is more important to see the differences.
"Don’t you think there’s a sense in which literary works can be not only “inspiring” but also persuasive in some way?”
Yes, but… that’s generally what “inspiring” means, right? You’re generally inspired towards doing or thinking something. I suppose that someone could go out on a particularly nice day, return home and say “I’m inspired by this nice day!” and have trouble describing what that meant, really. But it’s difficult for an artwork to take this numinous quality and not turn it towards some ends. Or, and I’m thinking of Umberto Eco’s bit in The Open Work on what distinguishes art from kitsch, perhaps one criterion for aesthetic greatness is that the art is inspiring, but the direction depends on the individual viewer.
I think that John’s description of his intro philosophy class is apt, because I once took an intro philosophy class, and really what I remember—what I suspect that most people preferentially remember—is that list of informal fallacies. They’re memorable because they are so concrete. Ad baculum, getting someone to agree by hitting them with a stick, and so on. Or, as John says, glaring at them until they agree. They are a very effective indoctrinational device for teaching people what counts as an argument and what doesn’t, because the things that you’re told not to do are so vivid.
They thus serve a disciplinary purpose, in the sense of an academic discipline, just as scientists teach students what counts as an argument in science. But it’s also political, in some sense; if someone in authority raises a weapon and tells you that this is their argument for why you should do what they’re telling you to do, you’ve already been taught that this person is a dangerous rogue or tyrant and not a justified enforcer of order. Not that everyone in society takes an intro philosophy course, obviously, but it reinforces this belief among a certain group of people. I, at least, see the connection between this kind of thing and the pieces on liberalism.
Wow, John is seriously mischaracterizing my position. If you’d come out and said an argument is “A series of connected statements intended to establish a proposition,” then obviously I couldn’t help but agree—but then in exactly what way do these poor unnamed humanities scholars fail to be giving an argument? I understand what “A series of connected statements intended to establish a proposition” is—but the confusion arises because you appear to be using “argument” to mean only a subset of things that can justly be called “A series of connected statements intended to establish a proposition.”
Adam K: “If you’d come out and said an argument is “A series of connected statements intended to establish a proposition,” then obviously I couldn’t help but agree”.
It would seem to follow that you cannot help but disagreeing with your own account of argument, further upthread: namely, “One’s “argument” would then be “the point one is trying to make”—indeed, outside of analytic philosophy, that may well be the dominant meaning of the term “argument.”’
Adam, you say I am mischaracterizing your position. But if indeed you know that an argument is a series of statements intended to establish a proposition then you - not I - are the guilty party in this regard. Why didn’t you just admit from the start that you already knew what one was?
Moving right along: why do you now say that I seem to be using the term to mean only a subset of the things that are traditionally designated ‘arguments’?
I have been saying the whole time—for years—that you seem to be using the term to mean only a subset of the things that are traditionally designated ‘arguments.’ It’s not a sudden shift in my position. What makes these poor unnamed humanities scholars guilty of non-argument, or of falsely claiming to have an argument? I’ve read many books in the humanities, and I’ve found that the ones that contended that they were a series of connected statements intended to establish a position did in fact prove to be so.
I get the feeling that you would say that Derrida doesn’t properly make an argument in Of Grammatology and that you would mean by this something other than that he failed to convince you. Similarly, Zizek is often taken to be guilty of not arguing for his position—I understand this accusation when it comes to his shorter pieces (where he’s just baldly asserting things), but he does seem to be making an argument in Ticklish Subject, for instance. So do Ticklish Subject and Of Grammatology have an argument? (I only use these examples because they’re so well-known.)
It seems that if things don’t fit together in a certain prescribed way—one that is more specific than general rules of reasoning—then a supposed “argument” turns out to be a series of unconnected assertions that you claim to have no way of working with (or alternatively, claim are not able to be worked with by other scholars).
The way you’re dealing with the polysemy of the word is craziness—it’s not my fault that English usage permits one to say, for example, “The argument of my paper is that Zizek’s critique of liberalism fails.” I am not guilty of contradiction because the dictionary has several different definitions under the heading of “argument.”
"it’s not my fault that English usage permits one to say, for example, “The argument of my paper is that Zizek’s critique of liberalism fails.””
Yes, but suppose someone then said: well, then, what is the argument? And suppose you said: I just told you. Wouldn’t that seem odd to you? That is, doesn’t this seem like a case where what you are really saying is ‘I have an argument, the conclusion of which is that Zizek’s critique of liberalism fails.’ That is, you are stating the conclusion of the argument, rather than actually giving it in full?
“It seems that if things don’t fit together in a certain prescribed way—one that is more specific than general rules of reasoning—then a supposed “argument” turns out to be a series of unconnected assertions that you claim to have no way of working with (or alternatively, claim are not able to be worked with by other scholars).”
I understand that it seems this way to you, but why does it? For example, is there something I have said that suggests that what you say is true?
Yes, this very post on which we are commenting suggests that what I say is true, which is why I chose to bring it up in precisely this thread.
Very well. What feature is it of this post that suggests to you that what you say is true? Namely, that I have an unduly narrow sense of what constitutes argument?
That you claim that there are many humanities scholars who act like they are making arguments, but really aren’t.
So you are taking as a premise that the thesis of the post is false?
You don’t think it could possibly be true that there are many humanities scholars who describe themselves as making arguments, when really it would be better to describe their writings as functioning in some other way?
It’s possible of course, but I don’t think it’s likely. I think it’s more likely that you have an overly fussy idea of what an “argument” is. (If most of the stars seemed to have disappeared, wouldn’t you first check the lens of your telescope?)
Well, in this case I don’t think the answer is that I have an overly fussy idea of what an argument is. We’ll just have to take it up in a follow-up post.
Stephen, I’m taking it that the vague but salient difference between argument and description is that description becomes “evidence for” or “evidence against” in an argument.
I’m thinking of how description actually has a cultural impact, as for instance in Ruskin’s descriptions of Gothic. Sometimes the reader wilts under the sheer bulk of them - but, often, they are quite powerful. This power, it seems to me, comes from Ruskin’s notion that his descriptive power was rooted in a certain frame of reference he was arguing for - one that, for instance, saw mechanical perfection as a sign of cultural rot. I would think that the New Criticism gained its power from a certain frame a reference too - a protest against the leveling tendencies of modernity. I would think description for its own sake dulls, unless this description eventually mounts up to evidence for or against, even if, using the principle of interpretative tolerance, one realizes that no piece of art is ever just evidence for one thing or another.
Speaking as a literary critic who is married to an analytic philosopher, I’m familiar with some versions of the apparently longstanding argument playing out here. (My husband once presented a conference paper with the title “Can Philosophers Communicate with Other Humanists?”...after 16 years, I think we’d both say, well, sometimes...) My own view tends to be that literary critics are rarely arguing for something as narrow as a proposition, which is why their procedures can look woolly to a philosopher. It’s a rather different thing to argue for an interpretation (and here I agree with the commenters who suggest that all critical description is intended to be persuasive). While I don’t altogether accept his rejection of ‘logical apparatus,’ I find Leslie Stephen’s remarks on the work of a critic perceptive:
He shows us certain facts as they appear to him. If we are so constituted as to be unable to see what he sees, he can go no further. He cannot proceed to argue and analyse, and apply an elaborate logical apparatus. There is the truth, and we must make what we can of it. But, on the other hand, so far as we are in sympathy with him, the proof--if it be a proof--has all the cogency of direct vision. He has couched our dull eyes, drawn back the veil which hid from us the certain aspect of the world, and henceforward our views of life and the world will be more or less changed, because the bare scaffolding of fact which we previously saw will now be seen in the light of keener perceptions than our own.
Kazuo Ishiguro has described the work of a novelist in similar terms; I don’t have the source with me, so I can’t quote the line exactly, but in an interview he says something along the lines of a novel as being an invitation to see the world in a particular way--"It’s like this, I think; what do you think?”
Yes Rohan. That was nicely stated. Adam K, are you at least willing to consider that it might be the case that sometimes this is often going on, rather than argument in the standard sense, in much humanities scholarship?
I would add: the procedure only looks woolly if in fact you assume that it is supposed to be an argument, but somehow it is going very badly. You can’t help but regard it as a bad apple, or else as an orange. Better then - more charitable - to call it an orange. This is why I say it is a good idea not to cultivate a rhetoric of rigorous argument if in fact you are doing more of the Stephens things. Hence my point in the post: let’s be against saying you are arguing when in fact you are not.
This is funny, because I thought Rohan was proving my point. Why not call the looser or more “wooly” things arguments as well? Why should the word argument be reserved only for the most rigourous kind of argument? What is gained by such a restriction? In my mind: nothing. A structure of proof that relies on pointing out certain features of a work of literature is still a structure of proof.
I still don’t mind saying that it’s an argument, myself, but I am accustomed to philosophers being intransigent about the correct way to use terms and expressions that they have worked hard to get defined precisely…
While I’m weighing in, I’ll add that I agree with Rich that the shift towards presenting one’s work as a rigorous-sounding ‘argument’ is indeed a kind of scientism, or (and this may not be quite what he meant) an attempt to mimic the appearance of science because of the professional shift towards English as a research discipline. This has meant a need to present one’s work as a form of progress, even though there cannot be a lasting solution or finding in a hermeneutic discipline (that is, we are progressing towards novelty, not towards resolution, towards generating or complicating rather than closing questions or lines of inquiry). The pressure to make one’s work new (and the impossibility, as Adam Roberts notes above, to get any kind of professional credit for reiterating common understandings, however eloquently and persuasively) drives us towards the well-known model of a hermeneutics of suspicion: the text can’t actually be about what it appears to be about, otherwise we can’t find anything new to say about it. Denis Donoghue describes this as the poet or novelist not being allowed to have his theme. We’re all used to this. (I run through some of the ways this works with Jane Eyre in a sort of riff in the second part of this post. My suspicion is that this tendency, as much as anything, is what alienates ‘ordinary’ readers from our scholarship. We don’t seem to be talking about the books they’ve read, and thus we seem to be invalidating their reading...but this is part of another thread I’m trying to formulate into a new post.
"What is gained by such a restriction? In my mind: nothing.”
Appreciation of difference, that’s what’s gained.
Why not appreciate the differences among styles of argumentation?
I would add that I think it’s misleading to call this a philosophy department sense of argument. It’s also the Monty Python sense. An argument is a series of statements intended to establish a proposition. Adam K. - after he gave up pretending to think ‘argument’ just means thesis - said that he ‘couldn’t help but agree to this’. But that’s the very sense of argument that I’m saying makes it the case that a lot of humanities work isn’t argumentative. The ordinary sense. As Rohan says: “literary critics are rarely arguing for something as narrow as a proposition.”
It’s true that philosophers are rather intransigent on this point. (Cf. my needling of Adam K.) But they (we, I) are being intransigent on behalf of a perfectly ordinary, common sense of ‘argument’. The Monty Python one. By contrast, the tendency to stretch ‘argument’ to cover everything - whatever its intellectual advantages or disadvantages - is a rather academically specialized broadening of the term.
Adam K now writes: “Why not appreciate the differences among styles of argumentation?”
I think the reason is that if you use the same term for quite different things, you may fail to appreciate the differences. For example, Adam, it did not readily occur to you that Rohan was really just saying something you yourself declared upthread to be so unlikely that the possibility can be dismissed. Namely, the thesis of my post might be true. That is, it might be that most humanists don’t really argue, in the Monty Python sense (analytic philosophy sense, ordinary English sense).
Double-posting is bad form, but then again so are tactical deployments of passive-aggression, so I’m in trouble in this thread in any cse.
As I was saying: obviously Rohan isn’t fully agreeing with me, so I shouldn’t exaggerate. What I should admit, by way of clearing the air, is that of course I allow - and use myself all the time - broader senses of ‘argument’. What I object to is the insistence on (as opposed to optionality of) the broader sense. It occurs to me (and it really hadn’t before) that this is really why I have been objecting so strongly to Adam K. Adam says my sense of argument is too narrow. He wants to rule it out, to the point where he is very reluctant to read ‘argument’, as in my title, in the intended sense. But I think it is perfectly ordinary, familiar sense. And, what’s more, it is rather vital for preserving an anthropological sense of the rough ground of disciplinary differences. Using ‘argument’ in my sense needs to be a standard option.
Rohan: “we are progressing towards novelty, not towards resolution”
That is well put.
For the rest, yes, I do mean in part the attempt to mimic the appearance of science. But it’s not quite that. Getting away from scientism per se, it’s academia as accumulation—or perhaps progressivism, the sense that we must make progress in every field. Not only do we have to be able to understand physics better than we now do twenty years from now, or understand plant biology, or be able to build better computers, or understand historical events through more thoroughly researched sources, we also by damn should have a better understanding of Jane Eyre. Which is sort of pointless, right? The people who probably best understood Jane Eyre, I would guess, were the most gifted critics in the period a few years after it was published, after it had had time to be deeply read, but before the social context had changed.
John, You seem to be misconstruing my objection. Of course what you call an argument falls under the category of “argument” and is a valid option, etc. My objection is that your narrow usage seems to exclude other things that can rightly be called arguments. Not that you don’t think those things should be done, but that you don’t think the word “argument” is appropriate. But in my mind, it is perfectly appropriate for the vast majority of the things that you are calling non-proper arguments! To say that I somehow denigrate the things you are calling arguments is exactly backwards.
Well, good luck with this, you two! Just remember: don’t let the sun go down on your anger… (Harder advice to take, no doubt, across time zones.)
Adam, we have come full circle. We started with you suggesting that I was using ‘argument’ in a very rarified analytic philosophy sense. Now you seem to admit that my sense is standard enough. But you strongly prefer some other, broader sense which, additionally, turns out to be more or less standard in the humanities outside of philosophy.
What do you think ‘argument’ means, then? At the start you said “In most cases that I can imagine John not finding “arguments” per se, it still does seem to be the case that the author is attempting to persuade the reader of some point.” Do you think ‘argument’ merely means ‘any attempt to persuade’?
When you say that ‘this paper by so-and-so really has no argument’ (which is a pretty standard form of academic criticism), what is it you take yourself to be saying? Just that the person wasn’t trying to persuade the reader of anything?
And don’t worry, Rohan. As to letting the sun go down on my anger, I try to be an orthodox Nietzschean about it. Blog only out of “a happiness that, like the sun in the evening, continually bestows its inexhaustible riches, pouring them into the sea, feeling richest, as the sun does, only when even the poorest fisherman is still rowing with golden oars!”
(My husband once presented a conference paper with the title “Can Philosophers Communicate with Other Humanists?”...after 16 years, I think we’d both say, well, sometimes...)
Bad glare on my screen - I read it the first time as “Can Philosophers Consummate with Other Humanists?”
“Can Philosophers Consummate with Other Humanists?”
For what it’s worth, I married a humanist and celebrated my younger daughter’s 4th B-day today.
Ah, but she could be one of those Midwich Cuckoo sort of things… :-) Happy birthday to her! Four is nice. My daughter will be seven soon (also nice), and my son eleven (egad).