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Friday, April 25, 2008

The End of Argument

Posted by John Holbo on 04/25/08 at 05:02 AM

ProofThis is a follow up to last week’s Against Argument post - in which I suggest that humanists, perhaps especially in literary studies, tend to deploy a somewhat misleading rhetoric of rigorous argumentation, when what they are doing would be better described in other terms. Rohan Maitzen provided a passage from Leslie Stephen that nicely expresses what I am getting at:

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.

Adam Kotsko objected that, even though this is what I am saying, and even though this is plausible, still what I am saying is highly implausible. The logic evades me, and the very most I can make of the complaint is the following: if this - i.e. the Stephen thing - is what humanists call ‘argument’, then they are not deluded about, or falsely advertising their ‘argumentative’ practices. They are using ‘argument’ in a broader sense. I guess this is a coherent supposition about how humanists use the word ‘argument’. Certainly it does happen. I have a new book from Princeton Architectural Press called Proof (amazon; Princeton). It contains the winning entries (and some honorable mentions) in an annual Young Architects Forum competition. Apparently there is always a theme, and this time it was proof. (Previous themes: instability; if-then.) You won’t be surprised to hear that the notions of proof you need, to stretch them to fit these contest entries, must be pretty elastic. The Stephen thing. And I quite liked three or four contest winners and hated three others. That’s what you look for in an architecture book, so fine.

But obviously this is not what I am talking about when I say that, often, humanists pretend to be arguing when really they are not. Let me just provide an example. (I would have thought this was pretty obvious, but Adam K insists that he would be very surprised if it really happens. So there is nothing for it but to offer proof.)

It’s from a paper by Geoffrey Harpham that I’ve discussed before, somewhere or other: “Doing The Impossible: Slavoj Zizek and the End of Knowledge” (Critical Inquiry, Spring 2003).

... Perhaps the most immediately apparent quality of Zizek’s discourse is its breathtaking rapidity. He seems to bound over the tops of peaks others have laboriously scaled one at a time, seizing complex arguments in a masterly and synthetic manner that diagnoses others’ hard-won conclusions as symptoms of a common failure to grasp the truth, a failure he immediately rectifies. His texts blast through the discursive version of the sound barrier, passing the point at which they might be considered simply accelerated versions of ordinary discourse and becoming something else altogether.

The standard format of argumentation is so deeply ingrained in academic culture that it generally goes unremarked. An argument begins with a hypothesis, a testable characterization of the data in a limited field. It proceeds by such means as adducing evidence, drawing inferences, proposing counterarguments, probing provisional conclusions in a spirit of skeptical inquiry, and eliminating contradictions, all of which lead towards a conclusion, a summative statement whose various elements have passed through the fires of rigorous and disinterested testing. This process functions as the form of fairness, an agreement to display the means by which a conclusion is achieved in order to prevent the mere reiteration of prejudice or the interference of desire. While this process cannot, of course, altogether eliminate flaws of observation, description, or reasoning, it does at least invite the scholarly conversation to continue because conclusions arrived at in this way can either be challenged on the grounds of procedural flaws or can serve as the starting point for further investigation. Zizek’s work, by contrast, seems to be formed almost entirely of endgames in which the sense of conclusion, with its payoffs and rewards, is always present. A sharply diminished experience of orderly progress is compensated for by the continual feeling of arrival and by the constant surprises afforded by an exceptionally rich and quirky use of examples, which I discuss in more detail below. The effect is that of a stream of nonconsecutive units arranged in arbitrary sequences that solicit a sporadic and discontinuous attention. Zizek does not seem to believe that books should be about something; he reproduces his central themes compulsively regardless of the ostensible subject. He seems to write for the browser; even the earnest reader who begins at page one has the constant impression of having opened to a page somewhere in the middle. This sense of an endless middle is achieved by reducing the conventional middle to almost zero. (455)

If we took Zizek as a guide to the real character of conventional academic methods and practices, we would be forced to revise—actually, to discard—all our assumptions about academic work and indeed about rational thought as such. For if Zizek’s practice were to be universalized, the result would be the destruction of the very idea of a field, a specialized professional discourse that arrives at a true account of a limited domain by progressive and rational means. It would mean the end of life as we know it. (467-8)

Briefly, I would say this is right about Zizek. Except I think it is a bad thing, whereas Harpham thinks it is rather glorious, although hazardous. (Your mileage may vary, and whether this is fair to Zizek is really the question for present purposes.) But the part about how the other half live is totally wrong. It is not the case that the humanities - especially not literary studies, Harpham’s home discipline - is a Popperian paradise, methodologically speaking. Even if you loosened up Harpham’s description, it still wouldn’t fit: literary studies people don’t really play it like that. Argument/counter-argument. Sharp chopping of distinctions and judicious biting at examples and counter-examples. No, literary studies is, as a rule, closer to the Stephen thing. I think Harpham would respond, if we tickled his ribs with this datum: you’re right. I was exaggerating for effect, trying to set off the singularity of Zizek’s wild style. But Harpham is not alone in this regard. I think Harpham is able to fall into this strange attitude because other people have fallen into it before him, and it’s become a bit of a rut: rhetorical overemphasis on some ‘deeply ingrained standard of rigorous argument’ that is, patently, largely absent.

It follows that Harpham is wrong to suggest that Zizek’s peak-to-peak procedure is so non-standard. Zizek is really just doing that old Stephen thing on Lacanian-Leninist stilts. And, by extension, it seems likely that part of Harpham’s resistance to admitting this is a sense that the end of knowledge as we know it must have (always already) arrived in the humanities. It is a series of scales falling from our eyes, not a set of judicious scales for balancing arguments. It’s all paradigm shift, no ‘normal science’.

Zizek responded to Harpham in the same issue of Critical Inquiry. He indignantly protested that he is in fact a rigorous rationalist: “In order for his line of argumentation to hold, Harpham has to present me as a caricatured postmodern denier of rationality—how, then, to account for the fact that, in the very books Harpham refers to (especially in chapter 5 of Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?), I defend the claims of science against the postmodern dismissal of science as just another historically conditioned narrative or symbolic fiction?”

I find this woefully inadequate as proof of Zizek’s rational bona fides. But, again, your mileage may vary. The next bit continues shaky but gets a bit better:

What Harpham describes and refers to as “the standard format, the ordinary canons of argument, and the society that sustains them” (p. 467), are not as neutral as it may appear. It seems to me that the philosopher who articulated most explicitly this “format” was Karl Popper, with his notion of science as a gradual infinite approach to truth, based on the procedure of forming a hypothesis and then attempting its empirical falsification, and the political obverse of this notion, his resentment against the totalitarian imposition of a universal obligatory truth and the advocacy of democratic debate and consensus. Self-evident as it may appear to be (who would dare to argue against it?), I nonetheless claim (and am far from being alone in claiming it) that this “standard format” is ideology at its purest, the “spontaneous ideology of scientists” in a liberal-democratic society. What I find problematic here is the implicit equation of scientific truth and democratic consensus.

Which modality of truth is operative in today’s cultural studies? One should begin with a naive question: who in cultural studies, or even in philosophy, effectively proceeds in the Popperian way Harpham labels the standard format? One can safely surmise that the answer is: no one. According to my simple observations, a great part of argumentation in cultural studies consists of a simple denunciation of the opponent for what he/she is, with no further arguments needed.

‘Ideology at its purest’ is just Zizek getting carried away with his usual, hyperbolic zeal. The quick hit against liberal democratic society misses its mark cleanly, as is traditional for Zizek. (So say I.) But he is right about the humanities. In cultural studies - and other sub-fields - it is standard procedure not to argue at all, in anything like the conventional sense. It’s not always ad hominem. Sometimes it’s the Stephen thing. And obviously the point isn’t that these texts are utterly barren of every last vestige of argument, in the standard sense. Rather, what arguments they contain are relatively incidental, perhaps semi-ornamental; at any rate, not really the point.

Zizek seems to regard it as obvious both that 1) lots of people in the humanities tend to say they are arguing in ways that they pretty obviously are not. 2) For the most part these people aren’t really arguing at all, in any ordinary sense of the word. I think if Zizek and I both think it is perfectly obvious that this happens all the time, Adam K. ought to be able to admit that it is at least possible. There is no need to shift into logomachy mode, trying to find some ingeniously broad sense of ‘argument’ one can insist on, that will thwart the formulation of this thought. After all, it might be true. (If we really must argue again about Zizek, here’s something to chew on. Bordwell’s ‘anti-theory’ critique of Zizek sounds good to me, with a few reservations. Bordwell points out that mostly Zizek makes claims, rather than arguments. And when he makes arguments, they are pretty clearly invalid. And that seems right.)

Now, getting back to Harpham. The Zizek essay ended up anthologized with others in Harpham’s book, The Character of Criticism [amazon]. He has chapters on criticism as reverie (Elaine Scarry); as therapy (Martha Nussbaum); as symptom (Zizek); and as obsession (Said on Conrad). There is also criticism as confession. The overall frame is Harpham’s rejection of ‘death of the author’-style rhetoric as a mild case of the madness of academic crowds (saying the author was dead was academic tulipmania - his example, not mine.) It is important to emphasize the character of the critic. Harpham says he doesn’t just mean the personality of the author. He tries to explain what it is for critical writing to have character. I find those bits a bit vague. But he tends to talk as though in each case - reverie, symptom, what have you - this character emerges against a backdrop of ... this bit gets vague as well: let’s say, argument. Harpham gives the impression that there is a common denominator of ... disciplinarity; which is broadly rational and evidentiary. And these ‘characters’ he talks about are admirable cases of slipping this sometimes surly straitjacket of impersonality when necessary.

I don’t exactly disagree, but this seems to get the emphasis all wrong. It is, in fact, extremely rare to find a critic of whom one could truly say: here is an argumentative critic. I don’t mean: this person is a raving Popperian. Or: this person likes to fight. Rather, the way in which he or she proceeds is largely by means of arguments, whereas for most critics its more the character thing - the Stephens thing. This is why I like Empson, to pick another example I’ve used before. He is, to a peculiar degree, an argumentative critic. It’s not something you meet every day. (Nor should you perhaps. But it’s nice, once in a while. For variation. In the humanities.)

And this is why I like Empson’s category of ‘argufying’ - here’s another bit I’ve quoted before. I’ll just do it again:

I must have had strong feelings about this topic for a considerable time, without recognising them. As a writer of verse myself, I grew up in the height of the vogue for the seventeenth-century poet Donne, and considered that I was imitating him more directly than the others were. We all said we admired him because he was so metaphysical, but I can see now that I really liked him because he argued, whereas the others felt that this side of him needed handling tactfully, because it did not fit the Symbolist theory. [that theory being that you should be able to picture what you are talking about; whereas there are generally no good pictures of, say, an if-then relation.]

‘Argufying’ is perhaps a tiresomely playful word, but it makes my thesis more moderate; I do not deny that thoroughly conscientious use of logic could become a distraction from poetry. Argufying is the kind of arguing we do in ordinary life, usually to get our way; I do not mean nagging by it, but just a not specially dignified sort of arguing.

He points out that argufying is fine, in metaphysical poetry - because argufying is like a punch in the nose; which is just the sort of thing you are looking for: there is definitely a sensory experience that corresponds. By extension, in criticism, mostly what people call arguing is argufying. That is, they aren’t really. They are just trying to get your attention. It’s an expression of character, if you like.


I haven’t read it yet myself, but Amanda Anderson’s The Way We Argue Now seems likely to be relevant to this discussion.

By Rohan Maitzen on 04/25/08 at 08:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I actually wrote a short review of that for Philosophers’ Magazine. It’s not online. Maybe I should rewrite it for Valve purposes.

By John Holbo on 04/25/08 at 08:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not going to touch the Zizek example.

Instead, I’ve simply reflected back to all the articles and books I read for my dissertation on contemporary American fiction.  And I can’t think of a single one of those works that didn’t have a fairly typical rhetorical-argumentative structure:

1.  Raise a debate in the field
2.  State your position and relate it to the positions in the debate
3.  Give evidence—textual, historical, etc.—that one’s position is the right position

George Dekker’s work on American historical fiction is a prime example.  Each chapter makes a fairly simple hypothesis: for example, that Cooper was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment’s view of the progress of civilzations.  Dekker then examines Cooper’s fiction, examining quotations and biographical evidence, connecting to citations from Scottish Enlightment philosophers. 

So John, I think if you look at the typical English scholar’s article, you’ll find that it at least attempts a form of argumentation.  But as Aristotle wrote long ago, the standards of argumentation change (pure logic to enthymemic reasoning) depending on the subject matter.

The problem with Stephen’s take on argument is that really, if the reader refuses to acknowledge that what I see is seeable, no argument can ever take place: in the sciences, in mathematics, in literature.  The situation might be heightened in the humanities, but I don’t think it’s categorically different. 

I might say that, as I did in my high school class today, that “-ing” verbs dominate Owens’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” In discussing what that might mean, our class decided that -ing verbs are on-going, possibly unending, and so Owens uses them to make one incident—a gas attack—into a ceaseless, Dantean hell-like experience. 

That’s hypothesis, evidence, and conclusion.  But someone could clearly come along and say, “There are only a few verbs in the poem, so why are they more important than the articles?”

By on 04/25/08 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember a Critical Inquirys special issue a few years back on the status of evidence, that might be relevant here.  What counts as evidence in making a particular argument?  What’s the difference beween making an argument by mostly just asserting things to be true, and making an argument by adducing evidence?

By on 04/25/08 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems strange that someone would make a distinction between argument and rigorous argumentation in a piece of writing that is everywhere filled with sloppy phrasings (the character thing, the Stephens thing) and indirections that obscure the claims and evidence being used, like the following:

I find this woefully inadequate as proof of Zizek’s rational bona fides. But, again, your mileage may vary. The next bit continues shaky but gets a bit better

Second, if argument involves “a testable characterization of the data in a limited field” I don’t see how anyone other than lab scientists will be able to test and prove their hypotheses --- it’s not like you can empirically prove an argument about Kant’s noumena or Wordsworth’s experience of the sublime. To allow for the different ways proof is constructed, methodologically, in different disciplines will have to involve different, discipline-specific characterizations of what constitutes an argument. Lumping the sciences, philosophy, continental philosophy, literary studies, and cultural studies all together under one notion of argument --- and implying that most versions are inferior ("misleading") to one specific type is disingenuous.

By Sisyphus on 04/25/08 at 12:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sisyphus writes: “in a piece of writing that is everywhere filled with sloppy phrasings (the character thing, the Stephens thing) and indirections that obscure the claims and evidence being used, like the following:”

I think this is just mild rhetorical tone-deafness on your part, sisyphus. The point of using phrases like ‘the character thing’ is to signal that here is a large and vague area that, for post purposes, I am not attempting to nail down. Obviously this means that any claims about ‘the Stephen thing’ partake of the vagueness of the phrase. The point of using a phrase like that is to signal this limitation. Does that help?

Second, I wouldn’t think that argument would require ‘testability’. Example: it is obviously possible to argue about Kant’s noumena (as you say). It seems to follow that argument clearly does not need to be empirically testable. (I never said it did, so this lab science-centric claim is certainly not mine.)

“To allow for the different ways proof is constructed, methodologically, in different disciplines will have to involve different, discipline-specific characterizations of what constitutes an argument.”

Yes. But I never denied that. To suggest that there are some people who say they are arguing, who are better regarded as not arguing, is not to say that there is only one kind of argument. Why would it be?

“implying that most versions are inferior ("misleading") to one specific type is disingenuous.”

I do think that, probably, some kinds of arguments are inferior to others. But I doubt anyone actually denies that, in the abstract, and I implied nothing of the sort in the post in any case. Although if you now want to ask me: are some kinds of arguments worse than others? The answer is: probably yes. It sort of depends what you mean by ‘inferior’. Again, this isn’t really touched on in the post, so I don’t really feel committed on the subject.

Let me start with a simpler question: do you agree that it is misleading of Harpham to suggest that, ordinarily, literary studies is a strongly Popperian environment? if so, then what is wrong with me using ‘misleading’ in a case like this. If not, why not?

Moving upthread, Luther writes: “The problem with Stephen’s take on argument is that really, if the reader refuses to acknowledge that what I see is seeable, no argument can ever take place: in the sciences, in mathematics, in literature.  The situation might be heightened in the humanities, but I don’t think it’s categorically different.”

In part I would disagree: argument is not a ‘reception’ category. In order to construct an argument you don’t need to have an audience at all, let alone a receptive one. (By contrast, persuasion is a category that implies an audience.) This distinction might not hold forever, but it is significant that you can introduce logic and informal argument without saying anything about your audience. By contrast, you can’t teach rhetoric without thinking about how an audience thinks.

That said, this is delicate. It relates to something Wittgenstein asks: can a picture be a proof? He critiques Frege’s insistence that it cannot be.

One reason not to say that a statement like ‘look, it can also be seen as a rabbit’ is an argument is that it is just a statement. You are asking that someone see something. That doesn’t sound like any standard account of what an argument does. Then again ... maybe every picture is an enthymeme (if not exactly worth a thousand words of premises.)

But I would still emphasize that this way of taking everything to be an argument is not OBVIOUSLY right. It needs to be, at the very least, defended.

By John Holbo on 04/25/08 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sisyphus: I assume Holbo can defend himself, but it seems fairly clear that the Zizek stuff is just a foil for his actual discussion of argument. Putting in abeyance his agreement or disagreements with Zizek is perfectly acceptable in this context.

John H. It seems to me that what you are getting at is a stylistic difference between certain parts of the humanities versus others (e.g. philosophy and/or science). This strikes me as interesting, but using it to define who is and who isn’t arguing seems problematic. After all pretty much everyone in the academia disagrees and they go about this disagreeing in manners appropriate to their discipline. Whether or not they proceed by formal argumentation or not seems fairly uninteresting.

I also can’t help but think that your use of Zizek is somewhat telling. Clearly you and Harpham do not view Zizek as (typically) making arguments. On the other hand, Zizek has some sort of position, even if that position is only to undermine rational discourse (like you seem to think it is). Why not term that an argument? What do we lose by expanding our definition of argument? Maybe it might be better to talk about different types of argumentation, rather than what does and does not count as argumentation.

By on 04/25/08 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been thinking about this argument thing ever since John made his original post. But I’ve been thinking about some specific purposes to be achieved through “argumentation.” One purpose is aesthetic evaluation. How does one argue that, for example, The Sopranos is in the same aesthetic league as canonical 19th century European novels? I have no trouble seeing how one would craft a Stephen-type “bring them to see” discourse toward that end. Nor, for that matter, do I see any difficulty in crafting such a discourse toward the opposite end, demonstrating that The Sopranos is not in that league.

But how would one construct an actual argument? Well, looking through the archives, I came across an old post by Jonathan Goodwin that addresses this specific case. Jonathan opens with a quote from Steven Berlin Johnson asserting that The Sopranos and similar shows “will stack up very nicely against Madame Bovary a hundred years from now, if not sooner.” Jonathan ends by wondering whether or not it is possible to create “a content-neutral way of quantifying the complexity of a cultural object, would that be a reliable measure of its current and future cultural capital.” Most of the rather long discussion has to do with whether or not a cohorent definition of complexity is possible or whether or not it’s complexity that we’re after.

I don’t want to wade in those particular waters. Assume, for a moment, that complexity is it and that an appropriate measure can be made. That would allow us to create an argument - and I believe it to be a real argument - that goes like this:

1. Canonical 19th C. European novels range in complexity between 79.07 and 93.55.
2. The Sopranos has a complexity of 77.23.
3. Therefore, The Sopranos fails to make the grade.

Now, I do not think that we know how to create such a complexity measure, nor is it obvious to me that complexity is what we want. I don’t know what it is that we want. I don’t think anyone does. Obviously, simply calling it “aesthetic excellence” is of no help.

And yet we’ve got this body of canonical 19th C. European novels. How’d that body get established? Has it just been a collective Stephen-type “bringing to see” without any real argumentation?

I have similar suspicions about interpretations. The reasoning that goes into an interpretation is crafted to bring the reader to see the text in a certain way. That reasoning may include description, and it may include a good deal of argufying. But no real argumentation in John’s strong sense of the word. Is this a difficulty that can be rectified with suitable methods or is it inherent in the project of interpreting a text?

By Bill Benzon on 04/25/08 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeesh, sorry for the pile on. I hadn’t read Holbo’s response when I posted.

By on 04/25/08 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

When I claim that most people in the humanities are in fact arguing, I am picturing the same type of thing that Luther describes in his comment.  Whatever your quarrels with “theory”—and there are certainly “theory” types who regard themselves as oracles of some kind, though we might dispute which ones fall in that category—“theory” is not coextensive even with literary studies, much less the humanities as a whole. 

Whatever dispute you have with Harpham’s description of the “standard format,” it does nonetheless remain the case that the “standard format” is still standard!  For monographs, for journal articles.  You will often find more bizarre things in Critical Inquiry or PMLA, but—as many people, including Chun the Unavoidable, have continually told you—those journals are not representative of the field.  Workaday scholarly stuff is still the norm.  Zizek is not.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/25/08 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John writes: “it is significant that you can introduce logic and informal argument without saying anything about your audience.”

See, I think that’s just wrong.  First of all, an argument doesn’t say something “about” an audience, it says something *to* an audience.  Arguments can be about fact, value, or policy: what is or is not; what is good or not; what should be done or not. 

Pure symbolic logic is still an argument.  It is an argument of fact.  It is saying what is or is not the case, and the conditions under which it may or may not be the case.  And it’s an argument that is trying to change some audience’s ideas about the world—even if the audience is the self-reflection of the logician who is working through a problem. 

All arguments imply an audience, for any use of language is ultimately a social use.  Formal logic at the least implies an audience that accepts the symbols and processes of formal logic. 

If an argument falls in the forest, it makes a sound.  If John is right, then the entire field of rhetoric, from Aristotle to *Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student*, is wrong. 

The problem seems to gather around the idea of evidence.  But what about a simple syllogism: All governments are created by the people.  My government is a government.  Therefore, my government is created by the people. 

Now, remember that the syllogism requires no evidence.  It’s an argument, plain and simple, whether or not I give examples of my first claim (that governments are created by the people).  The Declaration of Independence is an argument even if it provides little evidence for its most essential claims.  Its only examples, or evidence, is the list of regal sins against America. 

Which is to say: an argument remains an argument even when it begins with assumptions.  Literary studies makes certain assumptions about evidence: a few quotations are usually sufficient to prove a point.  Then again, historians make the same assumptions. 

This makes me wonder if what John wants to say is that inductive arguments or arguments from certain shared professional assumptions are not real arguments.

By on 04/25/08 at 04:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I want to try again: My basic question is, what is it about arguments that benefit from the types of distinctions being made by John? Will they change the way that I approach a text? Will I now read Zizek (which I have never done) and approach him differently now that I know that he isn’t really making arguments? If not, then maybe these aren’t distinctions worth making.

By on 04/25/08 at 04:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Going along with what Kotsko just said, I sometimes have this very nervous (and ok slightly giddy, maybe a little more than slightly) feeling that what John’s arguing against has actually up and died in the years (and years) that he’s been writing the book. The theoretical moment in literary studies has passed. Zizek is still alive, but he is just Zizek. (Didja read Eagleton in today’s TLS?) I think a lot of work in lit studies may still be missing the mark as far as argument goes, but it comes out of sheepish underselling rather than hyper-eclectic zaniness.

But yeah, Kotsko’s right.

By CR on 04/25/08 at 07:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s an excellent argument by Raymond Tallis persuading literature scholars to use scientistic methodologies sparingly:

“The neuroscience delusion:
Neuroaesthetics is wrong about our experience of
literature – and it is wrong about humanity”
By Raymond Tallis


By on 04/25/08 at 11:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Part of the problem, I think, is that we have all been exaggerating for effect, out of bad temper. For example, Adam K writes: “You will often find more bizarre things in Critical Inquiry or PMLA, but—as many people, including Chun the Unavoidable, have continually told you—those journals are not representative of the field.  Workaday scholarly stuff is still the norm.  Zizek is not.”

Now, first, this is a stepback from his argument, in the previous thread, that it is rather absurd to suppose this sort of thing happens. (If it happens regularly in important journals, that is something.) Second, what Adam K. says is consistent with my stated thesis in this post. Namely: “often, humanists pretend to be arguing when really they are not.” So if Adam K and CR turn out to be right, I’ll take that as confirmation

That said, it’s my own fault that people are offering up confirmations of my thesis as counter-examples, because I did sort of slop over the line between ‘often’ and ‘normal’. There is a sense in which the sort of thing published in PMLA and CI is ‘normal’, surely. How not? But now I am on the hook for all this everyday stuff I’m supposed to be ignoring. The truth is: I know about that stuff. And it’s often much more low key, not bouncing off the walls like Zizek. And often it is quite ‘argumentative’ in the most standard sorts of ways. This is especially true of historicist work. But there is also a lot of ordinary stuff that partakes of the phenomenon I am noting: namely, not really making an argument. I agree with CR that I’m arguing against something that is receding. I’m not sure whether that means I’m hauling anti-theory coals to a literary studies turned Newscastle, but I do need to make sure to acknowledge the truth of its recession. Fair enough.

Think about what started this whole argument: I was responding to Stephen Burt who complained about ‘argument’. I pointed out that really he was complaining about the rhetoric of argument, inappropriately deployed. That is - and Burt showed up in comments to agree with me about this - I was making a point about the cases that Adam K and CR agree are real. So, while it is fair to demand that I get a bit clearer about ‘normal’, it seems to me rather excessive to leap all over the posts as though they said something terribly controversial. (There is a way of taking what I am saying such that it makes perfect sense, and a way of taking what I am saying such that it is quite mad. I suggest taking it in the former way. It was the intended way.)

Luther makes some fair points, more or less by obliging me to plunge into the deepest epistemological waters. Which I would strictly prefer not, for the moment. But perhaps there is no avoiding it. In a narrow sense, it seems to me true that you can ask whether an argument is good or bad, valid or invalid, a solid justification of its conclusion or a shaky one, without asking who the audience is. This is because, although arguments are used to convince people and change minds, the are not DEFINED as things that must do that. They are defined as justificatory structures.

There is a reason why it is possible to program a computer to check formal arguments for validity, without programming the computer with a model of the intended audience for the audiences. By contrast, you could never program a computer to check whether an argument is ‘convincing’ or ‘would change someone’s mind’ without programming in some model of the mind to be convinced or changed.

This also works for inductive arguments. You can say that such-and-such is a strong or weak argument without knowing, or making a judgment, whether anyone’s mind is likely to be changed by it.

In a deeper sense, there is of course a problem being so sure that logic can be specified independently of the workings of the human mind. This is Luther’s ‘tree falling in the forest’ point. Every argument will bear the tinctures and traces of the sort of mind that constructed it, and/or the sort of mind it is, in fact, to be addressed to. That’s fine. I think I can grant that, while still insisting on my rough, practical distinction.

By John Holbo on 04/26/08 at 12:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

musicalcolin: “My basic question is, what is it about arguments that benefit from the types of distinctions being made by John?”

The benefit, I think, is seeing cases in which people are doing something different than they say they are doing. I think there is a tendency to slide between ‘argument’ as a term for what we ordinary think of as argument, and ‘argument’ as a term for the Stephen thing. This is potentially confusing.

Apart from these sorts of specific problems, I don’t think there is any terribly important reason to insist on one or another sense of ‘argument’. Use it broadly, use it narrowly, but make sure that your usage does not obscure the character of your actual practice.

One further point about Luthers point: in scholarly practice, we insist that arguments be relevant, interesting, novel, so forth. No one is allowed to publish silly little syllogisms even if they are perfectly sound. So it is right that, in a practical sense, it is not possible to identify a ‘good’ argument without consideration of the audience. This is a fair point, and it does eat into some of my formulations, although I think I could reconstruct what I am getting at to get around that.

By John Holbo on 04/26/08 at 12:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Critical Inquiry issue Jonathan Mayhew’s thinking of is probably Autumn 1991, although there are some interesting looking essays in Autumn 2007, too. Thanks for the tip. (Both behind the paywall, of course.)

I second Luther’s recommendation of Tallis’s TLS piece. I don’t recall seeing such a sensible, cogent description of the issue appear in print journalism before. Let’s hope it has some effect.

By Ray Davis on 04/26/08 at 12:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Leaving aside its truth-value, the claim that you were exaggerating and therefore CR and I are actually providing you with supporting evidence under cover of disputing you—that’s pretty annoying.  Especially without further explanation.

By Adam Kotsko on 04/26/08 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, the Tallis is rather good.

Adam K, I don’t understand. It seems true that the things you are offering as counter-examples to my thesis are consistent with my thesis. I say that one often finds problems of a certain sort. Your response is that “You will often find [such things] in Critical Inquiry or PMLA ... “ but, allegedly, not elsewhere. Well, since pretty clearly I was talking about the CI and PMLA-type case, isn’t ‘often’ frequent enough to warrant a claim of often-ness?

As to exaggerating: I’m just noting that several participants, including myself - also including you - are inclined to dig our heels in a bit.  This tends to result in a will to see that the other person is wrong. It also manifests as a tendency to respond to someone leaning too far one way by leaning too far the other way. This is perhaps not an entirely helpful attitude. You are free to be annoyed at me about this. But fairness would seem to dictate spreading that emotion over a wider set of debate participants.

By John Holbo on 04/26/08 at 12:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One form of humanities prose that does seem to work differently than an argument is “the reading.” This is where the scholar decides that the field could benefit from a more inclusive sort of analysis of a situation, one that follows several threads and possibilities without subduing the material to one controlling idea.

Some literary analysis is like this.  The critic essentially says, “I’m interested in the presence of flower imagery in Shakespeare.  What happens if we follow the flower images and see where they take us?”

This isn’t to say that such analysis doesn’t make points.  In fact, “the reading” is often filled with all sorts of microarguments.  It’s induction interminable. 

However, in philosophy, this mode of writing starts to drive me crazy.  Say what you will about Hegel, but the man presents a philosophical system, a set of propositions about the way things are.  Compare that to the shift in contemporary philosophy to “readings” of past philosophers.  The essay no longer cares to assert how things are, but rather treats past philosophy like a poem.  Too often what I sense here is that contemporary philosophers feel more comfortable reading a past philosopher in such a way that the contemporary philosopher’s ideas are vocalized through “a reading” of the past philosopher.  Rather than just lay out an argument from first principles, the contemporary philosopher says, “If we read Smith or Locke or Descartes or Marx closely enough, we’ll see that he really always was saying X, Y, and Z.”

By on 04/26/08 at 12:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The philosophical “reading” might be a reverse of the phenomenon John is describing: claiming to be doing description, when really you’re trying to make an argument!

By Adam Kotsko on 04/26/08 at 01:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther has an interesting point there ---- I’ve just found a bunch of “readings” of past philosophers (where I kinda wondered if this was all these new philosophers ever actually write ---- not pointless exactly, but...). They _do_ seem to be helpful to turn to when you have no clue what is going on in a passage of Marx or whatnot…

However, I was never allowed to stop at “a reading” (an explication? an exegesis?) of where flower imagery in Shakespeare might be going in my own literature papers ---- I always got marked down and told this was still at the preliminary draft stage, and that I had to give the paper another go-through to structure it as an argument with a thesis.

It makes me think that perhaps literary scholarship has gotten _more_, not less, argument-centric over the years, as I was just making up a biblio that had a lot of books from the 40s and such titled _Critical Readings of Author X_ and _An Interpretation of Themes of Author Y_, or even _On Q Time period_. These meandering kinds of ruminations on an author seem very dated to me, and much closer to “the Stephens thing” (who was writing back in the 19th century) than anything I’m seeing currently published in the journals I follow.

By Sisyphus on 04/26/08 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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.

How, precisely, do you distinguish an “argument” from this, John?  Was there something Achilles could have told the Tortoise that would have gotten him to come around, and if so, was that because Achilles was making an argument as opposed to something else?

I’m TAing an intro logic course this quarter, and I dare say that with many of the problems I do see the conclusion from the premises with the cogency of direct vision, and that it’s certainly possible that I should, if faced with a student who really doesn’t get how the proof works, be unable to get him or her to see it, even if I impart all the logical knowledge I know how to impart. (Here I want to say: “here too our pupil’s capacity to learn may come to an end”.)

If the Stephens quotation is doing any work, it’s in the phrases “facts as they appear to him” and “so far as we are in sympathy with him”, but that’s, you know, rhetoric.

I also think that you misinterpreted the initial CUP post quite badly, and continue to do so, but wev.

By ben wolfson on 04/27/08 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Ben, how did I misinterpret the CUP post?

As to the argument part: I don’t so much mind concluding that it is hard to distinguish an argument from ... let’s call it a speculative insight. I just don’t want to efface the distinction at the start, as a matter of definition. Like many a distinction, it may collapse under pressure.

At this point I should quote F.R. Leavis on why he is an anti-philosopher, hence rightfully refuses the demands philosophers make for justification. But, alas, the book is at school

By John Holbo on 04/28/08 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But John, can’t a speculative insight be presented as what’s known as a hypothetical argument?

I read some works of literary theory—the bigger, more synthesizing, large-scale works—as just that.  They argue in short, “Here’s a premise.  It’s impossible to prove the premise in total, but here’s some evidence.  But if it’s true, here are the logical consequences of it.  And we can see that the following works of literature show signs that these logical consequences actually exist.”

A fine example of this sort of argument is Baucom’s *Spectres of the Atlantic*.  Another fine example is Gilroy’s *The Black Atlantic*.  Neither is flawless, and both should be read with much debate.  But that’s the point: they aren’t works that a Popper would call “unfalsifiable.” Neither Gilroy nor Baucom would ignore or have ignored the many critiques that could be made about their arguments.

But they are arguments, even if they argue by assuming debatable, speculative premises.

Not to step in it, but I do think that Zizek and other Lacanians hit the unfalsifiable point.  On the one hand, they are characteristically quasi-mystical when it comes to giving precise definitions to key terms, such as the Real or the Sinthome or Lacan’s work on knots.  On the other, too many Lacanians reserve the right to analyze their critics in terms of resistance symptoms and the like, making it impossible to pose a critique.  (In grad school, I asked the Lacan professor how Lacan’s/Hegel’s definition of desire—desire as the desire of the other—jibes with current research on the brain.  The professor replied: “I want to reserve the right to question the scientist’s desire to know such a thing scientifically.")

I don’t think all Lacanians fall into this trap.  Kaja Silverman seems to draw cogently from Lacan’s work. 

But I think there’s a vast difference between a speculative argument and a gnomic assertion of one’s speculations.  Good counter-historical novels are often speculative arguments (what if the South won the Civil War?).  Maurice Blanchot and Edmond Jabes, in contrast, often strike me as a pure gnomic speculators.

By on 04/28/08 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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