Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Brief Notes on Rhetoric and Argument

If you read enough Classical literature you may, as I have, become a bit of stickler when it comes to argument and rhetoric. Read any Classical literature, let alone Demosthenes and Aristotle, and you are bound to notice how prominently public speaking and "making your case" figures. Making your case and making it well was an integral part of the Greek world, from Homer through the Athenian democracy, and the Roman world from republic through empire. From the great argument between Agamemnon and Achilles which opens the Iliad, through the orations and debates put down by Thucydides from the Peloponnesian War and Demosthenes' denunciations of Philip of Macedon, to Cicero's great corpus of speeches, rhetoric was an integral part of the Classical world.

For once, and perhaps only once, I will spare you readers some details. Today we will not go on a journey through time and trace the 3,000 history of rhetoric. We won't talk about Tisias and Corax and the birth of rhetoric, rhetoric vs dialectic, sophistry, Demosthenic use of articular infinitives, Ciceronian prose cadences, or the Aristotelian enthymeme. Maybe we will discuss these things one day, sooner if by popular demand (ahem!) but not today. In fact it is no enlightenment or inspiration which brought  me to discuss rhetoric at precisely this time.

As I said, knowledge or familiarity with the aforementioned makes one rather conscious of actually proving ones points when one attempts to make them. (It also tends to embolden the perpetually quarrelsome.) Such also tends to make one cognizant of deficiencies of argumentation where one finds them, which is in quite many places. One typically finds such errors in political articles, but sloppy arguments really do pop up everywhere. Many have been popping up of late and I thought it would be instructive and a little fun to re-post it here and go through it in my customary way. Unfortunately I cannot reprint any here in sufficient length to make my method useful and I don't think the author or publication would consent to re-print it here for such a purpose.

Instead, then, I thought I would share some of what I do with and to my own writing and essays I am analyzing. The following is not comprehensive, rather it is just a quick run through of my default steps in analyzing an essay. Some of these procedures are obviously not needed for needed for every essay.

If it is not my own writing I copy and paste it into a word processor witch which I can highlight text. I think most any will do this.

1) Re-read the article, not skipping anything.

2) Attempt to find the point of the essay. This is sometimes impossible but this is just a preliminary look. If you cannot find it, attempt to synthesize it and formulate it into as succinct a statement as possible. (Because x, therefore y.) In a complex essay, find the point of each paragraph.

3) Strike through (example) everything not related to the author's point or those which are clearly irrelevant.

4) Consider definitions, i. e. what words actually mean. If an author's definition of a word is unclear his entire enterprise is on shaky ground. Highlight key words in red and ask yourself how the definitions of these words affect the argument.

5) Highlight in one color all of the assertions, i.e. "X is blue." Aside from the extremely obvious, (The sky is blue) remember that the author has to prove everything in this color. If you find very many assertions the essay was probably written for someone who already agrees with the author on a number of fundamental points.

Yet it is not possible in every essay to lay out one's first principles and build them up from there. Nonetheless every article has such principles and the author ought to admit them. As such, then, it is often what is unwritten which dictates the direction and/or conclusion of the article. Because of this it is desirable one should know the first principles of the author as well as possible.

One also ought to consider the nature of the argument. For example, take the two main types of arguments:
  1. Didactic arguments reason from the principles appropriate to each subject matter.
  2. Dialectic arguments reason from premises generally accepted to the contradictory of a given thesis.

Now such should pare down the essay to the actual argument, but not all arguments are created equal. I find the following short list on spurious arguments and quasi-arguments from Book II of Aristotle's Rhetoric quite handy. I have skipped a few since they are included above.

  1. assert of the whole what is true of the parts, and vice versa
  2. painting a colorful picture of the situation without proving facts
  3. using single instances as proof
  4. representing the accidental/incidental as essential.
  5. representing as causes things which are not causes but simply happened along with or before the event in question
  6. leaving out mention of time and relevant circumstances.
  7. confusing absolutes with particulars (e.g. since improbable things do happen, it is probable improbable things will happen, thus what is improbable is probable.)

Of course not all arguments are born bad, some go bad and some are not appropriate for the given  situation. For example:
  1. Deference to authority or precedent relies on the truthfulness of the authority or precedent.
  2. Arguments based on probability, like proof a fortiori (if a quantity does not exist where it is more likely to exist it does not exist where it is less likely), rely a great deal on the relative risks of the situation.
  3. It is important to define your terms, yet one can dishonestly (or conspicuously) do so, for example excluding all of the negative aspects of a word from your particular use of it and ascribing them to an opposing idea. As Aristotle said, "a definition is a thesis." [Post. An. I.ii. 72a], i.e. the laying down of something, not an affirmation of its existence.
  4. Sometimes actions may have both good and bad consequences.
  5. If two results are the same, their antecedents are the same. (Maybe, but not necessarily.)
One must also consider supporting data and its representations such as charts, graphs, et cetera. Polls and other statistics are notoriously malleable, but also consider presentation: is the presentation of the data unnecessarily complex or conspicuously simple? Is the data up to date? Does it have the necessary context? What were the methodologies for collecting it? What conclusions, mainly yours but also contrary ones, can reasonably be drawn from it? Indeed it is difficult and often impossible to verify such data, but if you don't. . . Of course there is a degree of trust between author and reader, and we assume when we see quotations, for example, they were not taken out of context.

Lastly, one ought to consider the counter-arguments the author addresses. Does he address any? Does he only address ones which are obviously foolish or fallacious? Does he attack the person who made the argument instead of the argument itself? Ideally the author should address all of the best arguments to be made against his case. In making ones case one invariably comes up against potential contrary positions, but if the author hasn't seriously and rigorously attempted to make his case, then he probably won't foresee any objections to it either.

Happy arguing!


    1. Or one could just read Argumentics regularly, either way... :)
      Just kidding. Great post!

    2. Many thanks! I'm much enjoying your blog also, fine work and analysis; I'll be reading!