A Few Tools for Analyzing Rhetoric

Featured image is Still Life With a Skull and Medical Book

This post is intended to be a companion piece to this one

This is going to be a nuts and bolts piece, fleshing out a few technical concepts with examples from a sample of texts. It is meant to be a companion to a shorter, more readable piece. I would suggest starting there, and then returning here if you feel the urge to dig deeper.

Contrary to Sam’s point that rhetoric is an extra skill that scientists would have to learn, I want to demonstrate here that scientists live and breathe rhetoric. A scientific paper is a work of rhetoric; the authors seek to persuade their peers in a number of ways beyond simply accepting their conclusion. This is what Deirdre McCloskey has been saying about economics for decades.

My corpus for this exercise will be the following:

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Restoring Humanity to the Human Sciences

Featured image is A Hopeless Dawn, by Frank Bramley.

With rare exceptions, 20th century social scientists from B. F. Skinner through Paul Samuelson adopted methodologies which eliminated meaning and the mind from the study of human beings. The former believed that nothing existed beyond our external behavior, whereas the latter treated the mind like something that could be boiled down to an optimization formula.

A number of heterodox schools of social science have reacted to this. The Austrian school of economics, for example, has always been critical of the heavily mathematical models of mainstream economics, as well as the information lost in macroeconomic aggregation.

However, the Austrian school is not innocent here, either. In its crudest incarnations, it simply collapses into a formalism. This is not much better than mathematical optimization.

Its best incarnation, which I think is embodied in the subset of GMU economics under the stewardship of Pete Boettke, is much more sophisticated and open to other schools of thought. His students draw heavily on public choice, institutional economics, and philosophy.

Nevertheless, it is missing something essential. Thirty years ago, Don Lavoie attempted to fill in that gap by marrying GMU-style Austrian economics with hermeneutics. This would have brought human meaning into the social sciences in an unprecedented way. Sadly, he was rebuffed, and then he died tragically young.

As a result, even the most sophisticated treatments of meaning and mental content by members of this school are empty in important and systematic ways. Vlad Tarko’s paper “The Role of Ideas in Political Economy” is an example of this approach at its highest caliber. To understand its strengths and weaknesses, and how it could be humanized, I will evaluate this paper below.

Before we begin, I want to emphasize that I have picked this paper because it is very good. It offers a sophisticated framework that is of great value. In criticizing its treatment of meaning and mind, I do not want that fact to be lost.

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Roles of Authority

Why are people in authority allowed to do things that the average person is not? What exactly is authority, apart from the use of organized force to pursue some agenda?

We have trouble forming a clear picture of concepts like these because we are trapped by inwardness. The modern turn toward the inner life as the center of human experience has been, as Charles Taylor puts it, a real epistemic gain. But it exacted a price, often in the form of impoverished theory.

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The Subject in Play is Not the Subject at Play

Featured image is Children’s Games, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The subject-object schema is not destiny. It is handed down to us from the time of Descartes and Bacon, quite late in the history of philosophy. After Kant, subjectivity became a prison from which we are never free to directly perceive or interact with objects as things-in-themselves.

In the 20th century, Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ludwig Wittgenstein—starting from very different interests, training, and standpoints—looked to play and games as a way of moving beyond the Kantian trap.

How can something as seemingly trivial as play provide an answer to a serious philosophical problem? When we say “do you think this is a game?” are we not implying that the matter at hand is more important than such a thing?

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Torturing the Data, Attending to the Text

by Timo Elliott
by Timo Elliott

The risk of talking about context is the temptation to treat it as some undifferentiated thing. Just add three more cups of context, stir, and voila—a valid interpretation of the facts. I tried to show by example that this was not so, but the distinctions among context are worthy of independent investigation.

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Context

Some context for understanding context
Some context for understanding context

Featured Image is Still Life with Bible, by Vincent van Gogh.

Consider a simple hermeneutic (that is, theory of interpretation):

  1. To correctly interpret something, you must have the right context.
  2. To know what context is right, you need yet more context.
  3. Context is boundless.
  4. You need to know all context in order to know what finite amount of context is necessary to correctly interpret a specific thing.
  5. You cannot know all context, because 3.
  6. You cannot correctly interpret anything.

Let’s call this the skeptic’s hermeneutic. It’s pretty silly, right? But once you bring context into the equation, it gets very hard to resist the pull of this logic. A paper by Deirdre McCloskey I read recently had a section that seems relevant here:

Still, Mokyr and Grief are vexed that I keep giving them reading lists in the humanities. I must say I am astonished by their vexation. I myself admit that I have not read all the works in neo-institutional economics that the critics gathered here cite. I am ashamed that I haven’t, and promise to try to do better. I thought this was the way we do things in science—giving out reading lists, testing one another, discovering our hidden presuppositions, many of which can in fact be discovered by serious listening to literature and its literature (called the humanities, Geisteswissenschaften, sciences humaines). Science is difficult. We’re not supposed to whine that it’s too much work to listen, really listen. A long time ago, in a group of admiring grad students and faculty at the University of Iowa’s narrow Department of Philosophy, I asked John Searle, whom I know a bit and whose books are on the reading lists I give out, whether he had read Hegel. John replied, “No, and I intend never to do so”, at which we all (even I, to my shame) laughed, signaling a [purposely ignorant] scorn for the whole of what is known in the trade as Continental philosophy.

One defense mechanism against the pull of the skeptic’s hermeneutic is to dismiss a lot of potential context as worthless. Thus McCloskey’s critics dismiss the relevance of the humanities, and Searle dismisses Continental philosophy. McCloskey, on the other hand, confesses that she does not have all of the relevant context, and promises to try and do better. What more can one ask?

Ryan’s recent post relies on an optimistic hermeneutic. At least, it is optimistic in the sense of holding that it is possible to know the relevant context for understanding something, if pessimistic that most people will bother. I share his optimism.

But in discussing the post with him, it seems that he believes a lot of meaning is radically historical, where most believe there to be more general meaning outside of the most contingent of context.

To respond to this, let’s perform a little exegesis (the practice of interpretation) on a relevant post of David’s.

Here is one bundle of context:

Here is another bundle of context:

  • People struggle with how much research they have to do before they can be confident they really understand something.
  • The structure of knowledge seems to be such that you can always add more context that sheds some light on something you had not previously noticed.

Let’s call these Bundle A and Bundle B, respectively.

I would argue that almost every likely reader of David’s post will come knowing Bundle B, at least implicitly.

Bundle A is entirely made up of contingent context that almost no reader would have. Does it help to have? Well, it certainly helps to interpret the following passage:

It was clear to me that I wasn’t going to learn to play Beethoven’s piano music with this teacher, not anytime in my lifetime, so I fired her, which made me feel bad because it was my mom, and she needed the money, which was the immediate cause of her homelessness, along with all those of hers.

“Oh, that’s in response to that thing the critic said,” I thought at the time.

That’s nice to know. But do you really need that information to understand the meaning of the piece?

Of course not. Everyone who has read this piece has probably grasped its meaning; that is, that it’s hard to find the “ground” where it’s OK to stop adding more context. Where you feel sure of your footing.

I think we can all relate to that.

Previous Posts in This Thread (read all of these first, for context):

Demonstration, Theory, and Practice

Disputation

It would be easy to take my personal intellectual journey from Deirdre McCloskey’s post-modernism to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics to be a slide into relativism, given the reputation of such things. In fact, from the beginning it was a journey out of skepticism and into epistemological optimism, qualified though it may be.

If I have come to believe that knowledge is very political, in the sense of being unable to exist in an an individual vacuum without the context provided by groups, I have nevertheless come to believe that there is genuine knowledge.

In his first post here, Ryan made it clear that he wasn’t satisfied with that picture. He is even more optimistic—he believes that genuinely apolitical knowledge exists.

I am no master of epistemology or philosophy of mind. I’m not going to write a lengthy essay on why he’s wrong and I’m right. Instead, I want to pose a few questions. I have some preliminary answers to some of them, but the questions are more valuable than the answers.

Demonstration

A big part of my transition to relative optimism has been the abandonment of Cartesian foundationalism as the criteria for what knowledge is, and an embrace of classical notions of demonstration.

The most straightforward example is the defense of the principle of non-contradiction. We cannot prove that it is true in a foundationalist way, and it is the basis of the very method of proving things that we are attempting to defend. But we can demonstrate how it is impossible to make any argument without it. As I put it recently:

[I]t’s rather hard to make any assertion at all with teeth if you don’t care about consistency. My argument about inconsistency undermined my argument about the logical connection between God and morality—if consistency doesn’t matter, then there could both be no logical connection between God and morality, and be a completely crucial logical relationship between God and morality—simultaneously. Productive analysis would prove impossible.

Alasdair MacIntyre employed a similar sort of demonstration in critiquing Nietzsche and Foucault. If there is no truth, only positions that people take publicly in order to mask the cynical power relations going on in the background, then what is the status of this very claim? Is it true, or merely a mask for cynical power relations? And if the latter, does that not mean that the claim is false, and therefore some positions can be true and not just cynical power relations? Elliot Michael Milco makes a related set of arguments in his thesis.

One demonstration I came upon recently that I liked concerned the infinite regress argument for skepticism. This is the notion that we gives reasons for believing anything—we believe X because Y. But we have to justify our reasons with yet more reasons—and this chain goes on forever. We believe X because Y, which we believe because Z, and so forth. Because there is no foundational reason that we believe for no other reason, nothing is ever actually justified rationally.

In Joseph Heath’s Following the Rules he points out that this argument would imply we’re incapable of solving crossword puzzles. After all, our justifications for giving a particular answer for a particular part should follow the same logic that skeptics claim leads to an infinite regress. But it’s clear that we do solve crossword puzzles, when we have sufficient familiarity with the subject matter. So unless skeptics are prepared to insist that we somehow solve them irrationally, it would appear that their argument proves too much.

This sort of reasoning was the basis for my piece Science is Persuasion; Cartesian foundationalism has failed, yet still we have modern physics, medicine, and chemistry. Clearly we have knowledge. These sorts of demonstrations are more squishy than many philosophers after Descartes are comfortable with, but I’m convinced they are all we have, and that they are enough.

But What Is It To Know?

To say that a farm boy knows how to milk a cow is to say that we can send him out to the barn with an empty pail and expect him to return with milk. To say that a criminologist understands crime is not to say that we can send him out with a grant or a law and expect him to return with a lower crime rate.

Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

The part of Ryan’s post that seemed most similar to the demonstrations above was his discussion of consciousness, which he gives as an example of innate knowledge.

For example, we are all aware of the fact that consciousness exists because consciousness is defined to be every aspect of our sense of awareness. We cannot even deny the existence of consciousness without experiencing it. This knowledge was not acquired through any sort of data collection, analysis, or persuasion. We possessed it as soon as we possessed consciousness itself. Knowledge of our own consciousness is, therefore, innate. At this risk of sounding like Hoppe, to deny this kind of knowledge is to demonstrate it; therefore, it can’t sensibly be denied.

This seems to me to get at the tension between theory and practice, a topic at least as old as philosophy itself.

Ryan’s argument boils down to the idea that it is self-defeating to deny the existence of consciousness. Yet there are people who do deny it—they are called eliminative materialists. The defense of the principle of non-contradiction is similar, as Milco’s thesis shows very capably—we can point out that it’s self-defeating to believe in its falseness, but that doesn’t stop someone from believing it is false.

The obvious argument is that in practice, we live as if we believe in consciousness and reality and causation (to name a few items on the skeptics’ list), and we argue as if we believe in the principle of non-contradiction, even if in theory we have explicitly declared that we do not believe in those things.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

These were the questions that came to my mind when I read Ryan’s post.