What to do about straw men

My sense has always been that careful and honest editors can spot most straw men.  But no.  On this score, via Leiter, here is an entertaining case in point.  The case is Gary Wills' negative review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's "All Things Shining."  Drefyfus and Kelly feel they've been straw manned, they write:

Our book, All Things Shining, has clearly touched a nerve. Prominent reviewers have found it transformative. They have called it “fascinating,” “stunning,” “illuminating,” “inspirational,” and even a “harbinger of future philosophies to come.” But others have been outraged and dismissive. Garry Wills, the eminent historian and distinguished defender of the Catholic faith, now bears the standard for those arguing against. His recent review [NYR, April 7] expresses “astonishment” at how “inept” and “shallow” our book is, states that it is full of “silly” and “discredited” claims, and admonishes the “famous Big Thinkers” who, he thinks, have been duped by its wiles.

Many of the historical arguments Wills gives are reasonable, and his review would be fair if we actually held the positions he criticizes. Unfortunately, Wills regularly mistakes our views for discredited ones with which he is already familiar, and then, after reciting the well-known arguments against these discredited views, calls us “inept” for having spewed such “nonsense.” Some of our most sensitive and appreciative interlocutors disagree with the positions we articulate; but Wills seems simply not to understand them. 

This is a pretty serious charge.  Here is how Wills responds:

A lot of words, and no answers. I made specific charges, to which the authors make no specific replies. The only concrete point they make is that “we even give an example of Odysseus deliberating,” and for that they give no citation, either to their own book or to Homer. But I assume (after search) they are referring to page 76, which quotes (and rearranges) Fitzgerald’s translation on Odysseus’ “mind and spirit pondering” (Odyssey, 5.424). The verb here is hormainein (which Lattimore translates as “meditate”). They do not address the formulae of choice I adduced (dikha mermērizein, or entha kai entha mermērizein). They must not have wanted me to find their passage, since they gloss the verb as “pondering and despairing.” Odysseus is not undergoing the anguish of choice. He is, in their words, “busy despairing of his options.” Despair precludes choice—which does not matter, since Athena saves Odysseus with a whoosh.

Amid all their verbiage they say nothing about most of the points that I challenge—such as that Augustine was the first to join Christianity with Greek philosophy, or that he invented interiority by watching Ambrose read silently.

They do not even mention the matters that were most noticed as sacred “shining moments” in their book—the worship of Roger Federer’s tennis, the “praises of the Lord” for Demon Deacons, the canonization of Elizabeth Gilbert for submitting to the god of her own genius. They especially do not take the opportunity to explain, at last, their wildest idea—that carefully brewed coffee is a prophylactic against the “whoosh” of Hitler rallies. They vaguely dance away from all that with a dismissive claim that I am talking history and they are talking philosophy—as if philosophy were a warrant for making false statements, over and over.

I haven't read the book.  I didn't read Wills review either.  But it doesn't seem like Wills gets this criticism either.  Seems like a better reply would be: "no, I didn't straw man your view.  This is where you hold it."

5 thoughts on “What to do about straw men”

  1. I suppose that there are two issues here.  One is about what it takes for charges of straw-manning to stick, the other about what it takes for a proper-rebuttal to charges of straw-manning. 
    Now, let me try to present the issue as Wills sees it.  (N.B., I have no special knowledge of the situation, only having read the review and the Dreyfus-Kelly rebuttal)
    Wills: D&K adopt a P-style position.  P-style positions have serious problems x, y, z.
    D&K: We do not adopt position P, but P'.  Everyone says P' is an improvement. Read more closely.
    Wills: I said P-style. Geez.  Moreover, you haven't said how P' avoids x, y, z.

  2. I read Gary Willis’ review, and am reading the book at the moment, and my impression is that his review describes the book accurately: they really do appear to be saying that Homer reflects a time before human beings began to reflect.

    You really do need to read some of this book, or else you’re bound to think that Willis is exaggerating in his description of it. Some of the crazier stuff about learning to spot proto-hitlers by making coffee carefully is available on line:

    These guys appear to have decided that the difference between MLK and Hitler has nothing to do with stuff like the morality of racism and genocide. They repeatedly dismiss the idea that there’s some difference in content and meaning between sports, religion and politics, all that matters is whether it makes you feel “whoosh!”. And they claim to be arguing *against* modern nihilism. This is a profoundly silly book, and whether they were reading Homer right is the least of it.

  3. Thanks Joseph for the comment.  Just having a conversation with a house guest who made many of the same points you have.

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