OSSA Day 2: Botting on Interpretive Dilemmas

David Botting, “Interpretive Dilemmas”

In what sense is argument independent of context?  Independent: logical form.  Dependent: identifying the form is a matter of interpretation, which depends on context.  So whether a fallacy has occurred depends on what is attributed to the arguer: (a) the argument form the speaker intends, and (b) the commitment of the speaker to the quality of argumQ: Ient.

This yields interpretive dilemmas.  Interpreters must decide between (i) attributing fallacious argument forms, and (ii) holding that the speaker isn’t arguing or has a contextually appropriate version.  E.g.s:  Tu quoque taken as theoretical (fallacious) or replying to a demand from an inappropriate source, namely, a hypocrite (appropriate).  Argument from pity as theoretical (fallacious) or as practical (appropriate).  Argument from ignorance as demonstrative (fallacious) or as practical attitudes of defaults (relevant)

Comment (The NS’s own John Casey): Here we have a case where we might be looking for good reasoning when there’s not any.  Can’t charity run amok?

Q: Is there instead a trilemma, between fallacy, contextual non-fallacy, and non-argument?


6 thoughts on “OSSA Day 2: Botting on Interpretive Dilemmas”

  1. I think I understand your question now much better than I did during the presentation. I think it will make a lot more sense in my paper than in my presentation, where I was trying to compress a 10,000 words-plus paper into 25 minutes (and succeeded too well by finishing early from fears of taking too long).

    A dilemma or a trilemma? In the paper I talk about two interpretative principles which are roughly the same as strong or weak principles of charity (though there are other things rather haphazardly muddled in there as well, such as whether to be charitable to the protagonist or the antagonist). The dilemma is between these principles rather than between the interpretations as such (not that they will always conflict). I do allow that it is possible for “Don’t smoke” to be used to indicate a theoretical argument, to make a demand, or to express disapproval of smoking. Hence, in your words, a trilemma.

    If the first then “You too!” is only appropriate if it casts doubt on the sincerity of the speaker and is otherwise fallacious. This seems implausible in the smoking case for here it seems unlikely that the smoker who says “Don’t smoke” has any doubts about or commits any factual mistakes regarding the relative merits and demerits of smoking. But there are other cases where it would not be so implausible.

    If the second, then the speaker seems to be making a demand that he does not hold himself to, and then “You too!” indicates a criticizable inconsistency.

    If the third, then my intuitions are unclear. Why say “You too!” to someone who is merely expressing disapproval? No response seems to be called for in this case. What is more, if we are already in a reason-giving exchange, then it seems wrong to not give a reason in response or to interpret the speaker as not giving a reason if it is possible to do so. So I don’t think interpretation as non-argumentative actually helps either arguer much, although the paper does leave this interpretation as a possibility.

    An interesting case Scott put to me is when someone says “You’re an idiot!” This seems to be a kind of abusive ad hominem that really didn’t seem to fit and that I mention in the paper only as an afterthought in the conclusion. Couldn’t that, he asked me, be interpreted as an expressive? If it is non-argumentative then it is non-fallacious as well. Perhaps that is one way I could deal with abusive ad hominem. Again, I don’t find it completely clear, because the arguers are supposed to giving reasons and don’t really take their proper turn or return the burden of proof when they make non-argumentative moves like this. However, if a genuinely argumentative move is made along with the ad hominem, then the ad hominem needn’t be fallacious. At least, we needn’t abandon the argumentation on the grounds that one party is just not playing the game and/or is being irrational. Otherwise, I think it should be interpreted strategically of pretending to take a turn when it is not, and interpreted this way it is irrelevant.

    Much of my debate with Casey turned on whether there was one and only one legitimate way to use charity. Casey favoured Govier’s view that we should not attribute to speakers premises they do not plausibly have as the content of a propositional attitude in preference to a view where the argument could be made as strong as possible using what the interpreter might know to be justified but about which the speaker herself may possibly be mistaken. My illustration of the latter view was an argument which I said there was an intuition to say it equivocated although it was sound and the speaker was justified in believing its premises, and in those premises the “ambiguous” term was interpreted in the same way. My view was that both methods of interpretation are legitimate, and that this explains why we have conflicting intuitions about many cases of informal fallacies, especially fallacies of relevance. According to one interpretation, one intuition is the correct one, according to the other, it is the conflicting intuition that is the correct one. If only one way of applying charity is correct, then only one intuition is the correct one, though we could explain away the conflicting intuitions by using the existence of the alternative (but illegitimate) interpretation as an error theory. Note, though, that if Casey’s preferred use of charity is the correct one, then fallacies of relevance are simply fallacious because irrelevant because non-responsive in the context of a theoretical argument, for in most cases the speaker is probably intending to give a theoretical argument. I admit “Don’t smoke” is not the best example I could have chosen to make this point, since it does not actually give any reasons, although it indicates them: “Smoking is bad for you” might have been a better choice. Then, unless we are prepared to use charity to favour the antagonist and attribute to the protagonist communicative intentions he may well not actually have, the antagonist’s use of “But you smoke!” is simply irrelevant, as the traditional fallacy approach says.

  2. Hi David,
    Thanks for the reply. This clears up a lot of the issues we’d had at the session. However, I’m now thinking the view has another issue. If the argument does pick up on relevant issues, say sincerity with tu quoque, then it’s not a matter of interpretation whether it does that, but whether it successfully does so. Interpretation isn’t something that makes relevance, but only something that detects it.

  3. I’m not sure I agree that interpretation only detects relevance. For instance, I have written several papers on Aristotle, and I quite frankly admit that I am no kind of expert on Aristotle and I don’t read Greek. If I find an argument in Aristotle that seems bad then I try to interpret it in a way that makes it seem good; I assume that Aristotle would not make blunders, although, of course, he could be making the bad argument after all (even good philosophers make bad arguments). I notice that if I give the argument logical form A it will turn out to be invalid so I try to find a logical form B that is not invalid and (hopefully) is not glaringly inconsistent with other things he says. When this is over I may say something like “This is the argument Aristotle intended” or I may not — if I am only interested in whether the conclusion is true or whether there is a good argument for it, I may only say something like that the argument is broadly Aristotelian in approach, or then again I may attribute to Aristotle intentions I am not sure he actually had. It is only when the logical form has been decided on that we can judge relevance. As Powers puts it, logical form is linguistic form minus fallacy. Deciding on logical form is to make decisions concerning the existence of fallacies and relevance.

  4. Blurring the line between interpretation and construction. Maybe that’s worth doing, but if that’s the case, your argument’s got a premise more controversial than your conclusion. Wouldn’t it be better to distinguish between what’s clearly attributable to the philosopher and what’s in that philosopher’s spirit, something that can save the core view. So, Plato-Platonic, Aristotle-Aristotelian.
    Moreover, we’re back to Casey’s original challenge: if you can reconstruct bad arguments into plausible good ones, then is it possible that anyone ever gives a bad argument? Perhaps you’ve never read a student paper.

  5. Go back to my equivocation example. Remember that the argument does not equivocate (is not a fallacy of four terms), the arguer does not equivocate (he uses the ambiguous term in the same sense in both premise), the premises are true and justifiably believed to be true, and the argument is valid. If the only thing we are interested in were the speaker’s intentions, the arguer has argued has argued perfectly well. Yet it seems we could criticize the arguer on the grounds that the evidence that he takes to justify one of his premises does not (it objectively justifies the premise on the ambiguous term’s other sense), and accuse the arguer of equivocation anyway. When we do, we go beyond the speaker’s intentions. This is a ‘good’ argument being reconstructed as a ‘bad’ one; this is the very opposite of a bad argument being reconstructed as a good one by charity run amok. And however controversial the principles of interpretation involved, it seems to me that we do actually do things like this. If Aristotle’s argument seems bad, I assume this is my failure rather than Aristotle’s. If a student’s argument seems bad, then I might apply charity somewhat differently! But maybe other people’s intuitions vary from mine — I admit the equivocation case is somewhat curious.

    Even if we allow all bad arguments to be deductively reconstructed as valid arguments, I don’t think that this necessarily makes the argument beyond logical criticism. For instance, an arguer might believe that tonk is valid and include its introduction and elimination rules among the premises of this argument, and this argument would be valid, but we could soon show that this would lead to false or absurd consequences.

  6. Hi David,

    Thanks for dropping by.

    I think you’re correct about the equivocation example you give. It’s a deductive argument, the guy is clearly unaware that the term he uses does not work that way.

    I think other equivocations, however, work differently. People equivocate on purpose (or out of incompetence) oftentimes to accuse others of inconsistency, or thoughtlessness or something similar. Here’s an example of that: http://thenonsequitur.com/?p=4047. Here’s another: http://thenonsequitur.com/?p=3184. These show equivocations employed dialectically. A full analysis of them would involve the contributions of the interlocutors, audience, etc. This is rather unlike your example, where we’re narrowly focused on whether one can make a valid argument of the bread/dough confusion.

    As for Aristotle, most arguers, I think, are not Aristotle. They’re regular people trying very hard to make points with reasons, etc. Oftentimes they just fail at that. Sometimes their failures are factual, sometimes they’re logical, as it were.

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