How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Correlationism.


While I was going about my insignificant little life here, Alexei – a designated correlationist of the blogosphere (congratulations, by the way) – was bravely taking another bullet for Kant over here.  I have to be honest, I like all things argumentative and philosophical, I enjoy being exposed to new ideas and I generally think that I am open-minded enough to at the very least allow for a different reading of books I have been reading for some time. I am your own friendly sophist sometimes, but mainly I enjoy a good argument – no, not like when you and your husband really get into it, but a good philosophical argument when two sides at least pretend to have a set of rules. Now in case of all these attacks on correlationism, whatever it is, I find it difficult to engage the parties involved (despite my earlier tries and sad consequences) because we are not speaking the same language. I think Alexei is a more patient, less bitter version of myself (not sure if it’s a complement, apologies in advance), and he is able to continue the conversation that is taking more and more bizarre forms at this point: Continue reading

Do It Right: Ad Hominem Attacks


This morning’s lesson is how to do our favorite ad hominem attacks right – here’s a “scientific” way from Scientific American:

Although ad hominem arguments have long been considered errors in reasoning, a recent analysis suggests that this is not always the case. In his new book, Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric, University of Winnipeg philosopher Douglas Walton proposes that fallacies such as the ad hominem are better understood as perversions or corruptions of perfectly good arguments. Regarding the ad hominem, Walton contends that although such attacks are usually fallacious, they can be legitimate when a character critique is directly or indirect­ly related to the point being articulated. Read the whole story.

Stanley Fish: Still Misunderstood, States the Obvious


As I’ve pointed out here and here, Stanley Fish’s recent column over at The New York Times has been generating a lot of spiteful and misguided comments. Here’s what Fish had to say in response:

Just two points in response to readers’ questions. I do read all the comments. And I do not use words like “objective” or “impartial” or “neutral” or “disinterested” to describe what I try to do in these columns. All I’m saying is that analyzing arguments is a different project than taking positions on ethical, moral or political issues. Neither is objective; both involve opinions; the opinions are, however, about different things, in one case about the best thing to do or think; in the other, about whether the case made for thinking or doing something hangs together. It would be quite possible for me, or anyone else, to fault the arguments made in behalf of a policy or agenda and still support it. I am insisting on the distinction, but no claim to objectivity is involved – Stanley Fish

Here’s Fish in the column making a similar claim:

When I find an argument incoherent, it is not because I find the argument on the other side persuasive; although that is the assumption made by those who lambaste me for being a conservative or a liberal, a hopeless fuddyduddy or a corrosive postmodernist, and address me in the confidence that they know on what end of the ideological or moral spectrum I am to be found.

But, in fact, a reader of a typical “Think Again” column will have no idea at all where I stand on the issues that catch my attention, because at least for the length of the column (as opposed to real life, which is much longer), I am agnostic on those issues and interested only in the way they are playing out in our present cultural moment.

All of this talk about dis-interest, neutrality and objective judgments has gotten me thinking about the Frankfurt School and given my ongoing attempt to be more pretentious than resident OCD fancy boy Mikhail Emelianov, I marched over to my bookshelf and dug up Horkheimer’s famous essay “Traditional and Critical Theory.”

While a direct line may be drawn from some of the successors of German Idealism, the Left Hegelians, for instance, of the mid-nineteenth century (and its most famous “member” Karl Marx) to the Frankfurt School, for what it’s worth, I think it is important to keep in mind that the historical separation from Kant and Hegel is filled most significantly by Shopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Bergson, Weber and Husserl. In many ways the concerns of the so-called Left Hegelians, for instance, the integration of philosophy and social inquiry through a recasting of Hegelian dialectics to a more immanent or material bent centered on praxis, which had been eclipsed by a more “scientific” approach (both Marxist and otherwise) up until WWI, can be tied to the Frankfurt School (although perhaps after the emigration the FS may be construed as being closer to a more “transcendent” critique, dialectical criticism is in fact a shaky tension between the two). Continue reading

Stanley Fish Is Misunderstood, Still


In my critical thinking class yesterday we discussed Stanley Fish’s recent “Think Again” column in which he has the “audacity” to tell the reader what it is he’s doing in the column, e.g making analytic judgments about the logic of disputes and arguments. So today I had another look at the comments found these two particularly strange, especially in their vitriol:

Thanks for the clarification, Prof. Fish. As many before me have pointed out to you, argument divorced from ethics, morality & politics is mere sophistry. Perhaps armed with this information you and the NYT will want to rethink your column.

stanley, finally you objectively deconstruct your own deconstruction. Now it is time to give this French baloney a rest. you made a good living tossing this drivel out to your students and fellow academics. thank you for your totally unintended self-condemnation.

What the hell are these people talking about? Or how about this:

I think the words “self delusional” fit here somewhere. If you were one of my students, I would suggest you keep it short, keep it clear, say what you mean & mean what you say.If so many of readers can’t understand what you’re trying to say, maybe they’re not to blame.

Huh? Isn’t that what Fish is doing? Continue reading

On Analytical Judgments: Stanley Fish Feels Misunderstood


In his most recent column in The New York Times, Stanley Fish talks about analytical judgments. It should certainly resonate for those of us that teach critical thinking courses. Fish writes:

Every once in a while I feel that it might be helpful to readers if I explained what it is I am trying to do in these columns. It is easier to state the negative: For the most part, it is not my purpose in this space to urge positions, or come down on one side or the other of a controversial question. Of course, I do those things occasionally and sometimes inadvertently, but more often than not I am analyzing arguments rather than making them; or, to be more precise, I am making arguments about arguments, especially ones I find incoherent or insufficiently examined.

When I find an argument incoherent, it is not because I find the argument on the other side persuasive; although that is the assumption made by those who lambaste me for being a conservative or a liberal, a hopeless fuddyduddy or a corrosive postmodernist, and address me in the confidence that they know on what end of the ideological or moral spectrum I am to be found.

But, in fact, a reader of a typical “Think Again” column will have no idea at all where I stand on the issues that catch my attention, because at least for the length of the column (as opposed to real life, which is much longer), I am agnostic on those issues and interested only in the way they are playing out in our present cultural moment. When, for example, I wrote three columns criticizing the atheist tracts written by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, I was motivated not by a belief in God — which I may or may not have, you’ll never know — but by what I took to be sloppy, schoolboy reasoning that was passing itself off as wisdom. I could have been an atheist myself, and I still would have found the so-called logic of these books weak and risible.

The difference between making arguments and analyzing them is not always recognized, and when it is missed, readers get outraged about things I never said. This is this case with two recent columns, one on identity politics, the other on the shape of a possible Obama-McCain contest in the general election. My point in the first column was that although identity politics was often a term of accusation — as in “that’s just identity politics” — at least one version of it could be considered rational. Someone who believes that the racial, ethnic, religious or gender identity of a candidate makes it more likely that he or she will support and work for certain favored policies is not performing a base or discriminatory act by voting for that candidate.

Fish continues the column by answering some objections from readers. Continue reading