This is a lousy phrase, and it’s my own concoction, so my bad, but for the moment anyway, I am sticking with it. For what its worth, I am drawing a distinction I got from the anthropologist, Michael Silverstein, in his work on linguistic ideology. I am using this phrase to describe a sort of problem that occurs in argumentation, but which is often omitted from the study of logic or critical thinking, or which is handled in those areas largely through naked prescription, and generally dealt with through minimal explicit commentary. The problem here is essentially the tendency for the world of social interaction to break into the worlds of reasoned discourse and infuse or replace objective considerations of evidence with elements of social posture.
Background: the concept here is that any ostensibly objective dialogue always takes the form of a social interaction. Whether you are writing, speaking or recording yourself (or -selves) for playback later, you are always also interacting with others. This remains true even if you are sitting alone in your room, responding to no-one in particular, and doing whatever it is you do with no particular audience in mind. If we look closely, we can always find echoes of other points of view in what you write or say and moments in which you anticipate other voices. We are always also interacting with others when we engage in reasoning. This is even more true when you really are involved in direct verbal or written exchanges with others.
Most conventional grammatical analysis, according to Silverstein, is an attempt to analyze the features of language which help us describe the world around us. I think it fair to place most of the conventions of basic logical analysis in this category. When we calculate the implications of categorical syllogisms to see if we are looking at a Modus Ponens, or a fallacy of Affirming the Consequent, for example, we are juggling the categories which help to describe the world around us. We are, as Silverstein might describe it, investigating the features of a denotational text. When using such techniques to analyze an actual syllogism, we are providing an account of what is said in the conversation in which that syllogism occurs. Whatever the features of that denotational text, however, Silvertein would remind us that the conversation in which it occurs also takes the form of a social interaction, and we could (and should) always consider the question of what is happening in that social interaction. We can always also ask what is the interactional text in that same conversation? In fact, as I recall, Silvertstein would probably tell us that a denotational text is really just one form of interactional text, one way of thinking about a social interaction in which people attend to the objective features of the world around them.
Just as we can ask what is said in a conversation, we can also ask what is done in that conversation? The tools of logical analysis help us to provide an account of what is said, and in effect to explore the effectiveness of a given argument in accomplishing a certain kind of task, but we can never take for granted the nature of the task that people mean to be doing when they produce an argument. The possibilities are always endless.
The Problem: I take it as a given that we can use conventional forms of logical analysis to create a meaningful account of the denotational texts in arguments. With a little help from a rule of thumb with social content here and there, we can provide a reasonably helpful account of the features of denotational text that help us sort arguments worthy of consideration from those that are not. Still, social interaction is always also going on in an argument, and there are moments in which the social interaction simply becomes too significant to ignore, even if you want to. This is what I mean by interactional eclipse; it is the moment in which elements of social interaction simply become too big to push into the background of argument analysis. When this occurs, we are forced to consider the social impact of the argument, either as part of the logic of the argument or as an important alternative significance to its probative value as an argument.
I reckon that this interactional eclipse happens in at least 2 very different ways; elements of reasoning wherein social interaction is explicitly part of the argument, and arguments in which something is happening in the social context which could distract from the reasoning in question and/or prove more important than that reasoning. To be clear, the first type of interactional eclipse is potentially legitimate. It shouldn’t even surprise us that this sort of thing happens. The second is a huge problem, both for those making and responding to arguments in regular life, and for those of us trying to understand what they mean from a scholarly interest.
I am somewhat ambivalent about treating both of these issues as instances of the same thing, but they have enough in common to merit some combined treatment. For the present, let me suggest referring to the first form of interactional eclipse as ‘constructive eclipse’ and the second as ‘distractive eclipse.’ The wording for the latter category assumes a normative interest in reasoning (as opposed to a focus on social interaction as a subject in itself), so there is a bit of a bias in the vocabulary, but what the Hell! The point is that second category of interactional eclipse pulls anyone interested in the logic of an argument off-track, or at least, it creates an effect which could prove far more significant than anything we might attend to in analyzing the logic of an argument.
Constructive Eclipse: Even in conventional logical analysis, there are considerations which are explicitly social in nature, which is to say, they address questions of behavior and social significance as much as they do logic and reasoning. This really shouldn’t surprise us, but it often does.
Here are some examples:
- Negation itself. If I say “This pen is green,” anyone who agrees with that statement is effectively vouching for the meaningful nature of the statement and all of the terms within it even as they tell us that it does in fact describe a state of affairs in the real world as they see it. If on the other hand, I reject the statement, I might be doing so because I see that the pen is actually red (in effect affirming a state of affairs inconsistent with that described by the statement) or I might be taking issue with its meaning. Perhaps I take issue with the meaning of some key term or its application to the topic at hand. Maybe, ‘green’ is too vague for me or I’m not sure what pen has been referenced in the first place, (because there are actually 6 of the sitting over in the direction the speaker pointed while saying ‘this’). Sometimes, the basis for negation is clear and explicit in the denotational text of an argument, and sometimes it isn’t. When it isn’t, we typically resolve the matter (or let the reference continue without resolution) by relying on the the social context of the argument. This central ambiguity behind negation then lays the foundation for at least some of the other features of constructive eclipse.
- Burdens of Proof: There are different ways of looking at burdens of proof, but at least one of them is a reference to social convention. Why do we expect a prosecutor to meet the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal trial? Because when we say of someone that they are ‘guilty,’ things happen to them. They may go to prison. They may pay a fine or in extreme cases, face the prospect of capital punishment. They will likely lose their rights to vote or bear arms, at least for a time, and the finding will affect their job prospects as well as social status, most likely for the rest of their lives. There are also evidential considerations to this kind of thing (some might suggest that it is simply unreasonable to expect people to prove their innocence). Still, at least one significant factor in all of this is the realization that a finding of ‘guilty’ has definite social consequences which lead some of us to say that it is better to err on the side of letting some guilty parties go free and unpunished than to risk the conviction of innocent people.
- Arguments from Authority: Authority can take a number of different forms. We can, for example distinguish between coercive authority such as that of a judge or police officer and the expertise of a professor. Either way, arguments based on authority or countering the assertion of authority are explicitly ineractional. They build the case for or against accepting the conclusion of an argument on at least some consideration of social context.
- Principle of Charity: The notion that we should respond to a given position in terms of its strongest possible variation is an explicitly pragmatic choice made partly to be nice and partly to ensure that our time is not wasted on frivolous mistakes instead of substantive considerations. It is also a question about how one relates to others when considering their input into a given topic of discussion. This too is an explicit rule of thumb which addresses the social context in which reasoning takes place.
- Begging the Question: One of the interesting features of circular argumentation lies in the fact that when some tests are applied to a circular argument, this produces what looks like a deductively valid argument. So, why is a circular argument a fallacy instead of a damned good argument? Because it gives us no new reason to believe its conclusion. In effect, the failure is rhetorical, and hence explicitly a question about the relationship between the speaker and an intended audience. In effect, the problem here relies on a sense of the social interactions we expect out of a good argument.
- Sundry Fallacies; A number of fallacies could be described as an attempt to substitute the generation of some social effect (e.g. eliciting pity) instead of producing a sound argument on the topic. We could in fact see this as an acceptable social choice even as we reject it for purposes of logical analysis. I’m going to avoid listing these insofar as the interactional element is largely conceived here in negative terms, and because the resulting list would be very long. What makes them a fallacy is that they produce the wrong type of interactional text. This is one way of looking at the failure of numerous informal fallacies, but for purposes of this discussion, I am only interested in issues with argumentation where the social interaction is more substantive than this.
- Straw Man: Here the problem behind the fallacy consists of failure to counter the argument another individual has actually produced. This is both a problem of evidence and reasoning and a social failure. Many straw man arguments actually do prove some point of view is flawed; they just don’t prove the one put forward by another speific party is wrong. To draw this conclusion about an argument is to remind the speaker of the nature of the converation in question. So, a straw man argument is also a fallacy which addresses social obligations.
- Other: This is clearly an incomplete list. The point here, is that a number of considerations in logical analysis and the study of argumentation actually do address the eplicit features of social interaction in which arguments take place.
Distractive Eclipse: Here, the issue is not that the social context in which an argument takes place has become an explicit feature of the reasoning used in making or or evaluating the argument. It is the possibility that sometimes an argument will contain features which generate social consequences in excess of their probative value. Whether or not the argument in question is sound is one question, but when distractive eclipse occurs, the interactional significance of the argument can effectively prove more important in the log run.
This may be a trivial example, but I remember once engaging in a conversation with someone who maintained that classical music was objectively better than any form of pop music such as Rock, Blues, or Country. We were both standing and facing each other in a classroom after a philosophy class. (Undergraduates! …nerds!) At some point, this person told me that we could define ‘music’ in any way we wanted, but that some definitions were more worthy of consideration than others. To illustrate his point, he said that he could define ‘music’ as jacking off while pantomiming the act of doing just that, standing as he was right there in front of me. I’m actually not sure how we got to that particular point, but I distinctly remember feeling discomfort at the suddenly explicit sexual the as well as the conduct occurring right in front of me. I also remember getting a definite sense that the discomfort was intentional; the person had chosen his example for its shock value. Now he had an argument, to be sure, but he was also taking social liberties, both in his choice of examples, and with his efforts to illustrate them for my benefit. In this particular case, the discussion continued on course, but his gambit did produce a distraction, one which made it momentarily more difficult to focus on the reasoning in question, and which also raised questions about the value of continuing the discussion with this particular individual.
I have encountered a significantly less trivial example of a similar tactic in a number of instances when discussing moral philosophy wherein someone decided to make a point with a hypothetical example in which they killed me (Cf. Phil Robertson’s Argument From Rape). In each of these instances the person in question was trying to make a point about the objective nature of moral principles or the lack thereof. In each instance, the point of the argument had something to do with the moral significance of murder. Framing the issue in terms of explicit questions about my own murder might be thought of as intended to impress upon me the full weight of the matter at hand, but it also served to facilitate a kind of dominance game. The question at issue was my own murder, not that of the person talking. In effect, they were asking me to consider a prospect in which they did me harm. One might expect that I or others subjected to this stratagem could and should stay focused on the argument at hand, but one might also suspect the tactic is designed to stress those to whom it is subjected, and even to act out schema in which the speaker clearly occupies a dominant role. This may play out in a purely hypothetical discussion, but it plays out just the same, thus infusing an otherwise objective consideration with a fictional story-line with hierarchy.
(Am I the only one who gets these arguments? Yeech!)
People will often slip subtle digs are insulting comments into the text of an otherwise serious argument. The ad hominem fallacy doesn’t necessarily address this problem, because the substance of the argument in question is not necessarily a function of such quips, but they can be a problem insofar as they get under the skin of participants and/or impose negative social consequences which have nothing to do with the substance of the argument in question. These sleights may be ignored, often at cost, or they may even take over the conversation, effectively reducing it to something other than reasonable debate.
Likewise, correcting someone’s spelling or grammar instead of focusing on the point they make, for example, will often communicate a degree of contempt for the other person. This may end a conversation, or it may serve to put the corrected individual in a defensive position, thus undermining any argument they wish to make.
Politicians provide another common example when they make unsubstantiated accusations against one another. Simply by answering such an accusation, a public figure may do more to harm to themselves than they would by ignoring it or even confessing to its truth. Such accusations will often do more harm to the accused than any objective consideration of the case for them would merit, and it simply doesn’t help to say of such arguments that they are invalid or unsound.
Another example of distractive eclipse can also occur when people misjudge (or deliberately misread) the genre-specific conventions of the discussion at hand. In polemic debate, for example, someone entering the conversation to explore the meaning of a term or to play devil’s advocate on some small sub-theme may do a great deal to blunt the force of an argument without actually coming out against it. Simply buybsetting aside an impassioned diatribe and replacing it with a fussy question about the scope of meaning for some key term an individual can do more to shut down an argument than anyone saying “I disagree,” This is one reason that concern trolling is a problem, not because people shouldn’t be prepared to think critically about a broad range of issues in relation to a given subject, but because they cannot be expected to do so explicitly on demand and in all contexts. A protest on a public street is not necessarily an invitation to philosophical discussion, and so people making points which might be worthy of serious consideration in other contexts will often be regarded as deceitful and/or malicious when doing so in contexts calling for less subtle forms of rhetoric.
Likewise, those engaging in partisan rhetoric in the midst of an exploratory discussion may trigger similar negative reactions. Their continued presence may also deter efforts at less partisan forms of reasoning, reducing an open-ended conversation to a conflict in which each party takes care not to compromise their vested interests.
Similarly diversionary tactics are often so much more than a simple ‘red herring’. They are often very deliberate efforts to change the subject of discussion, and ironically, the effort to challenge the merits of such diversions may actually help those who produce them to accomplish this very goal.
Is politician A accused of sexual impropriety? Well what about politician B? As an answer to the first problem this is absolutely irrelevant; as an effort to change the topic of public discussion, it can still be a very effective tactic. It is even more effective, if people proceed to argue against the accusations against politician B precisely because that takes the conversation further down the path of the diversion. In effect, the interactional significance of the strategy outstrips its significance as a serious argument.
From this standpoint alone, application of this label and the attendant verdict that the diversionary tactics in question in question rely on an unsound is often as much as logic has to offer, but that is small consolation when the subsequent discussion comes to focus entirely on the red herring. It is for this reason that politicians, lawyers, PR reps, and advertisers will often employ diversionary tactics when addressing serious problems with whatever or whomever they seek to advocate. The point is not so much to produce a fallacious argument against an accusation as it is to change the topic of discussion entirely. We might always say of such arguments that they are unsound, but that hardly begins to address the scope of the problem posed by such tactics. In effect, an argument like this yields one more example of an argument with an interactional significance far more important than the unsound reasoning it contains.
This is the most relevant text from the work of Michael Silverstein.
1979. “Language structure and linguistic ideology.” In The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels (R. Cline, W. Hanks, and C. Hofbauer, eds.), 193-247. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.