Epistemic Idioms

Certain stock words and phrases commonly used by the public carry obvious epistemological implications. They convey a certain sense of the way that truth and falsehood enter into our conversations. This is a list of such words and phrases. To say that it is incomplete is putting it mildly. I will add more as time goes on.

Absolute Truth: We often hear something described as an absolute truth. What’s fascinating about this is the implication that some truths might not be absolute. Presumably, one could draw the distinction by considering the number of contingencies that might affect the truth value of a statement, but that opens the door to relative truth values, and if some truths could be made relative by contingencies, then how do we really preempt all such contingencies once and for all? Maybe that can be done. Most likely though, the inclusion of ‘absolute’ here tells us more about the confidence level of the person asserting the truth than anything about the truth functions of the statement in question.

Agree to Disagree: This is a common thing to hear in the midst of an informal debate. If it means nothing else, it certainly seems to be a suggestion that the parties in question should set aside their disagreement and move on. This could be done so as to focus on some other point of disagreement, or it could be done so as to remove an unpleasant topic from discussion altogether. Either way, the point is clearly to set some point of disagreement aside.

I don’t think it unfair to suggest that the phrase also implies something about doing so without malice, as if to add; ‘no hard feelings.’ This too could be very positive, but in context, it can be a problem. Personally, I have lost track of the number of times, someone said this to me shortly after misrepresenting my own side of the dispute, often outrageously so. I have also heard it said in direct response to very decisive arguments from the other side, effectively calling off the fight while the speaker is on the ropes, so to speak. This is at least a little frustrating. Doing so while keeping a straw man on the table, so to speak, is even more frustrating. In the spirit of agreeing to disagree with no hard feelings, I think it fair to say that the decision to end a dispute this way should not be used as a strategic ploy. It assumes an honest account of each other’s views and an honest chance to air those views with one another. Absent this, it’s tough to see where the ‘agree’ comes into the phrase ‘agree to disagree.’

Everything is Relative: I often describe this as a kind of pop-relativism. The phrase is commonly used to advance some sort of relativism and/or to undermine the possible objectivity of an existing claim or fact. Absolutists often like to suggest that this is a self-contradiction, because this phrase too would be relative in the event that everything is relative, but there is no particular reason to believe the a relativistic interpretation of this statement would be a problem. Perhaps the notion here is that the statement is universal (as opposed to particular), but the difference between universal and particular statements isn’t really the point of relativism. The problem with this phrase is really more that it simply doesn’t tell us enough to make heads or tails of it. The more interesting versions of relativism tell us what is relative to what and provide a more definite sense of what is entailed in the relativity. If this phrase tells us anything it is probably something about the speaker, namely a readiness to qualify apparently objective truths in terms of some as-yet unspecified contingencies.

Heart of the Matter: This can obviously be used in a variety of contexts. When it is used in the context of debate or critical inquiry, it seems to suggest that whatever it describes is more important than other things that have come up in discussion. What makes certain propositions, questions, or inferences more important than others is a different question. It is of course to be expected that the different parties to a dispute may have a different sense of what constitutes the heart of the matter. There must still be some clear point of conflict, but each will have a different sense of what matters most in the dispute. So, which is really the heart of the matter? One or both versions of the core values at stake? Or the specific implication that puts them in conflict with each other?

Misstatement: This term is used to describe an error. It is commonly used to suggest that a speaker has made a poor word choice. In many cases, it carries the implication that the error in question is not significant and/or that the speaker did not mean to misrepresent the facts of the matter. For this reason, the term can provide rather convenient cover for those caught quite deliberately saying something that just isn’t true.

Personal Truth (e.g. Your Truth / My Truth): This is another pop-relativism. It suggests that different people have different truths. There are of course a few different ways that we can take this. One of the more viable interpretations of this phrase is the notion that someone’s personal truth would be something about their personality, personal experiences, or attitudes. In this case, the truth is less a question about the world around the person in question than something about their own psychology. I do think their is a viable interpretation with a bit more objective focus. this would be the notion that different people focus on different things. A dog trainer might know a great deal about the behavior of a given dog, and in particular, about the likely responses a dog will have to certain motivations. A veterinarian looking at the same dog will know more about the health of the dog. Each of these could thus be described as having a different truth in relation to the dog. So, there are at least some reasonable interpretations of the phrase.

All of that said, however, I do think most of the times I have heard it used, it is effectively an effort to side-step questions about the actual truth value of claims made by actual people. Someone making questionable accusations against a group of people might be said to be speaking his truth (thus reserving the option to suggest that they too have a truth). Whether or not any specific accusation actually squares with the facts can thus be set aside in favor of an effort to respect the perspective of each party to the discussion (perhaps with the implication being that the truth of the particulars might get a mixed score). It comes with a vague sense that questions about the actual truth value of specific claims made by any given party are somehow contingent on their mental state, even as it sets aside any effort to settle questions about what is and what is not true.

Said the Quiet Part Out Loud: This phrase is used to describe an utterance which appears to express unwholesome motivations on the part of the speaker. In some cases, the speaker might suggest they had misstated something. In others, those using this description simply find an implication in the words other than the one intended by the speaker. In either case, the implication is that the utterance in question reveals an underlying truth about how things actually work and/or the motivations of the original speaker for their own words and deeds. Whether or not this accusation is reasonable probably varies from case to case.

Tell (Includes ‘Liar’s Tell’): A tell is quirk of behavior that serves to indicate something about the person exhibiting it. In poker, it might be an indication that a player is bluffing or that he has an exceptionally good hand. In rhetoric, the term is more likely to be applied to something that indicates deceit. This is literally an ‘index’ in the sense used by C.S. Peirce (and later the anthropologist, Michael Silverstein); i.e. a sign that indicates something in the immediate context of a speech event. My mother, for example, used to say she could tell when my father was lying because his nose turned inside out (not literally of course; you’d have to have seen his expression to know what she was talking about). In effect she used his expression to read his intent, or rather, to determine that she was misleading her. Of course, once she accused him of this, he couldn’t help but smirk in exactly the way she described, thus giving off the appearance of confirming her initial accusation. It was all very amusing. This illustrates one of the hazards of those trying to read a tell; the behavior in question is always much more complicated than people assume. A quirk that could be a sign of deceit could also be a sign of something else. Also, the accusation itself can be made disingenuously, and maintained disingenuously as a means of refusing to consider what another person has to say.

Truth Hurts: This is a form of meta-argumentation in which the person using the phrase casts objections made by another party to something already spoken or written as proof that the claims of the original are true after all, and that discomfort with that truth is the reason for the objections. This phrase can be applied to objections based on rudeness or cruelty, but it is also used to characterize objections involving complex and substantive arguments against the original. In effect, use of the phrase discounts the possibility that the objections have any merit. In most cases, use the of the phrase thus amounts to a kind of circular argument or begging the question. It is probably fair to say that people sometimes object to a statement because it describes a reality they would prefer not to hear. It is probably also fair to suggest that people sometimes use this idiot to dismiss substantive objections and real questions about the truth value of the initial utterance.

Two Sides to Every Story: This is a common rejoinder to strong opinions. In most cases, the implication is not merely that there is another point of view on the topic, but that that other point of view actually does have merit, perhaps even that it is equally valid. Sometimes, this is a point well taken. I know, I have certainly come to appreciate the other side of a dispute after reluctantly considering it in the wake of hearing this phrase or some comparable message. That said, sometimes, the other side of the story is just dead wrong, either because those taking it are making some mistake, or because they are lying about the matter. The existence of two sides does not ensure that they have equal value.

A lot depends, I suppose, on what means by ‘story.’

That said, if there is nothing else we should take from this rejoinder it would be the notion that we should take the time to consider the other point of view in a given dispute. Maybe, we will accept it as valid in some sense or another, and maybe, we’ll just get even more harsh once we know what kind of bullshit the other guy is trying to pull. Either way, it’s worth knowing what the other side of a given dispute is.

There is another problem with this saying in that it actually doesn’t go far enough. I often find myself wanting to say in response to this; “only two?” As long as we are entertaining different perspectives, it’s worth bearing in mind that disputes can often be looked at through a great variety of different opinions and that the appearance of two major contenders in a controversy is often a function of assumptions coon to both. Take away those assumptions and all sorts of interesting possibilities arise.

Formal Logic Quickies from Around the Net

Here I want to put screenshots of various social media posts containing examples of reasoning used in categorical syllogisms. I will add to this list as I collect more.

Double Negation

FYI: This was on Super Bowl Sunday.

not {not[not(Bb)]} …is that right?

Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent

It’s not clear to me that this was intended as a serious argument.

Modus Tollens

I take this to be a refutation of the theory that Antifa was behind the insurrection of January 6th. There is of course a missing premise and a missing conclusion, but I think both are easily construed.

Here, we are interested in the tweet by New Scot for Indy ref2. The first message is provided for context. This tweet is in response to aspects of British policy. Likely, this is part of the fall out for BREXIT, but I don’t know the details that well. Note that there is some extra commentary at the end, but the argument is basically Modus Tollens.

This appears to be a summary of a larger argument made in the video linked below it. The moral argument for the existence of God is largely the contribution of C.S. Lewis who presented the argument in his book, Mere Christianity.


It’s not clear to me that this was intended as a serious argument.

Truth Values

Most logical analysis seems to proceed from the assumption that ‘true’ and ‘false’ are the only meaningful categories of truth value. There are some good reasons for trying to reduce truth value to this binary contrast, but in practice, people actually employ a pretty broad range of options when assessing the truth value. Sometimes we just affirm a statement and sometimes we deny it, and there is good reason to aim for this goal whenever it can be achieved, but sometimes real people faced with real claims respond in other ways, at least some of which may be reasonable responses to questions of truth value. Sometimes we ‘problematize’ a statement (this was quite a fashionable word when I hit graduate school), which is to say we raise concerns about it without necessarily rejecting it altogether. Sometimes we give a statement a pass (i.e. we just don’t address it), and sometimes we find ourselves unable to decide whether it is true or false, even after making a serious effort to do so. In principle, we may think of truth values as binary, but in practice, we actually use a broader range of categories for assessing the truth value of statements.

Recognizing this variation in truth evaluation can help us to avoid bluffing or rushing to judgement, or for that matter fudging the issue in ways that simply don’t help. (I once had a logic class, for example, in which we were asked to assign truth values in terms of a percentage of truth.) My goal in opening up a broader range of possibilities than most seem to acknowledge is not to suggest abandoning the question to assign a definite value; it is to increase clarity about the instances in which that goal has, not been achieved.

What labels do we want to use? What follows is not an exact science. It is just a series of categories designed to reflect the different kinds of outlook we can take on a given statement, the different ways we can think about its truth or falsehood. This list reflects my own sense of the possible outcomes whenever I try to assess truth value in my own life. They are the responses, I actually see myself using. Anyway, I would suggest the following labels:

False: When you think a statements is false. This is the label you want to use for it.

Indeterminate: Sometimes you just can’t tell whether a statement is true or false. This may be because you don’t know enough about the subject matter to assess whether any claims made about it are right or wrong, and sometimes the issue in question is just so complicated that the more you know, the harder it is to say one way or the other. In such cases, we want to acknowledge that we cannot determine the truth value of the statement.

We can break the ‘indeterminate’ value down into a few different categories depending on the specific considerations that lead us to it.

               Soft: Sometimes you just don’t know enough about a subject to say one way or another whether a claim made about it is true. It’s not that the answer is unknowable; it’s just that you don’t yourself know the answer, and you are not planning to do the research to find out. Fair enough! In such cases, you could say that truth value of the statement in question is ‘indeterminate (soft).’ Note: If you were actually debating someone and this was how you thought about a claim they made, it would probably be appropriate to give the claim a pass or treat it as true by default (see below). Unless you are prepared to argue the point, it would be rude and unhelpful to just withhold judgement and refuse to engage in any explicit discussion of the claim. Under normal circumstances, an ‘indeterminate (soft)’ value should result in giving the claim an effective pass. The only time I would consider using this would be if I knew the claim was critical to an argument despite my own personal inability to make a judgement about it. Even then, I would tend to grant the benefit of the doubt to the author of the argument.

               On Hold: Sometimes, you don’t know enough to make a decision at the present time, but it’s worth doing some research on the subject. If you really are planning to take steps to help you understand the issues necessary to assess the truth of a statement, then you might say the value of the statement is (as far as you are concerned) ‘indeterminate (hold).’ If you were talking to someone about the subject when you came to this position, you might want to ask them to give you some time to think about it. Barring any specific time constraints, most reasonable people will grant this.

               Hard: Sometimes, the truth of a given question is simply beyond our means to answer it, at least for the foreseeable future. This does not necessarily mean that the question is inherently unanswerable, just that you are unlikely to achieve a satisfactory answer given your present means of addressing the issue. Was Abraham Lincoln enjoying the show when he was shot at Ford’s theater, for example? We can ask the question, but it is unlikely (though not impossible) that we will find an answer for it. When this kind of problem arises, we want to provide some indication of it. In such cases, you might say that the statements has the value of ‘indeterminate (hard).’ We don’t know whether or not it is true, and we are unlikely to learn any time soon.

               Variable: Sometimes critical thought about a given statement leaves us with the impression that a given statement may be true in one sense and false in others, or that some specific circumstances will radically change its truth value. In such cases we could say that the value of a statement is ‘indeterminant (variable).‘

Default (True or False): Sometimes we have to make choices in the absence of clear information about the truth of a given claim. In such cases, our judgement may be determined by a default value. In criminal courts within the United States, for example, defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. In such cases, the default judgement for a claim that someone is guilty of an offense is to regard the accusation as false until given good reason to believe otherwise. There may be other contexts in which default judgements are critical to resolution of a problem, in which case, we could say that a given statement is considered ‘true by default’ or false by ‘default.’

It’s worth bearing in mind that default truth values may be more trouble than they are worth. Christian apologists and atheists, for example, will often spend an entire conversation debating the question of which party bears the responsibility to meet the burden of proof, which is essentially a question about default truth values. In such cases, the debate over burdens of proof will often be the only debate they ever actually end up having, this derailing the very discussion such questions are supposed to help frame in the first place. Some default truth values may not be this tricky, but do not be surprised if appeal to a default value draws an objection from others when you express your thinking in these terms.

Pass: When you skip evaluation of a statement, you are giving it a ‘pass.’

True: When you are relatively sure that a statement is just true, you would use this label for it.

True With Reservations (or Caveats): Sometimes a person is prepared to vouch for the truth of a claim, but with some reservations. They may be concerned about specific implications of the statement, or they may hold out for the possibility that some unknown fact could change their judgement on the issue. In principle, this is the roughly same as an ‘indeterminate’ value, except in that it begins with a positive affirmation. In such cases, we would say that we regard a statement as ‘true, but with reservations’ or ‘true with caveats’.

Interactional Eclipse

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.

Stupid Questions

We’ve all heard it said that there are no stupid questions. Most of us have probably said it a time or two in the course of our lives. That said, most of us have probably heard a question or two that really did strike us as stupid after all. Whether or not you’ve actually called out a stupid question by name is, well, …another question, but most of us, I reckon, have thought about a question or two with a certain trace of contempt.

It’s a dilemma. There is something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to say ‘hands off!’ Don’t criticize this! Be nice! There is also something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to put them back in the category of fair game.

…some of them anyway.

Why protect questions? I don’t think the issue is literally that there are no stupid questions. The problem has more to do with how you treat people than how one things about the intellectual merits of a query. Calling something ‘stupid’ isn’t usually all that helpful, to begin with. The real issue here is the likelihood that somebody asking a question is already putting herself in a vulnerable position. The fact that she is asking a question suggests that she is seeking new information, and so it seems particularly unhelpful to respond to such a request by mocking its source. She just said doesn’t know the answer, so why would you mock her? No matter how obvious the answer should be, mocking someone for asking a question seems pointlessly cruel, and very unhelpful. So, when someone is asking a question, it just seems like a good rule of thumb to give maximum charity to their question itself and to any impressions we may form about the person asking it.

There are of course exceptions to this.

It is worth remembering, for example, that sometimes people ask a question, not because they don’t know the answer themselves, but because they have other reasons for wanting you to be the one who actually produces the answer. It is often said of lawyers, for example, that they like to know in advance the answers to any question they ask a witness at trial. One might think of them as using the witness to help them tell a story rather than soliciting new information. We can of course find comparable examples outside a courtroom. In such cases, all our assumptions about the nature of a question and what it says about the person asking it go right out the window. In such instances, we may still wish to refrain from calling a question ‘stupid’, but that no longer has to do with any special kindness to the one asking it.

All of which brings us to an uncomfortable point; whether or not one ever wishes to tell someone their question is a stupid one, one ought to remember that questions are not entirely above suspicion. A poorly framed question can send anyone thinking about it down the wrong path, and some questions can be highly deceitful or at least terribly wrong-headed. Other questions come loaded with so much interactional significance that the information exchange requested pales in comparison to the social dynamics at issue. Either way, questions can pose a whole host of concerns other than just the need to figure out an answer to them. The problem with such questions is rarely that the answer should be obvious. In that sense, the ‘no stupid questions’ principle still holds. Nevertheless, some questions can be highly problematic.

What follows is a list of the types of questions one might want to twice before answering.

Is the list incomplete, you may ask?

Good question!


Complex Questions: Perhaps the most commonly known pitfall in problematic questions would have to be the complex question fallacy (sometimes known as a ‘leading question’ or even a ‘trick question’). A complex question is phrased in such a way as to presuppose an assumption which is itself problematic. To answer the question is to grant the assumption. The classic example of a complex question fallacy is the question; “Have you stopped beating your wife?” A ‘yes’ answer affirms that you used to beat her. A ‘no’ answer means you still are beating her. Either way, answering the question puts you in a bad light, and (assuming you don’t beat a wife, which you may or may not have), your best hope to steer clear of the trap is to deny the terms outright and refuse to answer the question as it has been asked.

The trick to handling a complex question is recognizing it in the first place (and hopefully you will do that BEFORE you have answered it). Once you see it for what it is, it is best to call out the assumption that was embedded in the original question and state your objections to that assumption. This is the reason you are not answering the question.

Don’t be surprised if people sometimes try to taunt you into answering the question after all. It is particularly common in some online interactions to find people will just keep telling you that you still haven’t answered the question or that they are still waiting for it. The goal here is to suggest that your refusal to answer the question is a failure of some sort, the implication being that you either do not know the answer or you are embarrassed to admit the real answer out loud. Of course, sometimes people really do duck an honest question, but a complex question is not an honest question, and it does not deserve an answer. So, you are better off sticking to your guns.

Of course, not every complex question is a direct personal attack as in the example above, but whatever the assumption that is embedded in the question, granting it means something. Usually, that meaning if far more important than the specific answer you may give to the question. Even when the question is theoretical, it really is best to avoid answering a complex question.

Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question is a really a statement put in the form of a question. Usually, this is done for rhetorical effect. Let us say, I tell you that student had called me at 2am in the morning to ask whether or not they had an assignment due the next day. I then follow this by saying; “Is that a time to be calling me about homework?” If I do this, I am not really asking if that’s a good time to call; I am saying that it definitely isn’t. My question is rhetorical, and most likely you would understand this, but what if you didn’t? Were you to answer my question by saying; “sure,” and then going about explaining your answer, I am probably going to get frustrating and put you on my do not call list right along with the student.

The trouble with answering a rhetorical question isn’t as sharp as it is with a Complex Question. You don’t end up admitting to something terrible. Instead, you will may find yourself encountering significant resistance to the answer (or even outright hostility as a result of that answer) The person who asks such a question actually assumes the answer is obvious, and if you try to suggest otherwise you are raising an issue they themselves regard as closed. If your answer doesn’t match theirs, then you are in for a long haul.

The trick is to realize when a question is rhetorical.

The challenge to handling a rhetorical question is a lot like that of dealing with a suppressed premise in an argument. Because the implied answer to a rhetorical question was originally thought to be obvious, any subsequent discussion may involve extra stress.

Once you know that you are dealing with a rhetorical question, you have a couple options for addressing it. If you agree with the implied answer, then so be it. Nod your head and grunt affirmation. The conversation will then move on. If you don’t agree, then you should realize your answer will likely be the opening round of an argument, and that argument is a little more likely than normal to be with someone who doesn’t want to listen. One strategy that may help is to suggest that the other person explain their own reasons for thinking as they do, thus spelling out the point they have already made for you. At that point, you will be in a better position to consider their views and respond accordingly. Also, the person you are talking to may feel better about the susequent discussion after having expressed themselves more fully before hearing your objections. Either way, you will understand each other better once the original speaker’s thoughts on the matter have been expressed more directly.

Suggestive Questions: Sometimes the point of a question is really to make a suggestion. “Are you gonna check the expiration date on that milk?” or “Do you want to run a spell-check on this post?” might be good examples. “Are you going to check the oil in the car?” would be another. Putting these suggestions in the form of a question might be meant to leave an out for the person being asked, but in some cases, you could literally translate the question into a statement, a request, or even a command.

In most cases, suggestive questions are no big deal. The phrasing of a suggestion in the form of a question may serve to soften the tone of the suggestion, or it may be clever, or it may be the tip of the passive-aggressive iceberg. Either way, you can usually deal with these questions without too much drama. There is at least one type of suggestive question that can pose real problems, however, the accusatory question.

It should also be pointed out that suggestive questions come very close to being rhetorical questions. In many cases, they may be quite synonymous, but in most instances, a suggestive question will leave the person asked an out, so to speak. They can say ‘no,’ but the point of the question was to urge a ‘yes’ to the suggestion.

Accusatory Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the sole purpose of poisoning the well. This is usually done for the benefit of an audience. When facing such questions, your own answer is quite beside the point. The only reason you were asked is because the person asking the question wants to suggest something that will prove personally embarrassing to you. Examples?

“Is it true that you are a sexual deviant?”

“Are you a socialist?”

“an atheist?”

“Isn’t it true you are only doing this because you are mad about _____?”

Hopefully, you get the idea. Of course, any one of these questions could be asked honestly of some people in some contexts, and depending on the audience or the community in which they operate, the answers may not even be all that troublesome. In other cases, the questions are asked in order to malign someone’s character and demean them in front of others. Depending on the audience, the question alone may be sufficient to give them a negative view of the person asked.

Things just get worse from there!

As the point behind such questions is really to make an accusation, any answer given is likely to be unhelpful. You may be given the courtesy of a chance to deny it, but doing so may actually just strengthen the impression that you are guilty, and in the court of public opinion, answering an accusation may effectively keep a harmful narrative in the news cycle. There isn’t really a clear and obvious way of handling such questions, but it is important to realize when you are facing them. The other person isn’t really asking you anything; they are making an accusation. One tactic you might consider using is to insist that the other person put their own cards on the table and present any evidence they may have in support of the accusation. If you can show that they don’t have any reason to ask the question to begin with, then there is a chance any audience will see the question as the cheap shot that it was. That will get you further than providing an honest answer to a dishonest question.

Diversionary Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the purpose of changing the subject. Diversionary questions can be subtle, or they can be blatant, but either way the point is to shift the conversation to something the questioner would rather talk about than the topic at hand. They can also be used to slow down a discussion and bring a speaker back to a point already covered. Alternatively, they can be used to speed up a discussion and push a speaker to address advanced points before they have covered the most basic pieces of information necessary to handle those advanced topics. Diversionary questions can also just change the subject altogether.

The person asking diversionary questions may believe them to be relevant or they may be very deliberately trying to pull you off topic because they would rather talk about something else. Either way, the trick to handling a diversionary question is to recognize that it will effectively change the topic and refuse to go along with it. Whether or not your refusal is phrased politely may depend a little bit on just how politely the diversionary question was worded and/or the degree to which the questioner insists on pressing their question. It can sometimes work to say that you would like to answer the question later, but first you wish to finish discussing the current topic. A reasonable person will likely accept this. An unreasonable person may press. Mileage varies!

Start-from-Scratch Questions: One of the hardest things to deal with in the context of intellectual discussion is one which asks a speaker ready to address a complex subject to address one or more really basic points in dealing with that subject. You can only cover so much ground in a single discussion. So, if you are starting with the most basic building blocks of a topic, then you may not get to the complicated stuff at all. People focused on complex problems may also find it difficult to shift gears and think about basics when that wasn’t what they were prepared to do in that particular conversation. So, asking a start-from-scratch question in the context of a discussion where the answers might normally be assumed can effectly throw a speaker off her game. This may be an accident or it may actually be the point of the question. What to do about it depends a lot on how one assesses the situation.

If the person asking you to start from scratch appears to be sincerely, then the best course of action may be to shift gears and go ahead and discuss the basics. You may not get to the more complex information you had hoped to talk about, but if the person you are talking to needs more basic information, then you are better off covering that anyway. Now if that person is outnumbered by a group reading to get into the thick of complex issue, then you may have to balance their needs and interests against those of the larger conversation. Either way, so long as the question was asked in all sincerity, it should be possible to manage the conversation.

The real problem here is that sometimes people ask start-from-scratch questions, not because they really want to know the basics, but because they mean to make you work for every single piece of information you wish to claim. Socrates did this, and he became a hero to philosophy (though he doesn’t seem to have impressed the Athenian community of his own era). Internet trolls also do this. Most of us just find them irritating. The tactic is akin to sealioning and/or rhetorical questions, but the main point here is that when someone actually knows a topic well asks very basic questions, they are likely preparing to call into question answers we like to take for granted. This can be a great intellectual exercise if everyone is game for the challenge. It can also be a form interpersonal aggression clearly intended to aggravate others and/or to prevent people from forming meaningful conclusions to serious questions.

What to do about a start-from-scratch question? It’s your call. Considerations include the following questions:

Do you think the question is asked in sincerity? Are they really in need of basic instruction? Alternatively, do they openly acknowledge their own intentions for asking such a question?

What are your own obligations to answer questions? Is this your job or are you free to decline the task at hand? How patient are you? How likely is the questioner to try our patience or to listen to your answers?

Unanswerable Questions: Some questions simply cannot be answered. No, this isn’t usually because they are extra profound. It is far more likely that the question is in some sense incoherent. These usually fall into two categories; questions that employ contradictory terms, and those employ vague terms. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” would be a good example of the first. So would; “What color is the sound of a horn?” (though my old philosophy professor insisted the answer to this was obviously ‘blue’.) The second sort of question would include such gems as “is the United States of America exceptional?” or “Are you a spiritual person?”

Questions of the first sort are a bit like complex questions. They cannot really be answered in their own terms. One has only to explain what the problem is. One hand cannot clap by itself. It must at least be clapping up against something or it is not clapping at all. We either need to know what that other thing is, or we should probably just skip the question.

Questions of the second sort can be addressed by trying to define the terms in such a manner as to make a clear answer possible, but people asking such questions are often invested in the enigma of vagaries to begin with. Each effort to spell out what one means by ‘higher power’ or ‘exceptional’ is likely to leave the person asking them unsatisfied with the subsequent answer. In some cases, it might be better to just skip these questions to.

Assignment Questions: Sometimes the problem with a question is not in the question itself; it is in our own inability to provide a serious answer at the time and place in which it is asked. People typically answer them in one of three ways; by answering anyway, by asking for more time to study, or by flat out refusing to answer the question after all.

Those answering anyway may try to finesse the issue by using vague terms or even diversionary tactics, or they may just take a guess based on whatever information they have available. They might acknowledge their lack of confidence openly or they might try to bluff their way through it. Either way, the decision to answer anyway involves the risk of getting the answer wrong, and possibly looking very foolish in the process of doing so.

Asking for time to study-up on the answer to a question may or may not go over well, depending on the expectations of those asking the questions and or any audience present. It’s also worth considering whether or not the time it takes to study up on the answer to a question will be well spent in doing so. In professional contexts, one might be expected to do the work in question and get back to people, but if the discussion is unmotivated by any clear practical interests, then one may be better off admitting that he is not in a position to answer and that additional time is not likely to change this fact. On the other hand, sometimes a good question can send us to google or to a library and the end-result can be be provided later. When this is possible, most reasonable people will accept it.

The hard part to such questions is often admitting to oneself at least that you don’t know to begin with.

Thunder-stealing Questions: Sometimes people ask a question knowing full-well what the answer is and/or that the answer will be forthcoming if they just wait a moment. In at least some cases, the point of asking the question is really to steal the initiative for addressing the issue from the person being asked. Case in point, upon hearing a teacher announce a new essay assignment, and knowing very well that the teacher is likely to announce a deadline and a minimum word count, one student may ask; “When is this due?” Another asks; “How long does this one have to be?” Students may be doing so as part of a genuine effort to get an answer or even because they are overly-eager to get started thinking about ir, but they can also do so as a means of transforming the power dynamic in the classroom. Changing the instructions into an interrogation of sorts can undermine the authority of the teacher and create the impression that the students are driving the conversation.

Conversely, I once a saw a faculty member go through a proposal from administration, asking a series of accusatory question (“How are you going to deal with this?” and “What about___?” The administrator had answers to each question, but each answer effectively came across in a defensive tone. I finally realized my colleague was actually staying a paragraph or two ahead of the administrator as she went through the document, effectively asking questions the answers to which we had already been provided and would have discussed in a few minutes anyway. The point of asking these questions was to dominate the discussion and create the impression the admin hadn’t thought about these things and addressed them only after being pressed on the matter.

What do you do about this kind of question? Quite frankly, the best answer may be nothing. You just answer them and move on. Anyone aware of the dynamics in question will likely know what is going on anyway, and many of these power games are only as important as you let them be. The biggest problem posed by such questions can be the fact that they involve an interruption, so if you get a lot of them, it can be difficult to keep up, and/or they can disrupt the order at which you meant to move through the issues. If that is a problem, or if it seems like the damage to one’s credibility is getting serious, it may be worth it to claim the floor, so to speak, and ask people to withhold their questions until after one is done with an initial presentation.

Of course, this leaves open the question of what to do about isolated thunder-stealers; “are you going to get me flowers for my birthday?” may effectively weaken the power of the gesture, but that isn’t a question of handling an audience; it’s a question of handling a relationship.

Um, good luck!

Helpful Principles of Reasoning

Some of the ideas commonly cited as logical principles are probably better thought of as matters of argumentative ethics rather than the calculation of logical relations between different statements or propositions. They involve assumptions about how best to go about reasoning with others (which of course includes ideas about how to read and interpret the efforts of others to reason with us). The list of such ideas would certainly include: Burdens of Proof, Ockham’s Razor, and the Principle of Charity as well as some logical fallacies. Many assume that these principles are as much a part of any logical system as anything one might encounter in formal logic (say, the principle of double-negation). Others dismiss these ideas outright. I think it best, really, to regard them as practical decisions which help to facilitate a more productive approach to reasoning. One cannot give the same account of such principles that she might for concepts like double-negation, yet they can help us shape our arguments and our analysis of arguments into something more productive than it would be otherwise.

Burden of Proof: This is the notion that in any given debate, one side may bear more responsibility than the other for producing evidence in favor of its position. This principle is enshrined, for example, in the American legal system wherein we typically regard people as innocent until proven guilty (at least with respect to criminal charges). The notion has also generated a great deal of interest in the philosophy of religion wherein debates between atheists and believers often focus on questions about the responsibilities of each regarding the production of evidence for and against belief.

Much of the issue turns on questions about the (a)symmetry of affirmative and negative propositions. If we take any given proposition (p), the question arises as to whether or not its affirmation (p) is equivalent to its negation (not p). Given that P and Not P are contradictory propositions, this would seem to suggest that the two have equivalent value. If one is true, the other must be false. If it is false, then the other must be true. This would seem to suggest that any given proposition and its negation are equivalent for purposes of logical testing. That argument seems plausible, but it rests on a very formal approach to the subject. It doesn’t take into account some of the vagaries of semantics (questions of meaning) or the practical constraints that may skew the production of evidence and/or the significance that evidence would have in practical reasoning. This is where the case for asymmetry arises (i.e. the view that there are significant differences between the truth value of affirmative propositions and their negations).

One argument for asymmetry rests on the notion that negation (or at least some versions of negation) itself is inherently ambiguous. In some cases, such as predicate term negation, the conditions under which the truth of a negative claim could be established are fairly clear. If, for example someone were to say’ “Dan is in Barrow, Alaska,” I could say no, and I could do so on very definite grounds (i.e. that I am presently on vacation in Azusa, California). In this case, my rejection of the initial claim is based on a very clear condition in which the facts asserted in the claim are not consistent with the evidence at hand. If all negations were so simple, one could as easily accept the burden of proof for negative claims as one could for affirmations. But some negations are more complex than that. If I reject the claim that “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” I could no longer point to a specific fact that disproves the proposition. Rather, my argument would pertain to the nonsensical nature of the statement itself (which was of course precisely the point of Noam Chomsky’s original presentation of it). Instead of proving the point wrong in any fact-based argument, I would be challenging the meaning the statement, and (if that statement had a legitimate proponent) challenging her to produce something more meaningful before moving on to questions about the factual evidence that would confirm or deny it. For this, and several other reasons, it is sometimes suggested that negation is more problematic than affirmation. To affirm that a statement is true, one must accept as meaningful all of its terms and affirm the state of affairs they describe. In contrast, one may reject a proposition on the basis of other concerns.

On a more practical level, one can point to the difficulties that arise from specific contexts of contested claims. If I assert that one of my students (let’s call him ‘Bill’) cheated on a test, most people would regard it as unfair for me to suggest that it was Bill’s responsibility to prove me wrong. I would normally be expected to put mown reasons for saying this on the table. If I can produce evidence that he did cheat, then it might be fair to expect Bill to answer that evidence. So, for example, if I showed that his essay looked a lot like a Wikipedia entry, I would expect him to show that I was wrong or accept the consequences for cheating. What I could not do is expect Bill to prove that he had not cheated on the test himself without providing any reason to believe he had done so in the first place. (More important, I suspect that in such an example the Dean of Instruction at my college would expect me to produce an account of my reasons for thinking the student had cheated. Only then would she turn to the student for a response to the accusation.)

There is no Bill by the way, at least I’m not talking about one. If any past or future Bill’s read this, no I’m not talking about you. Really, I’m not.

This last example helps to illustrate something else that’s interesting about burdens of proof; it is only one component in a complex dialogue, one responsibility which may (or may not) fall to a particular party in a debate. Once an initial case for the affirmative side in a debate has been made, it is common to expect that a burden of moving the debate forward will pass to the other side. He or she cannot simply sit there and say ‘no, no, no’. At some point, she must address the claims made by others, either by producing a direct case of her own (i.e. proving the affirmative claim wrong, much as one might do in the case of predicate term negation) or by refuting some aspect of the case against her. Another consideration here lies in the way that possession of the burden of proof can also be tied to the privilege of shaping and defining the terms of debate. If I am attempting to prove that Bill cheated, then I am the one putting forward a specific case, applying a specific definition of what it means to cheat to the situation. Bill may take issue with any of these elements (including the definitions I apply to relevant terms), but in all likelihood, the terms of the debate will be set by my efforts to provide an initial case against him. So, the burden of proof is not a uniformly disadvantageous thing to carry into a discussion. It comes with benefits too.

The fact that burdens of proof are themselves subject to debate does provide one significant argument against invoking them. Their role in legal reasoning is set by established conventions, of course, but in less structured contexts such as the aforementioned debates between atheists and theists, questions about who does and who does not have the burden of proof are every bit as troublesome as those about whether or not God exists, who She is, or what sort of church She wants you to go to. So, instead of helping to shape a productive conversation, invoking this principle often serves to provide the sticking point which stops that debate from happening. This doesn’t make the concerns that lead people to argue for asymmetric burdens less valid, but it does serve to suggest that advancing them may not help you communicate effectively with any particular person.

Ockham’s Razor (alt. Occam’s Razor): This principle is attributed to the Franciscan Friar William of Ockham who formulation is usually translated as follows: “Plurality must never be posited without necessity.” Ockham wasn’t actually the first to articulate the principle, and he certainly wasn’t the last, but he was known to use this principle rather often. One of the more common reformulations of the rule reads; “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.” Perhaps the expression most in keeping with the rule itself is; “The simplest explanation is the best.” Perhaps , we could simply say; “keep it simple stupid.”

…okay, that’s probably too simple.

Anyway, the concept here is that given different alternative explanations for the same thing, we ought to choose the one that makes the fewest assumptions possible. This is sometimes described as the principle of Ontological Parsimony. Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that we should opt for explanations faulty explanations on the grounds that they are often simpler than accurate ones. The idea here is to shed unnecessary assumptions when they do not actually add accuracy to the explanation. It is a rule of thumb that applies when all other things are equal.

Oddly enough, this principle of simplicity raises all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of reasoning in general, and about the practice of scientific explanation in particular, but for our purposes here it is enough to think of it as a good rule of thumb when considering alternative explanations with roughly equal explanatory value. This rule of thumb is not strictly a function of truth-functional relations between propositions, or even about how to weigh evidence. It comes into play only after the evidence is judged to fall equally on two or more theories (assuming that ever really happens), so it is more a question about the practical choices one makes when reasoning than the logical relations between inferences. Hence, its inclusion in this list.

Principle of Charity: The principle of charity comes into play when to interpret another person’s reasoning. As it happens, we can often interpret what another person says in more than one way. If we are talking to them, or otherwise engaging in continuous dialogue (say by email or chat-room) we can sometimes clear this up by simply asking them what they mean, but if we are stuck with a written text and no clear way of soliciting clarification, then sometimes we have to choose between multiple plausible interpretations.

In such cases, the principle of charity would tell us to choose the interpretation that provides the most sound construction of the argument in question. As an extension of this, one ought to refrain from treating an ambiguous text as an argument if the only argument this then produces would then be obviously unsound.

This may seem like another way of telling people to play nice, but the principle of charity is also about ensuring that your own efforts to evaluate an argument are actually productive and useful. Given the opportunity to stick someone with an argument containing an accidental (unnecessary) flaw, will enable one to reject their reasoning, but if that flaw isn’t essential to their point, then the resulting evaluation will apply to a less intellectually useful version of their argument. By contrast, if you construe an ambiguous argument in the most charitable way possible, then should that argument prove unsound, your evaluation will be more decisive. By following the principle of charity, we choose not only to give those whose arguments we consider a better chance of approval, we also ensure that our own time and effort will be spent considering serious thoughts and substantive considerations.

I think the practical nature of this principle is self-evident. It is not strictly a function of logical relationships. One might add that there are clearly circumstances in which people may not wish to follow this rule of thumb. Certainly a Public Relations representative or a lawyer, perhaps even a politician, may gain some ground by exploiting ambiguities in the positions of their opponents. Whether or not that always helps them in the long run is an interesting question, but it seems fair to say that in at least some cases some people may accomplish their own goals better by violating this principle than by following it. In the realm of academic study, this is perhaps less likely than some of these other contexts. (Note that I do not say it never happens in academia, or even that it would never be sound practice to adopt an uncharitable interpretation of someone with an opposing view.) Suffice it to say that there are genuine benefits to following the principle of charity, and that such benefits have led many to recommend some version of it to those new to the subject.

Two additional considerations: Note that the principle of charity does not mean that one ought to improve upon the arguments of others before evaluating them. It sometimes happens that one will hear an argument and realize that you could improve upon it by changing some of its details. You can choose to do this or not as you see fit (perhaps after responding to the argument as it stands), but this isn’t really about the principle of charity. The principle of charity apples only insofar as one is considering plausible variations on the argument one has actually been presented.

Secondly, if a controversy generates sufficient interest in the public, it will produce a variety of different arguments in favor of different positions. When evaluating those positions, one may be confronted with a choice of different arguments with varying degrees of worth. One may even find that the less worthwhile arguments in favor of a position are significantly more popular than the more thoughtful variations. In such cases, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with commenting on the cheaper variations on a theme (it may even be helpful), providing that doing so does not become a substitute for responding to the better and more sound variants. One should also take care to avoid responding to the more thoughtful variations on a stance as though they were producing the cheaper (and more easily dismissed variants). Given sufficient time and space, it is often worthwhile to produce separate responses to the different variations of a position, dealing with each according to its own merits.

Fallacies: Some fallacies can be understood in terms of practical assumptions about the purpose and social context of reasoning.

Ad ignorantiam (appeal to ignorance): These arguments explicitly turn on questions about the burdens of proof required of participants in reasoning. While it is possible to think of the ad ignorantiam fallacy as occurring whenever someone fails to provide a reason for a conclusion, the possibility that burdens of proof may be skewed by the nature of the propositions in question puts this fallacy on the table whenever people raise such questions.

Circular Argument (begging the question): It’s one of the more interesting features of circular arguments that they actually pass some of the tests of deductive validity (if the premises of a circular argument are true, the conclusion must be true). That should make them valid arguments, right? Still, we don’t think of it that way, and the difference lies in the rhetorical purpose of making an argument in the first place. Simply put, a circular argument fails because it fails to provide a reason worthy of consideration. This is only a problem if we regard the purpose of the argument as one of providing a new reason to begin with. So, this fallacy brings us back to the practical significance of argumentation. It is less a problem of inference relations than a failure of persuasion.