I’m teaching critical reasoning this term. It’s one of my favorite classes because it’s so important. Few things are as empowering as being able to reason well. And yet this skill is also a source of enormous frustration in that it is so rare it’s also rarely appreciated. That is, it takes someone who is good at analyzing arguments to be able to recognize when someone else has actually legitimately won an argument rather than simply pummeled his opponent with a hodgepodge of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric.
I have to explain this to my students. I have to explain to them that reasoning well is actually a rare skill and that people who do not have it will often think they’ve won an argument when they haven’t. You can try, of course, to explain to them what is wrong with their pseudo-argumentation but most people won’t even be able to follow the explanation let alone accept they’ve been beaten in an argument.
This point was driven home to me again recently when I found myself on the receiving end of a hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric in the “Letters” section of the Times Literary Supplement in response to a critical review I had done of a book, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (Allen Lane, 2019), by one of their regular reviewers, Clare Carlisle.
The first barrage of pseudo argumentation came from Carlise herself who began her letter with the observation that she knew of me only via my “online dissections of other scholars’ work.” Of course I was thrilled to see my blog described this way, but Carlisle clearly did not intend it as a compliment. It was an ad hominem. That is, I am disparaged personally twice in that one sentence. I am purportedly obscure, in that my work has not come to Carlisle’s attention, hence I’m not qualified to comment on her book. Moreover, I’m not a nice person because I “dissect” the work of other scholars (I was actually taught that such dissection was an important part of what scholarship is.)
This ad hominem is followed immediately by a straw man. That is, Carlisle accuses me of being unable to appreciate the unique genre of her book. which is a combination of biography and philosophy. This is a straw man, which is to say a mischaracterization of one’s opponent’s argument, in that my criticism was that the book was in fact a combination of biography and fiction in that Carlisle simply makes up thoughts that she attributes to Kierkegaard without this qualification, and in that she gets some facts wrong.
This straw man is then followed by a claim that is demonstrably false. That is, I had mentioned in my review that the references in the book were incomplete. This charge, claimed Carlisle “is simply false.” Except that it isn’t simply false, as I detailed in a letter in the “Letters” section the following week where I cited by page number four of the many quotations for which she is missing references.
I doubt that Carlisle intentionally lied when she asserted that my charge that the book’s references were incomplete was false. She just didn’t bother to check to see if she might have forgotten to include a reference here or there.
Following immediately upon this falsehood is another straw man. Here, instead of responding to my observation that she had based her claim that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity on a conflation of two distinct Danish terms, she mischaracterizes my criticism as a claim that ambivalence and deep commitment are mutually exclusive and argues that it is possible to be both deeply committed to something and ambivalent about it. This point needs further qualification, of course, in that while it is certainly possible to have these conflicting feelings intermittently with respect to the same object, it is not possible to have them simultaneously with respect to the same object. They are mutually exclusive.
That’s not the point, however. The point is that whether it’s possible to be both ambivalent about something while also being deeply committed to it was entirely irrelevant to my criticism. My criticism was that Carlisle had used Kierkegaard’s pejorative references to “Christendom” to support her claim that he was ambivalent about Christianity when she should have known that Kierkegaard does not use “Christendom” to refer to Christianity. but to a culture that purports to be Christian but is not. I made that point very clear in my review, so it is disingenuous of Carlisle to ignore it and and argue instead against a point I did not make.
Carlisle next accuses me of “grim positivism,” a charge it would appear she does not even properly understand because she advances it against my criticism that her portrait of Kierkegaard is “not new” whereas positivism concerns whether claims have been adequately supported by evidence, not whether they are novel (for more on this charge see “‘Grim Positivism’ vs. Truthiness in Biography”).
Next Carlisle inserts a red herring in that she observes that “the facts of [Kierkegaard’s] life are expertly documented in the recently completed critical edition of his journals and in earlier biographies.” She doesn’t argue, as one might expect, that these other sources support her account of the facts of Kierkegaard’s life, hence her reference to them is a red herring. That is, whether the facts of Kierkegaard’s life have been documented somewhere else is irrelevant to the issue of whether she has gotten them right.
Following on this red herring is another ad hominem. Among the earlier biographies that she asserts, erroneously, have expertly documented the facts of Kierkegaard’s life is “Joakim Garff’s monumental SAK, which Piety has been hounding through the dark tunnels of her blog for years.” Unfortunately, whatever the strengths of Garff’s biography may be, expert documentation is not among them. In fact, some of Garff’s facts were proven by another Danish scholar, Peter Tudvad, to have been wrong. That is not the point, however. The point is that Carlisle invokes non-argumentative rhetoric (“dark tunnels”) to disparage both my character (I am a bully) and a blog that she clearly has not even read because if she had read it, she would realize that of the more than 115 posts, fewer than half a dozen have Garff or SAK as their subject and that one of those is very positive.
Carlisle closes, finally, with the informal fallacy known as the sob story, or appeal to pity, in that she asserts that she found it “rather difficult” to write Philosopher of the Heart, as if the fact that she struggled to produce the book could legitimately be advanced as a defense against substantive criticisms of it.
Carlisle’s letter to the editor of the TLS is, from beginning to end, nothing but informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric. Nowhere does she present a genuine response to any of the substantive criticisms I advanced against her book. What would possess Carlisle, a scholar, to write such a letter?
To return to the point about how few people have well-developed reasoning skills, people sometimes “go low,” so to speak, in their “argumentation” simply out of ignorance, or because they can’t distinguish legitimate arguments from pseudo-arguments. Public discourse in the U.S. is so riddled with informal fallacies, etc., and our educational system is generally so bad that it isn’t surprising that even purportedly educated people in this country often stoop to illegitimate rhetorical tactics to defend their positions.
I’d assumed that the situation was better in the U.K. I have to assume, however, that Carlisle is unaware that her letter is nothing but a collection of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric or she wouldn’t have allowed the TLS to print it. After all, scholars usually want to avoid creating a public record that their reasoning skills are weak. What’s going on, I wonder, with the the teaching of critical thinking in the U.K.? I was subjected to a similar hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric by another U.K. theologian, Daphne Hampson, a couple of years ago.
But even if Carlisle is unaware just how poor the reasoning in her letter was, she certainly cannot have failed to be aware that it is bad form to cast aspersions on the character of someone simply because she doesn’t like their evaluation of her work.
It’s tempting to conclude that Carlisle is simply very ill-mannered. I have it on good authority, however, that she’s actually ”a very fine person.” How is it possible, then, that a very fine person could behave so very badly?
The answer to that question is contained in the letter itself. Someone has clearly disparaged me to her. By her own admission she does not know me and is unfamiliar with my work. She has not even actually read my blog or she would have known better than to charge that I use it to harass Joakim Garff. No, Carlisle has herself no first-hand knowledge of the blog, or at least had none when she wrote her letter. Someone had simply told her about it, and about me. Someone had slandered me to her, told her that I was a bad person, so she felt entitled to “go low” in her letter to the editor on the basis of that slander.
“Civility is a wonderful thing, when shared among equals,” writes Jennifer Weiner in a recent article in the New York Times entitled ”Why Did It Feel So Good To See Trump Booed? We are supposed to ”go high” she observes, quoting the former First Lady, even when others go low. ”Except,” she continues, ”it turns out, going low feels wonderful. More than that, if feels effective and proper and just.” “When you’re confronted with evil,” she continues, however, “you don’t shake its hand … If booing is incivility, bring it on.”
Carlisle has been led to believe that I am a bad person, so rather than responding to the substance of my criticisms of her book, she has effectively booed me. That doesn’t mean, of course, that she is not generally “a very fine person.” I’ve seen other purportedly very fine people behave similarly toward individuals they thought were undeserving of civility. It’s an ugly sight. It reminds me of pack animals turning on a member of the pack they deem to be weak. It makes me doubt sometimes that there really is a significant difference between human beings and those animals.
If standards of decency and decorum really are reserved for those we deem to merit decent treatment, then we really are no better than those animals and civilization as we like to think of it, is a chimera.
I will close with the very Kierkegaardian point that the way one treats another person should be a reflection of one’s own character, not of the character, or imagined character, of the other.
(This essay originally appeared in the 1 November 2019 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.)