Thursday, October 11, 2012

Philosophical Attitudes in Arguments and Critical Comments

One of the slightly liberating effects of a philosophy course is to encourage freedom from the emotional tyranny of words. In philosophical discourse, words like "criticism" and "argument" are assumed to be used in an "emotively neutral" fashion. Emotively neutral language use is neither positively nor negatively slanted and is selected to avoid invoking emotion which might distract from the issues being analyzed.

In particular, the words, “argument” and “criticism” and their ilk, as used in the profession are not intended to be taken as terms of disapproval incurring emotional negativity. The everyday practice of not taking personal offense from someone’s personal disagreement with your beliefs is sometimes an ideal difficult to maintain, even for writers or teachers of philosophy habituated to relative emotional neutrality when constructing and discussion interpretation and theory.

Many beginning philosophy students, however, consider the criticism of another person's ideas, and the receptions of criticism of their ideas from detractors to be impolite and oafish. Pointing out an inconsistency in reasoning is seen, by and large, as an ad hominem attack on the character of the advocate. On such occasions, an exchange of ideas can quickly deteriorate into a personal quarrel.

Nonetheless, an objective of doing philosophy well is the mastery of "translating" emotively laden language into emotionally neutral terms in order to evaluate the logic of critical remarks and, consequently, couching our arguments in neutral language. An example of how we can stray from neutral language was illustrated by Bertrand Russell when he indicated how the same behavioral characteristic of an individual who consistently maintains an idea can be viewed from dissimilar points of view, depending upon the individual being discussed:
I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pigheaded fool. [Quoted in Irving M. Copi and Carl Cohen, Introduction to Logic (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 98.]
As another example taken as best I can remember from Thomas S. Vernon and Lowell A. Nissen, consider the state of little Mary’s room as described by three different persons:
The belongings in little Mary’s room were strewn about in gay profusion; little Mary’s room is untidy; Little Mary’s room is a pigsty. [Thomas S. Vernon and Lowell A. Nissen, Reflective Thinking: The Fundamentals of Logic (Kendall Hunt, 1976).]
As is evident in these “conjugations,” the transition of these statements progresses increasingly negative, but the contextual literal significance or logical import of the statements attributes virtually the same characteristic of “a person whose ideas have not changed.” The intention, then, of philosophical argumentation is to dispassionately seek truth by stripping the emotive slanting of the expression of ideas in order to evaluate them neutrally -- in a word, to take philosophical disagreements as the rational exchange of ideas. If, in a philosophical discussion, it turns out that we are mistaken in our reasoning, we might learn; if it turns out we are not mistaken, we might teach; if the disagreement is left problematic, we might achieve an open mind.

For practical examples of dealing with criticism in philosophy and everyday life, enjoy Leo Babauta's discerning short essay on "How to Accept Criticism with Grace and Appreciation": on his zenhabits Website.

Also, for practice of working with emotive significance,  the two exercises in the tutorial “Emotive Significance” might be found to be entertaining.