Monday, August 09, 2004

Schopenhauer's Debate Camp

A few years ago, I wrote a debaters’ guide to logical fallacies. I’m hardly the first person to have created a list of fallacies; my purpose was to discuss how to deploy them in the context of debate – how to refute your opponents’ fallacies, and how to “fix” your own to make them more plausible or respectable. Even in this narrower task, I had plenty of company. Via Language Log, I found Robert Thouless’s “Thirty-eight dishonest tricks which are commonly used in argument, with the methods of overcoming them.” And it turns out that Thouless was apparently paying homage to Arthur Schopenhauer’s thirty-eight stratagems in “The Art of Controversy.” Both lists are excellent, especially the latter. Some selected passages (N.B.: some of these stratagems are not fallacies, but simply clever devices):
If you want to draw a conclusion, you must not let it be foreseen, but you must get the premisses admitted one by one, unobserved, mingling them here and there in your talk: otherwise, your opponent will attempt all sorts of chicanery. Or, if it is doubtful whether your opponent will admit them, you must advance the premisses of these premisses; that is to say, you must draw up pro-syllogisms, and get the premisses of several of them admitted in no definite order. In this way you conceal your game until you have obtained all the admissions that are necessary, and so reach your goal by making a circuit.
A great lesson for anyone performing a cross-examination. I’ve seen dozens of debaters try to force the cross-examinee to admit or deny a main proposition of the debate; utterly pointless. No one will admit what they don’t want to admit. Instead, use the cross-ex to lay the groundwork for your own devastating speech.
If you have no argument ad rem, and none either ad hominem, you can make one ad auditors; that is to say, you can start some invalid objection, which, however, only an expert sees to be invalid. Now your opponent is an expert, but those who form your audience are not, and accordingly in their eyes he is defeated; particularly if the objection which you make places him in any ridiculous light. People are ready to laugh, and you have the laughers on your side. To show that your objection is an idle one, would require a long explanation on the part of your opponent, and a reference to the principles of the branch of knowledge in question, or to the elements of the matter which you are discussing; and people are not disposed to listen to it.
Back in the day, we called this tactic a “time suck”: a point that probably won’t win you the round, but will induce your opponent to waste precious time in refutation. The wit is not strictly necessary, but it sure helps – I’ve seen a good joke swing many a debate round.
“That's all very well in theory, but it won't do in practice.” In this sophism you admit the premisses but deny the conclusion, in contradiction with a well-known rule of logic. The assertion is based upon an impossibility: what is right in theory must work in practice; and if it does not, there is a mistake in the theory; something has been overlooked and not allowed for; and, consequently, what is wrong in practice is wrong in theory too.
Ugh. It’s not an argument, but a place-holder one. Annoying, yet sadly effective.
When you state a question or an argument, and your opponent gives you no direct answer or reply, but evades it by a counter-question or an indirect answer, or some assertion which has no bearing on the matter, and, generally, tries to turn the subject, it is a sure sign that you have touched a weak spot, sometimes without knowing it. You have, as it were, reduced him to silence. You must, therefore, urge the point all the more, and not let your opponent evade it, even when you do not know where the weakness which you have hit upon really lies.
Every seasoned debater knows this one: whatever argument you’ve made to which your opponent has given the least attention – whether for lack of time or lack of response – suddenly morphs into the most important point of the debate.

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