Arguments, Broadly Discussed Part III: Actions

This series of posts has been discussing how an argument is an assertion based on reasons, and its first two posts were about how speech acts and thoughts are arguments. This post will discuss actions.

An Example of an Actions as an Argument
Let’s say I’m sitting on a bench playing the piano, and my stomach growls. So, I go into the kitchen and make myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Then I eat it.

It’s not a peanut butter sandwich, but he is eating.

Am I making an argument here? At first glance, we’ll be tempted to say, “No, of course not! How on earth can eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich–as good as they are–how can this be an argument?” I certainly haven’t said anything out loud by my actions. I haven’t spoken any words, but I have “said” something by acting. Let’s analyze this action and see if it’s an assertion based on reasons.

While we could summarize the story by saying, “I ate because I was hungry,” an argument that follows the enthymematic form from Aristotle, the statement, “I ate because I was hungry,” is an argument because we’ve already discussed the argumentative nature of statements in our first post on this subject. And we’re not here to talk about statements in this post, but actions. We’re here to talk about eating, and that means that we can only talk about the act of eating.

So, to say that eating is an argument is to say that eating

  1. is an assertion
  2. is based on reasons

To make the following discussion easier, let’s break the analysis up into these two parts. We’ll first talk about number 2, the reasons for eating, and then we’ll talk about number 1, eating as an assertion. Once we’ve done that, we’ll see that eating is an argument. When that’s over, we’ll talk about why we should care in the first place.

Reasons for Eating
The most obvious reason for eating is because I am hungry. But there are other reasons for eating, for just because I am eating does not mean that I am hungry. In the above story, I eat because I am hungry–assuming, of course, that my stomach growling is the same thing as being hungry. But we might also eat because we like the taste of food. Maybe we’re in the mood for a snack. Or perhaps we are stressed and have our own sort of comfort food that makes us feel good. Maybe we have an eating disorder and eating (or not eating) does something to our mental functions and behaviors. Or perhaps everybody around us is eating, and, since we want to fit in, we eat. These are some reasons for eating even if we are not hungry. But usually, we eat because we are hungry.

Eating as an Assertion
To eat something means to place something into my mouth, chew it up, and swallow it. So, when I eat, I assert a whole bunch of things, the simplest and most general of which is the fact that I am the kind of being that has the capacity to eat.  And by eating, I assert that I have the ability, the power, the faculty to do these things: I have a mouth, a jaw, a throat, and a stomach. I can control my lips and jaw, making them open and close at will, and I can bite, chew, grind, and masticate (now there’s a word we don’t often use) my food. A tongue may not be absolutely necessary, but it does help to move the food around in my mouth. It also, thanks to those taste buds, allows me to taste my food, which is a reason why I choose to eat some foods over (and instead of) others. I believe eating asserts all these things, including and perhaps especially the fact that I am an embodied creature.

Let’s go one more further. Besides the fact that I am eating asserts that I have the capacity to carry out the act, it also asserts, in most cases, that I have the will to carry out the act. And after I have finished eating, I may say, “I ate.” My evidence for my statement is an act in the past tense.

Last point about eating. Note that the act is made up of smaller actions just as assertions are made up of smaller assertions as we noted in Part I. It isn’t hard to see the common ground acts, speech, and arguments have with one another. And speech is a type or a subset of action.1

Actions as Arguments, Generally
Acting asserts that I am a certain kind of being. It asserts that I have the capacity to do whatever it is I am doing. I am capable because I do. Then, after I’ve done something, I am capable because I did. From this last statement, my being capable now becomes a new assertion, with my past action as the evidence. And there we have a nested argument.

What else? Action is embodied. And the reasons for my actions include appetites, desires, passions, emotions, and expectations. I act in a certain way because I choose to, and I choose to because I believe it is good for me to do.

Value
So wait. Why should we care? I wrote about eating as an argument not to show only that eating is an argument, but, more importantly, that actions are arguments. Eating is one example of any other action we could have analyzed. We can use the same logic we’ve used in this post on any other action because acting asserts that I am a being that has the capacity to act. We could do this same analysis with anything. Playing the piano. Driving to work. Sitting down to watch a movie. Washing clothes or dishes. We could go on, but I don’t think there’s a need for it.

From the cover of The Essential Wayne Booth

Wayne Booth, a literary critic and philosopher, wrote something that applies here. He said,

“Would you not agree, friends of truth that you are, that reality, although it appears to us in diverse forms, is all somehow unified? Discriminate realities as you will, you must finally admit that everything is related to everything else, really related, in some important sense, and that it is thus more important to work on recognizing new similarities beneath differences than to make distinctions where none were before” (Critical Understanding 94).

I believe this information is valuable because knowing what arguments our actions make help us to know who we are. They also help us to know who others are. Philosopher Robert Solomon writes about emotions, but what he says applies to our actions (he did, after all, believe that emotions were actions, but that’s another post for another day). He wrote that it is “a reflection of one’s self. It shows or betrays who one is” (True to our Feelings 218-219).

But I feel like now I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Could we go one step further and say that my very being also asserts the “statement,” “I did,” because my being is capable? (That’s a mouthful of a sentence.) In other words, can things make arguments?

That will be the subject of the next post.

Notes
1. See Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology.

2. The picture of Booth comes from the cover of The Essential Wayne Booth, Ed. Walter Jost.

Arguments, Broadly Discussed Part II: Thoughts

The last post defined an argument and discussed how any speech act is also an argument. This post builds on that last one by addressing our thoughts.

Thoughts
So, are my thoughts arguments? We defined an argument as follows:

An argument is an assertion based on reasons. It is when a person asserts something and provides supporting evidence for that assertion.

At first glance, asking whether my thoughts are arguments sounds like a really weird question. After all, if they are, then who am I arguing to? Isocrates, a guy who set up a school to rival Plato’s way back in the day, seemed to believe that thoughts were arguments and that the person we’re arguing to is implied–it’s ourselves. Isocrates wrote,

the same arguments which we use in persuading others when we speak in public, we employ also when we deliberate in our own thoughts; and, while we call eloquent those who are able to speak before a crowd, we regard as sage those who most skillfully debate their problems in their own minds. (Antidosis 329)

Yep, there he is. Isocrates.

In other words, we debate within ourselves whenever we have a decision to make, and the same kinds arguments that we make externally (to other people) are the same kinds of arguments that we make internally (to ourselves in our own minds). Why? Because what’s on the outside is a reflection of what’s on the inside, and the arguments we make to other people are the arguments that we are capable of making. I have especially in mind here the form of an argument, and not necessarily any one particular argument.

So, if the same kinds of arguments we make to others are the same kinds of arguments we make to ourselves in our own minds, then if our outward assertions are based on sound reasoning then it is likely that our inward ones are also based on sound reasoning.

For example, if I’m making fallacious arguments with other people, we can also assume that, when I debate things with myself in my own mind, I’m also making fallacious arguments. Since the kinds of people we are is determined by the kinds of decisions we make, there is a direct relationship between the arguments we make and the kind of people that we are.

This is why several Roman and Renaissance philosophers, rhetoricians, and scholars such as Cicero, Quintilian, Desidrius Erasmus, and Baldassare Castiglione would build on Isocrates’ statement, arguing that it is impossible for the good speaker to not be a good person. Only good people could be good speakers.

But wait a minute. Only a good person can be a good speaker? What about Hitler? Wasn’t he a good speaker? I mean, didn’t he persuade a whole bunch of people to believe him? Perhaps, as philosopher Leo Strauss said, this reductio ad Hitlerum is irrelevant. But just for the sake of argument, let’s see if our assertion can withstand it. If it can, I think we’re on to something.

Hitler’s Fallacies
In his Mein Kampf, Hitler makes arguments all over the place.2 What we want to do is see if these arguments are good arguments. Let’s take a look.

In Chapter XI, “Nation and Race,” he argues that the Aryan race ought to purify and isolate itself because other animals in nature do the same things: “The consequence of . . . racial purity, universally valid in Nature, is not only the sharp outward delimitation of the various races, but their uniform character in themselves.” Well, there’s a claim. What evidence does Hitler give his audience to accept it? Here it is:

The fox is always a fox, the goose a goose, the tiger a tiger, etc., and the difference can lie at most in the varying measure of force, strength, intelligence, dexterity, endurance, etc., of the individual specimens. But you will never find a fox who in his inner attitude might, for example, show humanitarian tendencies toward geese, as similarly there is no cat with a friendly inclination toward mice. (285)

Haha. He’s just tried to pull a fast one on us: he’s comparing different races to different animals and essentially using his metaphor to argue that just as a cat isn’t nice to mice, the Aryan race shouldn’t be nice to Jews. But Hitler’s evidence and metaphor is fallacious. He is using what is called a false analogy, a fallacy meaning that two things are compared to each other but the two things have more differences than similarities, yet they are compared as if they had more similarities than differences! Bad evidence, Hitler!1

Hitler is making a faulty comparison. His reasoning is fallacious. And the same arguments, going back to Isocrates, that he makes to us are the same arguments that he makes to himself in his own mind. So, either he’s lying to us or he really believes what he says and he’s just trying to manipulate us. But whether he’s lying or not, a fallacy is still a fallacy. More on this idea of lying below. First, let’s look at one more example.

Hitler often takes a statement that almost anybody would agree with and twists it just a bit to make it untrue. Or, he talks about something that everybody will agree with for several pages and then, at the very end of the discussion, he’ll tag on a small phrase that he didn’t actually address or argue for in the previous several pages. For example, here is a statement that I think most people would agree with: he says, talking about the youth, “Parallel to the training of the body, a struggle against the poisoning of the soul must begin” (254). Most people would agree that youth and children shouldn’t go to certain movies. That’s why we have a rating system. Hitler is essentially saying the same thing. Next, Hitler goes on to smack down some of the immorality that had been going on in Germany at the time: he says we must

clear away the filth of the moral plague of big-city ‘civilization’ and [we] must do this ruthlessly and without wavering in the face of all the shouting and screaming that will naturally be let loose. If we do not lift the youth out of the morass of their present-day environment, they will drown in it. (254-255)

Hitler then continues to talk about the preservation of body and soul, and argues that cities ought to be cleaned up from prostitution and pornography because such an environment is not good for children and youth–again, he’s writing about things that most people would agree with. We wouldn’t take a 4-year old to see an R-rated movie. It just doesn’t make sense.

But then Hitler tries to pull another fast one on us, a fast one which, if we’re paying any attention to what he’s actually saying, isn’t all that fast. A page later, he says that “the sickening of the body is only the consequence of a sickening of the moral, social, and racial instincts” (256).

Unrelated, but amusing. See Note 3 for citation.

Haha. Very funny. Hitler has just spent 2 pages talking about moral and social problems and how they need to be solved, but where did “social and racial instincts” come from? Nowhere, that’s where. Hitler just threw it on the end of the sentence without having provided any evidence for it. Tagged it on at the end of the sentence. So he’s talking for 2 pages and people are nodding their heads at what he’s saying, and he’s hoping that he can just stick little things on the end of sentences like “social and racial instincts” and the people will just keep on nodding. Unfortunately, some people really did keep on nodding.

The same overarching principle was discussed by Kenneth Burke, rhetorician and philosopher, when he wrote,

we know that many purely formal patterns can readily awaken an attitude of collaborative expectancy in us. . . . Once you grasp the trend of the form, it invites participation regardless of the subject matter. Formally, you will find yourself swinging along . . . even though you may not agree with the proposition that is being presented in this form. Or it may even be an opponent’s proposition which you resent–yet for the duration of the statement itself you might “help him out” to the extent of yielding to the formal development, surrendering to its symmetry as such. Of course, the more violent your original resistance to the proposition, the weaker will be your degree of “surrender” by “collaborating” with the form. But in cases where a decision is still to be reached, a yielding to the form prepares for assent to the matter identified with it. Thus, you are drawn to the form, not in your capacity as a partisan, but because of some “universal” appeal in it. And this attitude of assent may then be transferred to the matter which happens to be associated with the form. (A Rhetoric of Motives 58)

Here’s an example Burke gives: “Who controls Berlin, controls Germany; who controls Germany controls Europe; who controls Europe controls the world” (58). He then says,

As a proposition, it may or may not be true. And even if it is true, unless people are thoroughly imperialistic, they may not want to control the world. But regardless of these doubts about it as a proposition, by the time you arrive at the second of its three stages, you feel how it is destined to develop–and on the level of purely formal assent you would collaborate to round out its symmetry by spontaneously willing its completion and perfection as an utterance. Add, now, the psychosis of nationalism, and assent on the formal level invites assent to the proposition as doctrine. (58-59)

A similar thing is going on here in this passage from Hitler. The audience already agrees with his discussion of cleaning up immorality because almost everybody agrees with not exposing young children to immorality. So, when he says the sickening of the moral instincts are problematic, they’re already nodding their heads. But when Hitler tags on social and racial instincts while the audience is already nodding, it’s hard for them to stop the head from going up and down because they’ve been doing it for the last 2 pages and are already passionate about what he’s been saying. It’s hard, when we agree so wholeheartedly about one thing that a speaker says, to stop agreeing when something we completely disagree is brought to the fore, especially if we’re passionate about what the speaker has just told us before he’s tagged something else on. What we try to do instead is figure out why what was said was said. It’s actually harder for our brains to rewire themselves, so we try to justify our beliefs and the nodding of our heads.4

So where are we?
We are showing that Hitler’s book is full of fallacies because his fallacies are evidence of his not being a good speaker. But, since the same kinds of arguments we make to others are also the same kinds of arguments that we make to ourselves in our own mind, since Hitler’s arguments to us are bad, we also assume that his arguments to himself are bad. Meaning that Hitler is not a good person because his arguments are not good.

Fallacies are what Hitler is capable of. He’s trained himself to think fallaciously. What this means is he’s also making fallacies in his own mind, so the choices he makes are also “fallacious.”

The counter-argument could be that Hitler doesn’t really doesn’t believe what he’s saying–meaning he could be lying to us just to get us to follow him. But this counter-argument misses the whole point. Because even if Hitler is lying to us we still must classify him as a liar, which, by definition, is also a bad person.

But what if he doesn’t know better? What if Hitler is using these fallacies on accident? One of my teachers, Nancy Christiansen, once taught me that to use fallacies on purpose makes a person evil, and to use them on accident makes a person a fool. But either an evil person or a foolish person isn’t the kind of person we want to follow. It’s not a good person.

Quintillian, a Roman rhetorician and educator, wrote that “[T]he mind cannot be in a condition for pursuing the most noble of studies unless it be entirely free from vice” (Institutio Oratorio 12.1.3). I don’t know what is or was in Hitler’s mind. I can’t read his thoughts. But I don’t need to know what was in his mind to know that he was not a good person. His actions tell me that.

Thoughts are arguments. And arguments are action. The next post will address actions.

Notes
1. The fallacy also borders on (and could be seen as a derivation from) a hasty generalization.

2. By discussing Hitler’s Mein Kampf, I am not recommending that the reader go out and read Hitler. If you need something to read, read Aristotle. I am not advocating hate literature. I am only showing that there is something psychologically, logically, and morally wrong with the logic of hatred. See also this post.

3. http://img24.imageshack.us/img24/2513/scissorsbeatspaper.jpg

4. Robert Cialdini discusses this in his book, Influence: Science and Practice.

Arguments, Broadly Discussed Part I: Speech

An argument is an assertion based on reasons. It is when a speaker asserts a belief in and provides supporting evidence b, c, d, etc. for that assertion.

From this perspective, we argue with one another all the time–we say things and we back up what we have said with evidence. Teachers assert to students and give evidence for their assertions; lawyers assert and back those assertions up with evidence. It happens all over the place.

Let me be clear. By argue and arguing I do not mean that two (or more) people are yelling at one another at the top of their lungs. That is not (necessarily) an argument. An argument is not about bickering or fighting. It is about asserting something and backing that something up with reasons, and I do not write about the word as if it had a negative connotation.

I’m suddenly reminded of this video:

Okay. But so what?

Well, I think there’s something deeper going on here that we don’t always notice. And this something deeper is important to understand because it will help explain many of the nuances in the world around us. When we see this something deeper, we’ll start to see arguments–assertions–all over the place, which, beside the fact that it’s really cool, will help us understand who we are as human beings, how and why we understand and misunderstand one another, and why we do the things we do.

This post is the first of a 4-part series about the usefulness of broadly defining arguments to include things such as speech, thought, and action (and perhaps even objects?–I’m still figuring out this last one). This particular post will discuss arguments in terms of speech. So let’s check it out.

Speech
An argument is an assertion or belief that is supported by evidence. So, even everyday statements like, “I appreciated what she said to me because it made me feel happy,” or “May I please cut in front of you because I am in a hurry?” are arguments.

So, the statement, “I appreciated what she said to me because it made me feel happy” asserts that the speaker “appreciated what she said to me,” and the reason for that assertion was whatever was said “made me feel happy.” Okay.

We could also talk speech in commercials and how the people who write commercials try to persuade us to buy their product. They give us reasons why we should buy the product, such as this product will make you popular, it will make your life easier, or it will taste good. We could go on, but let’s stop and talk about something more interesting and less obvious. Let’s talk about statements that don’t seem like arguments but that actually are arguments.

So what about the statement, “It made me happy”? Is that an argument? Are assertions (and hence arguments) nested and recursive? 

If they are, then the reasons that we use to back up our assertions are actually assertions with reasons behind them. And those reasons are further assertions, etc. Just for fun, let’s assume that reasons are also assertions and see what we come up with.

So, in the above example, the reason, which is whatever was said “made me feel happy,” is also an argument. This assertion’s assertion is that something was said to make me feel happy. But what is the reason of the assertion’s assertion? This is where things get interesting: the reason is not stated, but it still exists–in the mind of the speaker.

So what might be the reason? Or are we assuming too much in that last sentence by using the word the and the singular form of the word reason? In other words, there might be multiple reasons behind a single assertion. Some of those reasons are stated, while others exist unstated in the mind of the speaker.

But how on earth can an unstated reason actually be a reason for a stated assertion? Well, we can start from the fact that the words were spoken by someone in the first place. In other words, why do we even say anything?

The things we say reflect our individual capacity to choose: I say things in a certain way because I choose to speak, I choose to speak about something, and I choose how I will say what I want to say. Furthermore: we say things because we want to. The things we say and the way we say them are a reflection of our desires, appetites, attitudes, and emotions. The things we say are a reflection of states that we feel in our bodies.

So, going back to the above example, by asserting that something someone else said made me happy, I’m also asserting several of my own unstated beliefs.

I assert my belief

1. that it is desirable to speak about things that make me happy. 

2. that it is, in this case, a desirable thing to share information (especially positive information) with other people.

3. in being loyal to my hearers and sharing personal information with them.

In fact, depending on the context, the subject about which I’m speaking, my own emotional state of mind, who my audience is, and what that audience desires, there could be a whole bunch of other things we could have listed that will influence my assertions and my reasons–in short, my arguments. There’s a lot going on when we say something. And we’re usually not paying attention to everything that’s going on.

So where are we?

1. An argument is an assertion with attached reasons, and we make arguments when we speak.

2. Our reasons behind our assertions are also themselves assertions with reasons.

Next step: I’d go so far as to say that we’re always making arguments when we speak. Not only that, but our assertions (arguments) are so nuanced that we make multiple arguments and assertions whenever we speak and at the same time.

My grounds for that assertion come from my earlier-stated belief that the things we say and how we say them reflect our own capacity to choose. When I speak I make judgments about what is good and not good, and I try to the best of my ability to choose what is good–hopefully to choose what is better over what is good and what is best over what is better. I don’t always choose the best or the better or even perhaps the good, but I try. And the more I try the better I get at it.

Let’s look at another example, an example that would not seem like an argument because it is such a casual occurrence, but an example that nevertheless reveals a speaker’s judgments.

Let’s say I’m passing you on the sidewalk and I say, “Good morning.” Is this statement an argument? It seems like it isn’t, but from what we’ve discussed above, I believe that it is. So how do I back up that claim? What assertions does a simple, “Good morning,” make?

Obviously, by saying, “Good morning,” I am asserting that the morning is good. But what about the reasons? Do I as a speaker have evidence to back up my claim? Does my assertion that the morning is good have reasons? These reasons are certainly unstated, but they do exist–in my own mind, for I would not have said, “Good morning” if I did not have reasons for thinking that it indeed was a good morning.

So perhaps to me it is a good morning. Maybe I had sausage and an omelet for breakfast and washed it down with some orange juice, and maybe I hit all the green lights on the way to work. I have reasons to back up my claim, and I desire to share my good morning with other people by wishing someone I have not met a good morning.

I am also asserting that I am the kind of person that says, “Good morning” to a person he passes on the sidewalk. Some people don’t say anything, some only make eye contact and nod, and others avoid eye contact altogether. Not only that, but saying, “Good morning,” asserts that I am the kind of person that says, “Good morning,” in this particular situation instead of any of the other things I could have said, or not said: instead of “Good morning,” I could have said, “Hello,” “Greetings,” or “Wassup?” My act of choosing to say one thing over something else asserts that I am the kind of person who has chosen one thing over other things in this particular situation. My choice is an assertion, and my assertion is backed up by reasons.

But enough of speech. Let’s move on to thoughts.

[Thoughts will be discussed in the next post.]

Notes
1. Sometimes, such as in logic and philosophy, an argument is defined as a form of persuasion based on reasons. Since an assertion based on reasons is also a form of persuasion, “a form of persuasion based on reasons” contains in germ the phrase “an assertion based on reasons.” I only discuss an argument as an assertion based on reasons instead of as a form of persuasion based on reasons in this post.