November 14th, 2003

No Straw Men

No Straw Men

A version of this blog post appeared in the Hamilton College Spectator on November 14, 2003.

In my second semester of college, I began writing letters to the editor of the Spectator; it was and is a wonderful way to express one’s ideas without the usual complements of introduction, body, conclusion, etc. I soon turned to all-campus e-mails, an even less-demanding medium. Using my privileges as president of the Objectivist Club, I would preface our meeting announcements with short hooks to Hamilton. Yet I never really acted on my love for my writing—until now.

A few weeks ago, in my European Intellectual History class, I raised an objection to a point Professor Al Kelly had just made. He responded with characteristic wit: “Watch your straw men, Jon.” In elaborating, Professor Kelly explained that enlightened discourse proscribes arguments that are weak or imaginary, like straw, setup only to be summarily confuted. Still, we all resort to such recourse from time to time, since straw men are far easier to tackle than the ambiguities and contingencies and qualifications that make up reality.

Yet felling straw men says more about the feller than the felle. After all, you can judge a person not only by the enemies he makes, but by those he chooses. And if one addresses only the weakest arguments, one betrays the weakness of one’s own arguments. For instance, some hold that all feminists dismiss science as a male attempt to rape nature. But this notion simply upholds the most vocally irrational aspect of modern feminism, and reifies it as if it were the whole. Only dogmatists and demagogues waste time with such caricatures.

Scholars, on the other hand, refuse to engage in what the philosopher John Stuart Mill, in 1859, declared the gravest injustice of discourse: “to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion.” Scholars, as political theorist Chris Matthew Sciabarra remarks, “use an intellectual scalpel, rather than an ideological bludgeon,” to engage honestly and thoroughly with the most forcible criticism. As Aristotle counseled, “The fool tells me his reasons; the wise man persuades me with my own.”

Unpublished Notes

* We “would do better to raise serious, as opposed to spurious, questions . . . and to formulate our responses on the basis of meaningful knowledge and verifiable evidence rather than fantastic speculation and vacuous generalities.” [1]

* “He covers virtually every aspect of the issue, and does so in a way that conveys both a firm commitment to his own conception of justice as well as a resolve to do justice to opposing views.”[2]

* “[Cicero] has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than ever his own. . . . He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. . . . If he is unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”[3]

* “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side . . . he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts . . . the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. . . . . All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind . . . is [only] . . . ever really known . . . [by] those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavored to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.”[4]

* “Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test.”[5]

[1] Mouin Rabbani, “Head in the Sand,” in Brian Klug et al. “Debating a World Without Israel,” Foreign Policy, March-April 2005, p. 59.

[2] Irfan Khawaja, [Review of An Eye for an Eye? The Immorality of Punishing by Death, 2nd ed., by Stephen Nathanson], Teaching Philosophy, June 2003, p. 200.

[3] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University, 1991).

[4] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 4th ed. (1869), in David Wooton (ed.), Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), p. 626.

[5] C.S. Lewis.

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