Monday, November 3, 2014

Logic versus Rhetoric in Philosophical Argumentation

A few nights ago, I watched the first few minutes of Particle Fever, a documentary on the ATLAS project (I ended up only watching a bit of it but that's a different story). As an ESL philosopher, I was immediately struck by how much more inclusive physics appears to be from a linguistic point of view when compared to analytic philosophy.  Of the first four physicists that appear in the movie, three are clearly non-native speakers of English. Two of them (Savas Dimopoulos and Nima Arkani-Hamed) work at two elite American universities and each is introduced as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of his respective generation. The third (Fabiola Gianotti) used to be the project leader of the ATLAS experiment (interestingly, she is the only one who is (sometimes) subtitled in the 12 minutes of the movie I have watched). Now, admittedly, this is a very small sample, but the numbers of the ATLAS experiment are telling: the project involved about 3,000 physicists (plus 1000 students) from over 177 institutions in 38 different countries ( Even a superficial look at a top physics journal seems to show that physics, which is hardly known as a beacon of diversity, is much more diverse and representative of the world population than analytic philosophy. An equally superficial look at the faculty of the physics departments and philosophy departments of elite American universities seems to confirm (albeit in a very non-scientific way) this impression. (Of course, we would need some solid data to confirm the hypothesis, but the admittedly anecdotal evidence I have provided seems to suggest that the hypothesis is plausible. In any case, not much of what I am about to say hangs on it.)

The observation that physics is much more inclusive than philosophy from a linguistic point of view, I think, can be partly explained by the fact that, in physics, fluency in mathematics is much more important than fluency in English. Since raising the issue of language in analytic philosophy, I have heard many people say that fluency in English is, in the current historical circumstances, a conditio sine qua non for being able to contribute to and fully take part in analytic philosophy as a discipline. The most prestigious philosophy journals are in English; the most prestigious presses publish predominantly in English; the most prestigious conferences are held in English; the most prestigious philosophy departments are in the Anglophone world. But this seems to be true of physics as well. English is the lingua franca of physics (along with mathematics ;-) ) as well as that of analytic philosophy. It just seems that in physics one does not need to master the language beyond a reasonable level for a non-native speaker in order to be at the top of one's game, so to speak. In analytic philosophy, things seem to be different.

To my mind, this is a sign that, perhaps, our self-image of philosophy is not very accurate. If, in physics, fluency in mathematics is much more important than fluency in English, one might think that, in analytic philosophy, fluency in logic is much more important than fluency in English. We usually think of argumentation in philosophy as being a matter of logic, not rhetoric. And one does not need to master the language beyond a reasonable level for a non-native speaker in order to offer a logically strong argument. So could it be that part of the linguistic underrepresentation I have been discussing in this blog is a result of the fact that arguments in analytic philosophy rely on rhetoric more than we would like to think and that one need to have not only strong logical or analytical skills (which all philosophers who have a working knowledge of English can easily master) but also strong rhetorical skills (which are so much harder to master for non-native speakers)?

I find this an interesting and somewhat worrisome hypothesis. Think, for example, of two of the most influential analytic philosophers of the 20th century: Quine and Lewis. Both are exquisite writers, but do they always use their writing skills for good? I have often had the impression that they don't. I have often had the impression that when they run out of arguments or when there is a loophole in their argument or when they want us to accept a controversial premise, they resort to the nice turn of phrase, the witty one-liner, instead of giving us arguments. I'm not going to pick any specific examples of this tendency because they would all be philosophically controversial, but I invite my readers to go through the work of highly influential analytic philosophers such as Lewis or Quine and take note of how often the nice prose is used as part of an argumentative sleight-of-hand, a practice that is unthinkable in disciplines that favour a dry, plain, and slightly formulaic writing style, such as physics and mathematics.

I have long suspected that an aesthetically pleasing prose is ultimately at odds with the aims of analytic philosophy because it's easier to hide the flaws in one's arguments when one writes nicely. Human beings are easily swayed by rhetoric and unmoved by logic and, as philosophers, we often think of ourselves as being above that. We think we only attend to the substance of the arguments not to the allure of their linguistic formulations, but maybe we are underestimating the major (and, I would argue, negative) role that rhetoric plays in philosophical argumentation and (I cannot believe I am writing this!) maybe we should strive to make our prose as dry, plain, and slightly formulaic as that of physicists or mathematicians. It might make reading and writing papers less fun but it might be truer to the spirit and aims of our discipline and it might also contribute to making it more inclusive from a linguistic point of view.


  1. I agree that this is a real problem (especially so in the case of Quine) but a rare one. The other problem of prose style - people who have the attitude that "I'm so clever that I can make you do all the work to figure out what I mean" - is by far a more common problem (I don't want to start dissing specific philosophers, so I won't name names, but I'm sure you can easily much more easily rattle off a list of 20 people who I might be thinking of than I could guess 20 who you might be thinking of).
    One of the advantages of English as a language for academic prose (and it does have them, as well as disadvantages) is that 20th C literary English went through a fashion of plain and simple prose. Thus there are many exemplars around around if you want to elegantly in English and be readily understood (think Orwell's "Politics and the English language", but he's not the only one).

  2. Two not-very-related points:

    (1) in partial support of your impression of physics: I had a quick look at the Nobel Prizes in physics in the last 30 years. 47 of 77 Laureates were Anglosphere citizens; of those, 10 were born outside the Anglosphere. So (roughly in support of my guesses at FP) you can see NES way overrepresented relative to population number (in the West, let alone the world) but (at a guess) well below what any equivalent metric in Philosophy might show. (The rest are pretty uneven too: 7 from Japan, 11 from Germany - and 6 either born in or citizens of the former USSR, which of course invested heavily in physics in the postwar period).

    (2) I wouldn't want to understate the importance of good clear writing in physics. The standard can vary widely and plenty of the most highly regarded physicists of the postwar period have a reputation for communicative clarity - Feynman is the most obvious but not the only example. Conversely there are plenty of examples of an important idea being buried in very obscure prose only to be independently rediscovered much later.

  3. Hi Gabriele,
    Thanks for yet another interesting post. Philosophical arguments are inevitably bound to writing style–for better or worse, as you pointed out. After all, we (mostly) work with words and not with numbers or symbols (well, formal logic does, of course). I certainly agree that some of the most gifted writers have used their writing abilities to conceal flaws or weaknesses in their arguments and thus joined the “dark side of the force,” as it were. Inferring from this that we should try to “strive to make our prose as dry, plain, and slightly formulaic as that of physicists or mathematicians” as you say, seems a bit harsh to me, though. Isn’t that only one side of the coin? Since beautiful prose not only enables members of the dark side of the force to conceal flaws, but also makes good arguments so much more appealing–or so it seems to me. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t want to give up on, say, the beauty of Frankfurt’s prose, just because some other people misuse their writing abilities. You mention a very important point and, unfortunately, a salient feature in a good deal of current writing in analytically minded philosophy (let alone continental philosophy) that needs to be addressed rigorously. Nonetheless, I would suggest that we should judge on a case-by-case basis

  4. Thanks for your comments! I just wanted to make clear that I take clarity, conciseness, precision, etc. to be broadly logical features of our prose. I am definitely not arguing that our writing should be less clear, concise, precise, etc.

  5. Just a short note to tell you that this post has been mentioned in the 169th Philosophers' Carnival (at A Bag of Raisins). Further notes here:

  6. Maybe viewing analytic philosophy as pure formal reasoning is a bit reductive. Philosophy is also about conceptual analysis and it makes a good use of common-sense intuitions for that purpose. Language is our main tool for handling concepts, not formal logic...