The Bill of Alienable Suggestions


"Controversy equalizes wise men and fools alike, and the fools know it." -- Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." -- ancient aphorism

"I begin my comments with the two quotations above, because I wish to distinguish and contrast two very different treatments of debate and discussion, at least as practiced throughout the "Western" world for centuries, if not millennia. The German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, took a stab at drawing this distinction in his famous essay, The Art of Controversy (1831), in which he defined "logic" as the disinterested search for truth, and "dialectic" as cheap rhetorical tricks designed to get the best of another person in a dispute. Unfortunately, Schopenhauer wrote, the Churches, Universities, and Courts retained the word "logic" while continuing to practice "dialectic." Schopenhauer, therefore, proceeded to simply list the most egregious examples of dialectic because he did not know of any other study that approached the subject differently.

One hundred and seventy years later, Professor T. Edward Damer did publish a different approach to debate and discussion, entitled Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide To Fallacy-Free Arguments (Wadsworth, 2001). While taking some graduate school courses in Buddhism, my faculty advisor required me to procure and study this little book so that I might know how best to present my thesis as well as defend it against faculty criticism. The author begins by stating the organizing principle of his book:

"Most treatments of fallacies are not informed by any theory of fallacy. They simply list fallacies as things not to do. The approach of this book, however, is different. A fallacy is here understood as a violation of one or more of the four criteria of a good argument. The fallacies are then categorized by the criteria of a good argument that they violate. These four criteria are: (1) relevance of the argument's premises, (2) acceptability of the argument's premises, (3) sufficiency of the premises to support the conclusion of the argument, and (4) effective rebuttal of the strongest arguments against the argument or the position it supports."

"The 60 fallacies treated in the book are organized by the criterion violated, with one chapter devoted to each criterion. An extended discussion of each fallacy explains and illustrates exactly how the fallacy violates the criterion."

"Following the treatment of each fallacy is a unique "Attacking the Fallacy" section, which makes specific suggestions for dealing constructively with particular fallacious arguments when they are encountered. But here, as is the case throughout the book, the emphasis is more on resolving issues rather than pointing out flaws."