Logic: A Forgotten Principle of Discourse.

What should discourse have that it often lacks? Logic is not “what seems reasonable” or “what feels right.” Like chess or mathematics, it has a strict set of formal rules. We use logic to show the connection or lack of connection between concepts. It is machinery into which we put our perceptions and values. Used correctly, it has an important role in quality discourse, but it is not the totality of discourse. Logic bears on how we express ideas, but it does not determine the ideas we express. When we make meaningful arguments, there must be proper and improper ways to interpret and understand what we say. If we do not make the boundaries of our statements clear, they may be interpreted liberally. The more possible interpretations a thing has, the weaker its effective force as an argument. (Note that excellent fictional prose or poetry often lauds multiple interpretations. Also note that arguments of formal logic are a very different sort of poetry.)

This touches on the greater abuses of statistics and imagery in everyday arguing: statements that sound large but are undefined and unbounded. You may tell me a tremendous-sounding statistic, but without context. You may show me a striking photograph, but without significance. All too often, we are given a sound bite or image and expected to “see” some inherent rightness or wrongness. Good arguments are more than only conclusions; they explain what is being asserted and upon what grounds such an assertion could or should be believed. (Some may cringe at my glossing over the “belief is not closed under implication” issue. I sympathize, but just go with the shorthand.)

Perhaps the greatest threat to good discourse is assuming the speaker advocates the opposite of what he argues against. (e.g., when I criticize the way “privilege” is used in debates about race or gender theory is bad, people assume that I favor oppression of others or fail to see it.) This makes it hard to have clear and careful discussion about sensitive (emotionally charged) topics. By making assumptions about the position of the speaker, we forbid constructive criticism- and therefore the growth- of progress on important issues. Avoiding logical fallacies is not a neat academic trick without relevance to daily conversation. Just as the rules of mathematics or science or language can help us in real ways, logic can help us better understand ourselves and each other, and make progress in debates and discussions, and avoid misunderstandings and unintended offense.

A Compressed Language for the Digital Age?

Analytic philosophy features some lengthy tomes (Hume, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Rawls, etc). The idea is to be thorough, laying out the explanation and motivation for the argument, the counter arguments and replies to them. It isn’t just jumping in and asserting some ideas. It’s a matter of carefully constructing a case, building it from the foundation up. Another reason for the length is to show context for the argument: where does it come from (historically), how does it connect to other arguments, why is it important, what does it do, what are its limits and weaknesses, etc? Between 400-500 words seems about the limit for many people for these blog posts— More than that starts to get too in-depth and too convoluted for people to stay interested. The benefit to me, as an author, is that I am compelled to think about the issue and boil it down to its bare, core bullet points. The downside of this for any reader is the lack of context. On some readings of Baudrillard, this might be a good thing, in that there is no “seduction” or “leading away” of anyone from the thing which we are trying to understand. However, if there is anything to the ideas of the structuralists, maybe placing the issue in a web of context and showing its connections to and disconnections from the rest of the world is actually how we come to understand it. But is the web too complex for this to work? Can we trust readers to place in the web themselves, to link and tag and categorize correctly and appropriately? Maybe they’ll be better at it than authors. Maybe they won’t do it at all.

It makes me wonder if the amount of material available and the increased access to it in the 21st century begins to impose a need on changes in language that accommodate a faster transfer of information. As files began to get big, we started “compressing” (or “Zipping”) them during transfer. To compress is to increase the density of a mass by decreasing the volume it takes up, even as the mass stays constant. We compress gasses with various tanks and pumps, and computer files with languages and applications —can we compress ideas with language and thought? Would the compression of ideas require a new grammar, or only a few new words and symbols? We would still need to trust the reader to “unzip” or “decompress” the information once they received it: to tag, categorize, connect, sort, collate, etc. in their own mind. Are we equipped to do this, as readers?