Sunday, January 12, 2003
I just finished reading The New Dialectic: Conversational Contexts of Argument by Douglas Walton. This book presents the modern (or post-modern) �dialectical� theory of informal logic.
Traditionally, informal logic and critical thinking have been taught only in terms of building arguments through inductive and deductive reasoning, and analyzing arguments by recognizing many of a long list of �fallacies�, or incorrect arguments. Although these subjects are still being taught this way, recent scholarship has introduced many new ideas that have demolished the traditional approach. This new scholarship was well summarized in an earlier book by Walton, Informal Logic: A Handbook for Critical Argumentation. This previous book describes plausible arguments, burden of proof, and the idea of evaluating arguments not as stand-alone monologues, but as part of a dialogue between two or more participants. Most arguments previously called fallacies were portrayed as legitimate but weak plausibistic arguments whose primary purpose is to shift the burden of proof. Whether or not they were fallacies had to be determined on a case-by-case basis.
The theoretical advance introduced in The New Dialectic is the conversational context of argument. The New Dialectic posits that there are different types of normative models of dialogue. Each type has its own goals, structure, and rules. While Informal Logic was convincing in its thesis that charges of fallacy had to judged on a case-by-case basis, it gave little guidance as to how such a judgment is to be made. The New Dialectic provides this guidance, and establishes a pragmatic definition of a fallacy. A fallacy is an argument that blocks the obtainment of the goal of the dialogue, or that illicitly shifts the dialogue from one type to another. Thus, in a late-night dorm room political discussion, the use of a question-begging argument could fallaciously block the goal of the dialogue by claiming to have already arrived at it without actually putting forward any proofs, while the use of an ad baculum argument could illicitly shift the dialogue to a negotiation.
One advantage to providing such a definition of a fallacy is that it makes it possible to contrast the fallacy with a mere argumentative blunder, which is an argument that fails to advance the dialogue to its goal, but does not illicitly block or shift the dialogue. For example, in the political discussion just hypothesized, one party could make an appeal to an expert that the other does not respect. This argument would a blunder in the sense of not being effective, but it would not be a fallacy, as the dialogue can still continue to its goal unimpeded.
The New Dialectic describes six types of dialogue models, and has a chapter on each. There are also chapters on dialectical shifts, mixed dialogues, and a dialectical method of evaluating arguments. The six types of dialogues are the persuasion dialogue, the inquiry, information-seeking dialogue, negotiation, deliberation, and eristic.
The first of these, the persuasion dialogue, is the dialogue model that most closely corresponds to the context most people traditionally imagine when they think of analyzing arguments in the discipline of informal logic or the study of fallacies. The chapter makes clear that this is in fact the dialogue context implicitly or explicitly studied by the recent informal logic scholars who have ventured away from the study of informal logic only as the study of fallacies. Indeed the rules of this dialogue context, where each participant attempts to persuade the other of their position using commitments of the other as their premises, is essentially the context presented in Informal Logic.
The inclusion of negotiation and deliberation comes as great relief. Negotiation and decision-making have been studied in great detail by communication, business, and psychology scholars, but study of the arguments advanced from a philosophic, critical thinking point of view is sorely lacking. The �how do� and �how to� of deliberation and negotiation are now known in great detail. It is long past time for study on the �how should� of these two subjects. These chapters do not give the answers, but a framework for the beginning of such studies has been established.
The development of normative rules for information-seeking dialogue is as overdue as for negotiation and deliberation, and also has the same strange feel, for someone used to 20th century philosophy, of philosophy entering into areas of life that have practical applications for average people. The difference with information-seeking dialogue is that it is as untouched by other areas of scholarship as it is by philosophy. For a cultural tradition that places such value an questioning, this is probably the most important overlooked area of study breached by The New Dialectic.
Investigating the inquiry as a normative model of dialogue could turn out to be extremely important for the status of informal logic within philosophy itself. The inquiry is a method of reasoning that begins with premises that must be established as true to a reasonable degree of certainty, and then advances to conclusions based o those premises, branching out like a tree. This model of dialogue is rarely practiced as modeled, but the model usually describes how the results are presented. The chapter on the inquiry focuses on public empirical inquiries, such as inquiries into disasters, and on the extent to which science can be claimed to be an inquiry. While Walton does not discuss the implications for informal logic to study the inquiry, they are fascinating to contemplate. First, the methodology of science has generally been considered the proper study of analytic philosophy, which has tended to consider informal logic to be a mushier, less prestigious field of study. Giving informal logic a rationale for entering the study of science�s methodology could help put it on an equal footing within philosophy. An even more exciting possibility not explored by Walton in this chapter is to investigate how analytic philosophy itself may be considered an inquiry. (Or, as Walton suggests of science, is practiced as a persuasion dialogue and presented as an inquiry.) Subjecting analytic philosophy to the microscope of informal logic would have the result of actually making informal logic prior and therefore superior to analytic philosophy.
The most intriguing type of dialogue that Walton attempted to create a normative model of is eristic. In eristic dialogue, the participants are opponents and their goal is to win a victory by any (verbal) means possible. The two primary sub-types of eristic discussed were the quarrel, where the opponents attempt to �hit out� at and hurt each other verbally, and sophistical discourse, where each opponent tries to appear more wise than the other, usually to some third party (the audience). Eristic dialogue is characterized by a closed attitude, failures of relevance, and a chaotic skipping around from topic to topic. The big question about eristic that Walton raises is whether or not there can be a normative model of eristic. (or perhaps, what does a �normative model� really mean?) Is eristic simply a bad example to be avoided by logical analysis, or does it serve some useful purpose for logic? Walton seems to try to have it both ways, or rather three ways. He notes approvingly Plato�s characterization of eristic as the opposite of dialectic, and states that the properties of eristic stand in contrast to the properties of the other five types of dialogue outlined, and to persuasion dialogue especially. He also makes the claim that eristic has its useful functions, such as bringing out strong hidden feelings. This may be true, but it does not mean it is of any use for logical argumentation. Plenty of human activities, such as sports, war, sex, dancing, music, eating, etc. all have their useful functions, but are of no value in the study of logical argumentation. Walton ends the chapter by stating that logical analysis can gain by studying a normative model of eristic by noting how many fallacies consist of illicit shifts from or to eristic dialogue. This seems to essentially say to me that eristic should be studied as a bad example.
The worst chapter in the book is the chapter on licit and illicit dialectical shifts. This is unfortunate, as illicit dialectical shifts are the book�s definition of a fallacy, and since some shifts are licit, differentiating the two is extremely important for the new dialectic. But Walton spends half to two-thirds of the chapter discussing infomercials. While the infomercial is a good example of an illicit shift from an information-seeking dialogue to a negotiation, infomercials are not the most important or the most illuminating example of illicit dialectical shifts in general. The end notes state that most of the material for the chapter appeared in a previous article by Walton. Writing an article on the infomercial may have been an amusing exercise for Walton, but he should not have used it to paste into this book in lieu of writing the chapter the topic deserved.
The last chapter gives a four step process for the dialectical evaluation of arguments. First, identify the argument. Second, determine the context of the dialogue. Third, determine the burden of proof. Fourth, evaluate any possible criticisms of the argument. These steps sound right to me, but the first two are in the wrong order. You have to look outside of the argument itself to determine the dialogue context, but the type and goal of dialogue will determine the argument�s structure. Thus context is prior and should therefore be determined first.
I have further quibbles. This book consisted of ten chapters, and each chapter was divided into ten sections. But why? There was no uniformity to the topics of the sections, and I could discern no reason for ten being the appropriate number of sections per chapter. It seems suspiciously unlikely that this was a coincidence. This leads to the further suspicion that some chapters may have been cut, padded, or modified to adhere to a needless consistency. Also, better proofreading was necessary. For example, in the fifth section of chapter six, Walton states that there are eleven dynamic aspects of the argumentation used in the normative structure of deliberation. He then describes the first, second, third, etc. This numbering is very helpful and logical. It also highlights that aspects number six and ten are missing entirely. Finally, the frequency with which he switched from the first person plural to the first person singular throughout the book was confusing. While he carefully attributed all specific ideas to their appropriate specific sources, it was not always clear where Walton was summarizing what he believes to be the consensus in the field of informal logic, and where he was advocating his own contributions. As a non-scholar reading one of my first books in the subject, this makes it difficult for me to guess what ideas in The New Dialectic are well established, and which are still controversial among scholars.
The list of books and articles on Walton�s website show him to be as prolific as Stephen King, and I suspect this speed in writing is the cause of what faults there are with this book. But this book has a logical structure, is an easy read, and covers an important subject in a revolutionary manner. The New Dialectic should be considered the new paradigm for informal logic and critical thinking.