Friday, June 08, 2012

Argument/Temperament Compatibilities

I've been thinking on and off the past few months about the relation between temperament and assessment of argument. It's a fascinating question, and raises the possibility that there might be arguments that will tend only to appeal to certain kinds of temperaments, regardless of how well the argument is expressed, or assessments of arguments that are heavily affected by temperamental differences.

A good candidate for this sort of thing is the family of ontological arguments. There are several different things that are called 'ontological arguments'. They tend to be well-liked by philosophers for a typically philosophical reason, namely, that most people think they fail but there is no agreement on what is wrong with them. But the other interesting feature of ontological arguments in general is that they tend to appeal to very, very logical people. Indeed, if you like the big champions of various ontological arguments, people like Anselm, or Leibniz, or Godel, you realize very quickly that these are not logical amateurs; they think at a logical level well beyond most people. And while it's purely anecdotal, if you talk to people who reject these arguments, but who do very serious logical work in general and have actually studied them at some length, you can often get stories from them about how at some point, for however brief a period, the ontological argument they were looking at it seemed stunningly, obviously sound. Perhaps it was something they ate, or how much sleep they were getting, but for perhaps just one moment they thought, "Holy moly, it might actually work!" Other people, however, regard them as just obviously not right because they are, for lack of a better phrase, so rational as to be suspiciously like a sleight of hand. Most such people don't really have an especially good reason, and, as I said, one of the things philosophers love about ontological arguments is that everyone comes up with completely different 'obvious' reasons why they won't work, many of which are inconsistent with each other or would have really bizarre consequences for reasoning if actually accepted. So perhaps there is an issue of temperament here: people who have temperamental inclinations to think abstractly will react to the argument differently from those who are temperamentally inclined to think very concretely. And one can imagine that, as there are more cautious thinkers and more bold thinkers, more suspicious thinkers and more generous thinkers, that these temperamental differences in and of themselves, regardless of any other factor relevant to assessing an argument, might sometimes be the full explanation for why people assess a particular argument in different ways.

It really shouldn't be surprising. We know that moral and scholarly habits can affect assessment of arguments, at least at the extremes; honesty, and prudence, and scholarly caution. But if second nature can have such an effect, it's not surprising that first nature would, even if in a rougher and looser way. And if you think about your own reasoning, you don't consider every single argument you come across with the same studiousness; you prioritize, and some arguments simply dismiss as bizarre, and some you tag as interesting and in need of further thought. It's difficult to see how we could do this in a way that temperament wouldn't affect at all. And you've only to look around, if you can't see it in your own case, that a lot of people clearly have a taste for particular kinds or styles of arguments. Likewise, we talk about critical thinking, but critical thinking is just a taste for certain kinds of reasoning, identified as good, over others, identified as bad. That is, all we mean when we talk about it is having good taste in reasoning or avoiding bad taste in reasoning. And taste again, is a kind of second nature, or habit, rooted in first nature, which includes temperament.

I find people tend to worry that this somehow makes the whole act of evaluating arguments irrational, but this doesn't seem to follow. It's certainly not true that all assessment of arguments can be explained by temperament. Temperament is relatively stable, but people shift their positions all the time; temperament is difficult to change, but people can often be persuaded. There are many other factors at work, many of which are quite objective. But it does create the complication that there may be perfectly good arguments for which we have no taste, or which would we would have difficulty accepting simply due to our temperament or personality, and that, likewise, between two people who disagree about whether an argument is a good argument, there might be no difference beyond a difference in taste or natural preference. If so, I don't think this would change a great deal; it would have to be taken into account, but wouldn't require a huge revision in thinking.

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