Among the many things worth studying, one of the most interesting is what I call ‘philosophical folklore’. Folklore, of course, consists of micro-traditions passed down within communities as part of the ordinary ways of life of the people in those communities. We usually think of these micro-traditions as artistic, but much folklore is philosophical in character. Studying this kind of folklore, often fascinating in its own right, can be quite illuminating.
Of all subjects in philosophy, I think informal logic tends to provide the richest veins of philosophical folklore. Reasoning and evaluating reasoning are things everyone has to do. Formal logic tends to get too technical to be widespread. Informal logic, on the other hand, is almost purely folkloric in nature. Unsystematic and messy, it consists chiefly of rules of thumb, folk classifications, proverbs, slogans, and the like. While there are academic philosophers who attempt to give order to this melange, these attempts at organization are always partial, so many strands of it always escape. Further, appeals to some element or other of informal logic are widespread, not confined to academia, and can have important effects on the kinds of reasoning that are accepted in the broader community. Taking a common slogan like, “You can’t prove a negative,” we are faced immediately with a number of questions. In most of the obvious senses such a claim is false, so how did it come to be part of common wisdom? Does it owe anything to some long-forgotten context? Has it changed its meaning over time, and why? How does its use impact the kinds of argument people accept (or refuse to accept)? We can trace down the history of it and find, for instance, that “You can’t prove a negative” originally had a specific legal context, which is true of a large amount of our folklore about reasoning, and that in breaking free of its original context it has come to be used in very different ways.
Within the already fruitful field of informal logic, one of the most fruitful for the philosophical folklorist is the theory of informal fallacies. Labels for alleged fallacies spring up and spread like weeds, are widely used, and interact in fascinating and sometimes puzzling ways. One interesting element of philosophical folklore that I’ve seen bouncing around recently has been something called a ‘reification fallacy’. The ins and outs of this bit of folklore are quite complex, but if you bear with me a bit through the long story, I think it shows how interesting it can be to try to study classifications of fallacies as bits of folklore. If you’re not that patient, you can probably skip down to the last few paragraphs.
Read the rest of this post at the First Thoughts blog.