Monday, January 29, 2007

On Grayling and Argumentative Strategy

I find that apparently Grayling thinks that I was tendentious in my recent post on his article about the preamble to the European constitution. I look forward to the promised reply (comment boxes can be activated on this site by clicking the relevant 'Sound of silence' or 'n links in the chain' link, the latter indicating that there are already n comments in the thread); I think there is much in the original article that requires more explanation than he has yet given, and if we are to talk about tendentiousness, I think there is more than one edge to that sword. Nonetheless, I do take the charge of tendentiousness seriously, probably more so than Grayling. After all, he can do as he pleases, but I try to operate according to the spirit of a Code of Amiability, and while there is no sharp line that one can draw, it's clear that being overly tendentious is not very conducive to an amiable approach to things in general. Whatever the standards to which Grayling holds himself, I do try to hold myself to very high ones, and that I manage to succeed in this only inconsistently is not really an excuse, even if it is unsurprising. Since I post on many controversial topics, and since I post on a large number of philosophical issues, which necessarily involve on in a great deal of criticism, this is actually an issue to which I have devoted a considerable amount of thought. The conclusion I have come to on this point is that criticism and critique, sometimes rather severe, is to some degree inevitable; and, indeed, the basic point of amiability in this regard is not to avoid correcting others but never to do so in a spirit of irremediable severity, and always to be ready to seize on opportunities to be more kind. To take one example, while it is no secret that I am unimpressed by atheism in general, I have found it necessary in my discussions of atheism here not to leave it at that; individual posts may criticize particular features of particular claims by particular atheists, but elsewhere I try to find points where amiable discussion of the subject is possible. Perhaps more seriously, I do try to focus on the structure of arguments as a way of focusing on something that can be discussed with general good will all around. Perhaps here Grayling does have some cause of complaint; I also have a tendency to be harder on Grayling than on others who hold his views, in part because, as he is devoted to philosophy, I've assumed he wishes to be held to higher standards than those who are not. Further, instead of focusing on why the structure of his argument is a poor one, I focused on things I simply found funny. This was, in any case, imprudent on my part, since I was passing up an opportunity to examine the interesting issue of good argumentative strategy, which examination would certainly be more fruitful than laughing at some infelicities of expression.

Grayling's argument, you will recall, is concerned with the question of whether a mention of 'Christian traditions' should be introduced into the preamble of the constitution of the European union. Not being European, I don't have a dog in the race, and it's certainly true that Europeans can do as they please on this point. (It's also clear that Europeans are highly divided on it.) And indeed, I think ultimately it comes down to whatever ends up being negotiated; on this issue, insofar as I have an opinion at all, I am a positivist -- whatever comes about through the proper channels of negotiation and ratification is fine. For my own part, though, I think the best argument against the mention that I've seen is that from function. A preamble for a Constitution needs to be kept lean and general, in order to stand the test of time; and specifics like mention of a Christian heritage are hard to write in a way that they will do so. This is particularly true inasmuch as there are so many distinct but tangled threads in the tapestry of Europe's history that any mention of more than very general features will be somewhat arbitrary. So there's an argument that the preamble should focus on general concepts that everyone is likely to agree on now -- things like rule of law, popular suffrage, human rights, international justice -- and leave the arguments about how these concepts should be placed in their historical context to the forum of public discussion. Another argument, which I think is somewhat less plausible, but still certainly worth airing and seriously discussing, is the one that's based on the worry that this is a veiled move to problematize Turkey's eventual entry into the E.U.; at the very least, the ramifications for the entry of Turkey, as an overwhelmingly Muslim state, into the Union is something that needs to be seriously considered.

So one might argue the matter in these ways. Grayling's argument, however, is very different. The basic structure of the argument as presented in Grayling's article is something like this:

(1) There is a position being put forward, against which Grayling is arguing. His fullest description of this position is "the old lie that the enslavement of the European mind by the absurdities of Christianity are foundational to what is in truth our secular, free-thinking, classically rooted inheritance." So far, so good.

(2) He therefore sees fit in response to this position to insist on the following points: that Christianity "plunged Europe into the dark ages for the next thousand years" after Constantine's Edict of Toleration; that this effect of Christianity involved a course of civilization that was degenerate in the sense that it involved "scarcely any literature or philosophy, and the forgetting of the arts and crafts of classical civilisation (quite literally a return to daub and wattle because the engineering required for towers and domes was lost)"; that "a struggle to escape the church's narrow ignorance and oppression saw the rebirth of classical learning, and its ethos of inquiry and autonomy, in the Renaissance"; that "every millimetre of progress in liberty and learning has been bitterly opposed by the organised institutions of Christianity"; that among the means whereby the organized institutions of Christianity opposed progress were the burning of " anyone who disagreed with its antique absurdities" and the failure to arraign Christian officers for the deaths caused by the Wars of Religion; that the Christian religion was forced into retreat by "the new learning and the larger freedoms of mind and action that increasing secularisation brought, liberating individuals and societies to the extent enjoyed today."

Now the straightforward problem with this argument is that if the reasons given in (2) for rejecting the position put forward in (1) are to fulfill their function, they must adequately show that the European inheritance has received no significant positive elements from Christian traditions. This they manifestly cannot do, unless they are taken at face value as to its assessment of the negative elements, and it is supposed that there were no positive influences in addition to these negative elements. The argument collapses if either condition fails, or both. So, for instance, suppose that Christianity is not the cause of the Dark Ages; then mentioning the Dark Ages does nothing to argue against the position in (1). It becomes irrelevant. Or suppose that, even assuming it did cause the Dark Ages, Christian thought in the form of reflection on property and war made a major contribution to the creation of international law, developing ideas that were only slightly developed in earlier classical thought, by way of (say) Spanish scholastics and Dutch jurists. Then the line of argument fails to shed light on (1) as well, because the focus on the negative contribution overlooks the positive contribution, which, if considered foundational, is enough to accept some (less tendentiously stated) form of the position put forward in (1). And, indeed, this is something that might appeal to many different sorts of people; for instance, one might well imagine someone saying, "Europe's inheritance from Christianity is a mixed bag of good and bad; but we have drawn out the good and winnowed out the bad by straining this inheritance through more modern secularist principles."

So Grayling's argument appears to require that it be taken at face value and that it be adequate for all foundational elements of the European inheritance. But the latter is precisely what is in dispute; and the former, as I noted before, simply isn't viable. The origin and even the status of the Dark Ages is, as I understand it, a matter of ongoing dispute among historians of late antiquity and the early medieval period, in part because the period is one where gathering the relevant information has always taken a considerable amount of effort. It's very common these days to emphasize environmental and economic factors (particularly barbarian immigration), as well as political corruption predating the rise of Christianity. But even historians who have given Christianity a major causal role in an account of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire have also recognized the complexity of the situation. This goes back all the way to Gibbon himself, who despite attributing a serious acceleration of a long decline to the party-spirit and otherworldliness of Christian sects (without insisting on it as the sole factor), also insisted that Christianity provided elements that compensated for the decline in such a way as to reduce its violence and bring new civilization to otherwise uncivilized peoples. Historians proposing Gibbon-like theses since have proposed more complex accounts of the decline, not less; and the very tenability of such theses appears to be a matter of much dispute. Witness the whole sprawling dispute over whether, and in what ways, there was a serious decline at all, rather than (say) a set of complex readjustments as the Empire struggled to assimilate large barbarian populations, and whether the decline was chiefly political or took some other form. There are also disputes about the role of the rise of the Sassanid dynasty, which by creating a united Persia, essentially an opposing superpower, created an ongoing threat to Roman hegemony over a vast portion of the known world; there are disputes about the role played by the Huns, or military geopolitics, or any number of other things.

Regardless, this is a matter that requires careful handling of the evidence, which is diverse and complicated, and is probably best left to experts in the field. What is certainly untenable is the claim that for the next thousand years we have a degenerate civilization, i.e., one with little in the way of literature, philosophy, arts, and crafts. Somewhere in the "Insight Scoop" discussion (for which see the links in the previous post), Grayling concedes that the 'thousand years' claim was not quite right. But this concession is fatal to the argument as originally stated; for the reasons given need to be relevant to the refutation of the position in (1). But if there was a heavily Christian civilization in that thousand year period, and if it made positive contributions, then it's a matter for further inquiry whether those contributions were fundamental, and if any of them are, all the reasons adduced in (2) are simply beside the point.

In order to make the argument really work, Grayling needs to do one of two things. Either he must identify all the foundational elements of the European inheritance and show that Christian traditions made no positive contributions to any of them; or he needs to identify all the major positive contributions of Christian traditions and show that none of them significantly contribute to foundational elements of the European inheritance. Given how vague and amorphous both terms of the comparison ("Christian traditions" and "foundational elements of the European inheritance") are, neither of these arguments would be easily made, since they would quickly be mired down in arguments over details. As a matter of basic argumentative strategy then, Grayling's line of attack is poorly chosen; there are just too many obvious points at which the force of the argument is diffused over too many likely disputes. This, I think, has to be recognized as true even if you think that there probably is some version or other of Grayling's argument that, when fully developed, will turn out to be quite right. It's the development that's the devil, because the argument has to cover so much terrain. It's really an argument about the entire history of Western civilization; just about any historian can inform one of just how much work would have to go into such an argument to deal with all the reasonable doubts and objections that would immediately arise.

A much more strategically viable argument for Grayling, I think, would be a more explicitly 'secular and free-thinking' version of the argument from function mentioned before. Let's suppose someone, we can call him Neo-Grayling, who agrees with Grayling but recognizes the strategic problem involved in Grayling's line of attack. Neo-Grayling's best bet is to step back from all the disputes that are going to arise from Grayling's historical theses, and refuse to be mired in any of them. He could then argue in this way: "Even though I think Grayling is right, let's bracket for a moment the whole question of whether he is right or wrong, and look at the sheer amount of dispute it occasions about the very nature of both 'Christian traditions' and 'the foundations of Europe'. Is it not the case that this shows a problem with how the question is framed? In the preamble to the European constitution, we need something that we can all work with, something that describes a plausible common legacy we have as Europeans. However, we have been sidetracked into dispute over complicated historical details, a dispute that is likely to be interminable because of the sheer mass of evidence and argument required to handle it. What is more, the dispute is a complicated one, requiring considerable expertise, that is likely to generate a great deal more heat than light; surely far more than a clause in a preamble merits. Therefore, we should quit this whole topic and focus in on elements of our common legacy that are found more immediately at hand and do not require complex historical argument to affirm."

This argument of Neo-Grayling's, of course, can be disputed; but the dispute then becomes a matter of the proper function of the preamble, which is a dispute that is both more manageable and more likely to issue in practical results. What is more, it gives Neo-Grayling more room to argue than Grayling has. For instance, Neo-Grayling can turn to Catholics and run an argument like this: "I disagree with you about the contributions of Christianity; but you should nonetheless be supporting my proposal rather than arguing the historical question. You are, in effect, in the same position as Maritain was in thinking about the UNICEF charter. He had the problem that the countries coming together were radically different, and that, for instance, a nation like the Soviet Union is not going to agree to many of the arguments on human rights brought forward by a Catholic nation. However, he recognized that as a matter of practical reason this is not an insurmountable problem; for we can look for convergences in their reasoning, which inevitably will arise through people recognizing what benefits them. Even though this convergence would never be perfect, it allows a common forum for discussion. Even so here. The preamble should lay out the general conditions of good governance in a Union of the sort proposed. You and I may disagree about the background and foundation of some of these conditions, but, like Maritain, you can recognize that the reasonable thing to do is not to focus on the background and foundation of the conditions but on the conditions themselves, things like human rights, international justice, and rule of law."

This is all just an example of how someone sympathetic to Grayling's position might put forward an argument that is both stronger and strategically more viable than that put forward by Grayling. Precise details, of course, would vary. The point is that there are other ways to handle the situation that have more promise. In argument, as in chess, it is sometiems fruitful to stand back from the particular give-and-take in order to look at the whole game; not every line of attack on your opponent's part needs to be met head on, not every weakness is worth exploiting, not every superficially good move will get you anywhere in the end. The difference is that in argument there is a much greater risk of bogging yourself down in matters irrelevant to your objective. And it's clear, I think, that, at the very best assessment, Grayling's argument totters on the brink of such a bog. Better arguments are certainly available.

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