The Art of the Argument: Stefan Molyneux’s Book Reviewed on LGP

(Note: co-posted as a product review on Amazon.com with the necessary modifications.)

Stefan Molyneux, The Art of the Argument: Western Civilization’s Last Stand (Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services LLC: August 27, 2017). Pp. 172 / kb 299. 

This book was panned on Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog) which is best when he stays away from politics, and since both Stefan Molyneux and I are independent writers / scholars, I had to see for myself. I’m sad to have to report: the negative reviews are correct. Worse: the author is a known libertarian YouTuber and noted critic of all things left wing and politically correct. Mediocre white guy alerts are therefore going up all over the Web (cf. e.g., this).

The problem is, Molyneux has embarrassed himself with this ebook.

From the first page: “The first thing to understand is that The Argument is everything. The Argument is civilization; The Argument is peace; The Argument is love; The Argument is truth and beauty; The Argument is, in fact, life itself.” Caps in the original; always emboldened. Every appearance, in fact, of the phrase The Argument is emboldened.

Such writing marks its author as an amateur, possibly one grinding axes instead of communicating information or educating. The two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are here.

What is an argument? What I used to tell students (working off several textbooks): “An argument is a state of statements, at least one of which, called the premise(s), is offered as evidence for another statement called the conclusion.” This opens the door to discussions of statements, terms, concepts, and definitions, all of which are good to have before we get to the purposes of argument.

Molyneux: “An argument is an attempt to convince another person of the truth or value of your position using only reason and evidence” which conveys the right idea but is technically loose. As it turns out, technical looseness often descends into sloppiness and sometimes into incoherence.

Molyneux divides arguments into “truth arguments” and “value arguments” for reasons unclear to me, because if the argument is any good it will exhibit a logically correct structure in either case. I question, therefore, that we need to say this: “A truth argument will tell us who killed someone. A value argument will tell us that murder is wrong. Truth arguments are the court; value arguments are the law…. A truth argument can establish whether arsenic is present in a drink. A value argument can convince you not to serve it to someone.” Such bizarre and sometimes demented illustrations permeate Molyneux’s tract.

More worrisome to me, given that Molyneux is likely to have a readership much larger than any professional logician with a textbook, is that The Art of the Argument is riddled with mistakes students who read it and then enroll in a logic class will have to “unlearn.”

He properly distinguishes deductive from inductive arguments, provides the standard example of the former ((1) “All men are mortal” (2) “Socrates is a man” (3) “Therefore Socrates is mortal”), and then delivers this cringeworthy explanation: “Given that premises one and two are valid, the conclusion – three – is inescapable.”

Ouch!

Molyneux has just confused truth and validity! Statements are true or false. They are never valid or invalid. Deductive arguments are valid or invalid; they are never true or false. Validity is a function of deductive structure, not content (the information in premises and conclusion). Getting students to grasp this difference is every logic instructor’s first challenge. If a deductive argument has a valid structure and true premises, moreover, it is called sound. Following a foray into premature attacks on relativism and socialism – premature because the groundwork for such arguments has not yet been laid – Molyneux botches soundness as well: “If I say (1) All men are immortal, (2) Socrates is a man, (3) Therefore Socrates is immortal; then the structure remains logically sound.” This is actually a good example of an unsound argument, because it has a valid structure but a false premise.

In other words, Molyneux does not appear to grasp the difference between validity and soundness. This is in a section entitled “The Difference between ‘Logical’ and ‘True.’”

He does seem to grasp, roughly, outlines of the difference between deduction and induction when he states that deduction is about certainty and induction is about probability. What deductive arguments supply is logical closure: if the premises are true the conclusion must be true. Hence the sense of “inescapability.” He says: “Getting most modern thinkers to accept the absolutism of deductive reasoning is like trying to use a nail-gun to attach electrified jell-O to a fog bank.” Huh? Who? Unfortunately his book has no account of what makes an argument valid, and he introduces myriad examples involving potentially confusing propositions with forms like “Only x are y” when he hasn’t even introduced the Aristotelian Square of Opposition (All S is P, No S is P, Some S is P, Some S is not P are the basic standard forms) — a staple of every book introducing logic.

Inductive arguments establish their conclusions only to some degree of probability (which may be very high). It is therefore true that as Molyneux says, Inductive reasoning “deals more with probability than with certainty.” It is not true that all inductive reasoning “attempts to draw general rules from specific instances.” Generalizations do this, but inferences to the next case proceed from a collection of known instances to, well, the predicted next instance. Arguments from analogy proceed from case to case: because a known case is similar to an undecided one in specific ways (can be compared to it), it is probably also similar to the undecided one in some additional respect.

Nor is it true that “deductive reasoning goes from the general to the specific.” Sometimes it does, sometimes not. It can go from universal premises to a universal conclusion ((1) All men are primates. (2) All primates are mammals. (3) Therefore all men are mammals.) Or it can go from a universal-particular combination of premises to a particular conclusion. ((1) All politicians are liars. (2) Some Democrats are politicians. (3) Therefore some Democrats are liars.) And so on.

Don’t expect any of these specifics from Molyneux, nor a discussion of the specifics of what happens when either a deductive or an inductive argument has gone awry. He doesn’t seem to understand the difference between formal fallacies and arguments with false premises.

Sometimes he is clear as mud, as when he states, “There is another category called abductive reasoning that draws a tentative hypothesis from disparate data, but which is related to some sort of testable hypothesis, rather than the reaching of a specific conclusion.”

For the record, here is my paraphrase of philosopher C.S. Peirce’s account of abduction (he coined the term): “Puzzling phenomenon P is observed. If H were true, then P would follow as a matter of course. Hence there is some reason for believing H to be true.” There’s work to be done, such as identifying what makes P “puzzling” and explaining “follow as a matter of course,” but it’s a start!

Sadly, this book is riddled with so many errors and such imprecision that we might as well stop here. Professionals are unlikely to finish it, and well before they get to Molyneux’s libertarian arguments. This is unfortunate because I think Molyneux means well (hence two stars instead of just one). He favors using reason to persuade instead of using threats of force to coerce or intimidate. So do I. He wants to save Western civilization from its enemies, some of whom hang out in academia. So do I. His book appeals to reason and inveighs against every form of leftist political correctness, every sort of irrationalist postmodernism and radical academic feminism, every blithe assumption that those in authority know what’s best for the individual, and other mistakes of the past half century.

But if we’re going to undermine these with solid logic, we have to lay its groundwork correctly. There are sections here on definitions — introduced too late to do any good. There is a reference near the end to the importance of identifying fallacies but no careful and systematic discussion of them: ad hominem attacks, appeals to authority, appeals to pity, ad baculum or threats including ostracism, red herrings, equivocations, arguments from ignorance, and so on, which are central to any tract on logic or critical thinking and would have been invaluable here.

Nor is there any discussion of statistics or statistical fallacies which would also have been invaluable in combating sloppy social policy. There is an abundance of discussion of philosophy vs sophistry: the philosopher wants to find and communicate truth, says Molyneux rightly; the sophist wants control and will use lies or BS to obtain it. The former studies reasoning. The latter studies people (presumably psychology). The former makes his/her case. The latter uses language to confuse and manipulate. There are plenty of appeals to the connection between proper thought and reality, which is unhelpful since in the areas Molyneux is most concerned about, social issues and matters of economic organization, there is massive disagreement about what the facts are and therefore what reality is.

I’ve the impression that Molyneux learned more logic from participating in debates than from actual study of texts and available literature written by competent logicians. His book is therefore far more a defense of free market economics and libertarian social philosophy; maybe that’s why it’s marketed here as political philosophy instead of logic. I’m sympathetic to many libertarian ideas, but I would not want to claim that they are panaceas, universally established by pure logic and empirical evidence (where, for example, do we actually see a functioning libertarian society of any size, enabling us to confirm that the libertarian self-regulating free market really does work in practice???). I don’t think one has to be a leftist or an egalitarian to deny that Western societies are in some sense meritocracies, or could be, and therefore I can wonder if certain government actions on behalf of, e.g., those who are poor or infirm through no fault of their own are requirements of a moral social order. This has been the prevailing opinion in modern thought, long predating the present PC mindset, sometimes argued for at great length, and if one expects to be taken seriously one has to grapple with them on their own terms. Also, does anyone truly believe that without legal mandates corporations would be forthcoming about actual (not merely possible) dangers of their products if they make money? (Think: cigarettes, or the less extreme case of mildly addictive additives in unhealthy processed foods.)

Is this nitpicking? I don’t believe so. My response is that if you’re going to undertake a project like this, don’t do it half-assed! I write as an independent writer/scholar myself, someone who walked away from academia because of the prevalence of many of the superstitions enumerated above and how they’ve corrupted the entire enterprise. One thing I’ve learned: because of the prejudice of those “on the inside,” we are held to higher standards than they often hold themselves to (and I’m not saying the professionals haven’t written some stuff that is absolutely awful), and so we must hold ourselves to high standards or we might as well not bother. Sometimes it gets frustrating, and there are temptations to cut corners with, e.g., appeals to “common sense” that might not be shared by others. These need to be resisted.

To the best of my knowledge, a book that starts with the basic foundations and principles of logic and critical thinking, proceeds through definitions and fallacies in a logical sequence, arriving at the kind of groundwork that would successfully take down the above academic superstitions in the public square has yet to be written. I am not sure how many academics these days would be motivated to try. Be that as it may, this book is not it.

Advertisements

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
This entry was posted in Books, E-Philosophy, Higher Education Generally, Libertarianism, Logic, Political Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Art of the Argument: Stefan Molyneux’s Book Reviewed on LGP

  1. Dean Allen says:

    All cows have four legs. Lassie has four legs. Therefore; Lassie is a cow. 😉

  2. Cameron says:

    Dear Sir,
    your writing is wonderful, thought-provoking, encouraging and your logical reasoning beautiful.
    Forgive me this nitpick; but warning labels on cigarettes? Garbage fast-food and sugar water are addictive as well and are cause for obesity and diabetes epidemics; should these have mandated warning labels? Junk food? Wine bottles? Should pornography sites be forced to warn of porns addictive nature? Porno magazines have disclaimers on the covers? Ought vaccine syringes warn that they might increase the chances of developing autism?
    Just some thoughts from a lesser thinker than yourself.
    You have used this example a couple of times, although I may be wrong, it sort of weakens you brilliant writing, I get the feeling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s