Saturday 14 July 2012

On Marxist Vocabulary.

or, Learn to Walk Before you Run.

Upon unsympathetically mentioning Noah Smith (who doesn't seem to consider a basic familiarity with Marxist concepts necessary to speak of Marxism), Robert Viennau proposes a minimalist Marxian vocabulary.

I find that a useful and justifiable initiative, as I myself am convinced many speak of Marxism, without knowing what they are talking about.

As often happens, however, the comments to Viennau's post are probably as valuable as the post itself.

Soon enough two parallel debates evolved. Neither provides deep theoretical insight on Marxism. They, however, illustrate Viennau's point about basic concepts. In this sense, the exchange is highly instructive. The takeaway, as I see it, is "This is what happens when you speak of things you don't understand."

It also illustrates a catalogue of logical fallacies.

The most interesting exchange occurs between two users, one signing on as "Philip Pilkington", the other as "A".

Selected bits from "Pilkington" vs. "A":
  1. "A" addressing "Pilkington": "Those two shoes in your example are actually distinct use-values; both cover the feet just as well, but one may signal social status or convey group inclusion while the other may well carry a stigma. In that case, these are really two distinct commodities, despite the similarities in the way they are produced" (July 10, 2012 5:49 PM)
  2. "Pilkington" replying to "A": "Clearly then, social status does not add to the physical properties of the commodity (which is impossible). So, something else is increasing exchange value here" (July 11, 2012 5:47 AM)
  3. "Pilkington" addressing "A": "Also, in purely supply/demand terms it is by no means clear that advertising is simply an artificial demand simulation [sic] technique. I would argue that it creates a new product." (July 11, 2012 11:37 AM)
At the risk of stating the obvious: in the first point, "A" established a proposition (the two use-values, commodities, products, shoes, are distinct); "Pilkington" rejects this proposition in point 2; only to formulate it again, inadvertently, one day later, after a lengthy and rather unpleasant discussion, in point 3!

Apart from the contradiction (which arises presumably because "Pilkington" simply did not understand or even read what "A" wrote the day before), these bits show a number of logical fallacies.

In the second point, for example, "Pilkington" rejects "A's" explanation. He/she does so because "social status does not add to the physical properties of the commodity".

It is true that "social status does not add to the physical properties of the commodity", as "A" readily acknowledged ("This sounds like a fair point", July 11, 2012 9:41 AM).

It is also irrelevant: "A" never claimed it did. More importantly, Marx never claimed it did, as "Pilkington" himself made clear.

And yet, "Pilkington" brought it to the fore, and then went on to beat this "straw man".

Again, "Pilkington" advances a new, potential "straw man" in point 3: advertising, for him, is not simply "an artificial demand stimulation technique". This may or may not be so, but what does it have to do with what "A" argued?

In fairness, if "A" perceived these fallacies, he/she never mentioned them. Perhaps, had the fact been mentioned, the discussion could have been saved (personally, I doubt it, but who knows?).


A debate is not like the Catholic mass, where the celebrant/lector finishes his first reading from the Good Book with: "The Word of the Lord". The congregation can only reply in humble awe: "Thanks be to God!"

In a debate one must provide evidence for one's statements: if you claim a higher knowledge, cite it, give details. It's not enough to say "post-structuralist and neo-structuralist critiques which won the debate in the philosophy departments" support my position and leave things at that.

If one disputes another's argument, it's not enough to say "is generally incoherent and wooly on the points that I raise": why is it "woolly", where is the incoherence?

Why does one need to provide evidence? Because, otherwise, people would need to take one's word for it.

That may be acceptable if one has faith in The Word of the Lord. But that wasn't a mass; it was a debate. And if there are already preexisting, reasonable and unchallenged doubts on the word of that particular lord, in his/her understanding of the basics, this becomes even more important.

No amount of posturing, patronizing, or arrogant remark can fix this.

Without cites or details, to appeal to "post-structuralist and neo-structuralist critiques which won the debate in the philosophy departments" is no different from an appeal to the authority of some nebulous "philosophy departments"; without explanations, to say "the work you reference is generally incoherent and wooly on the points that I raise" is barely distinguishable from an ad hominem.

Without cites or details, to the initial suspicion of elemental ignorance, this kind of "argument" only adds suspicion of inability to reason properly and/or suspicion of deliberate sophistry. It only adds insult to injury.

It seems, the Bible and a pulpit may be effective rhetorical devices for priests in a mass, not so in a debate.

Which leads me to this: "A" also mentions ad hominem as one of "Pilkington's" arguments of choice.

In a related category is the random use of "metaphysical" to describe one's opponents' arguments (see here)


Determined readers could probably find other instances of sloppy, negligent reasoning (and I'm finishing another post examining an extremely remarkable blooper, noticed by "A").

But I'll finish with one more case of faulty reasoning.

As seen, Viennau's post was about Marxist terms used, neglecting their specific technical meaning. The discussion veered towards a different subject (advertising, exchange and use values), at "Pilkington's" single-minded initiative.

But one thing is to be single-minded, a different thing is to stubbornly refuse to acknowledge one's mistakes, particularly when those mistakes have a bearing in the discussion one is intent on pursuing and are related to the subject of Viennau's post (you've got to love the irony).

The second debate into which the thread evolved is telling in that sense. In it yours truly was the other side of the discussion, with "Pilkington" repeatedly dodging my comments. If the readers are interested, check my own interventions, with "Pilkington's" non-replies, in that thread.

Why is this fallacious? Well, in order to criticize something, one needs to grasp the basics. Not only "Pilkington" clearly doesn't understand them, he/she doesn't even acknowledge the need for such understanding: he/she is running fast, but is unable to give baby steps.

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