Eristic argument

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At the beginning of this week, we looked at a new term for "troll" in Chinese, and that led to a discussion of just what a troll is and how they behave "The toll of the trolls" (5/25/19).

One of the things we found out is that trolls love to argue for the sake of arguing / argument.  They are by nature argumentative, quarrelsome, contentious, contrarian, disputatious, and truculent.  So I looked around to see if there were any precedent in history or outside of the internet for this type of cantankerousness.

Of course, there is.  There undoubtedly have been belligerent, combative people since the beginning of humankind.  Their modus operandi even gained its own place in philosophy and rhetoric, where it became known as "eristic" already from classical times.

In philosophy and rhetoric, eristic (from Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and discord) refers to argument that aims to successfully dispute another's argument, rather than searching for truth. According to T.H. Irwin, "It is characteristic of the eristic to think of some arguments as a way of defeating the other side, by showing that an opponent must assent to the negation of what he initially took himself to believe." Eristic is arguing for the sake of conflict, as opposed to resolving conflict.

Source

Then I went looking to see if the art of argument existed as a discipline in cultures outside of the internet.  Here I will briefly introduce three such traditions or instances.

The first is Hebrew pilpul:

The Hebrew term pilpul (Hebrew: פלפול, from "pepper," loosely meaning "sharp analysis") refers to a method of studying the Talmud through intense textual analysis in attempts to either explain conceptual differences between various halakhic rulings or to reconcile any apparent contradictions presented from various readings of different texts. Pilpul has entered English as a colloquialism used by some to indicate extreme disputation or casuistic hairsplitting.

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The second is Tibetan rtsodpa ("a conflict") or düra (bsdus grwa) ("collected topics"), which have their origins in Buddhist logico-epistemology:

The Early Buddhist Texts show that during this period many different kinds of philosophers often engaged in public debates (vivada). The early texts also mention that there was a set procedure (patipada) for these debates and that if someone does not abide by it they are unsuitable to be debated. There also seems to have been at least a basic conception of valid and invalid reasoning, including, according to Jayatilleke, fallacies (hetvabhasah) such as petitio principii. Various fallacies were further covered under what were called nigrahasthana or "reasons for censure" by which one could lose the debate. Other nigrahasthanas included arthantaram or "shifting the topic", and not giving a coherent reply.

The Buddha, like his contemporaries, also made use of the "four corners" (catuṣkoṭi) logical structure as a tool in argumentation. According to Jayatilleke, these "four forms of predication" can be rendered thus:

  1. S is P, e.g. atthi paro loko (there is a next world).
  2. S is not P, e.g. natthi paro loko (there is no next world).
  3. S is and is not P, e.g. atthi ca natthi ca paro loko (there is and is no next world).
  4. S neither is nor is not P, e.g. n'ev'atthi na natthi paro loko (there neither is nor is there no next world)

The Buddha in the Nikayas seems to regard these as "'the four possible positions' or logical alternatives that a proposition can take". Jayatilleke notes that the last two are clearly non-Aristotelian in nature. The Buddhists in the Nikayas use this logical structure to analyze the truth of statements and classify them. When all four were denied regarding a statement or question, it was held to be meaningless and thus set aside or rejected (but not negated).

Source

Here's what Tibetan Buddhist debate / argument looks like in modern times:

See the books by:

Daniel Perdue, Debate in Tibetan Buddhism (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1992).

Georges Dreyfus, The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk (Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2003).

Michael Lempert, Discipline and Debate: The Language of Violence in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery (Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 2012)

I find the notion of catuṣkoṭi particularly intriguing because it literally means "four corners", and that in turn reminds me of this famous, but poorly understood, passage from the Confucian Analects:

[7-8] Zǐ yuē. Bù fèn bù qǐ, bù fěi bù fā. Jǔ yīyú bù yǐ sānyú fǎn, zé bù fù yě.子曰。不憤不啓、不 悱不發。擧一隅不以三隅反、則不復也。

[7:8] The Master said: "If a student is not eager, I won't teach him; if he is not struggling with the truth, I won't reveal it to him. If I lift up one corner and he can't come back with the other three, I won't do it again."

Tr. A. Charles Muller

This brings to mind the trilemma laid out by Gorgias (ca. 487-376 BC) in his On Nature or the Non-Existent (lost but paraphrased by Sextus Empiricus in Against the Professors):

  1. Nothing exists
  2. Even if existence exists, it cannot be known
  3. Even if it could be known, it cannot be communicated.

Source

Now let us return to where we started, "The toll of the trolls" (5/25/19).  There's a popular online show in which the state of the art of táigàng 抬杠 ("bickering; wrangling; arguing for the sake of arguing" — tái 抬 means "lift; raise") is exhibited in all its glory:

That little bar that shifts back and forth between the two contestants as they yield the floor is a veritable gàng 杠.

Finally, if you want to see people "Argue for the sake of Arguing or Arguing for the sake of Argument?", watch this:

[Thanks to Qing Liao, Ronald Davidson, Leonard van der Kuijp, and Matthew Kapstein]



16 Comments

  1. Dan Romer said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 5:49 am

    What a fun post!

  2. SusanC said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 9:05 am

    The western tradition of logic has to deal with problems of reference, such as Bertrand Russel's "the present king of France is bald".

    After the French revolution, the reference no longer refers to anything, and the statement is neither true nor false.

    Comparison with Buddhist logic suggest we might have to deal with the case where a reference is unexpectedly multivalent, e.g. france changes its constitution such that the role of king is shared between two people, and only one of them is bald). I have no idea if this is the sort of case the Buddhist notion encompasses, though.

    The are hints of all this in Aristotle…

  3. John From Cincinnati said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 9:07 am

    Eristic. I have until this post completely misunderstood its meaning. All the pre-internet years and years that William F. Buckley on Firing Line dismissed opposing views as eristic, I naively assumed he was using a fancy word for "containing errors", and I never saw the need to look up a word whose meaning was so "obvious". Shame on me. In retrospect I reinterpret Buckley as dismissing "arguing for the sake of conflict, as opposed to resolving conflict". Thank you for the whole post.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 9:14 am

    @John From Cincinnati

    You're quite welcome!

    William F. Buckley is one of the few people who would have used "eristic" on television!

  5. Ken said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 10:48 am

    Was Buckley's use of eristic itself a form of eristic argument?

  6. KevinM said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 12:22 pm

    The etymology, surely, must involve the goddess of discord. Fun fact: the dwarf planet (or whatever it is) Eris is "named for the ancient Greek goddess of discord and strife. The name fits since Eris remains at the center of a scientific debate about the definition of a planet."
    https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/dwarf-planets/eris/in-depth/
    The discovery team originally nicknamed it Xena, after the TV warrior princess.
    Its moon is called Dysnomia!

  7. David Morris said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 3:52 pm

    I sometimes use the Monty Python segment to illustrate nouns and verbs (argument < argue) and different ways of speaking.

  8. Scott P. said,

    April 6, 2019 @ 11:05 pm

    Maybe we could include Theophrastus' "kakologias"??

  9. Jichang Lulu said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 10:34 am

    Nāgārjuna (龙树)'s catuṣkoṭi (四句法) came up in comments to the 2017 "Not not" post. I would now add that there exist competing modern formalisations of the logic in Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, in particular by Garfield and Priest, Aaron Cotnoir and Ōnishi Takurō 大西琢朗.

    On a less serious note, I'm sometimes reminded of the catuṣkoṭi negation-richness when I come across unsophisticated appeals to exotic paraconsistency, such as a recent one heard by the UK Parliament from CCP foreign friend Stephen Perry.

  10. cameron said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 11:21 am

    The Atlantic has a relevant piece that was posted just this morning:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/04/erisology-the-science-of-arguing-about-everything/586534/

  11. Paul Turpin said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 1:56 pm

    Then there's the quodlibet; a "question in philosophy or ethics set as an occasion or exercise for argument." A quodlibetarian is one who quodlibetificates! Ungainly word.

  12. Keith said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 4:48 am

    The biggest congregation of devotees of Eris is currently to be found in London; more precisely, in the Palace of Westminster.

  13. Rodger C said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 6:51 am

    erisology

    Eridology.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 7:36 am

    Comparison with Buddhist logic suggest we might have to deal with the case where a reference is unexpectedly multivalent, e.g. france changes its constitution such that the role of king is shared between two people, and only one of them is bald). I have no idea if this is the sort of case the Buddhist notion encompasses, though.

    All the languages of Buddhist scripture & literature lack articles, right? Your interpretation would work for "a king of France", but not for "the".

  15. Sili said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 3:40 pm

    "It is characteristic of the eristic to think of some arguments as a way of defeating the other side, by showing that an opponent must assent to the negation of what he initially took himself to believe."

    I find it unfair to align this sentiment with "trolling". If one can positively demonstrate a flaw in the argument of someone, one doesn't have to present a alternative hypothesis to be correct. (I'm reminded of the attacks on Hossenfelder in her arguments against a next generation supercollider.) If an argument is wrong it's wrong.

    A troll on the other hand doesn't engage in honest argumentation. A common example would be the creationist chant of "If we come from monkeys, why are there still monkeys? "

  16. Sili said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 3:46 pm

    Of course, if they then attach the fallacy of the excluded middle — if your argument is wrong, then my position is right –then we're getting into eristics.

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