July 06, 2005

Hegel's bluff

On a mailing list to which I subscribe*, an argument debate was developing about possible Supreme Court nominees. Nothing unusual about that; it happens everywhere. As on many other lists, the views of most of the participants were fairly predictable and a couple of the more vocal members were staking out their positions. Suddenly another occasional contributor to these food-fights chimed in with the immortal words, "Actually, I see you 2 as opposites sides of the same coin called 'political extremism'".

Now this pushed one of my buttons: the sloppy assumption that the right answer to any question must lie in the middle. Historically it's a really dubious stance - how would one apply it to slavery, for instance, or voting rights? Intellectually it's just plain lazy: a way of positioning oneself as moderate, and therefore right, without actually having to do any of the heavy lifting of working out a real argument.

Slacktivist wrote about this back in 2002 (and again recently):

The middle-path-between-extremes-must-be-right rationale is enormously appealing. But it’s helpful to state it more plainly as a logical argument:
1. Everyone thinks I’m wrong.
therefore
2. I am right.
It’s possible, of course, that statements 1 and 2 are both true, but the “therefore” does not follow. Let’s try a more charitable form of the argument:
1. People who are wrong think I’m wrong,
therefore
2. I am right.
Again, it could be true, but it doesn’t necessarily follow (and you haven’t, in fact, proven that the others are wrong). That magical “therefore” can be a convenient way of justifying your position without any sort of principled rationale.

Staking out a coherent, principled position is a lot of hard work. So is trying to understand and respond to the principles and arguments of your opponents. So why bother with all that?

Instead, just find someone seated to your right and label them “thesis.” Then turn to someone seated to your left and label them “antithesis.” Bingo! That makes you “synthesis” – the inevitable and uncontestable culmination of all right-thinking on the subject. Anyone who disagrees with you now is swept into the dustbin of history as a misguided extremist. All done simply without all that belabored appeal to argument, principle or fact.

I call this maneuver “Hegel’s bluff.”

The astute observer will spot this manoeuvre at work all over the place.

--
* Names withheld, since nobody's given me permission to drag this private debate into the blogosphere, and it would be unfair to assume that any statements were intended as carefully considered and defensible positions.

Posted by geoff2 at July 6, 2005 12:09 AM
Comments

I don't know that the person meant that the answer lies in the middle. I think he felt that the two of them were talking over people's heads by making extreme exclusive statements and leaving no middle ground for dialogue. I do not completely agree with him, but I think that is what he meant.

Posted by: Susan in St. Paul at July 6, 2005 12:49 AM

Possibly, but the "two sides of the same coin" was absurd. Two very different coins....

Posted by: Geoff Arnold at July 6, 2005 12:52 AM
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