Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hermeneutic Charity and the Reductio ad Absurdum

What does hermeneutic charity look like in practice?

Thinking back to my prior post about a pile-on I received on another blog--they didn't mean anything by it but we rarely do when we make these mistakes--I would like to make a concrete suggestion about an argumentative strategy that commonly violates hermeneutic charity. I am revisiting it because one of my students did it to another, and the object of the lack of charity called the person on it.

When you use a reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity), e.g., "your argument leads to all these bad things and therefore you are wrong," be very, very careful about how you phrase it. I could follow this advice more often myself! This reductio implies that your interlocutor implicitly or explicitly believes many "bad things," and it is easy to horrify the person with all the "bad things" you are accusing them of believing. Yes, you could say that it is "not personal" and merely "formal," but that is a total cop-out because it ignores how the other person feels about being accused of such things, plus it presumes that the other person was either not intelligent or thoughtful enough to know that those implications were possible.

Rather than fire-off the accusations at once--and yes this reductio often feels like an accusation--I would recommend asking what the person has to say to the implications you would draw. This is the method I try to employ, though I admit that frequently an interlocutor will dismiss my proffered implications as not worthy of discussion. Then, I become more adamant that they need redress, though to be honest I should probably drop the subject at that point, when in fact I rarely do, since the person is not treating the conversation as a true dialog. This is more common in online conversation, but I have also frequently seen it at conferences where a person aggressively defends a position by dismissing the counter-arguments as "not relevant" but offers few reasons beyond those words.

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