Love of All Wisdom

Dialectical and demonstrative argument

by on Jun.27, 2010, under Dialectic, Epistemology, French Tradition, Greek and Roman Tradition, Pre-Socratics, Truth

I closed my post about Peimin Ni’s gongfu with an important argument of Ni’s, which I didn’t have the space to address there. I had been arguing against Ni’s ends-relativist viewpoint, in which philosophies were judged by their pragmatic effectiveness. Ni made a vital point in response: he noted that I was myself arguing merely based on pragmatic effectiveness, and not on the grounds of the larger metaphysical truth I hope to proclaim. He was absolutely right about this – but it is by design.

What is at stake on this point is a crucial feature of any foundationalist position – that is, a position that relies on basic first principles, such as the existence of truth, and not merely on pragmatic effectiveness. Any such position relies in its logic on the difference between demonstrative and dialectical argument – that is, between arguments from first principles and arguments to first principles. (I take the distinction from a short and helpful discussion on pp. 88-9 of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry.) This distinction is what that the young Socrates at first fails to grasp in Plato’s Parmenides: because Zeno’s arguments show the flaws in others’ positions, Socrates sees them only as sophistry rather than as what they are, namely dialectical arguments knocking down others’ premises in order to establish the truth of Parmenides’s view. The young Socrates knows only demonstrative argument, and not dialectical argument. In an anti-foundationalist position like Ni’s (or Richard Rorty’s), where there are no first principles, there is the opposite: only dialectical argument, and no demonstrative.

The point: One cannot deduce conclusions from first principles (demonstrative argument) with someone who does not share those principles. Rather, one must argue from the assumptions and principles of one’s interlocutor, in order to show that the interlocutor’s position is flawed and one’s own is preferable (dialectical argument). Only by doing so can one arrive at anything like a foundationalist position in the first place. No foundationalist that I am aware of has ever tried to argue otherwise. Even Descartes doesn’t begin his argument with cogito ergo sum; rather, he begins both the Meditations and the Discourse with everyday commonsense knowledge and why it isn’t good enough. The first principles – the existence of truth or self – are first only logically; they do not come first chronologically, in argument or in human development. And the question on which a foundationalist position stands or falls is whether the foundationalist can show his interlocutor’s position to be flawed enough that it merits abandoning in favour of one more like his own. In the case at hand, I believe that I have done this – argued why a position based entirely on pragmatic effectiveness will fail on the grounds of pragmatic effectiveness.

I tried to do the same in my arguments against postmodernism. It does little good to argue that postmodernism is false or contradicts itself, and therefore fails on my terms. It is far more important to argue that postmodernism’s performative effects are neutral or worse, so that it fails on its own terms.

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9 Comments for this entry

  • elisa freschi

    Very interesting argument, but I hope you don’t mind if I ask a lateral question: I did not realise that you understand yourself as doing some original philosophical work. I somehow tacitly assumed you thought of yourself as a scholar of philosophy (which, obviously, implies the ability to grasp/find faults in/complete philosophical arguments), not as a philosopher.
    The difference lies, as far as I can tell, in the fact that a philosopher is freer to use others’ works in order to speculate on her own themes, whereas a scholar of philosophy will follow more closely the works and the authors s/he is investigating upon, trying to understand them, rather than using them in order to develop her own ideas.

    • Amod Lele

      Yes, I definitely see myself as doing both. In terms of the way you lay out the distinction here, I’ve probably been much more of a “scholar of philosophy” here so far; the biggest reason is that I don’t yet consider my own philosophy to be fully formed. (Maybe I never will.) I am trying to stand on the shoulders of giants, to learn from the insights of the great minds who have come before me; but the ultimate goal is certainly to develop some sort of philosophical system of my own, with their help.

      • Amod Lele

        I should probably add that this is the biggest reason I don’t focus primarily on Indian thought, as you’ve noted – there are too many thinkers outside of India from whom I draw inspiration, though the Indian (and especially Indian Buddhist) connection is very much there.

  • skholiast


    I take it you might be sympathetic to the notion that, rejecting first principles, one loses pragmatic efficacy as well; granting first principles, one gets pragmatic efficacy too. That is, it is not pragmatic to be merely pragmatic. Therefore, one can coherently urge that one should adopt first principles for the sake of pragmatism. This is too schematic, but it might serve as a rough-&-ready argument.

    • Amod Lele

      I agree with the general point you’re making, but I think it needs to be pushed a step further. I talked about this in my post on paradoxes of hedonism – which are really paradoxes of consequentialism more generally, and therefore in effect paradoxes of pragmatism (which, I think, is basically a less systematic version of consequentialism). Er, point is: I try to address this in the last paragraph of that post. Peter Railton makes an argument something like yours in his article on consequentialism; but he also distinguishes between truth and justification. That way he can hold on to the idea that goodness remains in fact solely determined by pragmatic consequences, even though one must refuse to believe such a point in order to have the best consequences. I tried to say, in that post and in Sunday’s post, that that won’t wash – once one starts adopting first principles for the sake of pragmatism, one must leave pragmatism. So that pragmatism winds up refuting itself.

      • Amod Lele

        I’m realizing you got at this point a bit in your comment to Sunday’s post as well, with the bit about degenerating into doublethink. I think we’re in the same place, I’m just trying to draw out the argument in its completeness.

  • michael reidy

    The problem is how do you show that strategic argument fails even when it appears to succeed. Yes minor victories are gained which confirm us and give us positive reinforcement but the change that occurs when we move in Batesonian terms from Learning II to Learning III will never happen. MacIntyre is fond of Austen and that moral movement takes place in Emma for instance. Context is altered. Anything else would be merely new training, new tricks. Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s book House of Mirth becomes aware of context but cannot alter her soul or world. Those heroines are an interesting contrast in moral development and a demonstration how access to principles other than the conventional can stand to you. Even Wharton’s own ferocious snobbery seems to be bated by the active imagination of the story.

    Do principles such as non-contradiction and excluded-middle establish a foundation or are they the foundation?

    • Amod Lele

      The last question is key. I strongly suspect that principles like non-contradiction are in fact the foundation – or perhaps more precisely, that they are part of the foundation. Implicit acceptance of non-contradiction, as far as I can see, is required for thought to be possible – though explicit acceptance clearly isn’t.

      Re the previous paragraph, this seems to point to the importance of practice of some sort: it is not enough to mentally state a sentence, one must come to know it on a deeper level. But if one is not convinced that it is worth believing something, one will have little reason to adopt the practices that entrench that belief.

      • michael reidy

        But then there’s dialetheism and paraconsistent logic to confound us. Or do they? What is contradictory at one level may be reconciled at another. I think of the advaitic sublation and the Hegelian supercession and sublation. However the strategic argument has no access to this metaphysical layering. It is a strictly horizontal M.O. relying on the obvious contradictions that occur between different world views to induce a global scepticism. There is perhaps no one more credulous that the global sceptic who wants to finally just rest.

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