the logic of three kinds

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Archive for October, 2007

Truth and Opinion (Everett Piper and the Liar)

Posted by achresis on October 4, 2007

One must contest the arguments of others with arguments that at least aim to better those of the opponent.  Perhaps.  But when an argument is constructed almost entirely of what in the field of rhetoric is the equivalent of sleight-of-hand, a conjuring trick pulled off while the audience is looking elsewhere, we are no longer in the domain of mere argument.  We are now in the domain of rhetoric (not of course to suggest they can be absolutely distinguished, as we’ll see).

It is not sufficient, however, to merely expose the rhetorical sleight of hand.  One must, as Socrates shows, counter the rhetoric with more argument.   So returning to the article I noted last time (and mocked no doubt too hastily),  that of Everett Piper, it might be worth trying to distinguish argument from rhetoric–even if with a constant certainty one must acknowledge at length that there can be no such distinction. [Everett Piper’s “A Degree in Opinions“] 

First, and candidly, my argument with Everett Piper concerns his minor premise: [I sum it up] higher education in the humanities, in so far as it is represented by the works of Rorty, Foucault and Derrida (for instance), teaches opinions and not truth. 

My main focus, for reasons of space, will be on Derrida, whose writings very consistently are deeply concerned with teaching.  But as has been pointed out (correctly) this is only Piper’s minor premise.  The sleight-of-hand occurs with the rather abrupt shift from the comments on Derrida etc. to what is posited as an alternative.  Piper puts no argument of his own in place to oppose those he claims are absurd.  Rather he evokes arguments found in Augustine and Martin Luther King.  We need to be aware of this rhetorical staging.  It is theatrical.  On one side we have Derrida, Rorty and Foucault.   On the other Martin Luther King and Augustine.  “Who,” he asks, “would you rather believe?”  The appeal is not an appeal to any kind of “objective” truth but to the classical standard of the truth of divine law: its authority, its revelation.  So the minor premise is that children (the implication–our children) are being taught that there is no truth, only opinion.  The major premise emerges with the postulation of tuth as divine law.    

We need to quote in the interests of accuracy.  This is Piper:

Opinions can be dangerous, self-centered and cruel. They indeed are used to justify all kinds of unjust things. Only that which rises above the selfish constructs of the human mind can set the stage for freedom and dignity, liberty and justice. King knew that revelatory truth, i.e. God’s law, was the only solid foundation for human value, civil rights, justice, freedom, and racial liberation. He also understood very well that man’s opinion is inevitably clouded with sin and thus, sets the stage for the powerful to construct systems of oppression over the powerless.

Note the two “stagings”: 1. “setting the stage” for freedom (God’s law and King) and 2. “setting the stage” for oppression (opinion and Derrida etc.).  Piper might have made these kinds of argument (I believe that he does everyday) without the mention of Derrida etc.  But here–in the rhetoric–this is the point, which emerges clearly enough when one examines the stages of Piper’s argument.

1. Absurdity can be a good teacher.

2. What is taught in Universities today is absurd.

3. The alternative is God’s law.

4. Therefore what we learn in Universities today is that it might be better to follow God’s law rather than the lawless absurdities of contemporary philosophy.

The argument rests on several deceptively complex and sometimes questionable assumptions.

1. That e.g., Derrida teaches no truth only opinion.

2. That in teaching this Derrida follows no law.

3. We need a law because opinions can be dangerous.

4. We need such a law because otherwise there’d be no chance for human values, justice, freedom, racial liberation. 

There’s the sleight of hand: from truth to law (as truth is to opinion so law is to lawlessness, slavery etc ).  The argument takes the form of an anti-enlightenment revolution.  Once again reason is opposed to revelation (the medieval vs. renaissance debates that we study in university are replayed here as a kind of postmodern comic: the reformation for beginners or something, but I mustn’t mock).     

The theatricality of this textual scene should not be forgotten.

But: Derrida first of all is concerned with a notion of truth that is more powerful than either the authority of the divine law before law or the straw man postmodernism represented as a kind of cultural relativity, of truth-as-construct.  And second, his texts teach the principle of a law before law–a law of the law–that is at least as powerful as the divine law posited by Paul and Augustine (for instance) after Cicero, Plato and Aristotle.  I will state it simply: Derrida’s law is derived from his readings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Paul, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud and many, many others, all of whom teach some kind of law before law (whether they always acknowledge this or not) and some kind of truth before truth.  Derrida (and this is not much understood I think) does not teach the destruction of these arguments about law and truth and language.  He teaches their reinscription.  The law before law is that of the repeatable, which explains partly why Piper’s evocation of law is repeated so often throughout 2500 years of history at least.  A law of repetition–its force–its repeat-ability–cannot any more than divine, revealed law be represented.  But we do at least live amongst its effects everyday, all the time, every time we write or speak or think.  And so these effects can indeed be mobilised (the common word for this today is deconstruction).  And, so much more to the point, it does not itself remain unaffected by the law it describes.  We repeat.  And in the difference between repetitions we have our circumscribed freedoms: to apply our citations, our laws, our arguments, otherwise.  (So neither absolute law nor absolute construct, but both at the same time in their tireless incompatibility: repetition of and difference in the same).  Piper’s text itself is free with such freedoms.  What we are interested in is the margin circumscribed by the difference between repetitions of the same.  Simply stated!  We’d need to read quite carefully, but this is not a matter of opinion. 

Piper’s argument would indeed be threatened by Derrida’s texts in Piper’s very evocation of the authority of divine law in the teachings of the great fathers.  Had he really read Derrida’s texts.  But one should ask: did these writers actually say that?  The subtle space between truth and interpretation is what all of this is about of course.  But only by reading them will we ever know.  Derrida’s law, Derrida’s truth: these are of reading and of writing first. 

Piper’s argument depends for its force upon the postmodernism he describes.  He absolutely needs the cultural relativity thesis (men are by nature sinful, polysemic, equivocal, liars) in order to oppose it to the divine authority thesis (God never lies and divine language is univocal).  But these two apparently opposed positions, in his short essay, are the same.  There is no difference between the two: yet they require each other.  God never lies (as Paul says in the letter to Titus in Crete).  But Cretans always lie (he asserts).  But so also says the cretan: I am lying. 



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