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Posts Tagged ‘narrative arguments’

"Homme assis" by Roger-Noël-François de La Fresnaye, c.1914

In a recent blog post provocatively titled “Kurt Vonnegut turns Cinderella into an Equation” Robert Krulwich (co-host of the excellent WNYC series Radiolab) uses a wonderful pair of cartoons to suggest that if humans are creatures who thrive on pattern, then scientists and mathematicians are compulsive pattern finders,  “pattern addicts” as it were.  Logicians and students of argument, I think, fairly belong in this category as well. Some of us talk about logical form and explain it in terms of complicated relationships between abstract symbols and letters. Or we classify arguments by scheme and develop equally schematic lists of questions with which to test their merits. The dialectically inclined among us give us patterns of argumentation between two or more arguers.  We create argument diagrams, relevance cubes, maps of controversies and many more things like them besides. We’re pattern people. There’s no doubt about it.

Interestingly, Krulwich closes his post by suggesting that even more than than scientists and mathematicians (and perhaps logicians and argumentation scholars too?) artists and storytellers may be even more pattern-aware. As exhibit the first he offers this short (and altogether too good not to reproduce) video of the legendary Kurt Vonnegut:

Let us begin with the obvious: we don’t need Vonnegut to tell us that stories have patterns too (though of course his way of telling us is very entertaining and we’re very lucky to have it). Clearly they’re there. The deeper issue has to do with the nature and significance of such patterns. How do we interpret them? How do we reason about them? How do we reason with them?

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A while ago I posted a short entry here entitled Nice Argument. I’ll Believe You When You Have a Story.  That post linked to a post about the endowment effect on Dan Ariely’s blog in behavioral economics.  In that post I wondered if something like the endowment effect (the increased perception of value that comes from association with a personal narrative) might not do some explanatory work in argumentation theory, perhaps in terms of explaining why people hold and argue for the positions that they do, or why people can be resistant to changing their minds even when presented with evidence that should do so, etc..

Here now is another entry along those lines, this time by the redoubtable popularizer of all things brain science, Jonah Lehrer.  In a recent entry on his blog Lehrer goes so far as to say that in order to be effective argumentation–especially moral argumentation–ought to be aimed at exciting the emotional systems in the brain; that argumentation that appeals to rational considerations simply won’t get the job done when it comes to morality.  Let’s see now, if he’s right then moral argument is effective when it appeals to our sentiments, but is idle when it appeals to reason.  Seems like I’ve heard that one somewhere before…I wonder if Lehrer can do a Scottish accent.

What is interesting here for argumentation theorists in these developments coming out of the social and now the hard sciences are (1) that emotions apparently play a much larger role in reasoning, and by extension in effective argumentation than has traditionally been thought and (2) that arguments or not, narratives have what increasingly looks like a proven power to convince that in some cases can exceed rational appeals.  (Of course to some in rhetoric that won’t seem like news, however, considering that this observation is coming from the hard sciences I’d wager that even the toughest rhetorician may find something to smile about there). Though obviously related, these two points each have a significance of their own. The first point is in some ways a vindication of the more nuanced view taken by most argumentation theorists of what were traditionally seen the “emotion-based” fallacies (e.g. ad misericordiam, etc.). The second point certainly seems like wind in the sails of those who favor the notion that narratives can be arguments.

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