There Is No Such Thing As A Purely Logical Argument

Written By Mette Leonard Høeg

This blogpost is a prepublication draft of an article forthcoming in THINK.

Etching by J.F.P. Peyron, ca. 1773

It is well-known that rational insight and understanding of scientific facts do not necessarily lead to psychological change and shifts in intuitions. In his paper “Grief and the inconsolation of philosophy” (unpublished manuscript), Dominic Wilkinson sheds light on this gap between insight and emotions as he considers the potential of philosophy for offering consolation in relation to human mortality. More specifically, he looks at the possibility of Derek Parfit’s influential reductionist definition of personal identity for providing psychological consolation in the face of the death of oneself and of others. In Reasons and Persons, Parfit argues that personal identity is reducible to physical and psychological continuity of mental states, and that there is no additional fact, diachronic entity or essence that determines identity; and he points to the potential for existential liberation and consolation in adopting this anti-essentialist perspective: “Is the truth depressing? Some might find it so. But I find it liberating, and consoling. When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air.”

Wilkinson usefully distinguishes between “rational consolation” and “psychological consolation”, the former referring to when “philosophical analysis leads to the conclusion that it would be rational to care less about death than we currently do” and the latter to when “philosophical reflection will actually lead us to care less about death than we currently do.” And he outlines “Parfitian rational consolation” for personal mortality as follows: “Adopting a reductionist understanding of personal identity and a more timeless attitude, would mean that it is rational to care less about one’s own death or that of others.”

But as Wilkinson points out: “These claims may come apart. Obviously, it would be possible for philosophy to offer rational consolation, but to have little or no psychological traction. Equally, it is possible that a particular form of consolation might be psychologically effective, but like supernatural explanations, have no rational basis.” He is sceptical that the Parfitian reductionist account of self has any such psychological and emotional traction and refers, among other sources, to a recent empirical study on the relation between attitudes to personal identity and the self and attitudes towards death the results of which indicate that those with a strong belief in the persisting self as an illusion (such as Tibetan monks) do in fact not experience less fear of death than groups with a strong sense of a continuous self – contrary to the prediction of the researchers.

Wilkinson accordingly argues that even though the philosophical insights into death and time in Parfit’s work provide reasons for fearing personal mortality less, it is “unlikely” that the Parfitian philosophical consolation will actually have a psychological effect in relation to personal mortality. And in terms of grief and fear in relation to the loss of loved ones, he finds it “deeply implausible” that the philosophical perspectives that give reasons for grieving less could lead to actual consolation (and that such a consolation may in fact, for certain reasons, be misguided and undesirable).

While this line of argument appears sound and persuasive, it seems to me to rest on too strict a distinction between rationality and emotion/psychology and to entail a misleadingly reductive view of philosophical writing as ‘pure’ rationalism and logic.

If we look to artforms with a strong philosophical dimension such as literature and fictional narrative, it seems clear that philosophical perspectives and rational argument can have psychological and emotional impact. Literature of course significantly differs from philosophy and arguably holds a special capacity for closing the divide between theoretical/rational insight and psychological/emotional state. Its affective, aesthetic, artistic and narrative features can make ideas, insights and hypotheses relatable for readers in ways that are beyond the scope of conventional philosophical and scientific writing that mainly rely on rational argument. These features allow for a much greater degree of identification and emotional and psychological engagement of the reader with the rational arguments and scientific and philosophical theories presented.

Literature can thus bring to light the beneficial and emancipatory potential of philosophy and science such as the philosophical reductive and materialist accounts of self and identity by presenting these in poetic and existential-philosophical terms, within a narrative framework and illustrating their meaning and implications performatively and dramatically through the acts, thoughts and speech of fictional characters. Compared to non-fictional and scientific forms of communication, it offers readers a possibility to more fully imagine how these perspectives can be lived with and incorporated into an existential model and a way of life and to actually experience the implications of accepting and identifying with certain philosophical notions and scientific theories through immersion in a story and identification with its characters.

The narrative, aesthetic and affective dimensions of literature can thus lead to a bridging of the gap between rational realisation and psychological state. These are, however, not exclusive to literature; they can be – and indeed often have been, especially in the continental philosophical tradition – meaningfully used in philosophical writing. There is a strong literary dimension to philosophy, and as works by thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre illustrate, literature and philosophy cannot be clearly distinghuished or strictly separated. The ancient Stoics, to whose engagement in consolatory philosophy Wilkinson also refers in his paper, also show awareness of this. In Seneca’s letter of consolation to his mother Helvia in relation to his own exile on Corsica (which I am currently working on a new publication of) the philosopher rhetorically self-consciously and strategically uses narrative and affective devices to engage the reader and for affective and psychological impact.

On one level Seneca argues explicitly and self-assuredly exactly what Wilkinson disputes, namely that rational insight is the only thing that can offer persons real comfort and consolation. But in arguing this, he does not simply rely on logic and clarity of argument. The text is highly performative and literary, incorporating personal and private material, using story-telling to illustrate its points, implicitly referring to events in the contemporary context in order to engage the reader, activate sympathy and facilitate identification between reader and the philosophical arguments.

Indeed, all writing, including scientific and philosophical forms, always already entails narrative and aesthetic dimensions – even if the convention has been to try to reduce these as much as possible in the effort to enhance the logic of an argument and create transparency and clarity. But there is no such thing as a pure genre or a purely rational argument. A heightened awareness of this in analytical philosophy might well lead to a narrowing of the gap between philosophical insight and psychological state.

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4 Responses to There Is No Such Thing As A Purely Logical Argument

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Very good! Arguments are self-serving artifices. Winning may not be everything, but losing is nothing at all. Logic, often, is peripheral at best. The IPM distinction is paramount: interests,preferences and motives say it all.

  • Alberto Giubilini says:

    Very nice article. Most of what you say about philosophy in the first part is really about analytic philosophy, or perhaps some version of it, but not philosophy as a whole (as you rightly point out in the second part). It’s interesting that in the first part you refer to “philosophy and science” in opposition to literature and arts, as if philosophy and science shared the same, or a similar enough, language.
    In a way that has been true for large part of history, but in different ways throughout it. For a long time what we would call the natural sciences were part of philosophy, that is, of a more general attempt to understand the world. Philosophy and science would share language and methods, for the simple reason that they were the same thing. And indeed both were relatively free of technicalities. Then the sciences became independent from philosophy as we understand it today. They developed their own methods and terminology. Until philosophy tried to become itself a kind of science, or at least to share the scientific idea of rigour and in large part the scientific language.
    That is certainly true for large part of analytic philosophy, and some would argue is one reason why philosophy is becoming a relatively obscure area of inquiry, where technicalities might well make it more rigorous, but also represent a kind of gatekeeping that confines philosophical discussion within a closed group of professional experts – those who know the technicalities . Which is exactly what we see in science. This doesn’t suit the nature of philosophy, though, especially if one of the consequences of this phenomenon is that kind of separation between the rational and the psychological dimension that you and Dominic point out. What we gain in terms of rigour and (a certain idea of) rationality as defined by a scientific approach we might lose in terms of the other things that should be – and used to be – essential to philosophy. They are essential because they are aimed at understanding the world, but understanding cannot only be a matter of rationality as defined by the scientific method or scientific language. The affective dimension is at least as important to understanding, given that it is an essential part of human nature and the way humans navigate the world.
    So I think it’s important to reintroduce these dimensions into analytic philosophy – even if that might mean making it less ‘analytic’, or not analytic at all. Perhaps it’s true that literature and other forms of art can assist in that. But I would also say that the process is really about rediscovering something that was already intrinsic in the idea of philosophy, rather than introducing new aspects to it. Interdisciplinary work with literature and other arts is important, but that can only happen if philosophers accept the idea that their work cannot be a kind of scientific work. Literature or other forms of art or indeed of knowledge within the Humanities are as relevant to a philosophical inquiry as are the sciences and its methods, if not more.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Well stated. Wild Sellars would approve.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    That was Wilf, not wild…

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