Performative Contradictions and Subtle Misunderstandings
by Daniel M. Ryan
by Daniel M. Ryan
Some arguments are easy to understand, and others are easy to misunderstand. The kind of argument that is most difficult to understand properly is what goes by the name of a "transcendental argument," a kind of logic check beneath the surface of everyday lines of reasoning. This kind of deduction is hard to assimilate because we often acquire knowledge through accretion, through collecting a pastiche of ad hockeries that serve as our knowledge bank. This knowledge-pastiche is hardly checked by us, except "at the margin" when either a falsity or a contradiction surfaces. A transcendental argument, on the other hand, impels us to take a systematic look at our thought processes, something that seems either odd or not very useful to do.
Objectivism's "fallacy of the stolen concept," defined as affirming a proposition while denying its logical antecedent, is one of these. Ostensibly an elaboration of contradicting a valid inference, it is confined to moving between levels of abstraction. An example of this fallacy would be "All men are mortal, but Joe Fantastic will never die!" Because this statement contains a subtle logic-oxymoron, we would normally metaphorize it, as we do with a regular oxymoron such as "big small." Something or someone called a "big small," seriously, will prompt us to structure it as meaning, say, "for a ‘small,' it/he/she is pretty big," unless we reject the term out of hand as nonsensical. Thanks to our ability to think in two levels of abstraction, we can parse an oxymoron through identifying one term as a genus and the other as a differentium. For "big small," I assumed that "small" was the genus and "big" was the differentium. Another kind of thinker, perhaps hailing from a different culture, might reverse that order, which would lead to the term being metaphorized as "for a biggie, he/she/it isn't much." In the case of the statement about Joe Fantastic, the typical metaphorization, in our culture, is to assume that it means, "Joe Fantastic will always be remembered by the living as if he were still alive."
(As an aside, the standard Objectivist example of a proposition containing a stolen-concept fallacy, Proudhon's "all property is theft," is sensibly metaphorized as meaning "all landed property in Europe, being acquired by conquest, thus has its origin in theft." The justification for this interpretation is that Proudhon implicitly meant "landed property" when he wrote "property.")
Another kind of transcendental argument is at the center of Hans-Herman Hoppe's ultimate justification of the private property ethic (PDF file.) He concludes, after proving that argumentation logically presupposes self-ownership, that any denial of property rights is impugned by a "performative contradiction," in which one's actions contradict one's case. This kernel of his epistemologic theory of metaethics is easy to misunderstand, because a performative contradiction isn't easy to find a referent for, outside of pure thought.
There are examples of performative contradictions in the more quotidian world, though. The most obvious one is "do as I say, not as I do." Performative contradictions of this sort, though, are easy to justify, or to sensibly metaphorize, as "you may as well learn from my mistakes instead of making your own," or "I've, unfortunately, picked up bad habits throughout my life that I can't shake off, but what I say to you is the result of learning from them. You might as well learn the easy way from me." Note, though, that performative contradictions and authority tend to be associated with each other.
An even less intellectualized example of a performative contradiction can be found in bodybuilding. Bodybuilders are well acquainted with Nietzsche's maxim "what does not kill me, makes me stronger;" it's often translated to mean, "no pain, no gain." This statement identifies a cost-benefit relationship: in order to increase muscle mass, you have to tear your muscles up a little through exerting them, which often means suffering some pain while doing so. The pain is the cost of the gain in muscle mass. When interpreted this way, "no pain, no gain" means "if you don't pay the pain-cost, you get no bulking-benefit."
Sometimes, though, that statement is interpreted to mean "if you feel pain, you're gaining. Thus, you should learn to see pain as a gain." What makes the conclusion contain the seeds of a performative contradiction is the obvious function of pain: a warning signal of damage to the organism. Thus, a bodybuilder who claims that "pain is good" is ensnared in a performative contradiction, as will become evident when the pain that he (or she) experiences while working out becomes too much for him (or her) to stand.
This performative contradiction is, of course, metaphorized too. In modern culture, it tends to be interpreted as symptomatic of masochism. Cultures that are more oriented to physicality will metaphorize it differently, as meaning "you have to increase your level of pain-tolerance." Note, though, that performative contradictions involving pain do impress, sometimes mightily, as evidenced by Jim Morrison, in the movie The Doors, belting out the line "my old friend pain" when mad at his wife. In fact, living in a performative contradiction does convey a lot of prestige if doing so requires a lot of effort or willpower.
Thus, it should be of little surprise that the State and performative contradictions often nestle together. Government officials do not like being criticized, because criticism diminishes their authority. An impressive performative contradiction does tend to staunch logical thought, because metaphorization replaces reasoning, thus making critical thought more difficult and more ad hockish. The latter degradation makes it even harder to reason critically, and subtly circumscribes the range of critical thought.
It is possible to reach certain truths while laboring under a set of contradictory premises. An example of such would be the belief that all four arithmetical operations are commutative, with respect to both input numbers but not with respect to the output number. Since the output number for an addition and multiplication operation is, in fact, one of the input numbers for the corresponding subtraction or division operation, this belief contradicts itself.
Someone who believes it, though, and has the normal human habit of checking premises "at the margin," could get through life without ever realizing its contradictoriness — if that person never subtracts or divides, but only adds and multiplies. This example illustrates that it is possible to use a set of contradictory premises for gaining and using limited knowledge, without being aware of the limits therein. Thus, contradictory premises do not extinguish thought, but they do subtly limit thought, in ways unbeknownst to the holders of such premises. Since thought and mental effort are economized, these limits are often taken in stride as yet another example of "limited CPU power."
Accepted performative contradictions also self-limit thought. A person making an argument for universal enslavement can spin out a case through the avoidance of hypocrisy. ("Yes, I'd be a slave too.") It wouldn't be long, though, before the performative contradiction would surface, thus necessitating recourse to some dogma, or to fallacies such as positing the determinist doctrine.
Interestingly enough, a wider thought-latitude exists in arguments for partial slavery, through positing categorical differences between human beings. "Some people are rulers, others are of the ruled, a third category of people is the misfits or the deviants, and this triple classification will always be true for any group of people." This template is the general framework for all justifications of statism. The conclusion of Professor Hoppe, though, enables any evaluator of them to see hidden flaws, non sequiturs and buried limits, ones unbeknownst to their propounders, in any of them.
February 28, 2007
Daniel M. Ryan [send him mail] is a Canadian with a past. He's currently wearing out his thumb with pen and paper.
Copyright © 2007 LewRockwell.com