Language and thought. Are you doing it right?

29 07 2009

Those interested in politics have probably heard of the term “framing”.  According to the Washington Post, framing means “constructing a schema of interpretation.”  In politics we often see these word games.  Obama’s catch phrase “a change we can believe in” is one of the most disgracefully meaningless uses of the English language ever invented which somehow managed to evoke feel good emotions in his supporters. 

 But framing is part of a wider problem with the way some think.  Words represent concepts.  And valid concepts can be ultimately reduced to percepts.  Therefore to be truly logical in your arguments, you must always keep in mind the context and connection to reality referd to by the words you use.  Rationalist philosophical rules of deductive logic do not cater for this important consideration and therefore errors are possible in deductive arguments.  As Ayn Rand said: “check your premises”.   

A closely related point of interest is Ayn Rand’s identification of the fault she termed a “floating abstraction” which I will define as, a concept that is used in a way which ignores the concept’s basis in reality. 

Recently Peikoff was asked an interesting question on one of his Pod Casts:  See http://www.peikoff.com/
The questioner asked:
“Wouldn’t an altruist have to advocate capitalism given his ethics, because capitalism is actually what makes other people happy and that’s his professed goal” 
Peikoff identified this as a rationalistic question dropping context, ultimately becoming a word game. 
The argument can be summarized as:

Altruism = making people happy
Capitalism = making people happy
Therefore, altruism = capitalism.  

A deductively sound argument.  But a false argument nonetheless.  Why? Because one must examine what altruism and capitalism actually mean in reality. 
Capitalism involves working for ONESELF for profit, sucess, independance etc. 
Altruism means sacrificies for OTHERS for the sake of it.  ie: with no gain to oneself.  An altruist cannot endorse selfish activity without being hypocritical.  And capitalism necessarily invovles selfish activity. 
So when we connect these concepts back to what they mean in reality, we see the contradiction that was not evident in the rationalistic deductive argument. 

Incidentally, the above demonstrates that pure altruism is impossible and altruism is a logically contradictory system of ethics.  Objectivism argues that rational egoism does not have this logical fault. 

Over at Principled Perspectives, http://www.principledperspectives.blogspot.com/ Mike Zemack gives us another example.  He identifies how dropping context from language by ignoring what the concepts (words) of a statement actually mean in reality, allows one to argue for false conclusions.  Look how Mike addresses the statement of a commentor on his blog – in the final sentence notice that Mike connects the concepts (words) back to the conditions of reality: 

“Should a person die because he/she can’t afford necessary treatment?”

Mike: “The question attempts to pass off an intellectual package deal. Implied is the collectivist notion that there exists some entity (i.e., society, the state, the community, etc.) that supercedes the sovereignty of the individuals who make up a nation, and that possesses the authority to answer the above question independent of the desires and rights of those individuals. In other words, what lies behind the question is the idea that an individual does not own his own life…i.e., the tribal premise.  
The questions that first must be addressed are: Where does the “necessary treatment” come from?; and how does one acquire it?”

My own recent observations of word game errors involved Rudd’s continual dismissal of capitalism and/or neo-liberalism as “extreme”.  There are obvious reasons why “extreme” doesn’t necessarily mean bad.  But politicians and the media have framed the word “extreme” to imply that extremism (generally in ideology) is harmful and impractical. 

If one accepts this obviously false premise then deductive logic can be used to justify just about anything. 
Simplified, Rudd’s argument can be summed up as follows: 

Extremism is bad
Capitalism is extreme
Therefore capitalism is bad. 

In the above case, there is absolutely no fault in deductive procedure here. 
If the premises of the argument are true the conclusion must be true.  However the premise “extremism is bad” is obviously not true.  
The concept “extreme” must be examined with reference to what it actually refers to in reality.  Rudd is erroneously assuming extremism is bad per se.  
Extreme according to dictionary.com means: “farthest removed from the average” or “utmost or exceedingly great in degree” 
Clearly it would not be a bad thing to be exceedingly great in degree of productivity or of good health or of personal happiness.  A cancer survivor may be farthest removed from the average.  Examples are endless.  But lets use an example of ideology (the way Rudd applies the concept extreme).  Is moderation in nazism, satanism or nihilism good?  Is an extreme rejection of nazism, satanism or nihilism bad? 

To say a thing is bad or doesn’t work because it is extreme is not an argument.  More explanation is required.  The argument must be linked to the real world and requires a demonstration of why too much of the issue in question is harmful.  To not do this is most likely lazy, dishonest or ignorant.  In Rudd’s case, I’d say arrogant.   

Unfortunately, in politics, false arguments work because most people have not learnt how to evaluate the validity of such statements.  The masses are being manipulated by word games.  Politicians are hiring experts on “framing” – because unfortuantely, it works.

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One response

31 07 2009
Chris Deery

Very Good Tim

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