The Politics of Argument

…the categorical S symbol that dominates every sentence is more fundamentally a marker of power than a syntactic marker.
– deleuze & guattari, a thousand plateaus, “rhizome”

The venerability, reliability, and utility of truth is something which a person demonstrates for himself from the contrast with the liar, whom no one trusts and everyone excludes.
– Nietzsche, “On Truth & Lying in an Extramoral Sense”

In my years of teaching logic, I have labored to teach students how to make “philosophical arguments” rather than merely expressing their opinions.  “Supporting our claims with other claims” or “giving reasons for our statements” is one way in which philosophy has tried to keep the bloody battlefield of opinion from becoming a sort of bellum omnium contra omnes.  The kinds of things we argue about are usually not statements of fact, but rather statements of value, or what might be called “judgments.”   The practicality of reasoning is all but unquestionable–we use it in our legal systems and our everyday conversation.  Today though, I’d like to take a step back from reasoning to look at its components:  judgments.

At least since Greece, society has listened to people with strong opinions. “It takes a strong person to make strong claims,” we are told.  At least, it takes a certain kind of strength, a certain power–one that certain philosophers and statespersons have coveted for ages.  What do we make then, of anti-philosophers who see the rationality-game and the truth-game as a shallow form of social genuflection?  Nietzsche and Deleuze live in a world of socially-constructed truth, rationality, and knowledge.[1]  The “nihilism” that Nietzsche describes in Will to Power–a nihilism he self-reportedly “passed beyond”–is largely a longing for a bygone era in which statements could be “true,” arguments “rational”…at least in some universal or transcendent sense.    Mourning and grieving for the dead age of the truth-game, while perhaps historically necessary, are unhealthy to the organism. Yet to this day, we largely live in anachronistic societies enamored of this all-too-sick game.

In this society, periods are shields; exclamation points, swords.  The generals in the army of life are those who not only wield swords and shields nimbly, but deploy a vast configuration of swords and shields in calculated, choreographed fashion.  Power is perceived as the very ability to issue judgments and systems of judgments.[2]  Those incapable of making judgments or systems, those who refuse to do so, might best be advised to keep off the plane of battle.  Of course, this is impossible.

Equally discouraging is the movement in the academy–especially among young students–toward a brand of “multi-perspectivalism” that might be termed “relativism.”[3]  Seeing all sides without making judgments.  This movement is a tendency toward the apolitical.  Power-politics or seclusion?  Dogma or apathy?  Scylla or Charybdis?

To bring this dilemma home, I’d like to focus on the self.  If “S” is a power marker before it is a syntactic marker, what about the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) utterances we speak to ourselves?  If we can’t live in the society of others without playing the truth-game, we especially can’t live in the society of the self without at least a few judgments.[4]  The politics of the self demands action.

Two directions out of this quandary I’ve entertained:  utility and will.  What do you want?  How do you get what you want?  Of course, these questions are not just individual, but also social.  It’s become apparent that emperor’s oldest clothes, truth and rationality, are easily seen through.  What justifies the imperative to offer a “justification” for each of our judgments?  Rationality itself, “the truth-game”, is a cloak for (i.e.,  a naked justification of) our will to power.

In looking at the uptake of any metaphor, two crucial elements emerge:  what sinks in and what sticks.  Can you make it sink in?  Can you make it stick?  If so, more power to you.


[1] As do Foucault and the entire Sociology of Knowledge school, among others, who treat knowledge, truth, and rationality as “positive” (historically posited) phenomena.
[2] Given the implicit reciprocity between the indicative and imperative, issuing judgments and systems of judgments is implicitly issuing commands and systems of commands.  As the French have it:  mots d’ordre.
[3] “Relativism” is perhaps poor terminology, insofar as it has become a straw man for too many kinds of opponents.  I use it here to describe an attitude I’ve seen in student writing and thinking:  the positive evaluation of vapid neutrality.
[4] Here I take “judgments” as any reason-giving precursor of action.


One thought on “The Politics of Argument

  1. Bellum omnium contra omnes–die Kriegschule des Lebens–Struggle for existence–Argument is ritualized combat

    Multiperspectival paralysis–fragile peace–Selfless memes–emasculation of the species

    Sex drives–sex sells–sex powers–sex tames

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