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August 28, 2007

A civil exchange: "The power of argument"

John Stoehr

The following exchange is with Stephen Durbin, a sharp-eyed nature photographer whose work, to my unsophisticated eye, is in the Ansel Adams vein (that right, Stephen?). Anyway, he lives in Bozeman, Mont. We started this give-and-take about my post Monday, which argued that literary and aesthetic intellectuals are being replaced by scientists as public intellectuals and that perhaps the reason for that is our inability to argue on solid ground, i.e., we're for the most part trapped in, as my historian friend called it, "a whirlpool of relativist goo." The bottom-line for Stephen that agreeing on solid principles would be fine, but it's not necessary. What matters is the power of the arguments we make.

Stephen Durbin, Aug. 27, 2007
One thing that scientists learn early on is how slippery the notion of "truth" is. Look no further than the current debate on Edge (an excellent citation on your part) regarding global warming. They also learn that the duality "objective truth" vs. "one [truth] being just as 'good' as the other" is a false one; we must look at the arguments. So I'll subscribe to your points 1, 2, and 4, but please don't shoot yourself in the foot by harping on 3. That's just asking for another brand of orthodoxy like the one Gary rightly complains of.

Stoehr, Aug. 27, 2007
I think you might misunderstand what I mean by "objective truth," Steve, or perhaps I haven't made myself very clear. You're right in that global warming is a topic of debate and the "truth" of the issue will be fleshed out according to the quality, character and power of the arguments.

I'm not talking about controversy, however; I'm talking about external reality, like gravity, as Sokal said in his piece for Lingua Franca, explaining why he submitted a parody to Social Text. His complaint was that the editors of that journal did not question his assertion that gravity was a social contruction. How can gravity be a social construction? Yet the editors swallowed it whole. And how can gravity, or our concept of gravity, possibly have political implications? It's gravity for Chissake!

I entered graduate school only a couple of years after the so-called Sokal Affair. I was told Sokal didn't prove anything about lax intellectual rigor among postmodern theorists. Instead, I was told he actually proved the postmodernists right.

The "orthodoxy" you say I'm asking for is the kind that uses some common sense, but the orthodoxy of postmodernism -- and any other school of thought, for that matter, that flies in the face of the completely obvious -- can make the argument -- a logical and erroneous argument -- that the world is flat.

The "orthodoxy" I'm advocating is one that's basic and fundamental: Let's agree on what external reality is (i.e., that gravity is a force with established scientific causes), let's get away from the relative, subjective kind of thinking that's paralyzed the intellectual left from taking action for so long, as Gary P. notes above, and let's engage the public again about things that matter. --J.S.

Stephen Durbin, Aug. 28, 2007
If you want to see a truly "religious" argument, try asking some physicists what exactly gravity is (don't even think of asking why there is gravity). I agree there are things that are reasonable for us all to accept about gravity, but I believe that: 1) even the question of which things is very hard to understand for a non-physicist; 2) even if we all agreed, that wouldn't get us very far towards engaging with the public about things that matter. The problem is not that we don't all agree on the same version of "external reality," but that some apparently fly to the opposite extreme that all positions are equal (or think their audience does). I don't believe in either extreme, but in the power of argument. By all means, let someone argue that the world is flat. If we can't counter that with a more convincing argument, then we're also out of touch -- or lack courage. I think you're right that there is sometimes a reluctance to make those arguments we believe in for fear of offending. That may not always be wrong, but it can certainly go too far.

Posted by John Stoehr at August 28, 2007 6:34 PM