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LINGUIST List 18.2906

Fri Oct 05 2007

Disc: Perceptions of Limits on Ad Hominem Argument

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        1.    Ron Sheen, Perceptions of Limits on Ad Hominem Argument

Message 1: Perceptions of Limits on Ad Hominem Argument
Date: 05-Oct-2007
From: Ron Sheen <ronsheenmailme.ae>
Subject: Perceptions of Limits on Ad Hominem Argument
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A Query on the perceptions of the limits of ad hominem argument.

The purpose of the following is to stimulate a debate on members' perceptions of
the limits of ad hominem (AH) argument. This might prove instructive as in the
contemporary academic world it is seldom discussed. Further, in the
contemporary climate of political correctness, it is possible that an accusation
of resort to AH argument has become a facile means of rejecting a valid argument.

Let's establish in general terms what is accepted as a definition of AH. Though
there are complex ramifications in the general subject of fallacious
argumentation, it is fair to assert that AH entails invoking some aspect of a
person's character, background, race, gender, previous actions, arguments and
self-interest in order to invalidate his/her arguments.

Examples of such undeniable AH are:

a) The Bell Curve is unreliable because it's written by Caucasians.

b) Well, he would forbid abortion, wouldn't he? He's a priest.

c) As he has lied to the electorate before, we should not believe him now.

However, there may be examples of AH of a more subtle nature. Is there, for
example, an AH feature in characterising an argument in strong negative terms
when such negativity is justified?

For example, does describing an argument as 'risible' constitute an example of
AH if one justifies the charge by demonstrating that the argument is bereft of
supportive empirical evidence and ignores all the contrary evidence?

Possibly not.

However, were one to pillory this same lack of scholarship as 'sloppy', would a
charge of resort to AH argument be justified? In other words, is the more
formal word 'risible' describing 'scholarship' acceptable whilst the more
colloquial 'sloppy' is not? Or are both susceptible to being considered AH argument?

But if they are though the scholarship is clearly wanting how do the rules of
political correctness allow one to characterise it?

Now, let's take as background the response-rebuttal situation one finds in the
forum sections of most journals. This is a context which lends itself to
confrontation and direct criticism of the work of fellow scholars. Further,
should those scholars opt to respond to such criticism, the potential for
acerbic rejoinders is substantial.
Furthermore, in such exchanges, there is at times an element of scoring points
off each other.

Here are some examples:

1) 'A', in rebutting a critical response article by 'B', began by asserting
that ''B' had made a career of writing response articles'. Now, this is
clearly a personal remark which has no relevance to the substance of the
discussion. Is it a subtle way of implying that 'B' is a troublemaker and not
to be taken seriously? Is it, then, a case of AH argument?

2) Can titles of articles illustrate such point-scoring? Is the following an
example: 'Whether it's right, or whether it is written, he just doesn't get it.'
Does this remark on a scholar's putative lack of understanding constitute a
personal attack?

3) Such forum exchanges often provoke problems related to the manner in which
one of the protagonists represents the position of the other. Take this
example of two scholars deeply involved in (and therefore very much 'au fait'
with) a specialised domain of SLA. How might one interpret the following
remark by 'B' about 'A'? 'Beyond that, 'A' and accuracy part company. It is
hardly accurate, for instance, - not to put too fine a point on it, it is
grossly inaccurate to?' Does the addition of 'grossly' introduce an
unnecessary element of AH argument?

4) How the protagonists present each other's position has potential for AH
comment. Alleged inaccurate representation may be expressed quite baldly as in
'A's response constitutes a misrepresentation of my position'. Here, of
course, we touch on the issue of intention of which only the writer is fully
aware. The word may simply refer to inaccuracy. On the other hand, can a
scholar interpret the use of the word as an intentional misrepresentation and,
therefore, a personal attack?

5) To return to the use of colloquial words such as 'sloppy', how might one
interpret the use of the word, 'cheap' meaning 'unfair'? During the recent
World Rugby Cup, I heard an off-the-ball tackle described as 'cheap'. Or Clive
James' recent dismissal of a writer's contribution was characterised as 'cheap'
because he did not take into account much of the writer's work. Now, if in an
academic exchange, 'A' combines the use of 'cheap' with the word, 'ploy' to
characterise the fact that 'B' had dismissed 'A's' arguments on the basis of a
single article whilst ignoring numerous others, is one justified in
characterising this as a 'cheap ploy'? Is it, however, an example of AH argument?

Finally, is a clearly AH comment ever justified in academic discourse? During
the last six months, I have posted on the LL two discussions of the nature of
traditional grammar teaching mainly in order to endeavour to engage fellow
applied linguists on the subject of the contemporary applied linguistic mindset
which is partly founded on the assumed inefficacy of TGT as a teaching option.
My comments were highly critical of this mindset. Nevertheless, not a single
applied linguist contributed to the discussion. Now clearly, no member of the
LL is obliged to post to the List. However, I have made these same points
about TGT in Forum exchanges with applied linguists and in independent articles.
Nevertheless, in their subsequent publications involving TGT, they have
continued to ignore the substantial literature on the value of TGT. Would one
be justified in characterising such scholarship as 'sloppy', 'risible' or simply

I have requested that there needs to be an open on-List discussion on this
subject. Should this be allowed, I will gladly provide a summary of the
responses and discussion should there be any.

Ron Sheen,
Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics (retired)
Department of Modern Languages,
University of Quebec,
Trois Rivieres, Quebec, Canada.

Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis

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