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June 3, 2010

Here are two different ways to make the same criticism (Althusser is just an example—this point doesn’t pertain to him per se):

  1. Althusser says a, b, and c, but he’s completely wrong. C has been refuted for years. Any idiot knows that c is wrong. In fact, including c basically infects and ruins everything Althusser ever said. The truth is, of course, a, b, and d.
  2. Althusser says a, b, and c. There’s much to take from his analysis. A and b are very useful points. C is less useful; it has these weaknesses. We could make Althusser more sophisticated if we revised his position and made it a, b, and d.

I prefer mode of argument #2, and for the life of me I can’t understand why people make enemies out of possible allies by repeatedly using mode of argument #1.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2010 9:12 am

    Hmm. I see what you’re saying, but OTOH, mode two sounds kinda wishy washy to me sometimes. I read a lot of writing like that, and I sometimes get frustrated with it: “Why don’t you get to your point?!”

    (btw, is althusser a random pick, or does he actually fit here? If so, I’m wondering what you see as his “c.”)

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 3, 2010 9:49 am

    Althusser was a random pick. However, he does have a “c” (or a number of them). One of my big beefs with him is that he sees hegemony too much as a top-down thing, where the state basically runs everything. Gramsci has a more bottom-up picture, where civil institutions vie for control of the state. I think Gramsci’s view is more realistic, although it can obviously go both ways at the same time.

    About the mode of argumentation—if #2 is wishy washy, then yeah, that’s no good. Part of my critique of #1 is similar to your comment: people use use that mode never get to the point—they spend their whole time on polemics and no time on the constructive point. But if #2 is used in a “let’s all get along and not criticize one another” thing, then that would drive me nuts!

  3. June 3, 2010 10:00 am

    Okay thanks, I think we’re more in agreement then! That would drive me nuts too.

  4. John permalink
    June 3, 2010 1:13 pm

    I’m reading David Harvey’s “The Limits to Capital” right now, and he does a great job of using your method #2 to engage with Marx’s “Capital”. At first I was surprised to see how often he disagrees with Marx; his goal seems to be to move Marxist thought forward, to expand on points that Marx left undeveloped, and to offer corrections of what Marx got wrong and not to just explain “Capital” as it is.

    It’s an almost scientific approach, and detractors (of Marx, or of, say, Darwin) take up a sort of perverted version of method #1 when they go on the attack: Marx/Darwin/Freud/whomever posits A, B, and C, but C is obviously wrong, refuted, etc., which means that his whole body of work (A and B as well as C) is wrong, outdated, not relevant, etc.!

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 3, 2010 1:18 pm

    I like that book too, although I’ve never had the stamina to finish it!

  6. June 5, 2010 11:53 am

    I completely agree. One can find a good example of Mode 1 argument in Rodney Stark’s (partially correct) attack on what he calls “ancestor worship,” which can be found here:

    Stark could and should have noted that there are several things these “ancestors” got right, even if they got other things wrong. Even incorrect arguments and conclusions are valuable — they steer us in directions that might prove more fruitful.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    June 6, 2010 9:55 am

    Ooooh, I’ve heard of that article but haven’t read it. I want to; looks interesting, even if it turns out to be annoying/unfair/wrong.

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