six books on argumentation and rhetoric

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Pirie, Madsen. How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic (London: Continuum, 2006)

Pirie Madsen's How to Win Every Argument is less a strategic guide than a tactical one. He lists a few dozen logical fallacies--in alphabetical order, along with Latin names where appropriate--provides plenty of examples, and includes a taxonomic appendix that groups the fallacies appropriately.

Madsen writes that, "In the hands of the wrong person this is more a weapon than a book, and it was written with that wrong person in mind." (p. x, Introduction) For the right--or wrong--audience, How to Win Every Argument could indeed be a most useful reference.


Capaldi, Nicholas & Miles Smit. The Art of Deception: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, Fully Revised and Updated (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007)

Capaldi and Smit are more concerned with winning than with having a better argument--except insofar as a winning argument is "better" by virtue of its success. Prometheus is a noted publisher of freethought books, and I had expected better from them than this uneven volume.

The authors' reference to "A-Theology" as "a religious philosophy for intellectuals who are unwilling or unable to confess a belief in God" (p. 88) comes most readily to mind--how can atheists be guilty of being "unwilling" or "unable" of betraying ourselves by "confessing" a belief we don't have?

Three other errors also caught my attention:

First, the claim that "At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, a film was shown depicting a little girl playing with a flower, quickly followed by an atomic explosion." (p. 101) is incorrect. (The infamous "Daisy" ad aired on NBC on 7 September; details are here.

Second, this great point about the common quotation "the exception proves the rule" is marred by a simple mistake:

Actually, the original statement was made by Francis Bacon, and, when he said, it the word "prove" meant "test." You test a generalization by looking for exceptions. Rather than helping the generalization, the exception invalidates it. (p. 168)

The authors are correct in their analysis--see Snopes for details--but wrong in their attribution; the source of these words does not appear to be Francis Bacon.

Third, this type of anti-PC complaint was tired fifteen years ago--and it hasn't aged well: is the dictionary makers who are trying to win arguments by making certain views true by definition. Moreover, if this keeps up, we shall end up with what Orwell described in 1984 as Newspeak, a language constantly manipulated for the benefit of a few. The promulgation of speech codes on campus and elsewhere has served just this purpose. (p. 169)

This argument falls apart upon the realization that PC speech codes are written not to protect the powerful, but the powerless. Dan Savage said it best:

I feel compelled to point out that accusing others of being "politically correct" is the first refuge of lazy bullshitters who can't be bothered to mount a decent argument. [...] Perhaps the freedom to risk offending by asking "politically incorrect" questions only applies when the questions are reactionary, sexist, racist, or homophobic.

It seems that when one is defending a progressive position, one has to be ever-so-careful of the easily bruised feelings and delicate sensibilities of closed-minded straight white guys and their dupes, lest one be accused of "political correctness." [...] I'm all for direct questions and open debate - as long as those who claim to want it so badly don't invoke the "politically correct" bogeyman every goddamned time you lose a round. (Savage Love, pp. 133-134)

The appendix, featuring a lengthy dissection of Mill's On Liberty, is the book's redeeming feature; more critical reading examples like that would have been greatly appreciated.


Del Gandio, Jason. Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists (Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society, 2008)

Jason Del Gandio's Rhetoric for Radicals identifies a "rhetorical crisis" early on, and uses that idea to good effect throughout:

Rhetoric is no doubt an ongoing and ever-present process, but good rhetoric is labor intensive. It takes time, thought and energy. Bypassing this labor has created a communication gap between our actions and the public's reception of those actions. Simply put, our radicalism suffers from a rhetorical crisis. (p. xvii, Preface)

His target audience is much narrower than those of the previous volumes, and that is one of Rhetoric for Radicals' strengths. Del Gandio is able to discuss broader rhetorical methods (marches, demonstrations, etc.) en route to pointing out the position of life itself as laden with rhetorical meaning:

Remember that your lifestyle is a communicative phenomenon. Every choice you make is communicating something to someone else. [...] ...we're talking about the rhetoricity of lifestyle. This means considering how others will respond to your way of life. (pp. 170-1)

I was surprised that Del Gandio barely mentioned the existence of blogs, given their utility for the radical movement--at least those parts of it that are wired. Anyone looking to accentuate their words' impact should check out Rhetoric for Radicals.


Whyte, Jamie. Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004)

Rare is the book that is a joy to read from cover to cover; Jamie Whyte's Crimes Against Logic is such a book. From the beginning of the preface, it was already evident that I would love this book:

All self-help books should begin with a confession. Here is mine: I write letters to the editor. "Outraged of London," that's me. I am getting better, though. I often don't send the letters, and sometimes I don't even write them. If I had a therapist, he would be pleased by my progress. (p. ix, Preface)

As a not-yet-reformed writer of such letters, I can appreciate his predicament as well as his iconoclasm. Whyte's remarks on the contradictory nature of the Christian Trinity no doubt earned him the ire of doctrinaire Christians, but he is nonetheless correct:

Indeed, it's [the Unity of the Trinity] a strict mystery. Strict mysteries are those that are of the very nature of the thing and which it is both hopeless and sinful to attempt to resolve. This response may satisfy the sheep in the congregation but it should satisfy no one with his critical faculties intact. (p. 33)

The incantation "it's a mystery" does not wash away the intellectual sin of contradiction. It remains impossible both that three does not equal one and that the Trinity is a Unity. If you hold both beliefs, you contradict yourself. One belief must be wrong, and because it is necessarily true that three does not equal one, we know which it is. Cry mystery all you like; it won't stop you being wrong. (p. 34)

I wonder why polytheism scares Christians so much, and why they can't just admit that they worship more than one god--but those are questions for another time. Whyte's book has several such gems, including this passage:

It takes a terrible pedant to worry about such contentious built-in assumptions, and pedantry has got itself a bad name. But don't let that put you off. As Bertrand Russell said, a pedant is just someone who prefers his opinions to be true. (p. 116)

Russell's actual text reads "PEDANT--A man who likes his statements to be true" and an image of the page from The Good Citizen's Alphabet is here. One can't go wrong reading Russell, nor--it seems--with Whyte.


Weston, Anthony. A Rulebook for Arguments, Fourth Edition (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2009)

Anthony Weston's statement that his book is "not a textbook but a rulebook" (p. ix, Preface) is undoubtedly true; unfortunately, it is too slight to compare well with the other volumes in this survey. His comment in favor of argumentation was much appreciated, though:

Argument is essential, in the first place, because it is a way of finding out which views are better than others. Not all views are equal. Some conclusions can be supported by good reasons. Others have much weaker support. [...] Argument is essential for another reason too. Once we have arrived at a conclusion that is well supported by reasons, we use arguments to explain and defend it. A good argument doesn't merely repeat conclusions. Instead it offers reasons and evidence so that other people can make up their minds for themselves. (pp. xi-xii, Introduction)


Baillargeon, Normand. A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense: Find Your Inner Chomsky (New York: Seven Stories, 2007)

Taking its title from Noam Chomsky,

"My personal feeling is that citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for more meaningful self-democracy." (Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, p. viii)

Normand Baillargeon's A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense is perhaps the most well-rounded of these books. Baillargeon takes the reader on a tour of "the concepts and skills which seem to me to be necessary for every citizen to master," (p. 13) and does an exemplary job.

Chapter Two on mathematics (including numeracy, probability, and statistics) is very well put together, and at about 80 pages comprises nearly one-quarter of the book. Chapter Five on the media, however, is not quite 30 pages; as good as it is, is would have benefitted by greater length. My Quote of the Day comes from Baillargeon's quotation of Alex Carey:

"The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power from democracy." (Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, p. 18)

Acquiring the ability to critically examine government and media propaganda is a primary reason to become well-versed in argumentation and rhetoric. One can scarcely be too well-versed on the subject.


FallacyFiles has a great taxonomy page of logical fallacies

Logic & Fallacies: Constructing a Logical Argument (

Fallacies (Nizkor Project)

Schopenhauer's The Art of Controversy

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Thanks for the rundown on the books.

One (ironic) observation: Whyte wants to take down the Christian belief in the Trinity, or Triunity, of God. Ok.

But there's a problem with this statement: "it is necessarily true that three does not equal one, we know which it is."

Well of course, but I can't think of any responsible Christian theologian who would argue with that. Whyte should take his own advice and not conduct a clinic on ad hominem arguments.

Christians don't claim that there are three Gods that make up one God. They claim that there are three Persons, fully interdependent, within the Godhead, making up one God. It hardly follows that they've denied math or suddenly run off the rails with regards to logic.

He's constructed a silly box and he's playing in it. That's ok, but it won't demonstrate anything other than an inability and unwillingness to really wrestle with a difficult topic that has been believed by some of the greatest giants in the history of philosophy and logic.

It certainly is a paradox, but paradox does not always do violence to logic.

Whyte's argument makes me think he's an intellectual agoraphobic.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on May 30, 2009 11:04 AM.

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