BMCR 2005.07.42

For The Sake of Argument: Practical Reasoning, Character and the Ethics of Belief

, For the sake of argument : practical reasoning, character, and the ethics of belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. xi, 272 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226283968 $22.50 (pb).

Eugene Garver has written books on Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Machiavelli’s practical statecraft and co-edited a collection dedicated to the philosophical pluralism of his mentor at the University of Chicago (Richard McKeon). In this collection of essays loosely organized around the theme of the “unity of practical reason” he moves from concern for civil rights in the USA as well as the South African “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to a variety of contemporary political and cultural issues, in the process exhibiting an abiding and admirable respect for the American Constitution and its democratic political traditions. For The Sake of Argument attempts to bring Aristotle’s Rhetoric to bear on contemporary problems of practical reason; in it Garver aims to speak in his “own voice” about these issues directly, as it were, “instead of through the practice of doing philosophy through meditating on a text” (p. ix). This volume, then, while composed of eight chapters, half of which draw directly on previously published papers and the rest (save the concluding chapter) on presentations in various venues, does have a sustained, overall master-argument that is reasonably coherent as a whole. Garver argues that contemporary democratic society would be better off politically if its “public philosophers” (my term for figures such as Richard Rorty who is a chief “stalking horse” here) would recognize the essentially ethical nature of political argument(s), from decisions of the Supreme Court to debates about bilingual education and public funding of religious schools, and not take refuge in a seemingly neutral “pure logic” or, perhaps even worse, a basically Sophistic conception of rhetoric, where philosophy is remade “into just another way in which people manipulate images to dominate one [an]other”.1 In Garver’s view, ethical argumentation is ampliative and has an “ethical surplus”, in his jargon, that “allows practical reason to reach conclusions that reason could not offer by itself”, reaching conclusions stronger than the premises that lead to them, a feature that such argument shares with all non-deductive inference.2

This particular notion allows Garver to interpret the famous 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education finding, for example, as the Supreme Court’s assuming an ethical responsibility that transcends its lack of a strictly legal logic: though the decision rests on what to its critics seems an insecure basis in the 14th Amendment, flawed Constitutional reasoning “becomes ethical by being less determined by text and history” (80a). Brown‘s very brevity is a virtue we are told (on Aristotle’s authority), and this is “not a concession to weary or flighty listeners, but a recognition of the irreducibility of rhetorical argument to logic or dialectic” (81b). Now, you don’t have to be a fan of “Scalian strict constructionism”, if such, indeed, it is, to find this sort of defense of ethical posturing by the Court problematic. It seems deeply disquieting to be told that momentous decisions such as Brown can be mostly “ethical surplus” and short on Constitutional reasoning as traditionally understood. We are even told that ” Brown has changed the meaning of the Fifth Amendment” and that it features “a logically weak rationale for an ethically strong conclusion” (82e). Chapter 7’s subsequent detailed account of constitutional reasoning, while describing its various modes and copiously quoting various scholars, does not quell one’s initial worries since it does not apply the modes of constitutional reasoning surveyed there to the specific decision in Chapter 3 wherein Brown and its companion case Bolling are treated as paradigmatic.

Garver claims only basic inspiration from the study of the Rhetoric, indicating early on that “nothing in what follows turns on whether” he has “interpreted it accurately or not” since the goal is to adapt “Aristotle’s project to current circumstances”, to steer a safe course between a “Platonic program which will save [practical] reason by removing it from human contamination and the sophistic and skeptical resignation to reason as a slave to the passions” (3). These alternatives do not seem to be exclusive, and the rich and extensive critical literature on Aristotle’s conception of practical reasoning is almost totally ignored in this book in favor of a vague appeal to ethos as all the grounding one might need for compelling ethical argument.

To take a particularly striking example, consider the claim that the very “same argument can be good or bad depending on who is asserting it” (94e). Garver claims that an argument to the effect that he (Garver) should give money to Russian Jews re-locating in Israel “is a different argument when it comes from my Rabbi or from Pat Robertson”, relying on John Dewey’s authority for this claim (52e-53a). The thought is that even if these two religious figures used the very same words, their arguments would be different, presumably because their motivations might differ, with the Rabbi appealing to the Holocaust and its aftermath, the preacher to an opportunity for Armageddon and the Second Coming and the Rapture and all that. But, what are the identity conditions for arguments themselves if we say this sort of thing? Even practical arguments should have an abstract structure, as the very notion of an Aristotelian practical syllogism, however controversial its exact interpretation may be, should make clear, and yet we hear nothing at all about this doctrine.3

Now it might be thought that the author is using the notion of practical as opposed to theoretical reasoning in a fairly casual fashion, where structural analysis of premises and their mutual relations would be beside the point. But, the discussion in Chapter 4 of the “beauty of logic” with its “formal structures” making its style of reasoning “self-contained and neutral” (95a-b, 96e) calls any such defense into question, while the specific contrast drawn with ethical argument is stark and sweeping. Whereas logical relations hold among propositions, “the ethical relation is among the assertions of [their] propositions” and one who argues ethically engages in “an act of rhetorical friendship” (106c-d), a theme repeatedly emphasized throughout the book. A particularly disturbing invocation occurs in connection with Garver’s reaction to an article by Julia Annas,4 which, because it dares to criticize Aristotle’s Politics for what she sees as its reactionary appeals to nature in defense of natural slavery and traditional sexism, is severely attacked. After providing five excerpts carefully extracted from the original to illustrate Annas taking Aristotle to task for his substantive stance, Garver charges her with “scolding” (sic) the Master as “a promising yet recalcitrant, and ultimately obstinate, student”. Garver adds: “It is hard for me to imagine a community that includes the three of us [i.e., Aristotle, Annas, and Garver]. I therefore see her analysis as an ethical failure” (93a, 90-91).

Such dismissal of a fine scholar and appreciator of Aristotle’s ethical writings by one so fond of praising rhetorical friendship is hard to credit. But Garver saves most of his annoyance for Richard Rorty’s recent writings, whose disenchantment with philosophy’s traditional (since Plato) attempt to provide a mirror to be held up against nature, with truth as correspondence as its goal, leads him to recommend a pragmatist program inspired by Dewey and a brand of liberalism laced with irony. Early and late in this book Rorty’s views are seen both as emblematic and deplorable. In a comparison of his ideas on rationality to Aristotle’s discussion of epideictic, forensic, and deliberative rhetoric, we are told that Rorty “raises all the important issues, and gets them all wrong” (177c). We are given extensive reasons for this critical assessment, but one does not have to agree with recent Rorty to be sympathetic to his attempt to advocate tolerance as a public virtue and revive Deweyean democratic ideals when confronted with the often willfully uncharitable treatment he receives here. Since Dewey is also one of Garver’s intellectual heroes, the irony is compounded.

There is not space to argue such details here, but the mere fact that two contemporary philosophers with clearly contrasting takes on the value of the Greek tradition as Annas and Rorty are both treated so dismissively should warn the wary reader. And, while there is much valuable discussion of a host of issues in the text and lengthy quotations from a wide range of authors in the footnotes, the lack of a bibliography, as well as the failure to supply annotation for sources cited except in their first occurrence in the notes, makes this book terribly difficult to study with profit. Moreover, its setting up of a battle between Aristotle and the Sophists over the uses of rhetoric in Chapter 2 and throughout seems to treat Aristotle as if he were obsessively continuing the battle Plato had started, a criticism that Charles Griswold has made in his comments on an earlier paper of Garver’s that covered similar ground.5 But, just as the student seems to have departed from his teacher in defending tragedy and epic poetry in his Poetics in the face of the Republic‘s hostility, so, too, the Rhetoric must surely be read as a dispassionate treatise worthy of Cicero’s intense study and consequent emulation, defending rhetoric from the charges leveled against it in so many of the dialogues. That it struck Cicero as attempting to do for a Greek audience what Garver seeks, rather less successfully, to do for our own American one, is certainly ironic. Cicero’s character Catulus addresses the following to Antonius, who seems to stand in for Cicero himself in his appreciation of Aristotle’s treatment of rhetoric: “Aristotle, whom I greatly admire, set out certain forms from which to discover every method of argument not only for the disputations of philosophers but for the kind of discourse that we use in civil issues and cases; and your presentation does not deviate from his, whether because you are following in the same tracks, guided by your affinity with his divine intellect, or because you have read and learned that material, as I think more likely” ( De Oratore 2.152, tr. Fantham).6 Would that Garver had done better in imitating Cicero’s example!


1. The square brackets indicate a printing error on p. 45, one of the many (mostly minor but annoying) that mar this production (cf. pp. 4c, 5a, 28d, 71e, et passim). The small letters after page numbers take the reader to a particular quintile on the original, a convention modelled, of couse, on the standard method of referencing Plato’s dialogues. This is a convention I have long used in teaching, to save time in class when making references to student editions of modern works, a practice to be described and recommended elsewhere. Here I use it to facilitate a copy-editor’s repairs at the University of Chicago Press in the event of a reprinting or re-issue of this book.

2. “Other modes of thought, such as induction and abduction, or inference to the best explanation” are familiar cases of ampliative reasoning, which is true enough, to which we could add the techniques of “successful poetic works”, perhaps. Garver is correct in claiming that there “is no general method for thinking to be ampliative” (73d).

3. A good source for this topic is Norman O. Dahl’s Practical Reason, Aristotle, and Weakness of Will (Minnesota, 1984).

4. Annas, “Aristotle on Human Nature and Political Virtue”, The Review of Metaphysics, v. XLIX, no. 4 (June, 1996), pp. 731-753.

5. See their papers in Proceedings of The Boston Area Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy, v. V (1989), pp. 73-105.

6. Elaine Fantham, The Roman World of Cicero’s De Oratore (Oxford University Press, 2004). The quotation in the text appears on p. 162 with Antonius’ praise of Aristotle as seeing by way of contrast with other rhetoricians “what was required for the art of speaking with the same acuteness of intellect which enabled him to see the nature power of the whole world” (2.160, tr. Fantham).