Saturday, March 17, 2012
Book Recommendations ♯5: The Logic of Real Arguments
Another week, another book recommendation.
It’s pretty obvious to anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis that I like analysing arguments. Indeed, my first ever book recommendation was for a book that covered 100 key arguments in Western philosophy. It was essentially a celebration — an encomium if you will — of the formal argument, the centrepiece of modern analytical philosophy.
Today’s book recommendation is similar. It is Alec Fisher’s the Logic of Real Arguments, which I think of as a celebration of arguments in their natural habitat: lurking beneath the sometimes dazzling foliage of an author’s prose. The key insight of Fisher’s book is that persuasive writing contains a lot of unnecessary verbiage. When making a relatively straightforward argument, a writer will often distract the reader from the true nature of their reasoning with decorative phrasings, tangential passages, and rhetorical posturing. And while these might the very things that make a writer worth reading, they can serve to confuse, muddle and obfuscate. We sometimes need to cut through the excess verbiage and focus on the real arguments at play.
Fisher’s book goes well beyond providing that insight, important though it may be. It also provides the reader with a method for first deconstructing a persuasive piece of writing and then reconstructing it in argumentative form. Many of the techniques I employ on this blog, I first learned by reading Fisher’s book. He tells you what an argument is, how to look for premise and conclusion indicators in a piece of writing, and how to diagram the structure of an argument. He also shows how to evaluate an argument and provides some elementary lessons in formal logic.
What’s more, Fisher doesn’t simply discuss these techniques in the abstract; he also shows you how to apply them by examining a number of famous (and not so famous) passages of writing. The case studies he uses are diverse and interesting. They include Mathus’s famously pessimistic population bomb argument, Galileo’s argument for the claim that objects fall at the same rate in a vacuum, Dawkins and Ayer’s arguments for atheism, arguments for nuclear deterrence, mind-body dualism and so on. In each case, Fisher takes you through the piece of writing slowly, showing you exactly how to apply his method.
Personally, I find this hands-on, example-oriented approach to be much more engaging than what is typically found in a book on logic and critical thinking. I also think it’s the ideal way for a student to be introduced to logic and critical thinking since they will have to deal with similar passages of writing both in their own studies and, indeed, when they get out into the big bad world. For these reasons, I highly recommend this book. The only note of caution I will strike is that you need to be aware how limited this book is in its focus. It’s not a comprehensive introduction to logic and critical thinking — for that you will need to go elsewhere — but it is an excellent hand guide to argument analysis in the real world.