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How to reason about absolutely anything
An old philosophical toolkit given a little modern embellishment
My older daughter is studying English at university, and as a fresher one of her courses in on rhetoric. As a professional writer and public philosopher I offered to share with her my understanding of Aristotle’s classic elements of rhetoric. She naturally did what any self-respecting teenager with a sense of independence would do: decline her father’s gift of accumulated wisdom. So I am taking this opportunity to put these thoughts out in public, where perhaps someday she might happen upon them and learn something.
As a younger man I often remember being in the corporate world where I struggled to make sense of what was happening around me. Experience gives us theoretical frameworks (including a domain language) that help us to decompose what we see and organise it conceptually. A typical MBA will teach you dozens of such frameworks or models, and they are genuinely useful. Some recently created ones would be the business model canvas, Minto’s pyramid principle, and Wardley maps. I am sure they will prove their worth over time and find lasting audiences.
The “Lindy effect” says that the prospective value and longevity of an idea (like a book staying in publication) tends to be proportionate to how long it has already been around and proven its worth (time elapsed since first publication). The best wisdom is that which has proven itself for the longest time, since by construction it must contribute to the sustenance of life; ideas that are deadly tend not to propagate themselves. This is why the Bible is worthy of more attention than Marx — to pick spiritual life and death examples. As such, Aristotle’s elements of rhetoric are “classic”, and pass the “passage of time” test.
The elements of rhetoric classify the types of argument you can make, and thus form a handy checklist to decompose pretty much any kind of socio-technical problem. They are appeals to a diversity of modes of reasoning, each with a different nature. The number of elements of rhetoric varies depending on which reference you look at, and this isn’t about a historically accurate rendition of what Aristotle said. Rather, it is my own perspective using my interpretation of these principles as a starting point. So if they don’t match what Aristotle proposed, don’t complain to me, just consider them the Geddes elements of rhetoric instead.
The quick version of the list is:
Logos — appeal to logic… “does it make sense?”
Pathos — appeal to emotions… “does it feel right?”
Ethos — appeal to ethics/authority… “is it the approved way?”
Kairos — appeal to timing… “is it the right moment?”
Topos — appeal to relevance… “is this the correct focus?”
For each of these “buckets” I have come across other ideas or models that fall into that conceptual container. I cannot possibly remember every example off the top of my head, but I can select the most important and useful ones in my 30+ years of experience in the adult world. I offer a quick summary below, with references to read more if you are interested.
In computer science we have three fancy terms for three simple ideas: intentional, denotational, and operational semantics… which map onto “what you wanted”, “what you asked for”, and “what you got”. The arrow of causality in engineering goes from the first to the last: “a bridge to span the Thames estuary”, leads to “architecture blueprints and a delivery plan”, then “the Dartford crossing”. The arrow of causality for emergence goes the other way, and it is tempting to infer intent to where there was none.
Being able to separate out the aim from the ask from the actual is fundamental to logical thinking. Knowing whether we are in an engineered or emergent context is essential to rational inference. You can see this framework in action being used to reason about broadband regulation — slide 40 onwards. Outside of pure mathematics, this framework is the first tool to reach for when teasing apart any problem of reasoning about real world systems.
I used to go to obscure private events in nice places when I was a socially acceptable member of the Illiberal Not So Intelligentsia cult. At one such event I won the book “On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not” in the final raffle, and actually read it. The irony is that it explains how all those self-important and arrogant progressives are absolutely addicted to the dopamine hit from the feeling of knowing. As Jacques Ellul stated in his classic Propaganda, intellectuals are trained via their education to be receptive to propaganda, and need it for “legitimate” social discourse.
The book contains this one paragraph, which you should read carefully, paying attention to your feelings as you do so.
A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance.
If you are feeling confused, now re-read this having heard a single word: “kite”. You have just experienced the difference between the “feeling of not knowing” and the “feeling of knowing”. Being able to distinguish actual logical thinking (empirical evidence plus rational inference) from a maze of interconnected talking points is foundational to survival and success in our society. The conmen will give you every reason to believe their lies and accept the warm glow of the feeling of knowing… when you have been deceived.
The last few years have given us a harsh lesson in how temporal authority can be subverted and trust abused. Corrupt governments, murderous doctors, lying journalists, criminalised courts, treacherous politicians, thieving bankers, abusive teachers, and on and on. The mass media often uses appeals to (tainted) authority to persuade you: “scientists agree that…” — which closes down space for dissent and debate. The belief in doing what is right — a religious or legalistic spirit — dominates our society’s moral codes. The problem is that those with a wicked intent can persuade us that evil acts are “right”. History is full of examples of genocidal acts done in the name of an idolised ideology.
The essential ethical divide is between temporal (unholy) authority and the eternal realm. The former urges us to abide by legislative law, written rules, commercial contracts, fashionable beliefs, and preferred mannerisms. The latter seeks a righteous path, preserving the sacredness of life, and our unalienable rights. Sometimes they align, but the former likes to displace the latter and pretend that it is the only option. The Covid power grab used every possible temporal authority to override our innate liberties, in a failed attempt to make the bizarrely horrific (like muzzling children) into the accepted norm.
Contractual thinking requires exchange (“consideration”) and turns all interactions into transactions. It has an implied morality of staying in honour, avoiding controversy, and offering remedy. Covenant type thinking says we can receive forgiveness, grace, and mercy even when we offer nothing back. We should turn over the tables when the contract is unrighteous, which (by the standards of commerce) makes us dishonourable, controversial, and even dangerous when judged by “good behaviour”. Understanding the difference is everything: an unholy ethos with ungodly authority, versus a holy one with godly virtues.
One of the most difficult (but useful) books I have encountered is Venkatesh Rao’s Tempo. What it does is to deconstruct the idea of time and timing, albeit in a rather haphazard way. The most important idea (in my view) is the distinction between clock time and narrative time. Narratives have a particular structure, say with the “big burst” opening (think… Star Wars episode 4 with the battleship passing overhead), then a “liminal passage” as the story develops but with less energy, and then finally the crescendo when all is resolved. This is one of the few books that I “didn’t enjoy reading” (because it is intellectually demanding work) that I would read again.
The takeaway is that reasoning in the time domain requires us to think about the matching of tempos and temporal structures (especially those of narrative) to our argument. We get up in the morning because it is light, which is a clock or calendar type of reasoning. We should rest on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday (depending on culture) because that’s the right tempo for humans. One gets married before you are 25 and “too old” as a narrative-driven fear of being “left on the shelf” as a reject. These are different lenses to view time through, and time has its own language which few have mastered.
My final thought on timing is that every decision about when to do something is a trade-off. The classic is “fast, cheap, good” — pick any two. Attempting to isolate the time component without identifying the couplings and “trading space” makes your reasoning incomplete. Matters of timing are always interconnected with other concerns.
The last of our elements of rhetoric is perhaps the least understood and appreciated. In mathematics there is a subject called category theory, which is perhaps a name worth stealing for use elsewhere. There is a lot of power in understanding the implied framing of any argument or belief, and locating the categories of the concepts being discussed. For instance, there are cosmic, ludic, and ecological constraints on systems — the “physics”, “rules of the game”, and “terrain” — which are different categories. When we place things in the wrong conceptual box it is a category error.
In my professional life the most profound and valuable insights have come from spotting the category errors that other people are making. For example, the current Internet is based on the idea that networks do “work” — the clue is (not) in the name “net-work”. We make each router and link work as hard as possible to generate the most value. This turns out to be a misframing as networks don’t do work; they copy information, and some “work” destroys value. It renders the counter-arguments against what you are saying irrelevant, since they are all drawn from the same (false or limiting) category.
In we take this to the controversial world of the Great Awakening, those who are deceived think they are reading credible research in the New York Times, and will “argue” with you by presenting their drilled talking points. They have no concept that what they are spouting is just social engineering covering for a criminal mafia, and disconnected with any lived reality. That is a category error, so you don’t engage with the (false) logic of it directly. Instead you need to get them to look at where these beliefs come from, and expand their “universe of discourse” so that other categories are being included. In which box is a New York Times article to be considered: journalism or propaganda?
As a final observation, and possibly my one contribution to the collective understanding, I note how totalitarianism is built upon a false logic and false morality. This maps to the logos and ethos parts of the elements of rhetoric, which naturally invites us to consider the whole list. The endless drilling of the public via educational indoctrination and trivia quizzes encourages the feeling of knowing over actual critical thinking. The messing about with history (including our calendar) and fear campaigns of impending doom confuse our sense of timing, and disconnect us from the eternal. Distractions of bread and circuses take us away from what is relevant.
Tyranny requires us to abandon what is real for an illusion. The elements of rhetoric help us to locate what is real and righteous. Tyranny seeks to impose its fabricated logic, warp emotions, corrupt authority, upset natural timing, and focus us on irrelevancies. Which makes me wonder… why didn’t I get taught any of this in my formal and fancy education? It is almost as if its purpose was to produce productive useful idiots for the technocratic elite — who were incapable of true reasoning, but imagine they are geniuses at it.
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