beg the question, ad hominem

My annual spree of masochism – setting up a table for the Order of Logogustation at the Frosh Week of my local university – rolled around again this week. I always try to maintain a game face, and I usually get some nibbles, but more often I just gather anecdotes for telling later over alcohol.

Today I was at the table and there was a lean, angular young man standing in front of it, looking over the printed material a bit cagily. A young woman with a certain feline grace strolled up. “Logogustation,” she said, pronouncing it correctly the first time. She looked further at the sign. “Word tasting.”

“Words are delicious,” I offered.

“That kind of begs the question,” she said, “of whether words can be said to have taste at all.”

The young man slapped down the brochure and exclaimed, “No it does not!” I jumped slightly; cat girl just raised an eyebrow. He continued. “It does not beg the question! That’s not what begging the question means!”

“I know a lot of people who use it to mean exactly that,” cat girl said.

“Well, they’re wrong,” he said. “It means assuming the point that’s at issue. Trying to prove X with an argument that only works if X is true. Get it right.”

The young woman drew back slightly and gave him an elevator look (top to toe and back). “You’re using language as a weapon,” she said. “You’re deeply insecure and you feel that you can improve your self-image by belittling others. Actually it just makes you look worse.”

“Oh, great,” said angle boy. “You lose. The best you can muster is an ad hominem. That’s pathetic.”

“That’s not an ad hominem,” I said, doing what I could to suppress a smile at his error.

“She’s attacking my character!” he said. “You’re an idiot! Of course it’s an ad hominem!”

Argumentum ad hominem is the logical fallacy of asserting that a person’s argument is flawed because of a flaw in a person’s character,” I said. “Or, conversely, asserting that a person’s argument is good because of the person’s good character. But she’s not saying you’re wrong because you’re an unpleasant person. Her assertion regarding your character is a different level of analysis. She’s not saying you’re wrong at all. She’s just saying that the way you’re presenting your point reveals something important about your character. And that, pragmatically, your entry into the discourse may be serving a primary goal other than the ostensible one.”

Cat girl considered this momentarily and smiled. “OK.”

“I speak frankly,” angle boy said overtop of her. “I’m just bluntly honest. And –” he turned to cat girl –”you’re just standing there smiling, assassinating my character instead of answering my argument.”

“Actually,” she said, “it was meant as a helpful observation. And your statements about my character – and his –” she nodded in my direction –”are not germane to the argument. In fact, they would meet your definition of ad hominems.”

“You see,” angle boy said to me, “she looks like she’s right because she’s calm. And because I get worked up because it’s important, I look like I’m wrong.”

“It does make people less receptive,” I said. “Of course it would be fallacious to say you’re wrong because you’re upset. Just as it’s fallacious to use righteous indignation as proof of the validity of one’s argument. I’m not sure if there’s a proper name for that fallacy, but I’m inclined to call it argumentum ad passionem. Or argumentum ad affectum. It’s all too common in political discourse.”

“Just by the by,” cat girl said to me, “what do you say about begging the question?”

“We-ell,” I said, “the original meaning is indeed ‘assuming the conclusion’. It’s a bit of a dodgy translation of petitio principii. I prefer to avoid it because those people who are familiar with the original meaning tend to take exception to the more recent use.”

Angle boy made a “you see” gesture with his hands. Cat girl cocked her head. “You taste words,” she said. “So what does begging the question taste like?”

Ah, back on safer ground. “Everyone can taste words. Say it slowly: begging the question. What does it feel like?”

She ran it through her mouth a couple of times. “Blunt and withdrawn at the start. Then dry and thirsty on question.”

“And what other words does it make you think of?”

Cat girl smiled a little. “Big bad bugger bogeyman bagboy… quick quiz quirky quiet quest.

Angle boy interjected with some asperity, “Petitio principii. Stupidity.”

Ad hominem,” I said.

“It is not!” he said.

“No,” I said, “I mean taste it.”

“Taste this,” angle boy said and made a rude gesture. He added “What a bunch of bullshit” and walked away.

“Hmmm,” cat girl said, apparently in response to my suggestion of ad hominem. “A dominant, domineering, abominable… humbug.

I smiled and extended my hand. “James. Pleased to meet you.”

She shook my hand. “Arlene.” Then she picked up a membership brochure, made a little gesture of salutation with it and, putting it in her bag, said “See you later” and moved on.

5 responses to “beg the question, ad hominem

  1. If there ever is an “Order of Logogustation,” please send me a brochure.

  2. Pingback: whereabouts | Sesquiotica

  3. Very funny exchange – I admire your eloquent writing style!

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