Sunday, December 07, 2008

Conspicuous Exceptionalism

There is a particular rhetorical maneuver which I have encountered on numerous occasions amongst promoters of new age nonsense, pseudo science, conspiracy theories, and religious, political or metaphysical doctrines. This fallacy consist of calling into doubt for the sake of argument a principle which the person accepts constantly in all other considerations and actions. Such a principle is fundamental to their very existence, relied upon not only day to day, but moment to moment, without which their life would not only be unlivable, but incomprehensible. I call this rhetorical dodge conspicuous exceptionalism.

Take, for example, the principle of empiricism; the idea that knowledge arises from experience. There is no commonplace action or consideration which does not take into account facts about the world. Simply to walk across the room requires that you observe and avoid the furniture in it, the shape and size of the room, and the location that you wish to go to. All of these are empirical facts. You cannot even form an argument without reference to the world, and this too is based upon the assumption of the principle of empiricism. Another is the validity of reason, our ability to draw conclusions by logical inference from facts already known. Again, you cannot even begin to make an argument without employing reason, and the very attempt implies an acceptance of the principle. To these I would add the existence of the world, the existence of other people, the assumption that others are conscious, and so on.

Any argument can be summarily dismissed which relies upon calling into question a principle which the arguer must, and does, employ on a constant basis; the person advancing the argument has already given full recognition of and consent to these principles simply by being present in the discussion.

Conspicuous exceptionalism is often used in the epistemological maneuver of radical skepticism, sometimes called the nuclear option because it attempts to destroy the very foundations of knowledge and therefore the basis of all debate. Radical skepticism is an act of wild desperation on the part of the person advancing it, who knows that their case is lost unless the debate is brought to a halt. Radical skepticism is used as means of stopping the opposing argument, after which it is relaxed to slip in the arguers case. As with any form of conspicuous exceptionalism, radical skepticism is never a serious position, merely a temporary refuge from opposing points of view.