[Paleopsych] New Statesman: (Schopenhauer): The Art of Always Being Right

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The Art of Always Being Right 

[I'm having to increase my forwardings to twenty a day, so as to clear the 
deck by Ash Wednesday (February 9, at which time I'll be taking my annual 
Lenten break.]

    Arthur Schopenhauer; with an introduction by A C Grayling Gibson
    Square Books, 190pp, £9.99
    Reviewed by George Walden

    Schopenhauer's sardonic little book, laying out 38 rhetorical tricks
    guaranteed to win you the argument even when you are defeated in
    logical discussion, is a true text for the times. An exercise in irony
    and realism, humour and melancholy, this is no antiquarian oddity, but
    an instruction manual in intellectual duplicity that no aspiring
    parliamentarian, trainee lawyer, wannabe TV interviewer or newspaper
    columnist can afford to be without.
    The melancholy aspect comes in the main premise of the book: that the
    point of public argument is not to be right, but to win. Truth cannot
    be the first casualty in our daily war of words, Schopenhauer
    suggests, because it was never the bone of contention in the first
    place. "We must regard objective truth as an accidental circumstance,
    and look only to the defence of our own position and the refutation of
    the opponent's . . . Dialectic, then, has as little to do with truth
    as the fencing master considers who is in the right when a quarrel
    leads to a duel." Such phrases make us wonder whether his book was no
    more than a bitter satire, an extension of Machiavellian principles of
    power play from princes to individuals by a disappointed academic whom
    it took 30 years to get an audience for his major work, The World as
    Will and Idea. Perhaps, but only partly. With his low view of human
    nature, Schopenhauer is also saying that we are all in the sophistry
    business together.
    The interest of his squib goes beyond his tricks of rhetoric:
    "persuade the audience, not the opponent", "put his theory into some
    odious category", "become personal, insulting, rude". Instinctively,
    we itch to apply it to our times, whether in politics, the
    infotainment business or our postmodern tendency to place inverted
    commas, smirkingly, around the very notion of truth. Examples of
    jaw-dropping sophistry by public figures (my own favourite is Tony
    Blair defending his quasi-selective choice of school for his son on
    the grounds that he did not wish to impose political correctness on
    his children: see Schopenhauer's rule number 26: "turn the tables")
    are easy enough to find. It is more entertaining to see his theory in
    the light of our national peculiarities.
    The flip side of our "healthy scepticism" can be a disinclination to
    trouble ourselves with rational discussion at all, and a tediously
    moderate people can be bored by its own sobriety. So it is that, in
    debate, we prefer to be stirred by passions, or simply amused. Hence
    the rampant nostalgia for the old political order, dominated by
    orators such as Michael Foot or Enoch Powell. Each did real damage to
    the country, Foot with his patrician self-abasement in the face of
    trade union power, Powell on race, and both with their culpable
    fantasies about Russia.
    "Well you say that," comes the predictable response - a handy
    rhetorical trick in itself - "but let's not get into their policies;
    we could go round that buoy for ever" (see trick number 12: "choose
    metaphors favourable to your proposition"). "The point is that they
    were such wonderfully passionate, col-ourful and entertaining
    debaters, compared to the managerial drabness of the House of Commons
    today." (Trick 29 recommends diversion from the point at issue.) The
    pay-off line follows quickly (draw your conclusions smartly, says
    trick 20). "If only we had Boris as Tory leader, it would perk the
    place up no end!" (This is not wholly invention. Tory and Labour
    columnists have both written in this vein.)
    Perhaps because Schopenhauer was so very un-British, his 38 points
    overlooked our favourite rhetorical trick: coming up with "quirky" or
    "original" responses to serious questions. (The nearest he gets is
    trick number 36: "bewilder your opponent".) In Britain, a willed
    eccentricity, the cheapest form of distinction, works because it is
    part of our top-down ethos. The game is to dodge the issue in such a
    way as to show yourself above it - for example, by throwing off
    dandyish opinions. Take any premise ("Boris Johnson is not a serious
    contender for prime minister"), invert it, toss it to the herd with a
    supercilious smile - and the herd will warm to you, because we do so
    love a maverick, don't we? For similar reasons, "controversialists"
    (that is, vulgar cynics who argue positions they do not necessarily
    believe, the better to astound the impressionable masses) are a very
    British phenomenon.
    The anti-intellectualism all this implies is not, however, a uniquely
    British trait, and is covered in Schopenhauer's list. "If you know
    that you have no reply to the arguments your opponent advances . . .
    declare yourself to be an incompetent judge: 'What you say passes my
    poor powers of comprehension.'" Your opponent stands instantly
    convicted of pretension, a crime without appeal in democracies, of
    which Schopenhauer was no admirer. Truth and logic, he comes close to
    saying, get you nowhere in a mass society. "The only safe rule,
    therefore, is [to dispute] only with those of your acquaintance of
    whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and
    self-respect not to advance absurdities."
    In a frequently light-hearted book, this is the least amusing message.
    The suggestion is that the audiences for serious discussion are doomed
    to shrink - and remember that Schopenhauer never experienced the
    sophistry of TV images, whose deliberate or, more frequently, casual
    mendacity a mere 38 points would not suffice to explain. Yet has his
    lugubrious prediction proved true? Or do we rather get a feeling, not
    of an absolute decline in standards of public debate, but of missed
    potential - something even the BBC has apparently begun to recognise?
    How many times have we listened to a radio or TV debate on art or
    politics or literature and asked ourselves, even as we are lulled by
    the undemanding discussion: are these the best people they can come up
    with? The answer is yes and no. Yes because in media terms they are
    the best: practised "communicators" with every crowd-pleasing response
    at the ready. And no because we have all read or heard or known people
    far more interesting and far more informed about the disciplines in
    question. Sadly, they tend to be folk who are not up to speed on their
    38 points and who think the truth matters, and so, communication-wise,
    they are deemed useless. Still, they exist.
    If your preference is nevertheless for Schopenhauer's tragic vision of
    a world in thrall to debate that is indifferent to the truth, examples
    are not lacking, not just in art or politics, but in the allegedly
    objective and internationalist scientific world. A brief period as
    minister for science taught me that when it comes to rubbishing a
    rival's research or inveigling funds for your own, objectivity is out,
    and foreigners become a joke. Now I hear neo-Darwinian atheists
    lambasting as primitive and irrational every religion except the most
    populous and, in its extreme form, the most dangerous. Why are
    scientists so intellectually dishonest? For the same reason that the
    Archbishop of Canterbury hides behind procedural sophistry (needless
    commissions of inquiry and the like, when the need for liberalism is
    clear) in dealing with homosexuality in the Church: politics, dear
    boy. Which does rather diminish the right of scientists and churchmen
    to look down on politics as a scurvy trade.
    The palm for rhetorical shamelessness must nevertheless go to US
    presidents. "There you go again," said Ronald Reagan, annihilating
    with a grin the very concept of rational debate, and the right loved
    him for it. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," Bill
    Clinton assured us, with his emetic sincerity, and the left -
    especially women - adore him still. And not even the melancholic
    German predicted that the world's most powerful democracy would one
    day be run by a president who cannot be accused of sophistry chiefly
    because he cannot talk at all. And they say Schopenhauer was a

    George Walden is the author of The New Elites: making a career in the
    masses (Penguin).

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