As a philosophy concentrator, I have come to learn that philosophical discourse is characterized by clarity, precision and the search for truth. Many who are not interested in philosophy may find it quite pedantic to adopt such substantial focus on clarity and precision. After all, most people get the point anyway, right? It may be the case that some of Plato or Descartes’ abstract ideas require such precision. However, the empirical matters of the real world do not. Indeed, some may say that the philosophy concentrator is simply out of touch with world affairs.
I wish to respond by asserting that those who take issue with the means of philosophical discourse fail to see the larger problem underlying the lack of clarity and precision: a lack of commitment to truth.
I have read the many Crimson op-eds concerning conferences addressing Middle Eastern affairs, in particular, the issues concerning Israeli-Arab relations. In the wake of these conferences, I have been struck by the lack of clarity and precision in these editorials. Therefore, I will endeavor to perform a brief philosophical inquiry into one op-ed by Giacomo Bagarella to illustrate the larger problem that I am addressing.
Oftentimes, arguments are invalid because the conclusion does not follow from the premises, due to some logical fallacy. In other instances, the argument is valid but not sound because the premises are false. Bagella’s op-ed presents false premises, when he calls into question the background of one panelist of the Israeli Conference at Harvard. Let us consider the following paragraph from the op-ed:
Finally, it is necessary to question the background of some of the speakers of the conference [...] Sustainable innovation that deserves praise does not stem from illegal activities. The involvement of any panelists who violate international law in their daily lives proves to us the conference’s lack of credibility and “civility,” and reflects quite clearly the inextricability of Israeli “innovation” from the occupation of Palestinian land and violation of Palestinian rights.
Let us explicate the premises of this paragraph while relying on the deductive laws of logic:
1) If there is a panelist who violates international law, then the conference as a whole lacks credibility and civility.
2) If there is a panelist who violates international law, then that reflects that Israeli innovation is inextricable from occupation and Palestinian rights violations.
3) One panelist (supposedly) violates international law.
Therefore: The Israeli Conference at Harvard lacks credibility and civility and Israeli innovation is inextricable from occupation and Palestinian rights violation.
This is a great example of an argument that is valid, but unsound. The premises that Bagarella uses are not credible. For instance, by virtue of what reasons ought we to think that the conference as a whole lacks civility and credibility because of one panelist? I wish to argue that regardless of the legal status of a person’s actions, it can be of intellectual interest to hear about their views on a matter. Suppose that the panelist violates the rights of Palestinians on a regular basis. Should we not consider his perspective anyway? Could we claim to fully understand a situation without taking into account the views of all the actors? We need not agree with or adopt the opinions of the panelist; however, we should acknowledge them and critically reflect on them, essentially respecting Jürgen Habermas’ discourse principles.
Second, anyone with even a slight inclination of critical thinking should be highly doubtful of the second premise. By virtue of a panelist’s presence, can it be deduced that Israeli innovation is inextricable from occupation and Palestinian rights violations? I believe that logician Warren Goldfarb would disagree. The antecedent of the conditional is distinct from the consequent. The fallacy may be made more obvious if we replace Bagarella’s conditional with: if it is raining today, then Israeli innovation is inextricable from occupation and Palestinian rights violations. The second premise is simply not true.
However, I do not believe that the writer, among others, lacks appreciation of the complexity surrounding the issues. Rather, it seems to be a strong conviction that prompts the writers to blatantly disregard certain facts and use vague terminology, imprecise domains of inquiry and faulty logic to further their own agendas. So, how does philosophy tie into all of this? In essence, philosophy is the pursuit of truth. As a method, philosophers are committed to clarity and precision to avoid confusion in this pursuit. However, not only philosophers ought to be concerned with a lack of clarity and precision. Rather, the problem addressed in this article ought to concern all critical thinkers.
Nevertheless, it seems that the discourse concerning the conferences at Harvard was not always concerned with pursuing truth. If it were a substantial part of the discourse would not have been characterized by faulty reasoning and imprecise writing to confuse its participants into accepting different agendas. Rather, the discourse, such as that concerning Israeli-Arab relations, would instead be characterized by acknowledgments from all sides that there are positive and negative aspects of each position. More importantly, how could one refuse the opportunity to understand an alternate perspective on the mere basis of ideological bias and discredit an entire conference because of one panelist?
I call for truthful discourse that relies on clarity and precision to avoid deception and confusion at all costs. If we are unable to achieve truthful civil discourse, we will forfeit the chance to have those very issues resolved in a satisfactory manner. Let us reorient the current discourse so that it focuses on truth rather than deception. Therefore, we need to extend the method of clarity and precision beyond philosophical matters.