Blog Post

Fallacy Corner #1: Hooray for the Fallacy of Conversion!

I can prove Paris belongs to me! And that all fruits are bananas! Follow me to find out how.

First, a quick word of explanation: I’ve been following the Arcade debate about bad writing—with fascinating posts by Lee Konstantinou, Cécile Alduy, Joel Burges and others—for some time now and with considerable interest. One question that seems to have come up repeatedly is what “bad writing” actually means. I don’t have a general definition to offer, and indeed it may well be that there are various different types of “badness” (many of which I’m sure I’ve committed in my own writing!); still, I would like to propose one specific type of writing—let’s call it flimflammery—for unequivocal inclusion in the “bad” category.

Here’s a little definition: flimflammery is the kind of writing whose arguments depend on fallacies and which conceals said fallacies under carefully confusing prose.

Let’s have a look at a couple of examples from the all-time undefeated world champion.

On page 81 of his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Jacques Derrida performs the following elegant pirouette: “the figure of the father, of course, is also that of the good. ... Thus, at the point in the Republic where Socrates backs away from speaking of the good in itself, he immediately suggests replacing it with its ekgonos, its son, its offspring.”

Quite right about Socrates thinking that The Good has children (the child in question is the sun). But how did we get from that to the figure of the father being the figure of the good? It can only be that Derrida is reasoning as follows:

1. Where you have The Good, you have a father.

therefore

2. Where you have a father, you have The Good.

 

This is what is technically known as the fallacy of conversion. You can have a lot of fun with this fallacy, ‘proving’ all kinds of delightful things:

3. All bananas are fruits.

therefore

4. All fruits are bananas.

 

5. All books by Jacques Derrida are full of fallacies.

therefore

6. All books that are full of fallacies are by Jacques Derrida.

(Ah, if only.)

 

You might think this was just an isolated incident, but here’s another from the same essay (pages 163-4): “Without that violent eruption against the venerable paternal figure of Parmenides... writing and its play would not have been necessary. Writing is parricidal.” (163-4) Fair enough, Plato wanted to attack “father” Parmenides. And fair enough if you like, writing is parricidal (it “kills” its “father”). But now, Plato only started writing because he wanted to attack old Parmenides? Didn’t Parmenides himself do some writing? And couldn’t Plato just have just called him names?

Here’s what I can only assume must be the logic:

1. You can't have writing without parricide.

therefore

2. You can't have parricide without writing.

I wonder if it’s OK then to infer the following...?


3. You can’t win the Nobel prize without working hard.

therefore

4. You can’t work hard without winning the Nobel prize.

(If you need me, I'll be in Sweden working on my acceptance speech.)

 

Let's end with a related bit of flimflammery, this time from the “Différance” essay. Quoting Saussure to the effect that “language is not a function of the speaking subject,” Derrida writes that this “implies that the subject... is a ‘function’ of language” (15). Thus:

1. Language is not a function of the subject.

therefore

2. The subject is a function of language.

I like this. Let’s also say:

 

3. England is not ruled by France.

therefore

4. France is ruled by England.

 

Hooray! I’m moving to Paris.

Stay tuned for more fun inferences you can draw if you don’t care whether they work or not. And in the meantime, please tell me your own favourites...

Joshua Landy's picture
Joshua Landy is the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, where he co-directs the Initiative in Philosophy and Literature. His books include Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (Oxford, 2004), How to Do Things With Fictions (Oxford, 2012), and (as coeditor) The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford, 2009).