How to argue II

Grandma Simpson and Lisa are singing Bob Dylan's Blowin’ in the Wind:

“How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?"

Homer overhears them and says: "Eight!"
Lisa: "That was a rhetorical question."
Homer: "Oh. Then, seven!"
Lisa: "Do you even know what 'rhetorical' means?"
Homer: "Do I know what 'rhetorical' means?"

rhetorical question is usually asked merely for effect–the answer is usually obvious, or immediately provided by the questioner. Also known as erotesis, erotema, and reversed polarity question (RPQ).

When young children are asked rhetorical questions such as "Are you finished whining?" they often respond in a literal way because they don't realize the questions are actually directives.

There are many different types of rhetorical questions:  hypophora and anthypophora for instance. Hypophora is seen as the statement or question, anthypophora as the immediate reply.

For example, Falstaff asks in Henry IV Part I: “What is honor? A word. What is in that word 'honor'? What is that 'honor'? Air. A trim reckoning!”

Epiplexis is an interrogative figure of speech in which the speaker uses a series of rhetorical questions to expose the flaws in the opponent’s argument or position. In this case, the questions being asked don’t require answers because they are not being used to secure a response, but rather as a mode of argument-via-questioning. 

Erotesis, also known as erotema, is a rhetorical question to which the answer is profoundly obvious, and to which there is either a strongly negative or affirmative reply. But “profoundly obvious” isn’t always the case.

For example, on our second date, we went back to my girlfriend’s apartment and just as Caesar was about to cross the Rubicon so-to-speak she held up her hand to halt the horses and asked “Do you know what you’re doing?” I replied, indignant, “Are you kidding me?” And that, I realized much, much later was what began a 23 year marriage based on a funnamental misunderstanding. Funnamental: she thought I meant yes. 

Continuing our list, a hasty generalization is a conclusion based on insufficient or biased evidence. In other words, rushing to judgment before you have all the relevant facts. Example: Even though it's only about halfway through, I can tell this is going to be a boring monograph...

Genetic Fallacy: A conclusion is based on an argument that the origins of a person, idea, institute, or theory determine its character, nature, or worth. Example: The Volkswagen Beetle is an evil car because it was originally designed by Hitler's army.

You can see what’s going on with this one.

Begging the Claim: The conclusion that the arguer should prove is actually validated within the claim. Example: Filthy and polluting coal should be banned.

Arguing that coal pollutes the earth and thus should be banned would normally need to be proved. But coal is already condemned in the claim when it’s referred to as "filthy and polluting."

Circular Argument: This restates the argument rather than actually proving it. Example: George Bush is a good communicator because he speaks effectively.

And finally, tu quoque (pronounced too kwo-kway) is a type of ad hominem argument in which an accused person turns an allegation back on his or her accuser, thus creating a logical fallacy.

 Dad: You should practice safe sex–that way you won’t have any unpleasant surprises. The difference between herpes and true love is herpes is forever.

Daughter: Why should I listen to you? Your love life is a bigger disaster than the wreck of the Hesperus.

Equivocation Fallacy: Using a particular word/expression in multiple senses in a discussion or argument. This type of verbal gymnastics can sometimes be confused with a double-entendre, or a rhetorical question, especially if it’s humorous.

 Artful lodger hopeful: Are you included with the rent?

 Pretty landlady: No, I am to be let alone.

There are a ton of other fallacies: circumlocution, if-by-whiskey, when a white horse is not a horse, amphiboly, and the map is not the territory to touch on a few more. But parts I and now II of this instructive argument series have given you a pretty good whack at the important ones so you shouldn't be losing any more ground to the enemy than you have to from now on.

At least not half-blind and ignominiously.

WoW (Word of the Week)

liminality, n. confusion in the middle of a rite of passage; the in-between pre-ritual status and when ritual is complete

I read recently about "liminal America" and I wonder if that's true–are we going through something, collectively, that we'll come out the other side of intact? And how, depending on what the ritual we're talking about is. Hopefully it's not hari-kari, but rather a figurative ritualistic burning of some sort of sacrificial phoenix, with Atlanta's motto resurgens coming to mind, that results in a universal, shared, cathartic cleansing, that lets us move forward, clear eyed and clasping hands together.

We'll see, people. We shall see.

$1 Question

What is Diogenes Syndrome?

Email us at:

Last week's $1 Question

What is the Solomon Asche Conformity Experiment?

This was a series of psychological experiments performed by Solomon Asche in the 1950s that measured recalcitrance, essentially. The basic experiment involved of eight people: seven were paid actors, unbeknownst to the eighth who was the test subject.

They were all shown a piece of paper with two lines on it, one line obviously longer than the other. All seven of the actors said the lines were the same length, and the test subject agreed with them 30% of the time.

When the experiment was run again, six of the actors said the lines were the same length, but one of them said that they weren't. In this scenario the test subject agreed that the lines were the same length only 5% of the time.

The lesson as I see it is to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what – the truth always puts you in the majority, even if you're alone.

"Are you going to believe me or your own eyes?" as Groucho Marx once quipped.

Old's Cool Academy challenge

I was talking with the young woman working at a vintage clothing store the other day when she said out of the blue that she liked my leather jacket. I told her I bought it years and years ago in New York City, and that it was actually made out of horsehide, which almost all jackets back then were, since it was cheaper and tougher than cow.

It was then that I realized that practically everything I was wearing was vintage: I bought my L.L. Bean boots at the flagship store in Maine when I was in my 20s, when people actually wore them to hunt ducks. My hat is a genuine Russian ushanka, made from rabbit fur I bought from a little shop on the Lower East Side when it was dangerous to go there. At least if you were white. I also had on a threadbare gillet from Barbour, which I think is called the "Beaufort," named after Sir Francis Beaufort, inventor of the eponymous wind scale.

My tie was the size of a skinny hockey skate shoelace in black twill, which I bought at the original Filene's Basement in Boston after seeing the punk band PIL playing The Channel the night before back when Kevin White was the mayor.

When did I become a museum?

Anyway, she was talking about how she had quit school and was just working there to pay the rent but really wanted to become an artist. I said why don't you? She offered the usual excuses.

So here's the challenge, to lovely ginger Brigitte, and everyone else out there hiding in their own path of totality shadow, with sunshine raining invisible arrows of light all around. Start today. Now. With what you have at hand. As small and easy as you please. For yourself first. Whatever it is. And then do that little bit every day for the rest of your life. The today you is the daily diary of your dream life.

I started this blog at least a decade ago as a personal journal, written in longhand, with a fountain pen, in the classic black elementary school composition books you can buy at any Walmart. I now do it on the computer, but I still think of it as my own mental meanderings: still mostly just me talking to myself about what I find interesting and worthwhile exploring.

So start your own journey, whether it's learning the piano or knitting a quilt. I know a retired guy who wants to be a nurse, so he went back to school, not only older than all the students in his class, but older than his oldest teacher.

I made the jokey prediction that he'll become an RN just as I'll be needing one.

It's never too late to live, kids.

On a high note

What songs are these famous-ish first lines from?

Correct answer to Ken Apercu:

Got a good reason for taking the easy way out.

Beatles, Day Tripper

The screen door slams, Mary's dress waves.

Springsteen, Thunder Road

Between sundown's finish, and midnight's broken toll.

Dylan, Chimes of Freedom

In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name.

Prince, Sign O' The Times

For this week's musical interlude, a bunch of Janes.

1. Sweet Jane by Lou Reed

2. Lady Jane by the Rolling Stones

3. Jane by Jefferson Starship

4. Queen Jane Approximately, Dylan

Any Janes we missed out there?

Email us at:

Quote of the Week


This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins