China Ammo for argumentum ad antiquitam
14 May 2012
The summer between 7th and 8th grade, I went to a somewhat unusual “nerd camp.” I attended a 6-week “enrichment course” at the University of Tampa entitled “Logic and Critical Thinking.” We covered quite thoroughly the different types of logical syllogisms and logical fallacies. It was a singularly eye-opening experience for me, as many of the arguments I’d heard many times before were suddenly and for the first time exposed for what they were. In another sense, it was a new form of power. Adults rule the world, but they’re not above logic. Being able to identify logical fallacies in the arguments of politicians, teachers, and even parents was a potent little trick indeed!
Recently I read the book How to How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic, which is basically a rundown of various types of fallacies, how to recognize them, how to defend against them, and even how to effectively employ them if you need to.
While a good read and quite entertaining in parts, many examples used in the book probably make more sense to a British audience than an American one. It also feels a little outdated at times, such as this passage on the argumentum ad antiquitam (“appeal to tradition”) fallacy and how it relates to China (links and bold added by me):
> Students of political philosophy recognize in the argumentum ad antiquitam the central core of the arguments of Edmund Burke. Put at its simplest, it is the fallacy of supposing that something is good or right simply because it is old.
>> This is the way it’s always been done, and this is the way we’ll continue to do it.
>> (It brought poverty and misery before, and it will do so again…)
> There is nothing in the age of a belief or an assertion which alone makes it right. At its simplest, the ad antiquitam is a habit which economizes on thought. It shows the way in which things are done, with no need for difficult decision-making. At its most elevated, it is a philosophy. Previous generations did it this way and they survived; so will we. The fallacy is embellished by talk of continuity and our contemplation of the familiar.
> Skilful use of the ad antiquitam requires a detailed knowledge of China. The reason is simple. Chinese civilization has gone on for so long, and has covered so many different provinces, that almost everything has been tried at one time or another. Your knowledge will enable you to point out that what you are advocating has a respectable antiquity in the Shin Shan province, and there it brought peace, tranquillity of mind and fulfilment for centuries.
Hmmm, “Shin Shan Province,” eh? The use of “province” in two different senses in one paragraph is a little confusing, but I would guess that “Shin Shan” is supposed to be “Shanxi” or “Shaanxi.” Anyway, I suspect that even when dealing in fallacies and tradition, it’s still a good idea to use the name of a province that actually exists.
It’s true, though, that China is still a treasure trove for bullshit purveyors of all kinds, whether it’s China’s mystical past, mystical writing system, mystical vocabulary (“crisis” = “danger” + “opportunity,” anyone?), or mystical traditions. I’m curious if my readers have run into many China-centered argumentum ad antiquitam fallacies out there.