Over the weekend (which I spent pleasantly on the south coast, it being obligatory for all Britons to spend the August bank holiday crowding out the edges of our scepter'd isle), I bought and read a recently published little book, an essay by Schopenhauer enticingly entitled The Art of Always Being Right. The essay itself is certainly worth a read, but this particular edition (Gibson Square, 2005) is certainly not worth buying. It is a reprint of T. Bailey Saunders' 1896 translation (which is, in any case, freely available online), the only innovation on the part of the publishers being, as far as I could tell, the environmentally-hostile page-spacing – the text, which could easily have been accommodated in little over one hundred pages, sprawls over twice that many. There is a new introduction by A. C. Grayling, which is fine, but surely not worth shelling out for on its own. The editors of this volume evidently considered this to be their main selling point: perplexingly, Grayling's name appears on the spine of the dustjacket where Schopenhauer's is nowhere to be seen. General editorial incompetence is further evidenced by the abundance of typos towards the end of the book.
The editors also judge it necessary to inform the bewildered reader not once but twice (the second time in a completely superfluous 'Publisher's Note' in the back-matter) that Schopenhauer's writing on argumentation is relevant to today's readership because of 'the ever growing importance of public debating on TV and radio'. I checked: these words of wisdom were in fact written in 2004 and not, as one might have assumed, in 1896.
Anyway, to the text itself. The first problem that seems to have worried many readers (and Schopenhauer himself, if truth be told) is that it is never quite clear to what extent Schopenhauer is being ironic. Is he really recommending that we forsake truth for sophistry (sorry: 'controversial dialectic'), honourable conduct for unscrupulous machination, and intellectual integrity for opportunistic playing-to-the-gallery? The reader is required to perform an intellectual juggling act in appreciating Schopenhauer's wit: his obvious contempt for the 'common man', who will be convinced nine times out of ten not by appeals to reason but by appeals to his own vanity, is counterbalanced by the fact that he, Schopenhauer, quite clearly takes great pleasure in working out just how this might be achieved.
Schopenhauer claims in his prefatory comments that he is, to his knowledge, the first to have attempted a work of this type, effectively a how-to manual: how to win an argument, especially if you're in the wrong. He might well be right, although it is worth pointing out that manuals of rhetoric from antiquity to the Renaissance have always had this as their unavowed objective. Schopenhauer's essay is different in that he does not merely present us with a box of rhetorical tricks to be used as and when required; nor does he simply give us a tedious list of names for logical fallacies. In fact, he not only tells us how to employ logical fallacies to our own advantage by concealing them (it's amazingly easy to whip up a false but convincing syllogism without batting an eyelid, just try it!), he even tells us how to defeat an opponent by falsely accusing them of having committed a logical fallacy (see 22, for example: avoid having to concede a crucial point by stating authoritatively 'That's just begging the question!'). Isn't that just great?
Many of the techniques mentioned are variations on the trusty old method of misrepresenting or exaggerating your opponent's argument, then refuting the misrepresentation. I've always thought that this rich and varied dialectical method requires a much better name than the one it most often gets landed with, the 'straw man'. What an inappropriate name for this most robust and full-blooded species of fallacious argument! What is required, at the very least, is a subtler typology of the technique, which in practice takes as many different forms as there are personalities in the world. (Mind you, Schopenhauer never uses this term - I could be wrong, but I don't think they have it in German anyway.)
Another technique that often gets lumped in with what are conventionally labelled 'logical fallacies' is the ad hominem attack. I've never quite understood why this is considered to be invalid. Let me be clear: by ad hominem I don't mean simply the method that consists in ignoring the matter at hand and insulting one's interlocutor in personal terms (what Schopenhauer calls specifically the ad personam attack). An argument that proceeds by pointing out inconsistencies in an opponent's argument, whether by showing that he has made contradictory claims, or by showing that a claim he makes is inconsistent with his belief system or school of thought (say, Christianity for example), is, properly speaking, ad hominem. Isn't this the most valid method of argumentation?
Schopenhauer's understanding of human psychology is spot on: he knows that it's easier to get a hostile interlocutor to deny the opposite of your hypothesis than to concede the hypothesis itself. He knows, too, that when we say 'I don't understand what you mean', more often than not we're really saying 'You're full of shit'. And he knows how easy it can be to 'claim victory despite defeat' – and that it very often works.
Another favourite of mine is what Schopenhauer calls the 'Vicar of Wakefield' technique, which is in some ways another species of the appeal to authority (and feel free to invent your own authorities, Schopenhauer reassures us). This is the method, otherwise known ‘round our way as 'talking bollocks', whereby an antagonist wins points by sounding forth with incomprehensible but imposing bombast.
And, if anyone wishes to take issue with anything I've said here, to refute them utterly I need only quote these lines of Goethe:
Gewöhnlich glaubt der Mensch, wenn er nur Worte hört,
Es müsse sich dabei doch aus was denken lassen.
- a technique which works all the better if neither one of us speaks any German.