Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences
Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

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Introducing ethics in Information and Computer Sciences

2.3 Style and rhetoric

In the dialogues in Section 2.2, Plato, the author, is trying to point out convincingly the features of a ‘virtuous’ life and, therefore, offers templates for presenting a case with an ethical content.

In looking at the style of the dialogues, most of Protagoras is in the form of a narrative similar to something you might find in a novel, as I suggested earlier. Meno is much more like a play script, but it is noticeable that Meno (the character) mostly agrees with what Socrates has to say, so the dialogue is much more like a monologue. This suggests an interesting question: what does the choice of a dialogue format add? One possible answer is this: if Meno is respected by those around him, then, when he agrees, he gives authority to Socrates’ words. This is a device you might use when presenting an argument, to actually somehow or other call in the agreement of others. Of course, academics do that all the time by referring to other people that agree with their point of view in their argument, whilst probably not referring, although perhaps they ought to, to those that disagree.

Socrates in Gorgias purports to challenge the importance given to rhetoric, but does offer useful examples. The dialogue uses cooks and doctors as analogies of the rhetorician or the ‘virtuous’, and analogies are very cunning devices. Analogies shift the argument to domains where agreement over ‘good’ and ‘bad’ may be more widely accepted. In the analogous domain a secure conclusion can be established before returning to the original domain, where otherwise things would not be so clear-cut. Stories and quotations in the dialogues similarly deflect and grip the reader's attention as well as bringing in additional authorities in support. It is interesting to note, though, that Gorgias, like Meno, eventually slips into a monologue.

The use of devices such as these can be seen in two ways. Sometimes you might use those devices to try and help with understanding, for example, to give a different perspective or illustrate the form of an argument if you're in a teaching situation. Or if sections of an argument are weak switching to an analogy might obscure weaknesses and obscure rather than enlighten. It is possible to use some of the Socratic techniques to brow-beat, wear opponents down, just to exhaust them so finally they'll forget or feel insecure about their objections and, bewildered, agree with what the protagonist is saying.

Another technique that Socrates uses is contradiction. He leads people down the garden path, seeking out contradictions in their position and then, as a result, quashes their argument. The dialogic form helps with this because dialogue is a bit like a conversation, and the crucial thing is that it continues and it doesn't matter if the subject is changed. So the dialogues enable Plato, the writer, to present bits of arguments and to show that there are contradictions, and then move on to something else. But contradiction is really rather crucial to this method of arguing. To make this clear, let's look at what Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher who considered contradiction useful, had to say:

Let us suppose that a contradiction … produces astonishment and indecision … we say; that is just the purpose of [this] contradiction.

(Wittgenstein, 1956, Part III § 57)

In this quote Wittgenstein is basically saying that contradictions are purposely intended to produce astonishment and indecision. That's the point of a contradiction: you actually want to astonish people. Perhaps you want to produce an effect, or achieve a particular result. Wittgenstein's view of language is quite different from the usual notion that language is representational, that is, that words are spoken equivalents of things that are observed in the world. Wittgenstein has a very different idea of what language is and how it works – he talks in terms of ‘language games’. When writing about contradiction he notes:

We lay down the rules, a technique, for a game, and then when we follow them things do not turn out as we had assumed.

(Wittgenstein, 1992 p. 125)

He suggests we adopt the rules for these games (or perhaps develop a habit), such as the rules Socrates lays down for logic, but when we encounter a contradiction, it is as though following the rules caused us to break the rules and things don't turn out as we'd hoped. Hence he finds contradictions interesting and might cause us to explore extensions of our language game. Alternatively we might treat this production of astonishment in others as the objective of a language game. Contradictions may therefore be deliberately exploited for effect, or they may signal where we need to provide extensions to our language game. Contradiction according to Wittgenstein is useful but for Socrates it would have been corrosive. Socrates sees contradiction as the end of the matter, that is, a contradiction signals that a line of argument is unsustainable.

Wittgenstein's view creates a new way of thinking about language because language becomes a collection of ways of providing gestures that have useful effects. The OpenLearn units D843_1: Themes in discourse research: the case of Diana and AA308_3: Language and Thought: introducing representation explore these non-representational views of language in different domains and may be of interest, but for the purposes of this course, just think about language as providing effects rather than carrying meaning. Of course, having an effect is very useful for a technologist trying to get something done, and it also suggests that Socratic logic is not the only form of logic that people might happily use.


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