About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Homo argumenticus

by Steve Neumann

In my former career as an independent headhunter, I recruited qualified candidates for my corporate clients. A Fortune 500 company, for example, would tell me they needed to hire an Accounting Manager, or a Vice President of Finance, and I would network with my existing contacts, or make cold calls as needed, until I found a handful of people who possessed the relevant experience, skills and talents. I would meet each one for lunch or a cup of coffee and interview them, in order to determine if they had the right personality for that particular client. If I was confident that they would be a great match, all things considered, I would pitch them the job. If it turned out that they were interested, I would then pitch them to my client. And if all the planets were aligned, my client would hire them and employer and employee would live happily ever after. 

Being a headhunter is essentially about being a salesperson: you need to sell the prospective candidate on the position you’re recruiting for, and then you need to sell your client on the candidate. And sales is both a science and an art — that is, the acquisition of a certain skill set combined with an innate talent for the role. 

Consider just one side of the headhunting process — the candidate side. Generally speaking, a salesperson should have a knack for being seen as a partner in the job-changing process, instead of just another disinterested vendor — she needs to be good at developing and maintaining relationships. She also needs to tailor her sales pitch to the needs and desires of the individual she’s trying to convince to change jobs. 

Additionally, it behooves her to be forthcoming and honest, because if she’s not it will come back to bite her in the ass. If she convinces a candidate to take a job that’s not in the candidate’s best interest, the deal will fall apart in the short term, and she will lose a sizable commission. Headhunters typically charge a fee of 25% of the salary offer for each candidate placed — and this is paid by the corporate client. If one of my corporate clients hires one of my candidates for Accounting Manager at a salary of $80,000 per year, then my fee would be $20,000. I would personally take home half that fee; the other half would go back to “the house” — back into the operations of the business. So even if a headhunter placed only one candidate per month at a salary of $50,000 per year, she would still earn a yearly income of $75,000. Not too shabby. And, back in 2010, a Princeton study argued that a yearly income of $75,000 was a kind of benchmark for happiness: making more than that much per year doesn’t really buy happiness. 

But really, the art of selling boils down to the art of arguing. I don’t mean arguing in the quarrelsome sense, but in the philosophical sense. Think rhetoric. But professional selling isn’t the only area of our lives that exhibits this kind of argument. Actually, I think the vast majority of one’s life is pervaded by rhetorical argument. We’re not only Homo sapiens, or even Homo economicus — we’re Homo argumenticus. 

And we’ve been this way for a long, long time. In the Classical period of ancient Greece, the Sophists were professional educators who offered instruction in a wide range of subjects, with particular emphasis on skill in public speaking and the successful conduct of one’s life. Probably the most famous Sophist was Protagoras. According to Plato, he openly acknowledged that his aim was to teach “the proper management of one’s own affairs, how best to run one’s household, and the management of public affairs, how to make the most effective contribution to the affairs of the city by word and action.” In his eponymous dialogue, he goes on to tell Socrates: 
If a man is better able than we are to promote virtue ever so little, we must be content with the result. A teacher of this sort I believe myself to be, and above all other men to have the knowledge which makes a man noble and good; and I give my pupils their money’s-worth.
So the Sophists were really the first Life Coaches; though their decided emphasis on virtue was directed toward making the individual a better citizen, a critical organ in a harmoniously healthy body politic. They didn’t merely help people achieve their personal and professional goals. 

One of the things they were purported to teach was the art of rhetoric — in a word, the art of persuasive argument. What strikes me about our world today is how pervasive argument is in our daily lives, and how poor at it most of us are. We are constantly trying to persuade others — our friends, our family, our co-workers and, really, anyone who will listen. With the rise of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, arguments have grown like mushrooms after a saturating rain. Most of them smell like mushrooms, too. In fact, most posts in social media aren’t really arguments at all, they’re mere assertions. And the subjects of these arguments range from the most profound to the most mundane — from the legitimacy of torture to the quality of the latest Marvel Studios movie.

Here I have to admit something a bit embarrassing: I am one of those people who post pictures of their dinners on Facebook. I happen to think I’m a darn good chef — and if the reactions of my dinner guests are any indication, then I’m justified in thinking this. But why do I have to post pictures of my dinners on Facebook? Well, I’m engaging in a bit of rhetoric: on some level, I want to persuade my family and friends that I’m a good cook; that I have good culinary and aesthetic taste; and that they should also take the time to make a good meal for their families and friends. This is but one example, but the underlying message is the same: I want my values to be your values. Think about it: why do we share so much — or anything at all? Is it not to persuade others into thinking, feeling and valuing as we do?

In Aristotelian rhetoric, there are three basic ways we can persuade others to come around to our way of thinking and evaluating: appeals to reason, emotion, and the quality of our own character. The more formal names for these are logos, pathos and ethos, respectively. If I were your headhunter and you were my candidate, and I wanted to persuade you to take a position with my client using an appeal to your reason, I might explain in detail how the new job is the logical next step in your career development. Likewise, if I were to appeal to your emotional side, I might say that switching from your current company, Widgets-R-Us, to my client, The Seeing Eye, would satisfy your desire to contribute directly to the welfare of individuals with a significant disability — because you care about that, and it would make you feel like a better person. And, finally, I would appeal to my own expertise in the job-changing process, my knowledge of the client, and the job market in general. You should take this job because I’m an authority on the subject. 

Changing careers is definitely on the more profound end of the spectrum when it comes to things we care about. Thankfully for most of us, that doesn’t happen very often. But we all engage in more rhetorical effort all day, every day. And the rise of social media has allowed us to broadcast this activity exponentially.

As you might expect, there is an avalanche of studies and polls out there regarding social media usage. One such study focused on Facebook and concluded that its users flock to the site because of the need to belong and the need for self-presentation. Of course, we hardly needed a study to tell us that. Also filed under “Superfluous Research” is a 2010 Rutgers University study that showed that 80% of Twitter users largely tweet about themselves: what they’re doing, their feelings and opinions.

Last year the social media blog Mashable listed the 20 most annoying things people do on Facebook. Of the 20, well, pretty much all of them can be considered a form of lowbrow rhetorical persuasion. You can click on the link above to see them for yourself, but I want to focus on a few that exemplify the three rhetorical appeals I mentioned. Below are three annoying things listed by Mashable with the original sarcastic quotes:

“8. Political Rants: Does [insert politician here] reward you for being his top ultra liberal/conservative social media mouthpiece? He should.”

Whether it’s climate change or fiscal policy, social media users who aim to convince us of their viewpoint may try to show how logic and evidence are on their side — they try to appeal to logos. [1]

“17. Urban Legends/Chain Letters: Fake rumors like these often start as political, marketing or social campaigns, and are designed to spread awareness through fear...”

This one reeks of pathos. The example Mashable used was of a social media user repeating the claim that disposable wooden chopsticks are loaded with carcinogens. This is false, but it’s meant to appeal to your reflexive instincts of fear and disgust. 

“2. Marketing: Congratulations, you have a job! So does the majority of the rest of the 900 million people on Facebook. We simply ask one favor: If you wish to market, create a marketing page. If you wish to lose all your friends, keep spamming them…”

When anyone posts something related to their job, especially if they want to get you to buy into it, they will attempt to show that, since they know whereof they speak on the matter, then you should do it, buy it, etc. That’s an appeal to ethos.

It seems to me that there are two motivations behind our rhetorical machinations: the desire to pursue Truth and the desire to pursue perspectival truth. In other words, we want to know how things really are, but at the same time we want to win arguments. It’s the paradoxical relationship between dialectic and rhetoric. I happen to believe that global climate change is real, based on the evidence, and that the activity of human beings is partly responsible. Though I realize that the effects of climate change likely won’t have any significant effect on my own life, I still have a desire to convince others about the veracity of it partly because I care about Truth. But I’m competitive by nature, and I also like to win; though I’d prefer not to win at the expense of Truth. 

Given how adamantly we all engage in rhetoric in every area of our lives, you’d think we’d want to be better at it. Why aren’t we? Is it because we assume that most people won’t take the time to verify our claims? Or that we think we’re smarter than they are, that we have a lock on the art of rhetoric and they don’t? Or is it that, as both Socrates and Protagoras agreed, ignorance is deceiving us about our opinions? In other words, do we simply not know that we don’t know? Knowledge is the cure for ignorance, of course. We could take the time to read the studies, if any, behind the claims we receive and repeat. We could study philosophy, either in an academic setting or for free in a library. Or we could take advantage of modern day Sophists (not in the pejorative sense) like Julia Galef’s Center for Applied Rationality, where you can use “decision science to help yourself and the world.” 

I think that, generally speaking, most of us want to have others aligned with our values without sacrificing Truth. We want to employ rhetoric while pursuing dialectic. It’s kinda like the somewhat snobbish, semantic debate over eau de vie: all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac. All dialectic contains some rhetoric, but not all rhetoric is dialectic. 

Well, that’s my argument and I’m sticking to it. Now I’m going to go post this on my Facebook page. “Share” it if you “Like” it. 


[1] I’m well aware that political rants also utilize appeals to pathos and ethos. You might even argue that political rants contain more appeals to pathos than either logos or ethos. I’m sure you will!


  1. Insightful post, Steven. If the 20 most annoying things people do were removed from Facebook, would there be anything left of it?

    Somewhat tangential to the subject of your post, I don't think research confirming our intuitions about why people use Facebook is a waste of time. For one, it provides a baseline for comparison to other forms of expression. Furthermore, it could suggest some general 'law' of human behaviour. For example, perhaps this research suggests that narcissistic fulfillment from expression on any medium is inversely proportional to the time it takes to express oneself in that medium.

    1. " If the 20 most annoying things people do were removed from Facebook, would there be anything left of it?"

      Good point!

      "I don't think research confirming our intuitions about why people use Facebook is a waste of time."

      I agree. And even though marketers spend a lot of time researching it, it seems social psychologists are doing the same, and coming up with some interesting results.

  2. I think perhaps you underestimate the overwhelming extent to which our argumentative interactions are driven by that sense of competition you mention. (I tend to associate the search for truth with a desire for understanding – natural curiosity – which draws on input from others but is essentially private.)

    The realm of discussion and debate – even before it was debased by social media – was always more about status and so on than truth. RT's tag line is nice but just a little bit over-optimistic.

    A trivial example. I was tempted to point out that the Latin for argumentative is 'argumentativus' – 'sapiens' and '(o)economicus' are real Latin adjectives so why not use the proper form?

    But, of course, this would be a mere competitive ploy on my part, and a very stupid one, leaving me vulnerable to being characterized as a humorless pedant.

    It's all a bit like a game of chess, isn't it?

    1. >I tend to associate the search for truth with a desire for understanding – natural curiosity – which draws on input from others but is essentially private.<

      Perhaps, but from my perspective, one of the major reasons I got into arguing with people about philosophy on the Internet was to have my beliefs challenged.

      There's no experiment I can conduct to test my metaphysical beliefs. The only test is to engage in dialogue with others to see if they can point out any flaw in my argument.

      Reading is much less satisfying to me, as I often think I spot a flaw in the argument proposed in the text, and then have no opportunity to put the challenge to the author and so learn if the flaw is real or not.

    2. DM

      Fair point, I suppose. I personally prefer to read (and interact with if possible) people who know important things I don't know or fully understand (in science and mathematics especially). I think it's ultimately new knowledge that tests our worldviews rather than general argumentation. I see philosophical argument (in the sense of logical thought) as being necessary but subsidiary to knowledge – a by-product of learning, a kind of putting-new-knowledge-into-place.

      Also, let me make it clear that I see science as an essentially social process, but driven by the natural curiosity of individuals (as well as by practical necessities and problems).

      One area where perspective matters more than knowledge in a narrow sense is ethics. But I would not be more inclined to seek ethical (or prudential) advice from someone trained in philosophy than from any other reasonably intelligent person.

    3. I think you're right when you're talking about empirical knowledge. Where there are facts to learn and experiments to test, then philosophy is not terribly useful.

      For some subjects, such as the ethics you mention, philosophical argument is the only feasible means of testing beliefs.

      >But I would not be more inclined to seek ethical (or prudential) advice from someone trained in philosophy than from any other reasonably intelligent person.<

      Same here. But often only those with an interest in philosophy are happy to get into discussions of the type I seek.

    4. Yes but scientific (and mathematical) knowledge not only impinges on but to a large extent drives the philosophy of science (and the philosophy of mathematics).

      (By the way, I meant, of course, to refer to RS's tag line in my original comment.)

    5. "The realm of discussion and debate – even before it was debased by social media – was always more about status and so on than truth. RT's tag line is nice but just a little bit over-optimistic."

      I agree with the first part of that. As for the tag line, it's better to aim high!

  3. Perhap I'm falling for some argumenticus trap but that meme is incorrectly used.

    The "schrite fact" is suppose to be the countering of an Idiom or platitude after being interpreted literally.

    Example: "All you need is love?" "False, you need oxygen, water and nutrition"

    Anyway, carry on.

  4. Should people be searching for Truth, or for what's best? The search for Truth leads people astray.

    1. I'd like to say "both," but I think both Truth and what's best are fuzzy concepts. Do we mean Truth of Fact? Best for you or me? Or humanity? Or best for my German shepherd? How do we decide?

    2. Truth is the best of All. =

  5. I propose Homo disserens. Because we mostly speak, with or without clear arguments, to someone or ourselves.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.