The Futurist Corporation

The difference between a poetic argument and a logical one
25 May 2010, 8:08 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Logical systems will vary based on who you ask. The codification of technical form has necessitated several alien languages for logical structure, but the classical structure of a logical argument remains the same at its core.

Premise 1
Premise 2
Premise 3

A logical argument will lay out the truth conditions for the conclusion to be reached, and then explain why the stated premises do one of two things:

A) The argument forces the reader to accept the conclusion
B) The argument shows that a specific conclusion cannot be reached if we are forced to work within the stated premises
(this latter form is called a critique)

Here is an example of a logical argument put forth by Kevin Stack in his textbook The Regulatory State:

P1. To become a statute, a legal measure needs bicameralism and presentment.
P2. The authorial intent of the legislature has not passed through bicameralism and presentment.
C. Therefore, the authorial intent of a statute should not included in what is considered the statute.

This simplified summary of logical form is presented here to separate the logical argument from the poetic argument. While the logical argument makes its point within the bounds of linguistic argumentation, the poetic argument is one step removed from argumentation. The poetic argument is burdened by the constraints of language and instead reaches its conclusion intuitively. The poetic argument relies on paradox or hyperbole to reach its conclusion. In some cases, a semblance of logical argumentation may be maintained in the poetic argument. The poetical argument knows that it cannot compete against the airtight resistance to dissent of which the logical structure can boast. Instead the logical argument relies on another method of resisting sophistry.

The poetic argument usually follows two structures.

1) It is easily refutable if its purely literal interpretation is taken.
2) It is impossible to refute because the claims it makes are unverifiable.

Here is an example of a poetic argument from the sixth chapter of Matthew. I use an example from the Bible here, but Shakespeare and Pynchon are just as guilty of employing such a structure.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Here we have the simulation of logical structure. We have premises here, and we might even accept these premises if we are giving the apostle a charitable reading. The argument is not valid though because the conclusion is a non sequitur, not forced by the premises. Here is the breakdown of the argument.

P1. If one stockpiles treasures on earth, these treasures will decay.
P2. If one stockpiles treasures in not-earth (heaven), these treasures will not decay. (Note this is treated as premise, not the conclusion)
C. Whether one chooses to stockpile treasures on earth, or whether one chooses to stockpile treasures on not-earth (heaven), one’s heart will be there also.

A traditional Thomist interpretation of this passage would say, “the writer here means that if one focuses on accumulating worldly possessions, one will have a worldly frame-of-mind. Whereas if one focuses on heavenly achievement, one will have a more heavenly (and therefore godly) frame-of mind.” That is a particular interpretation of the text, one informed by centuries of precedent. However, it is not contained in the text itself.

Close inspection of the text shows not only that the conclusion is not forced by the premises, but also that it is no conclusion at all (and barely even a sensible statement). The distinction between earthly accumulation and heavenly accumulation is being drawn out in verse 19 and 20. A logical conclusion might make some claim about the difference between earth and heaven, or perhaps a procedural account of stockpiling (or “laying up for oneself”). Instead we have the introduction of a new element–that of the heart–which the reader is forced to reconcile with the first two premises.

The most striking ambiguity of the account is the failure of the Apostle to adequately define his terms. The concept of heaven, admittedly, is defined several other places in the book Matthew. Therefore I have given it the charitably non-contentious operative definition of “not-earth” in my summary of the argument. The introduction of the “heart” in this passage, warrants skepticism though.

First of all, it seems apparent that if I stockpile goods for myself in, say, a storage facility (on earth), my heart will not literally enter the pile of goods no matter how large the stockpile grows–it will always remain in my body. It appears that Matthew uses some mystical definition of “heart” in this passage. This is not without precedent. This peculiar use of the word “heart” is not isolated. It used in a similar way in other places in the book, but each of these is equally confusing, and do not serve to strengthen one’s understanding of the use of “heart.” I do not know the Aramaic word used here; I shall have to ask one of my biblical scholar friends when I get a chance. Suffice to say, that the word is translated as “heart” just the same in the King James Version, the New International Version, the New Living Translation, and Young’s Literal Translation of the passage.

So we could easily say, by logical argumentation, that Jesus of Nazareth (who is being quoted here) is remiss in giving us such an account. His conclusion is not supported by his arguments, and he fails to adequately define his terms. However, the argument has not been discarded as a lapse of clear reasoning or some textual ambiguity by any serious student of the book Matthew. I make no attempt to do so either. The reason for this argument’s continued relevance is that Matthew does not give us a logical argument but a poetic one.

A poetic argument is not the same as a poem. A poem makes an appeal to aesthetics for its relevance. A poem is beautiful in its emotionality, its lived experience, or its honesty. Poetry is a subset of art, properly considered. A poetic argument is not a work of art (according to a strict definition of art). A poetic argument does not have beauty as its goal. Like the logical argument, it reaches for truth. The difference between the poetic argument and the logical one is that the poetic argument bypasses the formalism that the logical argument requires.

So when Matthew argues that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” he is not arguing at all. If he had given reasons that this mystical sense of one’s heart becomes associated with the space in which one’s powers for accumulation engage themselves, then he would open himself up to discourse. He gives no reasons it should be so, he merely says “it is so” and allows the reader to interpret this as he will.

By putting himself outside of a discursive circuit, the speaker insulates himself from critique (remember the definition from the beginning of this section?) because there is no conclusion to critique, properly anyways.

So the poetic argument is both easily refuted (the heart is in the body, not in one’s treasures) and impossible to refute (what is “heart?” what are “treasures?” can earth and heaven be spatially compared anyway?).

The logical argument addresses ambiguities and resolves them–the poetical argument turns ambiguities into paradoxes and reallocates them towards the impact of the argument.

The poetic argument gives an account of being that relies on the reader to fill in the blanks in his mind. That is not to say that the poetic argument assumes the reader to supply the causal or rhetorical cues that argument skips over. Quite the contrary. It instead appeals to a precognitive understanding of being. It bases the conditions for its reception on the assumption that the reader shares an understanding of these precognitive structures. Whether or not these precognitive understandings reflect a normative sense of the world is irrelevant. The relevance lies in the popular appeal of an account of being that does not require tireless explanation and extrapolation. What a poetic argument lacks in refinement, it recovers in directness.

Ok so that’s a poetic argument. Perhaps better examples later. Just had to lay out my definition so I can use this term in future posts


1 Comment so far
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If I had a quarter for each time I came to… Superb read!

Comment by Roland Bryson

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