...I think the genre is compelling but deceptive. The convert presents himself (or herself) as traveling from darkness into light, and the sheer drama makes us think--yes, yes, yes, that's the light! The story line of revelation is no substitute for good arguments.In fact, this is one of many interesting observations made in the post and the resulting thread, and I may turn to others on another occasion - not so much in a spirit of disputing them (though I do in fact have difficulties with some) as in thinking that this debate created by Marks has been a rich one. In particular it has opened up questions about what some of our underlying commitments may be when we engage in philosophical analysis and argument.
For the moment, let's stick to the role of autobiographical narratives. Jean's comment expresses a rather austere scepticism about them ... which is a bit of a concern for someone like me who recently co-edited a book of essays that includes quite a large number of such narratives. Some of the essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief are fairly straightforward arguments or position statements, but most are, indeed, autobiographical. My own essay, "Unbelievable!", falls partly into this genre, even though it does contain some philosophical argument. Needless to say, I have operated here on the basis that such narratives are valuable, and that they do something legitimate that is enabled by their literary form.
It's true, no doubt, that they obtain a certain rhetorical power from their narrative structure and direction: the sense of conflict, as opposing ideas clash through the story; and the imaginative engagement in a journey that is partly, of course, an inward one, but is still, metaphorically, one of movement outwards into the light.
It's also true that an argument is only as good as its premises and the sort of deductive or inductive logic it displays. So how can any arguments that are embedded in these autobiographical conversion narratives thereby gain in power? If they do, surely that power is merely rhetorical - doesn't the literary form give an extra psychological force to an argument, without increasing the cogency of the argument itself? And isn't this somehow intellectually illegitimate?
Good questions. But there's a worry here. If we answer these questions affirmatively, are we thereby requesting that these narratives no longer be written and published? Perhaps we wouldn't want to ban them, since they are a natural way for people to express themselves, but we might think that they lack value for readers, who are, after all, being lured into taking arguments to be more cogent than they really are. Perhaps those of us who actually understand this issue should make a free choice to stop writing conversion narratives, editing them, trying to get them published, and so on? Or if not, why not, if they are deceptive in the way described? At the very least, perhaps we should stop reading them and letting ourselves come under the sway of their rhetorical power. Again ... if not, why not?
The concern goes further. Surely the same issues apply (even more?) to fictional conversion narratives. Once again, if we are shown a character as moving on an inward journey that is, metaphorically, one from darkness to light, this has a certain rhetorical power. The psychological force of the narrative structure may make the arguments for the character's ultimate position appear to be more cogent than they really are. Thus, readers are misled (are they not?). Once again, we might not ban such narratives, but shouldn't we stop writing/editing/publishing them if they are so misleading? At the very least, should we not stop reading them and letting ourselves come under the sway of their rhetorical power. If not, why not?
All of this might lead us to discount a great deal in the way of journalistic and philosophical writing, literary fiction, and more popular forms of fictional narrative (and note that the argument surely applies at least as strongly to plays, movies, TV programs, and so on, as to straightforward autobiographical journalism, novels, etc.). But if we do that, are we thereby giving up something of value? If so, what? After all, these narratives appear to be lending a spurious cogency to arguments that would not, otherwise, convince us.
At this point, I want to offer a suggestion. Before I do so, let me invite you to think seriously about these questions and contribute your own reactions to them. Might Jean Kazez be simply right? If so, what are the implications for the sorts of texts that we should write, edit, publish, read, take seriously, and so on? Or are there aspects that she hasn't considered and which I haven't picked up, either? Is there more to be said than what I'm going to say below?
My suggestion is that these narratives are, in fact, of great value (please don't tell me that nothing is really of great value; plenty of things are of great value to us, as long as we recognise that the "us" - and the "we" in this sentence - are, to some extent, a fiction; we can adjust to that easily enough).
It's true, of course, that an invalid argument cannot become valid simply because it is embedded in a conversion narrative. Nor can the false premises of an argument become true simply because they are embedded in such a narrative. So far, Jean is quite correct. But that does not make the use of narratives for persuasive purposes illegitimate. We are entitled to extract the embedded arguments and scrutinise them, but these narratives do more, and I think it is completely legitimate.
Often, resistance to an argument is not based on the fact that the premises are independently known to be false. Rather, it is that the premises are held to be false based on an intuitive, largely unconscious, reaction to them ... ultimately grounded in the hearer's socialisation and life experience.
Or it may be that the conclusion is held to be false on such a basis, with the result that the hearer will treat the argument as a reductio ad absurdum of its premises (even if she cannot identify which premise is false).
Again, if the argument is not deductive, there may be a resistance to it, based on an intuitive sense that it cannot be inductively cogent: e.g. it may be that its conclusion will not be accepted as the best explanation, or even as a good explanation, for facts contained in the premises ... even if the hearer can't explain why the conclusion is not a perfectly good and intellectually attractive explanation.
In short, we can and do reject arguments that may actually be quite strong - deductively or inductively - because of an ingrained prejudice against certain premises that (again) might actually be true, or else more directly against certain conclusions. These prejudices may make it futile for others to argue with us, even if their arguments are actually good ones. We may find that such prejudices prevent us from making intellectual progress.
Of course, they may be justifiable in some cases. Years of experience in certain aspects of life may have honed my intuitions in a way that makes them very reliable, even if I can't offer an analysis of how I formed them. Thus, a competent speaker of a language may have sound intuitions about its grammar, even if she cannot give good answers as to why she judges some sentences or other linguistic items to be grammatical and some not. An experienced lawyer working in a certain area of practice may be able to make intuitive judgments about the strength of a case far more quickly than she could justify them to anybody. Her intuitions may be highly reliable.
An experienced firefighter might sense that a building is about to collapse, though she has not thought it through consciously and could not, perhaps, explain exactly what factors her judgment is based on. Her experiences may have honed her intuitions to the point where they are very reliable - she is an accurate building-about-to-collapse detecting instrument.
I'm not denying that intuition can sometimes be useful and correct. If I'm ever caught in a burning building, I'll trust the intuitions of experienced firefighters, rather than demanding justification for them before I move to get out of there.
Nonetheless, intuitions can mislead. Often, things that seem obviously true to one person - God exists, there are objective moral properties, or whatever it might be - may not be obvious to others who are just as well situated, and may true at all. These intuitions have not been shaped by life experiences that make them reliable in the way that the firefighter's intuitions are reliable. Yet, I may find it very difficult to question my intuitions on these subjects - they just seem so "obviously" right. I may be resistant to what are actually deductively or inductively strong arguments.
This, I think, is where literary devices can be very useful. They can be enabling devices ... enabling us, or at least assisting us, to understand something of how the world looks to others. We can see the world, to an extent, through the eyes of someone with different intuitions; we can even gain some sense of how different intuitions from our own may be shaped, perhaps by experiences of life no less compelling than our own. If we can enter into something of the life experience of a person who is writing autobiographically, or even that of a fictional character, this can offer a check on our commitment to our own intuitions, which might be revealed as largely-unsupported prejudices.
We can, in short, get some distance from ourselves and our assumptions. We can't step out of all of them at once, but we can certainly gain some critical distance from certain of our assumptions that may be holding us back.
Indeed, we do philosophy best when we can gain some distance from our own intuitions and assumptions, even alienating ourselves from them to an extent. This is something that autobiographical and fictional narratives, with their powerful rhetorical structures, can help us do. The arguments won't actually be stronger - logically speaking - because of the way they are embedded in narratives, but the narratives can expand our imaginations and make us legitimately more open to persuasion. Thus, doubtful intutions that might be standing in the way of my acceptance of a position can be bracketed off - at least to an extent - enabling me to look at someone else's position and its supporting arguments in a new way.
For that reason, I think it's crucially important that we write such narratives, if we have the talent to do so, because we can help other people engage with the world in more imaginative, receptive ways, getting some valuable distance from their own intuitions, assumptions, and prejudices. It's also important that we read these sorts of narratives, created by others, as a way of getting some distance from our own starting points.
It's a dialectical process - to some extent we will inevitably measure these narratives against intuitions formed from our own experience (including the experience of other narratives that we've already encountered and which have helped shape us), as well against the facts obtained from ordinary observation or from science. There's no question of that, and there's always scope to approach narratives with a critical eye. But the narratives also stand as a measure of us.
In some cases, they may cast doubt on our intuitive certainties and on the processes by which they were formed. The richer and more convincing the narrative, the more it can challenge (and augment) our own experience.
And so, painfully, we make progress. Writers of conversion narratives can't be entirely trusted, but neither can anyone else, most especially our parents, our teachers, our peer groups, and ourselves. We desperately need these narratives to see the world from new angles, and we can't get by without them if we're intellectually serious. Whatever their limits as sources of knowledge, narratives, and specifically narratives of conversion to new ideas, have a legitimate role - an important, even essential role - in sustaining the life of the mind.