Bob Corbett

PHIL 1010 01: June 5th until July 28th, 2000

Class lecture

Bob Corbett
Summer 2000

The notion of positive criticism is a rather odd one. If one agrees with an author, then why bother. Why stand up and say: "ME TOO." Why not just point to the other's work and stay out of it?

Certainly the notion of what I'll call the "me too" notion is not critical thinking. Repeating someone else's notion and "signing on" as it were, is not much of an activity of critical thought.

However, a very common occurrence is this: one will find oneself generally in agreement with the work of another, but not completely. One might agree with the general argument (NOTE: not just the thesis, but the argument), but hold that the author missed another very powerful and useful argument. Or, one is in general agreement with an argument of another, but thinks one or another of the arguments could be done just a bit better; more powerfully or clearer or whatever.

A second sort of situation is that one is in complete agreement with the argument of another, but can anticipate precisely what the likely criticism of others is going to be. Thus to anticipate this most likely criticism and answer it is a service to the argument itself.

Suppose, for example that someone made an argument for abortion and the arguments centered around a woman's right to choose and various women's issues, but said not one word about a fetus. And further suppose that you thought the argument was well done, each of the reasons or considerations being well developed and logically connected to the thesis. However, you were quite sure that critics would say: "Well, suppose all this is so, does the woman's right override that of the fetus?" But, the original argument didn't say a single word about this consideration. Thus, you, the positive critic, set out to introduce that objection and to build a counter-argument to show that it is not really a very serious criticism of the original argument at all.

So we are left with two general categories of tasks for the positive critic and three different strategies to follow. Let me spell these out a bit more clearly.

  1. First situation: one is in general and overwhelming agreement with the ARUGMENT (not just the thesis) of another, but not fully. One wants the argument to work and believes one can offer positive criticisms which will make the argument even stronger.

    In this case there are two major tasks that might be done:

    1. It may be the case that in an otherwise nearly flawless argument, the author seems to have ignored an important or powerful reason or consideration which would strengthen the case without in any way detracting from the argument already given. Thus the critic adds the missing reason or consideration. There are all sorts of variations on this theme, where the addition of the new material might even require a bit of adjustment to the argument as a whole, but still leaves it essentially intact.
    2. A second case is one where the argument as given is seen as essentially correct and very strong, but the treatment could use a bit of patching up here and there, perhaps a stronger version of some reason or consideration, or a clearer version could make the argument more likely to succeed.

    Thus the critic adds to or polishes the original argument, very much on the side of the argument itself. Certainly in such positive criticism the thesis is not altered.

  2. The second case is quite different, but just as positive in the critical impact. One reads an argument and finds is virtually flawless, just one of those things one wishes one had written oneself. Yet one also realizes there is one obvious objection (or more) likely to be raised against this argument, such as my abortion argument example above.

So the positive critic recognizes this an anticipates the criticism by adding something that begins something like this (at least in spirit):

Smith has argued the thesis well, but it is likely that the critics from x perspective are likely to raise the following objection……

Then follows:

These two areas, then, adding to or polishing an original argument, or anticipating an important and likely criticism and showing why it is not a serious criticism, are the primary areas of positive criticism and what raise positive criticism beyond the mere non-critical "me too" position of just adding ones own voice to the same argument.

There are two cautions that I need to make in doing positive criticism.

Early on in another of these class lectures I have cautioned the beginning critical thinker against the relatively empty and easy way out, of just quibbling about this or that matter of clarity and precision, and thus being able to write some intelligent criticism without much depth or risk.

This is more directed to the beginner in his or her state as beginner. At the more sophisticated levels of criticism, positive criticism of clarity and precision are often extremely valuable and perhaps what raise an argument from an interesting position to a crushing one.

At the same time the worry is, since virtually ANY and EVERY argument can use some polishing, if one doesn't want to do, or is having trouble doing serious critical activity of a negative sort or of the other sorts of positive criticism, there is this tendency to fall back on this relatively easy and effortless form of criticism.

Again, I would highly urge the beginning critical thinker to mainly AVOID this positive criticism by clarification and polish and delve into deeper waters, if for no other reason than to demonstrate to one's self (and the teacher) than one can do the deeper more internal work of negative or positive criticism.

A second worry comes when one anticipates criticisms from others and defends against them. In general this is a very valuable form of positive criticism. However, there is one common grave danger: the straw man argument.

This argument takes its name from the scarecrow. The farmer builds a man out of straw to put into the farm field to frighten the birds into believing the farmer is there in the field and thus they keep their distance. Really, it is not a farmer in the field (or in the dell), but just a straw man looking a bit like a person.

Similarly, when one claims that here is a LIKELY criticism to be made; when one anticipates what negative critics will say, there is a grave danger of building a straw man, that is, a very weak argument which no serious thinking person is really likely to make, but which has the delightful feature that it allows one to flex one's intellectual muscles in destroying it.

The positive critic must be extremely careful and honest. If one is going to anticipate a likely SIGNIFICANT argument against the position, then create a SIGNIFICANT argument against the position, not an easily demolished straw man. This is a serious worry, and even among very serious, honest and bright critics straw men get built all the time. Part of the reason for this is that the critic is already (by definition of writing positive criticism) INSIDE the camp of the original author. Negative critics are often (but not always) OUTSIDE that camp. Intellectuals often have a hard time really understanding and building serious arguments OUTSIDE their own camp since these positions just often don't seem very plausible. Thus, even in seriously attempting to anticipate a critic, the positive critic will mean to build a strong argument to dispatch, but ends up with some weak straw man, that no one would REALLY put forward as a criticism to the original argument, or if put forward, would never be taken seriously by others.

My case of the abortion argument is a very good one for this point. Often the two camps (the one which focuses on women's rights and the one which focuses on fetal rights) each sees the other as simply wildly and madly wrong, sort of crazy or dense beyond belief. Thus, for a POSITIVE critic to anticipate the argument from the other side, is often so hard for the positive critic that we get some very silly, nonsensical or trivial version of the other's view and not a serious argument, yet it is about the best the positive critic can do since he or she can't really understand the other school of thought at all. It happens all the time.

Thus the would-be positive critic must be careful and courageous. Don't pretend to be a critic and do the trivial, such as easy clarifications and mild strengthening. Don't pretend to be a critic and anticipate giants of criticism and then present weak straw men which one courageously, but easily, dashes.

Questions, comments, puzzles and disagreements are most welcome.

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Bob Corbett