Reviewed by Bryan Parkhurst
Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left (henceforth LfL) is in many ways a fun, frolicsome book, written with an attractive combination of pugilism and geniality. Burgis has a flair for discussing philosophical matters in a non-alienating manner; his humor and chattiness do much to sugar the pill of the book’s almost unavoidably pettifoggery-summoning subject, textbook logic. And, indeed, much of the book is given over to skewering the misbegotten nitpicking of right-wing ‘logicbros’ who, apparently, like to invoke hoary Latin designations for logical fallacies when they ‘slay libtards.’ For anyone who has had little first-hand exposure to the dark, unhygienic online lairs that these fraternity house castouts lurk in, it will be luridly intriguing, in an anthropological sort of a way, to see a light shined on some of the onanistic pedantry that transpires therein. And there are also the schadenfreudlich pleasures of watching a captious man-child like Ben Shapiro, Burgis’s anti-muse, get hoisted by his own logical petard, especially when the hoisting is carried off with some panache. LfL falls squarely into the category of the smart but not taxingly deep, light but not jejune, academia-adjacent but not academical fare that one has come to expect from Zero Books.
LfL’s first half (chapters 1-3) is spent examining and eviscerating a bunch of poorly-constructed right-wing arguments. (It bears noting that most of these are, at root, expressions of dissatisfaction with orthodox PC liberal multiculturalism and with the capitalist state, with which Marxists have, or ought to have, their own distinctive dissatisfactions.) Chapter 4 makes fun of Ayn Rand’s pompously inane use of logical terminology in the section headings of Atlas Shrugged (‘Non-Contradiction’, ‘Either-Or’ and ‘A is A’) and sympathetically critiques Trotsky’s unsympathetic critique of formal logic. Chapter 5 takes aim at some shoddy (centrist, pro-Hillary, technocratic) statistical reasoning. Chapter 6 reads like a desultory blog post; its purpose, to the extent one can be discerned , appears to be to exhort ‘the people’ to put on their thinking caps and ‘figure out’ socialism: ‘Figuring all of this out means billions of people all around the world who are accustomed to taking orders from bosses and landlords and politicians learning to run their own workplaces and communities […] A big part of this project is going to have to involve all these people learning to carefully and precisely reason with each other about their common tasks. This means, among other things, learning exactly where and how reasoning can go wrong so that we can learn together to do better’, Burgis foretells. After that there is a postscript with generic advice about how to be rational (‘carefully consider disanalogies’, ‘learn to restate arguments in your own words’, and so on) and a glossary of logical terms that uses some left-leaning (i.e. pro-Bernie, anti-Fox-News, etc.) illustrative examples. With the exception of Chapter 4’s treatment of Trotsky, to which we will return, Burgis’s commentary is dressed in such topical garb that the book will probably have a short shelf-life. Readers in 2020 will already feel the chronological remoteness of Burgis’s current-events persiflage, much of which feels like a throwback to 2016 BT (Before Trump), when it might have seemed timely and appropriate to gripe about, e.g. the statistical bullshitting that Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog resorted to in cheerleading for the Clinton campaign.
But there is a graver problem than ephemerality: namely, that it’s tough to understand what LfL takes itself to be accomplishing in giving Shapiro and his ilk their comeuppance. To help pinpoint what goes wrong in the various sophistries he surveys, Burgis gradually introduces an elementary vocabulary of logical concepts that includes formal and informal fallacies as well as basic epistemological ideas such as Inference to the Best Explanation, deduction vs. induction, Hume’s Law (according to which an ought can’t be derived from an is) and some other Philosophy 101 chestnuts. One is uncertain where in this exposition the priority is meant to rest. Are the egregious un-left arguments trotted out to help introduce some abstract philosophical content that is assumed to be intrinsically interesting and independently important? Is this just a logic textbook written for a niche clientele? Or is the logical apparatus trotted out to aid and abet a concrete political initiative, that of uncovering the covert fallaciousness of some superficially tempting arguments against which leftists need to be innoculated? That is: is this Logic for the Left or is it Logic for the Left? If the latter, we might wonder why Burgis supposes that ‘the left’ (whomever precisely that umbrella term encompasses) would appreciably benefit from being equipped with logician’s scalpels – or, rather, benefit from being re-equipped with them; for, as Burgis realizes, the ‘socialist left [is] disproportionately composed of a quasi-privileged stratum of college-educated urbanites’, and ‘enough universities require some sort of introductory Logic or Critical Reasoning class that many Jacobin readers and Chapo listeners […] have had the experience of learning to distinguish valid and invalid argument forms and identify short passages as examples of Ad Hominem, Begging the Question, and other fallacies’. Is the thoughtthat the current marginality and impotence of the ‘socialist left’ can be blamed, at least in part, on leftists forgetting what their professors taught them about how to construct truth tables? If the point of LfL is to prophylactically refute some seductive, genuinely politically pernicious reasoning that might otherwise, as Burgis puts it, ‘leave people nodding along’ – then one might also wonder why Burgis bothers with the flagrantly defective, manifestly sub-rational performances of a huckster like Shapiro, not to mention the even more embarrassing solecisms of Shapiro’s basement-dwelling epigones, some of whose trollish Tweets Burgis quotes at length. As Burgis himself concedes, ‘it’s deeply unlikely that any left-wing reader of [Shapiro’s book] How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them has ever felt particularly destroyed’. Agreed – but then why spend most of a monograph telling self-identified leftists (who else would be reading LfL?) how much of philosophical fraud and a peddler of spuriousness Shapiro is? Is it just for the pious ecstasy of ritualistic (but entirely symbolic) sacrifice or, even less appetizingly, the complacent comforts of lefter (and thus smarter)-than-thou smugness? These are meagre consolation prizes, to be sure, for any Marxist living in the aftermath of the historical failure of Marxism as a political project!
Beneath the surface of Burgis’s affable humor one can detect what can be regarded as a fundamentally bourgeois-liberal impulse to portray any ideology to one’s right as a form of stupidity or a breakdown of the rational faculty itself. That’s an easy fiction to maintain if the focus never veers from unlettered charlatans such as Shapiro. But there in fact exists a formidable and explicitly argumentative literature of cultural critique emanating from the (small-c conservative, ‘Western Civ’, often large-C Catholic) right that it might at least conceivably be worthwhile for the left to spend some time and effort dissecting. Such an undertaking would be instructive not just because there are conservative thinkers out there who are sophisticated and erudite enough to intellectually reward some philosophical poking and prodding, but also because there have been plenty of non-insane conservative-contrarian criticisms, recently, of the (identitarian, wokescolding, cancel-cultural, radlib, contradictorily puritanical-libertine, contradictorily anarchist-statist, etc.) sensibility of contemporary social-movement ‘activistism.’ The right has been getting a frightening number of things right in its dyspeptic railings against (liberal reactivity to) our disordered social moment, much more so than much of the left would care to admit. But rather than sparring with any mighty righties – redoutable reactionary grouches such as Heather McDonald, Thomas Sowell, Pope Benedict or Roger Scruton – Burgis is largely content to shoot alt-right fish in an online barrel.
More deeply, though, isn’t it really the left that the left should be learning to argue with more successfully, and with more adherence to the most stringent norms of rational engagement? In many or most respects, the left is the left’s own worst enemy. It itself is the single greatest impediment to its only possible meaningful task: the establishment of an anti-capitalist socialist party of the working class that will capture political dominance in the advanced industrial nations, institute the dictatorship of the proletariat, and preside over the birth pangs of society’s transition to communism. It’s not as though the right and the centrists are keeping the left down – the left isn’t enough of a force to require any containment protocols whatsoever. Anyone who agrees with this will agree that the most useful and interesting part of LfL is the internecine, left-on-left part of it, where Burgis defends (the very notion of) formal logic against an attack Trotsky makes on it in his 1939 pamphlet entitled ‘A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party’. Long story short – too much recapitulation would steal Burgis’ thunder – Burgis shows that Trotsky makes a complete hash of his ‘dialectical’ criticism of formal logic, in large part because Trotsky erroneously thinks of dialectical logic and formal logic as two species of the same genus and as being incompatible options between which one is forced to select. Nothing could be further from the truth; in fact, Burgis correctly suggests, formal logic can be profitably used to clarify the sorts of claims that dialectical thinkers such as Hegel and Marx are concerned to advance. This is the only section of LfL where one senses that Burgis is making a case that really needs making. A commitment to something called ‘dialectical logic’ – usually, incidentally, an ostentatious, bauble-like commitment that is expressed in a characteristically tortured lingo and that is invoked decoratively, rather than to do any real philosophical work – as against formal logic is a pose one does in fact encounter with some regularity amongst leftists, almost always leftists who have had some (but not enough) exposure to capital-T theory. It’s not a respectable view, and it is made no more respectable by the fact that an uncareful reader can glean it from a quick skimming of Dialectic of the Enlightenment. In the vulgarized form it usually takes, it lapses readily into the familiar pomo hogwash: unfounded suspiciousness toward anything savoring of math, crass celebration of rank ambiguity and easygoing tolerance for, or just abject failure to grasp the cognitive and metaphysical significance of formal contradiction (not at all what Marx and Hegel mean by ‘contradiction’), all of which is, it goes without saying, incompatible with the stringent categorial structure and rigorous analytical purport of Marx’s works. All of this to say that Burgis is doing the Lord’s work in combating this misprision.
Maybe Burgis could write LfL again, this time training his sights on positions of the left that reliably sabotage the left’s prospects and ambitions. There is a veritable cornucopia of bad leftoid ideas in circulation. As Moishe Postone once memorably said, ‘“No” is an important word for the left.’ He meant that the left needs more practice saying ‘no’ to itself, needs to rein in its own delusional fantasies (about its own relevance, about whether the revolution is nigh, about its possible constituencies and their possible modalities of political representation, etc.) and its own LARP-ing quasi-praxis. But the left needn’t say ‘no’ to, because the left needn’t pay attention to, belatedly neocon-esque media personalities such as Shapiro or, to take a far more quirky and colorful example, that loveable Heideggerian lunkhead from the northern tundra, Jordan Peterson. That game – sparring with anti-Democrat dunces who mistake themselves for anti-Marxist philosopher-kings – is surely not worth the candle, and, in any event, any energy spent doing battle with Peterson et al. would doubtless be better spent taking a good long look in the mirror.
28 July 2020