Why Internet arguments go in circles, according to Charles Sanders Peirce

Charles Sanders Peirce is one of my favorite unknown philosophers. Although problematic (i.e. virulently racist) and a bit difficult to read, he was brilliant, and wrote on a wide range of topics in an insightful way.

One of my favorite ideas of his (and likely one of his most accessible) was his idea of truth. I think about it quite a lot, especially when I read pointless Internet arguments.

Peirce’s idea of truth came from pragmatism, which he was the founder of, and pragmaticism, which he created after he got mad that people were misinterpreting pragmatism. His exact line of reasoning in creating pragmaticism was to make a clunkier word that would be less likely to attract misguided adherents. In this, he seemed to have been successful, as I’m not aware of any other pragmaticists.

In pragmatism (or pragmaticism), truth is defined thusly:

“Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of those effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”

This is about as easy as Peirce gets to read.

In other words, he defined what we think of something as what we think that thing can do. Or, as he explained later, we can also think of it as, “Given that this is true, what should I do about it?”

So, if we describe a diamond as hard, we mean it can scratch pretty much anything else. If we call someone mean, we wouldn’t want to go to them for comfort on a tough day.

If someone else describes a diamond as soft, but still acknowledge it can scratch pretty much anything else, then you’re agreeing with that person. In the same way, if they say, “Oh no, that guy’s actually pretty nice,” but still wouldn’t go to them for comfort on a tough day, they’re also agreeing with you.

Well, what does this have to do with Internet arguments? Internet arguments usually fail from the getgo, by this standard. If you call a certain policy racist, then you are arguing that you ought to treat that policy in the same way as another policy you’d call racist (like redlining). You also argue that it has identical effects to other racist policies.

But that’s not normally the case, is it? Words like racist, problematic, or socialist are thrown around with regards to their definition by any standard, but especially not by a pragmatic standard.

Take, for example, an excerpt from this Quality Contribution from r/themotte on Reddit. In it, two Redditors are arguing about whether we should still be celebrating strong female leads in Hollywood, decades after Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s breakout success.

From there, it rapidly progresses to whether strong female leads are even necessary, and ends up in an argument about whether the patriarchy exists:

Arguer 1: “If we imagine the patriarchy has ruled human culture for 4,000 years and oppressed women the entire time, then does it really seem that surprising that 20 years of stereotype smashing aren’t [sic] enough to fully heal things perfectly?

Arguer 2: “In numerous important ways, women are objectively better off than men in every developed country for which I can find statistics. For many young women today, resentment of ‘the patriarchy’ is [sic] resentment of suffering they have never and will never experience.”

They both are trying to argue about the same thing, namely whether the patriarchy does or does not exist. Unfortunately, they aren’t actually arguing about the same thing, because they don’t actually have the same definition of the patriarchy.

Arguer 1, by a pragmatic definition of the patriarchy, argues the most relevant effects of the patriarchy to the argument are the existence of negative stereotypes of women in popular culture. Given that these stereotypes exist, the patriarchy exists, and we ought to actively create stereotypes that will promote a better image of women.

Arguer 2, by another pragmatic definition, says the most relevant effects of the patriarchy are the “statistics” of women (I assume he means income, life expectancy, education, etc.). Given that those are positive, the patriarchy does not exist, and we ought not to teach women about the patriarchy as something that still exists.

In other words, by the standards of Peirce, Arguer 1 and Arguer 2 aren’t even close to arguing about the same thing. Arguer 1’s patriarchy is a patriarchy of stereotypes. Arguer 2’s patriarchy is a patriarchy of statistics. They’re not the same patriarchy!

R/TheMotte is a subreddit devoted to debate. This argument was singled out as a quality debate on that subreddit. And yet it’s not even an argument. They simply aren’t talking about the same thing.

They even realize this later on in the argument, several posts down, as Arguer 2 brings up the Google definition of patriarchy as

a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property”.

Arguer 2 claims he agrees with this, but Arguer 1 does not. Of course, this isn’t actually accurate, as Arguer 2 doesn’t really agree with this either. His patriarchy affects statistics, not moral authority.

In a pragmatic (or pragmaticist) world, an argument would begin by defining terms by their effect, and by what we ought to do if that effect exists. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in, so our Internet arguments will continue to run around in circles.

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