A solecism is an ungrammatical utterance, breach of etiquette, or deviation from some other recognized norm. For instance, “I could of cared less” is a common grammatical solecism, and addressing King Charles as “pal” or “buddy” rather than “Your Majesty” would be a solecism concerning decorum. What Stove had in mind are abuses of language that he takes certain philosophical lines of argument to rest on. He offers an argument from Berkeley as an example. Berkeley, says Stove, alleges that what it means to say that a certain physical object exists or has some property is that the object is or could be perceived to exist or have that property. And from this Berkeley infers an idealist conclusion. But in fact, complains Stove, this is obviously not what it means to say that a physical object exists or has some property. Berkeley’s argument rests on a manifestly false claim about ordinary usage that he puts forward matter-of-factly, and in that way he reasons from a “sudden and violent solecism.”
For purposes of this article, I put to one side questions about Berkeley’s views and whether Stove is representing him fairly. What I’m interested in here is the general idea of the “sudden and violent solecism” as a rhetorical move. Stove has more to say about how it works, in his characteristically bitingly witty style:
The premise entails the conclusion all right, but it is so astoundingly false that it defies criticism, at first, by the simple method of taking the reader’s breath away… Say or imply, for example, that in English ‘value’ means the same as ‘individuality’. You can be miles down the track of your argument before they get their breath back.
This method is not only physiologically but ethologically sound. Of course it should never be used first. You need first to earn the respect of your readers, by some good reasoning, penetrating observations, or the like: then apply the violent solecism. Tell them, for example, that when we say of something that it is a prime number, we mean that it was born out of wedlock. You cannot go wrong this way. Decent philosophers will be so disconcerted by this, that they will never do the one thing they should do: simply say, ‘That is NOT what “prime number” means!’ Instead, they will always begin to display feverish ‘displacement activity’ (in Lorenz’s sense), casting about for an excuse for someone’s saying what you said, or a half-excuse, or a one-eighth excuse; nor is there any danger that they will search in vain. And with this, not only is your philosophy of arithmetic launched, but you have already got other people working for you, free of charge, at its development. (p. 142)
Note that Stove here identifies three key components to the rhetorical move in question. First, the speaker has to have already independently established his credibility with the listener. He doesn’t open with the solecism, but introduces it only after his audience has been primed to take seriously whatever he has to say. This might involve his holding an academic degree or a prestigious academic position, a show of great learning, the putting forward of arguments of a more obviously sound and uncontroversial nature, the airing of opinions that are generally considered respectable, and so on.
Second, when the solecism is introduced, it has the effect of throwing the listener off-balance, precisely because it both sounds counterintuitive but has also been put forward by someone who seems credible. Rather than immediately objecting, the listener begins to doubt himself. “That sure sounds bizarre,” he thinks, “but the speaker is so smart! Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe I’m misunderstanding something!”
Third, the larger social context plays a crucial role in sustaining the rhetorical effect. It isn’t just that the speaker, who seems credible, says these weird things. It’s that other people who also seem credible take these things seriously even when they acknowledge them to be weird. They too seem to think that if they object to the odd utterance, they might be the ones who are wrong or failing to understand. As a result, rather than criticizing the odd utterance, they look for ways to render it plausible. Before long, the speaker’s utterance becomes more than just some weird thing he has said. It becomes a thesis on the menu of possible opinions that a group of people discuss, debate, and otherwise regard as worthy of being taken seriously.
John Searle independently identified a couple of related rhetorical moves, which reinforce the tactic of “reasoning from a sudden and violent solecism.” In his book , Searle observes:
Authors who are about to say something that sounds silly very seldom come right out and say it. Usually a set of rhetorical or stylistic devices is employed to avoid having to say it in words of one syllable. The most obvious of these devices is to beat around the bush with a lot of evasive prose… Another rhetorical device for disguising the implausible is to give the commonsense view a name and then deny it by name and not by content… And just to give this maneuver a name, I will call it the “give-it-a-name” maneuver. Another maneuver, the most favored of all, I will call the “heroic-age-of-science” maneuver. When an author gets in deep trouble, he or she tries to make an analogy with his or her own claim and some great scientific discovery of the past. Does the view seem silly? Well, the great scientific geniuses of the past seemed silly to their ignorant, dogmatic, and prejudiced contemporaries. Galileo is the favorite historical analogy. Rhetorically speaking, the idea is to make you, the skeptical reader, feel that if you don’t believe the view being advanced, you are playing Cardinal Bellarmine to the author’s Galileo. (pp. 4-5)
Searle offers the example of philosophers of mind who attack the commonsense supposition that we have beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, conscious experiences, and so on by giving it the label “folk psychology.” By discussing it under that label, these philosophers can make it seem as if the supposition that beliefs, desires, consciousness, etc. are real is merely one possible theory alongside others, no less open to debate and doubt. By criticizing “folk psychology,” they can avoid coming out and straightforwardly asserting that the human mind does not exist. By associating their critique with scientific precedent, they can make it appear as if denying the reality of the mind is no more outrageous than arguing that the sun is at the center of the solar system.
Note that what Searle calls the “give-it-a-name” maneuver is essentially a more subtle version of what Stove calls the appeal to the “sudden and violent solecism.” What Searle is describing is also an appeal to a solecism, but one that is disguised and insinuated rather than sudden and violent. When other writers adopt the novel labels and go along with treating them as if they named controversial theories (as talk of “folk psychology” has now become common in the philosophical literature), we have an instance of what Stove calls “[getting] other people working for you, free of charge, at [the] development” of your idiosyncratic ideas. And the “heroic-age-of-science” maneuver is a method for what Stove describes as “earn[ing] the respect of [one’s] readers” before introducing the solecism.
A more recent example of the “give-it-a-name” maneuver is the attaching of labels like “cisnormativity” and “cisgenderism” to the commonsense supposition that human beings naturally fall into one of two sexes, male or female. This serves the rhetorical function of insinuating that the commonsense view is at best merely one tendentious possibility among others, rather than being obviously correct or even having any presumption in its favor. The pretense that something called “transgender studies” has rendered the commonsense view problematic, or even established its falsity, is a variation on the “heroic-age-of-science” maneuver. (“You deny that trans women are women? You’re a bigot, like those who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope!”)
Why do people fall for rhetorical tricks like the ones identified by Stove and Searle? There are several factors, one of them being an overestimation of the argument from authority. To be sure, not all arguments from authority are fallacious. If you believe something because some expert has said it, you aren’t guilty of a fallacy if you have good reason to think that the person really does have expertise on the topic in question and is objective. All the same, even non-fallacious arguments from authority are, as Aquinas famously acknowledged (despite often citing authorities himself), nevertheless weak. That an authority says something may give you some reason to believe it, but not a terribly strong one, especially if what he says is deeply at odds with the evidence of everyday experience and common sense. A solecism is a solecism, whatever the expertise of the person uttering it.
A second factor is the influence of a vice of excess where open-mindedness is concerned. Every philosopher is aware of the dangers of unexamined premises and of foreclosing an investigation too hastily. But it is possible to go to the opposite extreme of attributing intellectual value to what is in reality mere pedantry or nitpicking. This would be an instance of what Aquinas calls the vice of curiosity. By “curiosity” Aquinas doesn’t mean the desire for knowledge as such (which is, of course, of itself good) but rather a desire for knowledge that is disordered in some way. For example, it may stem from an unhealthy motivation like pride. Quibbling over matters that the average person takes for granted can sometimes reflect, not a genuine desire for deeper understanding, but pleasure in the feeling of superiority over those perceived as less intelligent or learned. Or it might reflect an impulse to undermine or “do dirt on” their decent sensibilities. Or it might stem from a desire to make one’s reputation by contributing to some body of academic literature that is not terribly important in itself but helps pad the resume, or by flattering other, better-known contributors to such a literature who might help one’s career. These factors, I submit, can all contribute to one’s being taken in by rhetorical moves like the ones identified by Stove and Searle.
A third factor is the influence of bad theory. Suppose you’re already independently convinced that some version of materialism must be true. Then you’re more likely to take seriously a “give-it-a-name” maneuver like treating “folk psychology” as if it were some debatable theory. For you might worry that failing to do so would close off a possible avenue of escape from anti-materialist arguments. Treating “folk psychology” as optional opens the door to eliminative materialism as a “doomsday weapon” to deploy if all other defenses of materialism fail.
A fourth factor is the influence of moral vice. For example, if you have some deeply ingrained sexual perversion, especially one that you would like to indulge rather than resist, you’re more likely to take seriously some academic theory you’d otherwise dismiss as crackpot, if said theory would provide a rationalization for indulging the perversion.
A fifth factor is the influence of what, in an earlier post, I labeled the “associationist mindset.” Ideas that don’t bear any interesting logical relationship to one another can nevertheless come to be closely associated in a person’s mind because of psychological factors such as emotion and past experience. In someone whose capacity for logical reasoning is weak, this can entail a tendency to latch onto silly ideas (such as that punctuality, proper speech and etiquette, and other standards of professionalism are “racist”).