Formal, Informal and Unusual

by Hugh M. Lewis


Sometimes we need fallacies, and other times fallacy needs us.


Fallacies in anthropological research and writing are quite common and frequently, perniciously repetitious. Otherwise noteworthy studies often do not succeed because of the failure to take into account some tacit, unquestioned fallacy. Much ink has been spilt, many theories built, and many reputations cast upon the rocks, on the basis of fallacies too often taken for granted.

In a way, the whole anthropological enterprise can be seen as an attempt to excavate and undermine the many fallacies which preclude our better understanding of ourselves and others in the world. One of the most important kinds of fallacy in this regard has been the cultural chauvinism and ethnocentrism with which we typically regard our world.

It is interesting that though fallacy and fallacies play such an important, if mostly antithetical role in the articulation of anthropological science, so little critical attention has been paid to the general problem of fallacy and to the different kinds of fallacies commonly encountered in anthropology. One reason for this perhaps is that few people who have a professional investment in a particular theoretical or research orientation wants to have her/his bluff called and the fallacies to which we are all heir pointed out for criticism. We are all to quick to point out the fallacies of other's perspective but all too blind to the possibility of fallacy in our own orientations. And then we become defensive about it and devise elaborate systems of rationalization to protect our central interests--professional survival in an academic game of who-knows-who-knows-what and publish or perish.

And this in itself is perhaps the first and most important kind of fallacy which we must learn to take care of. We may call it the fear of making mistakes, the fear of appearing wrong, the fallacy of not being right, the fallacy of perfectionism, or the fallacy of being divine. We might also call it the Veil of Maya, or the illusion of attachment to petty pride and false and hypocritical intellectual values. But there is nothing illusionist about success or failure in the academic marketplace, and there is nothing wrong with getting ahead at whatever cost (or is there?)

We must first distinguish between Fallacy in general, as a possibility of error, of being "wrong" (whatever right isn't) which is largely a philosophical dilemma, and then the many little different kinds of fallacies, or ways of being wrong in the world. Fallacy in the general sense is mostly separate from the little local fallacies. We may all be Fallacious in the first case, and yet we may be relatively free of the many kinds of fallacies which plague life.

We must recognize Fallacy in the first sense as the inherent possibility for error, or what is referred to as the design feature of prevarication which is one of the facets of our language. Error and Fallacy in our lives must be seen as the intrusion of chaos and entropy into our lives of normal order and structure. It has been said that what we need in order to move forward in our understanding of cognition and meaning in human reality is a systematic theory of error. We have a sense of how human error can be consistent in certain ways, just as human knowledge is consistently structured and organized in certain ways, but we do not yet have a unified notion of the unpredictable kinds of inconsistency which such error may involve.

A general theory of Fallacy would provide such an accounting of human inconsistency, and the elaboration of special cases of fallacies would cover the range of possible variation in such inconsistency.

Fallacy comes from the very human capacity for the imagination to play tricks on itself, to deceive or to believe in illusion. The trick is played out when the primary evidence of one's senses are contradictory to the representational structures with which we explain and interpret experience. We are faced at such moments to make a decision, based upon our calculus of the possibilities, of either rejecting the perceived evidence or of throwing out the received truth. In other words, our actual experiences come to contradict in certain ways our anticipation or expectation of experience. Because we frequently have a considerable amount of energy and psychological capital invested in our preconceived frameworks, we often would rather deny or reject the evidences of our sense than to have to reconstruct the scaffolding which allows us to make sense of our experience. Nevertheless, in spite of much psychological resistance, repeated encounters with contradictory experiences in the world will tend to undermine or destroy our conceptual frames for ordering experience. The only other alternative is to seek a means of controlling or changing these experiences to prevent the further disruption of our frames, or to try to somewhat neurotically order our external experiences such that they come into greater alignment with our internalized structures of understanding.

Three kinds of reasons prevail in such frame dislocation--the first case involves simple ignorance of the Unknown which encounter with new and different experiences always entails. The second case involves the knowledge of the discrepancy between internal frames and external contingencies, but the lack of intentionality, motivation, willpower or capacity to mediate the change. This often is the kind of experience involved in cross-cultural contact in which culture shock is prevalent and incapacitating. The third case involves the deliberate or at least unconscious resistance to alter internal frames, or else the projection and attempt to alter external experiences into greater alignment with internal frames. This third case involves some level of deceit or delusion--a denial to accept the changes or discrepancies, a deliberate attempt to cover up or maintain through deception or illusion discrepant frameworks.

Of course, fallacy based upon delusion or deception often begets other fallacy, which leads to more delusion and deception. The first case is a rather simple and straight forward matter of confrontation of the unknown--a normal prospect of living with an eye to the future. The second case frequently involves some kind of psychological resistance, or incapacity, for dealing with discrepancies. These may be sometimes quite elaborate defense mechanisms, involve cognitive disorientation or emotional depression, withdrawal or avoidance, etc. The third case involves a kind of socio-pathy of a failure to accept responsibility for knowing, a lack of honesty, and even a self-justified expression of aggression.

The social construction of reality involves the possibility of discrepancy between primary and secondary socialization, and the attempt in one way or another to make up for the deficiency of socialization. Incomplete socialization is the source of much discrepancy, but in another sense socialization is always incomplete.

We must also take into account the difference between motives, unconscious and profile of psychological fallacy, and the kind of group sanctioned fallacy of collective delusion which may in fact relieve the individual adherent the burden of guilt, worry or sense of discrepancy. A group may propagandistically promote fallacies to control other groups. Much of organized religion can be construed as a kind of collectively reinforced delusion upon which a few capitalize at the expense of the many. What is sanctioned as normal in one group may be quite alien and discrepant in relation to another group. Too many cases in history have demonstrated that one groups truth too often prove to be the rest of the worlds' fallacy.

Fallacy occurs as the result of discrepancy or contradiction between two otherwise parallel levels of meaning in reality--the perceptual world of experience and the conceptual world which frames experience in rationally ordered ways.

The formal and informal kinds of fallacies which recur in the study of anthropology can be seen as derivative of this kind of discrepancy occurring upon the conceptual level. They can be seen as logical impossibilities or else as conceptual contradictions or distortions which foster an illusion of truth or a spurious sense of reality.

In classical logic, modus tollens and contradiction are regarded as the basic fallacies. Modus tollens is the principle of derive the antecedent from the consequent, an if from a then. It is not surprising that modus tollens has been a common fallacy of history in which researchers attempt to work backward from an event to its sources. The principle of Identity or of non-contradiction means that something cannot both be itself and not be itself at the same time. Contradiction would permit the possibility of simultaneous opposite universes--each the mirror image or negative of the other. The principle of non-contradiction can be seen as the paradigm for determining fallacy, as all fallacy involves some contradiction at some level of analysis or another.

From a formal point of view, much of human reason may be seen as fallacious, and yet still functional. The natural mind may not necessarily obey the formal rules of classical logic and may in fact regular violate some of these rules. It seems the mind has its own kind of logical paradigm, one which may at times follow the classical model, and at other times follow other looser or even more rigorous models. The amazing aspect of the mind is its lateral flexibility to gingerly switch modes of reason like a computer switches software.

It is not unusual that the mind works in an analogical mode, and in a three-value logical mode, or in a modality of fuzzy logic or in Bayesian logic. But it is common that the mind works in terms of the cultural code and implicit grammar of that code, and that there are different kinds of such cultural codes which operate in the world. To some extent these codes are critically constrained by linguistic factors, but language also comes to be framed in terms of the cultural code. It seems to make a significant difference in the cognition of people whether they belong to an oral or a literate culture, whether they have a strong tradition of witchcraft or of religious philosophy.

Values also come to play an important role in the cognitive structures of people--values of obedience and duty versus values of independence and personalist rights, will have a critical influence in how people normally construe and reason about their worlds.

Informal fallacies are those which are common in literary and theoretical exposition, as well as in rhetorical or dialogical argument. Many such fallacies can be identified--fallacies of anthropomorphism, or of attributing human-like qualities to nonhuman entities, or of overemphasis, or of deriving an ought from an is, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness or of reification. We can even speculate upon other kinds of philosophically rooted fallacies, such as a positivistic fallacy about the factitiousness of qualitatively defined phenomena, or of describing as discrete indiscrete processes, or as discontinuous continuous events, or a romantic fallacy of the positive value of difference, or a relativistic fallacy of the necessary moral legitimacy, or universal tolerance of alternative values, or that "might makes right", or a statistical fallacy of the existence of the average or a naturalistic fallacy of the biological determinism of human culture.

From the standpoint of the anthropological construction of reality, reification is to be seen as perhaps the most important and fundamental form of informal fallacy humankind is prone to make--it is in a sense inherent in our externalization of reality that we objectify as natural or as intrinsic to the order of the world what are in fact humankind constructions. It also entails the transformation of human beings into things, and the attribution to symbols and things a significance which is larger than life.

It seems as though in our writing and theory we really cannot afford to do completely without fallacies in order confer a sense of completeness or closure to our systems of conceptioning. We seek and need closure in an open universe, we seek finite answers for infinite questions. It is more important to be aware of our fallacies, and of the possibility of fallacy, than to need to exorcise any hint of error or distortion in our anthropological constructions of the world. We can afford small fallacies in our work, as long as we recognize them for what they are as temporary stopgaps for more realistic solutions.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05