Saturday, February 20, 2016

BOOK: Lorenzo Valla, "Dialectical Disputations"

Lorenzo Valla: Dialectical Disputations. Vol. 1: Book I. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver and Lodi Nauta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 49. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674055766. l + 397 pp.

Lorenzo Valla: Dialectical Disputations. Vol. 2: Books II–III. Edited and translated by Brian P. Copenhaver and Lodi Nauta. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 50. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674061408. v + 591 pp.

Valla was a 15th-century author, whom I first encountered a few years ago when I read his delightful debunking of the Donation of Constantine (see my post from back then). The present work, Dialectical Disputations, is a very different beast, a technical work in philosophy, and I found myself more or less completely out of my depth when reading it — perhaps even more so than with the earlier books about philosophy in the ITRL series (e.g. Ficino's neo-platonic commentaries). I'm not even sure that I really understand what dialectic is; it seems to be basically the art of arguing, related to logic on one side and on rhetoric on the other, and the borders between these things seem to be somewhat fuzzier than I would like them to be.

Valla's treatise is divided into three books, proceeding from smaller units towards more complex ones: the first book is about terms, the second about propositions and the third about entire arguments. I thought this was a good idea, and it could be the basis for a fine introductory book on this subject — but unfortunately this wasn't really that book. It wasn't written for people like me, who know next to nothing about this subject; Valla more or less assumes that the reader is already familiar with established ideas about dialectic, e.g. from Aristotle and various medieval logicians, and he mostly presents his own ideas by way of criticizing and arguing against those established ones. This no doubt made a lot of sense for him and his original readership, but it does mean that the book is largely unsuitable for someone like me. The translators, to their credit, have tried to help by providing extensive notes and commentaries, but frankly that wasn't enough. If I really wanted to get anything out of a book like this, it seems that I'd first have to spend a lot of time reading what e.g. Aristotle has written about these things, but from what I've seen here both of his and of Valla's ideas on the subject, I'm not really inclined to want to read more about them.

For example, these people seem to be expending a great deal of energy on complications arising from the fact that they're doing all their arguing in natural language (Greek or Latin, in their case) — perhaps with a few constraints (“regimented language”, as the translators call it in their very interesting and extensive introduction, p. xii), but still basically natural human language, which inevitably comes with all sorts of messiness and ambiguity. And so Valla in his first book spends a huge amount of time talking about the meaning of words like “every” and “any”, or “some” or “none” — or of some of their odd-looking synonyms with which Latin appears to have been unusually rich, and which the translators somewhat desperately had to translate into English by employing monstrosities like “not-none” and “not-any” (see e.g. vol. 2, n. 16 on p. 480). Negation is another big minefield, as when you're using negation somewhere in a sentence it's very easy to introduce some ambiguity as to which part exactly you're trying to negate.

I couldn't help feeling that the vast majority of these complications could be avoided simply by using symbolic notation like we do nowadays. Nowadays you can write things like “∀x: P(x)” and if you want to negate something, you put a ¬ there and it's quite clear what exactly is being negated — or you can add parentheses if necessary. Probably half if not two-thirds of what Valla is talking about would be rendered completely superfluous if notation like this were available to him. I don't mean this as a criticism of him or of other early logicians, of course — clearly this sort of notation isn't as obvious as it may appear to a naive observer like me, otherwise it would have been invented earlier and they would have saved themselves a lot of trouble.

There's an interesting comment on this in the translator's introduction (vol. 1, p. xix): “Valla misses, or wants to miss, a key point about philosophical speech: that no natural language will do the job for the philosopher. [. . .] philosophers need a language of their own, [. . .] philosophy cannot always conform to classical usage. When logic or metaphysics speaks about language itself, philosophy pushes hard against the limits of speech.”

Perhaps another reason why he wouldn't be too keen to employ symbolic notation (even if it was available) is that he seems to be clearly interested in arguing as a practical activity, not just as a game of shuffling symbols around a sheet of paper. He constantly gives examples of arguments in the context of law, oratory, philosophy etc., which inevitably have to occur in a more-or-less natural language.

Here's a fine example of the sort of word salad which comes from insisting on doing everything in natural language (and which ends up covering probably half the book): “ ‘Someone’ also differs from ‘anyone’ and ‘anybody,’ which are — in a sense — half way between ‘some’ and ‘any,’ as I shall explain later when dealing with negation. And it differs from ‘not-none’ which, in a sense, is half way between ‘some’ and ‘a certain,’ so now I shall discuss the distinctions betweeen them.” (2.5.16)

The first book also contains several sections that seemed to me to be digressions into areas that have nothing at all to do with logic or dialectic, and I have no idea why he included them. He has long chapters “on spirit and on god and angels” (1.8), “on the soul” (1.9), “on virtues” (1.10); there's plenty of discussion about things like species and genera, a division which seemed to me somewhat arbitrary (sure, you can come up with several levels of increasingly large and abstract groupings of things, but why would you arbitrarily declare some of these to be species and some to be genera? but then what do I know, no doubt I'm missing the point spectacularly anyway) — see e.g. 1.7.10–12 for some fine examples of this kind of pointless taxonomizing (“bodiless substance, meaning ‘spirit,’ is divided into creating and created; created into angelic and nonangelic; angelic (if you like) into celestial and infernal” etc. etc.); and Valla has a great deal to say about Aristotle's categories (or “predicaments”, as he prefers to call them), another set of very abstract concepts whose usefulness seemed less than obvious to me. Valla is trying to simplify Aristotle's system a bit, which struck me as a good idea, but the result still looked like a not particularly illuminating bunch of abstractions.

The second book is about propositions, which in this context mostly means simple sentences of the form “every / none / some x is (not) a y”. With a bit of stretching, this sort of sentences can express many things: membership in a group (“Socrates is a man”), being a subgroup of (“every man is an animal”), or even an action (“Socrates is running”). I wondered whether it was a good idea to make these very different sorts of claims so much alike in form. Anyway, Valla then introduces or discusses a great deal of terminology related to these propositions, most of which probably shouldn't be blamed on him as I guess it was established long before his time. Thus we learn that a proposition contains a subject (x) and a predicate (y), that it has quality (affirmative or negative) and quantity (universal or particular), that there are about four ways in which two propositions (with the same subject and predicate) can be (somewhat) opposed to each other: contradictory, contrary, subcontrary and subalternate; that sometimes one proposition can be “converted” into a different one with the same meaning (e.g. “no x is a y” ⇔ “no y is an x”). (The translator has provided very nice appendices with an overview of this stuff; Vol. 2, pp. 449–65.) This is all well and good (and true), but again I couldn't help feeling how much clearer and simpler this would all be with symbolic notation, and how much of the terminology could be avoided along the way, as being unnecessary.

The third book treats arguments in a similar way as the second book treated propositions. Valla is particularly interested in syllogisms, which are short arguments in which two propositions (premises) lead to a third one (conclusion), e.g. “every man is an animal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is an animal”. As we saw earlier, each proposition can take several forms, depending on whether it uses “every” or “some”, whether it uses negation, etc.; and thus there are quite a lot of possible forms for the syllogism as a whole. Some of these combinations will make a valid argument, most won't. All of this seemed to me to be perfectly obvious when you see the syllogism written out as a series of three sentences (or, even better, when you write it in symbolic notation), but for these early logicians this wasn't enough — they were obsessed with classifying and naming these various types of syllogisms, like a tribe of entomologists run amok. Valla describes the classification of syllogisms into “figures” and “moods”, and mentions in passing the ingenious system of mnemonic names (like “Barbara”, “Celarent” and so on) which had been devised for the various forms of syllogisms. The vowels tell you the forms of the three propositions in the syllogism, but I didn't quite understand what the consonants were for.

This was in a way interesting, but I couldn't help being reminded of Rutherford's (in)famous phrase: “just stamp collecting”. Sure, it's nice to classify the nineteen or however many valid types of syllogism (Valla dislikes some of them, saying that they can be reduced to some of the others; 3.9); but does it really lead us to understand anything any better than we did before? Would someone who has studied this stuff really use it during a real argument? — as in, “oooh, this politician has just used a syllogism of such-and-such a form, which is not one of the nineteen valid ones — bad politician, bad!” (*whacks him with a rolled-up newspaper*). I don't think so. In practice you evaluate an argument by thinking about it in its own terms, not by trying to pattern-match it to one of the nineteen types that you've learned by heart during a course in dialectic.

Some of the other chapters in this last book were more interesting, especially where Valla presents various types of arguments which are often used in a fallacious manner: sorites (3.12), dilemma (3.13), induction (3.16).

What to say at the end? Although I missed the point of much of this book, there was also a lot of interesting stuff in it. As I already said, the translators' introduction and notes are extensive and interesting (though they would need to be still more extensive if they wanted to make the book accessible to someone like me — but that was of course not their purpose, and there's no good reason why it should have been). I also enjoyed Valla's style (whenever he gets away from strict logical technicalities), for the same reasons as in the Donation of Constantine — he adopts a mock-exasperated tone when arguing against Aristotle or Boethius or whoever else happens to be his current target; he ends up writing like an impassioned orator or a defense lawyer. Those passages liven up the text considerably and were a delight to read. (“Boethius abuses many people, as well as his own language”, 1.20.2; “you babbling Cyclops, you fool! You family of Peripatetics who cherish nonsense! You nation of lunatics! Have you ever heard anyone arguing like this?”, 3.9.3.) I'd definitely be interested in reading more of Valla's work, if he wrote anything less technical.


I so don't want to know what happened here: “This is just the monstrosity that Aristotle describes: in the unborn fetuses of certain mice are found other fetal mice.” (1.8.16)

Translator's note 104 in vol. 1, p. 348: “letters from Perotti, who seems to have believed that Valla succeeded in squaring the circle, which is entirely compatible with his grasp of mathematics” :))

I don't know if this delightfully mean comment refers to Perotti or Valla, but the following couple of quotes show that Valla certainly had a poor grasp of physics (not that we should hold this against him, I guess the 15th century was pretty early for physics after all):

“Yet there is no weight in air. Bags are no heavier when inflated than when they have collapsed, nor are ships or boxes heavier than the material from which they are constructed.“ (1.11.17)

“I am also doubtful that there is any lightness in air or fire. For if a sense judges lightness or heaviness, then how will this sense judge a quality of those elements if it does not sense it? I do not sense the whole sky and all the air being held up by me.” (1.14.3)

Valla cites an interesting passage from Quintilian in 2.8.16: “in Livy I find there was some teacher who directed his followers to make their statements obscure [. . .] and thus giving rise to that singular compliment, ‘not even I understood’ ”.

“Arellius, a painted in ancient times and otherwise a good and famous artist, being always passionately involved with some woman, nearly always painted goddesses; but such were the likenesses that he made of his lady friends that you could not tell whether he was making harlots out of goddesses or goddesses out of harlots.” :))

A fine passage from Valla's introduction to Book III: “When two of us dispute with one another, we are not really enemies, as those people are when they fight; both of us soldier under the same commander — the Truth.” He goes on to condemn those who argue just for the sake of winning, regardless of whether truth is on their side or not. Alas, many people still do that nowadays.

In 3.15.31–2, he cautions against using arguments by analogy in situations when the cases are not actually analougous. That's well and good, but the example he uses to illustrate this is: “If familiarity with a male slave is shameful for the mistress of the house, familiarity with a maidservant is disgraceful for the master”. In Valla's view, this is a fallacious argument and is easily refuted by pointing out that the cases are in fact dissimilar: “A master's having sex with a maidservant is not like a mistress with a slave”. I'm not really surprised that this sort of double standard existed, but I am a little surprised that he was so blunt about it :))

A fine example of Roman decadence: note 143 in vol. 2, p. 500 mentions “Lucius Cornificius who prosecuted Brutus for Caesar's assassination and used to ride an elephant to dinner on special occasions”.

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