Ethan Siegel at Starts with a Bang shares some thoughts about productive argumentation and a graphic to illustrate various approaches:
I find myself fascinated with the graphic itself. In particular, I’m pondering what rhetorical work the pyramid does here.
If the point is that the lower strata on the pyramid are less effective ways to engage with someone else’s arguments, then I’d think that you could use a ladder here just as easily as a pyramid. Maybe you can. Maybe the person who made the graphic just likes pyramids, or doesn’t care for ladders.
But, if the pyramid is meant to capture something important about what the graphic is trying to communicate, what exactly is that essential feature?
Does the size of each stratum indicate the frequency with which one can expect to see the corresponding strategy in arguments out in the world? Is the ad hominem a far more common type of engagement than refuting your opponent’s argument? (There is a question, in my mind, of whether it’s actually a good idea to view people you’re arguing with as “opponents,” but that’s a separate issue, I think, from the question of what work the pyramid does in this graphic.)
The other pyramid I see kicking around trying to communicate with me is the food pyramid. In that pyramid, the strata have a normative, rather than descriptive, function — you’re supposed to try to get less of the stuff near the top and more of the stuff near the bottom. I’m pretty sure that’s not the message this argumentation pyramid is trying to convey.
Along similar lines to a frequentist interpretation of the strata, maybe this pyramid is conveying something about the ease or difficulty inherent in different types of engagement. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to call someone an asshat, but understanding her argument well enough to raise a good counterexample to it may take some mental labor. If this is the rhetorical work that the pyramidal layout does here, it may also suggest a corresponding hierarchy of people who have the mental skills to engage in each of these ways — making the people at the tippy-top of the pyramid more elite than those using the strategies from lower strata.
Or, possibly the pyramid shape is intended to convey something more literal about the different ways for engaging in an argument: the strategy at the top is a sharp tool for engagement, the one at the bottom is a blunt object.
It’s quite possible that I’m over thinking this question, but if every picture tells a story, I think it’s worth asking what the intended (or unintended) subtext of this image might be.
What do you think?