Monday, April 11, 2011

We Would Argue

... and in fact, by gum, we shall.

A few months ago, we stumbled across the following passage in an otherwise excellent article on Hans Urs von Balthazar:
Balthasar ... asks that scholars no longer draw on his work Mysterium Paschale in order to portray his theology. He calls this work "a quickly written work," which was only an "attempt to pave the way for the more daring teachings of Adrienne von Speyr." Balthasar's demands notwithstanding, I will consult his Mysterium Paschale for my purposes: first of all, because I am analyzing Balthasar's own work; and second, because the ideas present in this work can also be found in other places in Balthasar' vast theological ouevre. I would argue that his theology has not fundamentally changed since he wrote this work.*
No such argument followed.

"Well lack-a-day," we wailed. "Under what circumstances would you make this argument? Because it seems to us that when you are debating the explicit self-representation of your subject himself, you have the perfect opportunity. Not to mention the obligation. And if you aren't going to make the argument now, buddy, you probably won't ever make it. So why pretend?"

We certainly don't mind examining any and all of an author's published works. The guy did publish them, after all. But to make the somewhat bold claim that the author in question doesn't know what he is talking about, and not follow that claim up with some evidence, strikes us as on the cheap side. Or so we would argue, did we not think that the expression "I would argue" were an execrable bit of cant which should be sliced entire out of the English language, and especially out of academic writing.

Pardon our lapse into irritable pedantry, if indeed there is any other kind, but for many years now, the expression "I would argue" has stuck in our craw. We first heard it, or anyway noticed its use in a formal context, from a teaching assistant in seminary. He was a doctoral candidate in Old Testament, a pleasant enough guy, but one who did not strike us as likely to set the academy afire. We thought at once, and continue to think, that this expression is a cheap academic trick, used to give improbable claims the sheen of probability.

We are not master grammarians, but we take this to to be what is sometimes called the unreal conditional. As we understand it, the form properly requires a protasis, a preliminary "if" clause, which is implicit in its use as jargon: "If I had the time and inclination, I would argue that you are full of bollocks." That sort of thing. Despite the lack of a protasis, there's nothing grammatically wrong about the phrase, mind you. Our concern isn't about grammar but meaning. Being unreal -- counterfactual -- this form presumes that the conditions do not exist. So "I would argue," in any sort of supposedly reasoned discourse, seems to imply that the speaker is prepared to make a case, but in fact is used to avoid making the case in question.

In other words, it is a bluff. It is a sign of intellectual laziness, on the part both of writers who use it and of readers who do not demand demonstrations. So call their bluff! When people from whom we expect better try to brush aside those details in which the Devil is known to hide, let us shine a bit of light into the recesses. When they say, in that cavalier fashion, "I would argue," let us ask them when and -- more to the point -- how they would argue. And until then, let us not be quick to believe them

*Steffen Lossel, "A Plain Account of Christian Salvation," Pro Ecclesa 13:2, Spring 2004, 150n. We emphasize the fact that, despite our crankiness about a footnote, this is an otherwise excellent essay.

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