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:: Tuesday, May 25, 2004 ::

The Process of Attempting to "Refute" a Theory or Thesis in a Piece of Writing:

Often do we hear of a person or party who is beholden to a particular paradigm of thought declare that they are going to write a "response" or a "refutation" of a particular viewpoint -expressed in either essay or other written form. To note a particular example of this, I point to some comments by David Palm in Mark Shea's comments boxes viz. my brief comments on David's Novelty article.{1}

As readers of Rerum Novarum well know, I responded in detail to David's article in December of 2003. Though far from perfect,{2} the text was finally posted to the web and a public notification was published on January 14, 2004.{3} I want to focus at this time on the aforementioned article and the initial responses by the person addressed in that article. (Made upon becoming aware of the latter article's existence.)

To start with, David professed a lack of knowledge about this article HERE when it was brought to his attention earlier in that day. David on the following day noted that he would "have a look" at the article in question. Then, the following day, he manifests the intention to "address these matters in more detail in a formal reply to Shawn's critique of my article (for which I am grateful, by the way.)" There is a lot to take into account here so I will unpack it a bit so that the reader can see where I am going with this posting.

At the outset, it is hopefully obvious that there is nothing wrong in principle with responding to a reply someone else has written to something you have written. Indeed I have done this myself on numerous occasions. However, there should be a degree of caution in doing so. Far too often it seems that there is a game that is played (or made) of endless responding back and forth. To everything of course there is a season and sometimes this is appropriate. Othertimes it is not.

One of the reasons I wrote a commentary on the intricacies of dialogue was to help my readers in making this kind of discernment.{4} For there should also be a viable purpose for any response and such purposes should be genuine. They should in other words transcend any personal ego in the equation. This unfortunately does not usually seem to be avoided by people regardless of their particular weltanschauung.{5} And that is a shame because it if it was tended to, there would be a lot less (and greater quality) discourses out there. But I digress.

Though I will not provide the proofs that I have on file, I could demonstrate that David emailed me and others in private to respond to his essay a few times. Upon that request, I did give his essay a complete read through. With regards to responding to it in writing, I was initially quite hesitant to do so because I do not by nature tend to respond to articles halfway.{6} However, after the request for a response was made a couple more times by David, I decided to consider this situation again. The time lapse between initial reading of David's essay and reconsideration of a response was about three weeks. And in that time frame, I read the essay again at least once.

Upon reconsideration, I proceeded to again read his article through completely before beginning to check his usage of sources starting with the patristics. Only upon finding his usage of patristic sources to be profoundly problematical (to put it mildly) did I decide to at least address that point in writing. That was the first step towards what was going to initially be a very targeted response.

My point in noting it here is that I did not read David's article and immediately go "okay, gotta refute the article." That would not have been fair to the theory that he was seeking to establish and sustain. There is too much passing over of the foundational premises that undergird respective paradigms of thought both in the blogosphere as well as in other forms of cyberspace and the arena of ideas in general.

Even upon that decision, I took about a week to read the sources in context and briefly sketch out what was to become the second url of the eventual response. At that point, the project was shelved for a while until news about the "brilliance" of the response was touted on certain sites of dubious repute.{7} At that point, I begin reconsidering for the second time the usefulness of undertaking a response to that article.

Indeed, it was realizing that such a targeted response as I initially thought about doing would leave too many stones unturned{8} that the decision to respond to the entire essay was made. I had already reviewed all the essay sources that I could readily find and realized that the same degree of questionable citation permeated them all. And it was obvious to me that any response would have to underscore this fact heavily since it was a significant weakness to the overall theory being proposed (and the corresponding theses used in sustaining it).{9}

Another factor that would have to be heavily underscored is how often I had covered these issues in past writings -many of which were a couple years old or older and none of which had been adequately interacted with by anyone of David's particular weltanschauung in that timeframe. So there were a few good reasons to interact with that essay at long last -not only the rather interesting (and novel) implications which David's essay underscored. Hence the project was undertaken in November of 2003 and mostly completed prior to my leaving for Puerto Vallarta on December 23, 2003.{10} Upon returning, the project was retouched a bit and then shelved to be taken up again two weeks later after I had had some time away from it. Once it was retaken up -and some more minor tweaks were made to the templates- it was released on January 14, 2004.

I relate this process to highlight the kind of care I went through in composing that response. This is how anyone proposing to respond to a piece of writing -or to a particular theory that the writing espouses- needs to approach doing so. This is why I find it interesting that someone in less than a day of knowing of the existence of a writing sees fit to try and form a rebuttal. Such an approach would be one that appears to disqualify in advance the merits of an adversary's response.{11} How this kind of approach can at all be conducive to authentic dialogue is a mystery to me.

Furthermore, how someone can appear in less than three days after being notified of a very detailed and somewhat intricate response to a piece of their writing to properly grasp what is being said -as David attempted and failed to do HERE and HERE- again baffles me. Granted, I did previously note that "that list in the essay is not the most prevalent argument against your theory. Instead, the examination of the context of all the sources you cited that I could verify -which was most of them- is the strongest argument in my favour."

One would think that someone seeking to interact with a proposed theory and its corroberative theses would try to get to the root and matrix of the particular paradigm of thought they are examining. To do that requires time and attention and cannot be discerned in a day or even a matter of days if the writer of the article pays any attention to such key elements as nuance and also various distinctions that clarify a particular viewpoint from the kind of caricatures of which are commonly advanced.{12}

In short, when it appears that someone is not taking a reasonable amount of time to digest a piece of writing before they begin drafting a response -or even contemplating a draft response- it makes one wonder if there really is an interest in truth being displayed. Or rather, is the manifested intention of such a display simply to defend one's personal agenda.

I honestly hope that it is not the latter with David Palm. Based on what I have discerned in the threads above, I must confess that I am not too optimistic that my intuition on this matter is wrong.{13}And in light of how detailed my response to David was -and how I not only interacted with virtually every point he made in that essay but also allowed him via his own writing to establish what he was trying to demonstrate,{14} I hope that David will approach my essay with the right disposition: one of seeking the truth at all times and being willing to modify one's own particular weltanschauung if necessary in service of the truth.


{1} To the extent that Haloscan holds out without crashing, these examples can be shown in their original form from approximately one month ago.

{2} The essay admittedly needs some HTML tweaking. I hope to tend to this sometime in the summertime.

{3} And on that same day, a small portion of that writing which provided working definitions for certain key terms was posted to this subsidiary weblog.

{4} Though it would not be untrue to note that part of the reason that commentary was written was to serve originally as an appendix section to my longer response to David. (Because problems understanding the principle of dialogue as the Church understands it was one of the hallmarks of David's essay in The Remnant.)

It became obvious after that commentary was completed -as it was in early December- that it would best be utilized not as a particular url of the response to David but instead as a universally directed piece of writing which could then be referenced or linked to as needed in the response to David. Ergo, that is what I decided about mid December of last year to do.

{5} Though it has as a rule been how I have always approached essay writing and blogging, I will not of course claim that I have been completely free of this weakness myself.

{6} As any reading of my past essays or prolonged dialogues on my weblogs will manifestly display without ambiguity.

{7} The cathinsight site was one example of this occurrence. Another was (of course) the Remnant site.

{8} If anything, I have been criticized by good friends for this tendency because it is not one that is conducive to print mediums such as periodical publications. Hence I have had a lot fewer articles published than I could have had if I had a greater sense of economy of prose. (And while I have improved in this area in recent years, there is still a lot of room for improvement by my own admission.)

{9} But before pointing this out, it seemed appropriate to supply working definitions of those terms in the essay as I have long used them in discourse. This was probably the hardest part of the essay to write.

{10} The writing was about 98% completed at that time and could have been released in that form. I decided though to wait until sometime in January to release it so that I could review each section several times and made minor adjustments as they seemed warranted.

{11} Or at the very least it appears that the person in question does not seek to see something from the opposing point of view.

{12} By those who do not pay close attention to what those they seek to interact with are actually saying rather than what they think is being said based on some form of incautious scanning of the texts.

{13} However, as David has surprised me before, I will respectfully presume the best here as that is the authentically Catholic (read: Traditional) approach to be taking.

{14} [I]n order to anticipate and avert the "straw man" accusation which may be thrown around later on, the introduction of David's essay will be allowed to establish the theory he seeks to propound and its corroborative theses. Because of the amount of material covered in this essay, the first part of DP's essay will not be dealt with in the manner that subsequent sections of it will be. (Excluding comments necessary to highlight the aforementioned theses and encapsulate the probable theory being advanced.) [I. Shawn McElhinney: The 'Tradition is Opposed to Novelty' Canard from the Introduction (c. 2004)]

:: Shawn 2:42 PM [+] ::


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