Ideology and Self-Sealing Arguments

From Understanding Arguments by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, which I use in my critical thinking course:

Ideologies and worldviews tend to be self-sealing. The Marxist ideology sometimes has this quality. If you fail to see the truth of the Marxist ideology, that just shows that your social consciousness has not been raised. The very fact that you reject the Marxist ideology shows that you are not yet capable of understanding it and that you are in need of re-education. This is perfect self-sealing. People who vigorously disagree with certain psychoanalytic claims can be accused of repressing these facts. If a boy denies that he wants to murder his father and sleep with his mother, this itself can be taken as evidence of the strength of these desires and of his unwillingness to acknowledge them. If this kind of reasoning gets out of hand, then psychoanalytic theory also becomes self-sealing and empty. Freud was aware of this danger and warned against it. […]

[This kind of argument can] counter criticism by attacking its critics. Critics of Marxism are charged with having a decadent bourgeois consciousness that blinds them to the facts of class conflict. The critic’s response to psychoanalytic theory is analyzed (and then dismissed) as repression, a reaction formation, or something similar. Here self-sealing is achieved through an ad hominem fallacy. We might call this self-sealing *by going upstairs*, because the theorist is looking down on the critic.

Much of this will be familiar from Hannah Arendt’s criticism of totalitarian ideology.

Notably, many arguments for evolutionary psychology have a similar form, especially those that focus on the way beliefs are formed to signal loyalty or attract esteem.


3 responses to “Ideology and Self-Sealing Arguments”

  1. Jeff Edmonds Avatar

    Hey Josh,

    Succinctly put. I generally think these sorts of arguments are detrimental to intelligent methods of reasoning. I wonder what you would make of the following sort of attempt to counter your criticism of self-sealing arguments.

    Self-sealing arguments are not necessarily totalitarian, but instead are an attempt to make arguers attend to experiential conditions that might influence an argumentative practice. In other words, the way out of the argumentative seal looks like an ad hominem or an attack in many cases, but it could actually be true upon examination–in which case it would be a legitimate attack.

    The problem, seems to me, with Marxist or Freudian analysis–what makes them possibly totalitarian–is not their dependence on the concepts of bourgeois blindness or the a repressive hypothesis, but the repetitive and clumsy way in which these concepts are deployed by "loyal" followers of the dogma. The totalitarian or ideological seal, then, would have nothing to do with the structure of the argument, but with the habits of the arguers, their own fixation on a particular narrative to the exclusion of other possible (and perhaps truer) narratives.

    1. anotherpanacea Avatar

      I like the distinction between "careful" and "loyal" you're making here. The best Marxists and psychoanalytic scholars I know are not guilty of this mistake. Plus, these really are examples: antisemitism, Thomism, and even some feminisms can fall into this style of circular justification just as easily, as can liberalism with its obsession with "reasonable pluralism."

      In general, I think we should be concerned about worldviews that contain inextricable "error theories" to explain why critics are missing our criticisms, and my primary worry here is actually evolutionary psychology, not Marxism or Freudianism, because that's the self-sealing theory by which I find myself most often tempted.

  2. Jeff Edmonds Avatar

    Yes, I guess the distinction is between careful and loyal. I don't think these values are at odds, although my post suggested that. I'm reminded of Roycean suggestion that we ought to be loyal to the practice of loyalty by making sure our loyalties are worthy of our faith.

    Maybe Royce's point is similar to the point you make here about the epistemological virtue of being most careful where our loyalties are strongest.

    I wonder if, in a way, all our theories are "self-sealing" in the sense that a theory is literally a way of seeing. It selects certain aspects of experience and accentuates them–ignoring, necessarily other aspects of experience. The epistemological value of that habit of attention would have to be demonstrated in terms of the consequences of that habit for inquiry…so a totalitarian theory would be one that has the habit of uncritically and inflexibly subordinating a wide range of human interests and practices to a narrow few.

    Here I guess I show my Jamesian loyalties and likely also certain blindnesses.

    Anyways, thanks for a clear and quick post.

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