Not an argument
| Cogito ergo sum|
Logic and rhetoric
|—Monty Python's Argument Clinic sketch, establishing that 'not an argument' is primarily a means to annoy.|
"Not an argument" is not an argument! Now, go away! Oh, alright…
The phrase "not an argument" fallaciously dismisses arguments that are phrased as bald assertions. For example, the following exchange is common:
Takes one to know one
The "not an argument" response is usually incorrect, because the claim that purportedly is "not an argument" is itself a shorthand or implicit argument.[note 1]
In the above example, the phrase "Trump is racist" is likely short for the following syllogism:
- P1: (unstated) If Trump did [X], Trump is racist.
- P2: (unstated) Trump did [X].
- C1: Trump is racist.
P3: (unstated) Racist people are bad.
C2: (unstated) Trump is bad.
As should be clear, this is an argument.
If this is what the speaker is implying, then the assertion that this claim is "not an argument" is logically incorrect. And if so, the response that "this is not an argument" does not actually refute any of the syllogisms' points.
Of course, this same logic can be applied to the statement "not an argument" as it is an enthymeme for the following chain of reason:
- P1: (unstated) That statement is a plain assertion.
- P2: (unstated) Plain assertions are not arguments.
- C1: That statement is not an argument.
Instead, a proper response to the above argument would be to ask What is your argument? Their response should enlighten you of the syllogism that their statement is shorthand for.
Afterwards, using the above example, you can rebut one of the premises involved:
- [X] is not a racist act (to disprove P1), or:
- Trump did not do [X] (to disprove P2), or even:
- Racist people are not necessarily bad (to disprove P3)
Each of these is a valid counterargument, because it attacks a premise of the original assertion. In contrast, because "not an argument" does not attack any of the premises of the original assertion, the argument of "not an argument" is itself not an argument.
Non-arguments all the way down
In the same vein, pointing out that "not an argument" is not an argument is itself not an argument.
Expecting all discourse to be an argument:
- Presumes that all discussion is combative (rather than, e.g., a mutual discussion of shared/unshared beliefs)
- Ignores "factual claims" that provide relevant information (which may support an argument without explicitly making one)
- Is really fucking petty
Any discussion taking pretense or structure of formal debate should use appropriately constructed arguments with clear conclusions and specifically cited evidence and logical deductions. In such cases, these concerns are directly addressed by the assumptions of the format.
Argumentum ad Molyneux
Stefan Molyneux, the creator of the phrase, wrote a book on logic that confuses logical validity with logical soundness (and contains numerous fallacies throughout). Perhaps as a result, Molyneux mostly uses "not an argument" as a bludgeon against opposing viewpoints. As such, the above concerns might be above the level of discourse that "not an argument" usually operates in: that of insults and ad hominem attacks.
That being said
Yes, there may be a case for a statement being "not actually a counterargument to the argument in question" or "not actually a position that can be falsified, and thus not even wrong". It's just that currently, a lot of current usage of "not an argument" is mixing levels of argumentation.
- These unstated arguments are called enthymemes, and can themselves be fallacious.
- The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus : All the Words, Volume 2 by Graham Chapman et al. (1989) Pantheon. ISBN 0679726489. pp. 87-88.
- Argument Monty Python (Aug 9, 2015) YouTube (originally appearing on television in 1972).
- A Review of Stefan Molyneux's Art of the Argument by Cian Chartier (Sep 5, 2017) Medium.