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Szasz’s Argumentation and Rhetoric -- Introduction

When reading the works of Szasz’s critics and commentators one is impressed by the enormous differences in appreciation for his use of language and style and for the quality of his arguments. Grenander mentions him in one breath with Socrates and Aristotle as a philosopher. Foudraine, in the foreword to the Dutch translation of The Manufacture of Madness, characterizes Szasz as “Clear, businesslike, with a painfully accurate logic, seemingly without emotion but with the ardor of the revolutionary.” Contrarily, Weihofen calls his style, “luridly sensational” and the content unscientific in the following aspects: Szasz accuses without presenting proof (as, for instance, Weihofen quotes, “Psychiatrists have shown great alacrity in meting out life sentences…”); he intentionally misuses words (for example, “locked up” instead of “hospitalized” in a Mental Hospital); he insinuates that criticized practices are frequent without presenting statistics; he poses rhetorical questions, the answer to which is not in the least self-evident; he uses quotation marks frequently and insinuatingly, not to quote, but to suggest that the word used is incorrect; he fails to present arguments for and against; and he accuses psychiatrists and judges of intentionally unethical and illegal behavior. Cohen states, “To assume that Szasz does not recognize these and other logical fallacies, semantic ploys, inappropriate analogies, and internal contradictions is not tenable. He perceives them as readily as his readers do.” Cohen opines that Szasz seeks to compel us to reflect on generally accepted premises. To me Cohen’s comments leave unclear how it is possible that someone could compel us to reflection by emitting nonsense which is what Cohen is apparently suggesting.

The question rises, how should we judge the conclusions that Szasz draws in view of his presentation of the problems posed and his argumentation? The answer cannot tell us whether Szasz’s conclusions are right or wrong. It can only tell us, to a limited degree, how these conclusions are formed and argued, and thus to which extent he has justified them.

I will attempt to clarify this question in several ways. First I will remark on Szasz’s use of language and his characteristic writing style (2). Afterwards the argumentation will be discussed as a process in which several different elements, such as the manner in which the premises are formed, the nature and order of the arguments, the way of reasoning, and the formulation of the conclusions. His reasoning is thus artificially reduced to several constitutional building blocks, which makes it possible to examine each of these building blocks separately (3). Then, partly to illustrate the previous section, a chapter from one of Szasz’s books will be analyzed regarding reasoning and argumentation (4). Finally, his reasoning and argumentation will be examined by comparing several examples from his different publications (5). The chapter will be closed with conclusions (6).

The word rhetoric will be used by me in about the same meaning that it had in classical works, which is also Szasz’s preferred meaning. (See Chapter I, 7.2) I am following Perelman’s explanation of rhetoric. He describes how Aristotle distinguished between two kinds of reasoning: the analytic and the dialectic. Analytic reasoning has certain patterns by which the necessary and only possible conclusions from the given premises can be deduced. If the premises are true it is certain that the conclusion is true as well. If the premises are untrue so is the conclusion. Analytic reasoning is merely formal, that is to say, it is valid regardless of the content of the premises. It is irrefutable and impersonal. It forms the groundwork of what later will be called formal logic.

Aristotle calls reasoning dialectic or rhetoric when the premises are formed by generally accepted opinions. Its goal is to make other arguable propositions convincing. Dialectic reasoning does not produce valid or compelling conclusions but more or less persuasive ones. Aristotle uses the word dialectic in cases of discussion or debate with one conversational partner and the word rhetoric in cases of communication between someone delivering the reasoning and (a) listener(s). Perelman, on the other hand uses the word rhetoric for every type of discussion. His use of the word rhetoric includes both Aristotle’s dialectic as well as his rhetoric. I will use the word rhetoric as Perelman does.

Sometimes Szasz uses analytical or logical reasoning, for instance, when he posits that “mental illness” is not an illness in the absence of a demonstrated physicochemical disorder. This reasoning is, however, not much more than a tautology because it cannot be other than true when the given premise, namely the definition of illness, is true. Usually, however, premises regard beliefs or (basic) values. The term rhetoric is applicable to exactly this reasoning. This means that in all of these cases there can be no proof but rather conclusions that are, according to the author, necessarily deduced from the premises, considering the reason and the power of the arguments.

So the domain of rhetoric is that of opinions which are supported by the power of reasonable arguments. An argumentation can never be evident. At most it can be persuasive. To Perelman, every argument that is not based on true or evident premises is rhetoric. As far as I can tell, this exegesis concurs with Szasz’s. After all, when referring to the humanities he too emphasizes that there are only views, arguments, and conclusions that either are or are not convincing. Therefore I believe that I am not unjust towards Szasz when I consider a large part of his reasoning and argumentation of a rhetoric nature. (See also Chapter I, section 7.2.)
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