Monday, March 07, 2016

The Montaigne Fallacy and the Wittgenstein Fallacy

Fallacies are fallacious argumentations. Many people commit them, usually inadvertently but also as a trick to manipulate other people. However, it should be so that philosophers as experts in sound reasoning don’t commit fallacies. Nevertheless, since also experts make mistakes or have their unthinking moments, it can be supposed that they sometimes do. Let me look at two philosophers often discussed in these blogs: Montaigne and Wittgenstein.

Ludwig von Mises, the famous economist (1881-1973), draws attention to a fallacy committed by Montaigne. In his short essay “That the Profit of One Man is the Damage of Another” (Essays I-22), Montaigne writes “no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another”. Of course, as such this doesn’t need to be true, for profits don’t need to be extracted from what other people do, but can, for instance, come from cooperation with others or from a better use of the means, like a farmer who succeeds to get a higher yield from his land. Therefore, von Mises observes: “The Leitmotiv [i.e., an often repeated theme] of social philosophy up to the emergence of economics was: The profit of one man is the damage of another; no man profits but by the loss of others. This is not a philosophy of social cooperation, but of dissociation and social disintegration. For the sake of expediency, we call this doctrine after its proponent, essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92). In the light of this Montaigne Fallacy, human intercourse cannot consist in anything but the spoliation of the weaker by the stronger.” (; italics added) However, Casto Martín Montero Kuscevic and Marco Antonio del Río Rivera called this comment by von Mises unfair. (see Montaigne lived in a time of a very closed economic system that was full of rules of what was allowed and not allowed to do. Many activities were charged and the profits went to the king, the lords and the tax collector. In that light Montaigne’s remark was not unreasonable and it was probably based on facts. It is “the essence of mercantilist theory”, as another website says ( As we see: Nothing is true, or it is false from another perspective. It depends on the context.

I found also a so-called Wittgenstein Fallacy on the Internet. Michael Dummett wrote in his “Preface” to his Frege. Philosophy of Mathematics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991) that Wittgenstein wouldn’t have survived the present academic system in philosophy in view of his reluctance to publish (during his life, Wittgenstein published only his Tractatus and then yet only one short article) (p. ix). Jason Stanley calls it the “Wittgenstein Fallacy”: “the claim that the profession of philosophy as currently practiced is somehow flawed, because a modern day Wittgenstein would not receive recognition or employment.” ( Or, as I found it formulated elsewhere: The Wittgenstein Fallacy is “the idea that the [philosophical] profession is in such dire straits nowadays – e.g., in demanding mountains of publications for tenure and even tenure-track positions – that even Wittgenstein would not succeed if he were alive today.” ( Now it is so that I was looking for fallacies committed by Wittgenstein and this is only one named after him. But is it a fallacy? In my blog last week, I discussed several definitions of “fallacy”. But according to all definitions a fallacy is a kind of argumentation, albeit a fallacious one. Only the last definition in that blog is wider: “A fallacy is a failure to provide adequate proof for a belief, the failure being disguised to make the proof look adequate.” So, if we see a fallacy as a kind of argumentation, the Wittgenstein Fallacy is not a fallacy. Only if we accept the last definition it might be so, supposing that there is not enough evidence present yet to found Dummett’s idea. However, I would rather call it an opinion or a point of view than a fallacy. It would stretch the concept too much. Not every idea that is wrong is a fallacy. An idea can also be simply right or wrong.

I should have to read the works by Wittgenstein myself with the eye of looking for mistakes in his reasoning in order to find out whether he committed fallacies. I wonder whether I would find any, although it might happen that I find statements I don’t agree with. Certainly it will be the same for many other philosophical works. But even if I would find a mistake in a philosophical theory, it doesn’t automatically imply that it’s a fallacy. It might be nothing more than that: A mistake or otherwise just a difference in view or in interpretation.

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