The Thought Occurs

The Thought Occurs

Friday, 8 January 2016


A polemic is a contentious argument that is intended to support a specific position via attacks on a contrary position. Polemics are mostly seen in arguments about controversial topics. The practice of such argumentation is called polemics. A person who often writes polemics, or who speaks polemically, is called a polemicist or a polemic. The word is derived from Greek πολεμικός (polemikos), meaning "warlike, hostile", from πόλεμος (polemos), meaning "war". 
Along with debate, polemics are one of the most common forms of arguing. Similar to debate, a polemic is confined to a definite thesis. But unlike debate, which may allow for common ground between the two disputants, a polemic is intended only to affirm one point of view while refuting the opposing point of view
Polemics are usually addressed to important issues in religion, philosophy, politics, or science. Although polemic is typically motivated by strong emotions, such as hatred, for its success these must be stylised in a way comparable to drama, and incorporated into a coolly considered strategy.
The following polemic against polemics by Michel Foucault (posted to the Sysfling list by Jim Martin on 8/1/16) was apparently written without a trace of self-irony:
Perhaps, someday, a long history will have to be written of polemics, polemics as a parasitic figure on discussion and an obstacle to the search for truth. Very schematically, it seems to me that we can recognise the presence in polemics of three models: the religious model, the judiciary model, and the political model. As in heresiology, polemics sets itself the task of determining the intangible point of dogma, the fundamental and necessary principle that the adversary has neglected, ignored, or transgressed; and it denounces this negligence as a moral failing; at the root of the error, it finds passions, desire, interest, a whole series of weaknesses and inadmissible attachments that establish it as culpable. As in judiciary practice, polemics allows for no possibility of an equal discussion: it examines a case; it isn't dealing with an interlocutor, it is processing a suspect; it collects the proofs of his guilt, designates the infraction he has committed, and pronounces the verdict and sentences him. In any case, what we have here is not on the order of a shared investigation; the polemicist tells the truth in the form of his judgement and by virtue of the authority he has conferred on himself. But it is the political model that is the most powerful today. Polemics defines alliances, recruits partisans, unites interests or opinions, represents a party; it establishes the other as an enemy, an upholder of opposed interests, against which one must fight until the moment this enemy is defeated or either surrenders or disappears.

Of course, the reactivation, in polemics, of these political, judiciary, or religious practices is nothing more than theatre. One gesticulates: anathemas, excommunications, condemnations, battles, victories, and defeats are no more than ways of speaking, after all. And yet, in the order of discourse, they are also ways of acting, which are not without consequence. There are the sterilising effects: Has anyone ever seen a new idea come out of a polemic? And how could it be otherwise, given that here the interlocutors are incited, not to advance, not to take more and more risks in what they say, but to fall back continually on the rights they claim, on their legitimacy, which they must defend, and on the affirmation of their innocence? There is something even more serious here: in this comedy, one mimics wars, battles, annihilations, or unconditional surrenders, putting forward as much of one's killer instinct as possible. But it is really dangerous to make anyone believe that he can gain access to truth by such paths, and thus to validate, even if in merely symbolic form, the real political practices that could be warranted by it. Let is imagine, for a moment, that a magic wand is waved and one of the two adversaries in a polemic is given the ability to exercise all the power he likes over the other. One doesn't even have to imagine it: one has only to look at what happened during the debates in the USSR over linguistics and genetics not long ago. Were these merely aberrant deviations from what was supposed to be the correct discussion? Not at all: they were the real consequences of a polemic attitude whose effects ordinarily remain suspended. [Foucault in Rabinow [Ed.] 1984: 382-383]

Rabinow, P 1984 The Foucault Reader: an introduction to Foucault's thought, with major new unpublished material. Harmondworth: Penguin (A Peregrine Book: Psychology/Psychiatry).
See also here and here.

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