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Pedantry Fallacy

Started by Solitary, October 01, 2013, 10:57:03 AM

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QuoteVery often, debates become embroiled over what appear to be very minor issues. Sometimes this may be appropriate and sometimes it may not — when it is not, there is a strong possibility that no further productivity will occur in the discussion. When someone moves a discussion into an inappropriate and unproductive focus on minor issues, he can be accused of pedantry.

Strictly speaking, pedantry is not simply a deep concern with details; instead, it is a concern with details at the expense of genuinely important and significant issues. Sometimes, the details are the important issues. A person with an abiding interest in important details is not a pedant, according to the standard definition.

Nevertheless, that doesn't necessarily stop others from accusing such a person of being a pedant. Not everyone agrees on what the significant issues are, and not everyone will agree that certain details are really important enough to spend much time on. Thus, a person might be accused of pedantry when their intentions are just the opposite. This is unfortunate, because the accusation of pedantry is not offered as a neutral observation.

Instead, being called a pedant is used pejoratively as a claim that someone is avoiding the issues that are central to the discussion — perhaps even deliberately in an attempt to evade acknowledging his own faults and errors, or that someone else's position is actually more reasonable. For example, a person might avoid dealing with someone's arguments and instead point out that the argument contained a couple of grammatical errors.

Unless those errors actually inhibit communication in some manner, like introducing serious ambiguities or rendering the argument incoherent, then those errors are not important enough to merit specific attention while the substance of the argument receives none. If this is done deliberately, it is a dishonest attempt to avoid engaging the other person's ideas. If it is not deliberate, then the person's ability to comprehend the argument might be questioned.

Above, the description of ambiguities as "serious" was made deliberately because those who engage in pedantry may commonly exploit unimportant ambiguities in order to make their critiques appear much more relevant than they actually are. For example, a pedant might object that a prohibition like "Do not walk on the grass" doesn't technically exclude dancing or or crawling on the grass — an objection which ignores the legal, cultural, and linguistic contexts necessary for interpreting the prohibition in the first place.

As explained above, alleged pedantry is sometimes nothing of the sort because the details being focused upon are genuinely important and warrant that kind of attention. A person who claims that such attention is an expression of pedantry may be trying to conceal a weakness in her argument which is only apparent in the details — or she may not be aware of the weaknesses at all, but is also unaware of just how significant those details are to the substance of her argument.

As a consequence genuine pedantry and false accusations of pedantry are not easy to avoid. Nearly all arguments must come around to details at some point and not everyone will agree on which details, if any, are important enough to focus upon. Nevertheless, it is probably wise not to accuse someone of pedantry if all that it involved may be just a disagreement on what is important.
There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.