Why The “No True Scotsman” Fallacy Isn’t a Fallacy (And Why It Matters)
THIS POST will show why the “No True Scotsman” fallacy isn’t a fallacy. Wikipedia describes the alleged fallacy as follows:
“No true Scotsman” is an informal fallacy, an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion.When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim (“no Scotsman would do such a thing”), rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to exclude the specific case or others like it by rhetoric, without reference to any specific objective rule (“no true Scotsman would do such a thing”).
The introduction of the term is attributed to British philosopher Antony Flew, who in his 1975 book, Thinking About Thinking, wrote:
Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton (England) Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen (Scotland) man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.
To understand why it is not a fallacy I need to explain the difference between classes and kinds. (see Millikan’s Language: A Biological Model, p. 107). A class is a group of individuals who possess some property or set of properties in common. An example would be something like blue objects on Main St. This class could include houses, bicycles, cars, toys, shirts, signs, chairs, and so on. The members of this class don’t need to be like each other for any reason. Because of this we don’t learn about classes by experience; there is no way to predict anything about the next member of this class we may encounter on our walk down Main St other than that the object will be blue and will be on Main St. We don’t even have to ever set foot on Main St. to know that. The next object in this class we encounter could be a balloon, or a bird, or a truck, and nothing we have learned on our walk would be useful to us in our dealings with this object.
As opposed to classes, the members of a kind have properties in common because there are natural forces that have produced similarities among members. Because of this, knowledge of kinds is useful in making predictions. Knowledge I gain on one occasion about, say, lions is useful in predicting the future. If I know that one lion is a dangerous predator this information will be useful to me in predicting the behavior of the next lion I encounter. The reason why lions are dangerous predators is not because the word “lion” means “dangerous predator”; lions are dangerous predators because of the natural forces that produced lions.
For one, lion genes are copies of one another. The copying of genes that happens in sexual reproduction guarantees similarities between generations. Secondly, lions must remain sufficiently alike genetically so that when their genes are combined in sexual reproduction it will produce viable offspring that have a chance of survival. This need for sufficient genetic similarity between the parents keeps the nature of lions relatively stable across time. Finally, the environment itself guarantees that lions remain similar in that any extreme deviations from the well-established lion form will not survive in its environment. Because of the working of these forces, the knowledge I gain on one encounter with lions is useful, though fallible, for encounters on other occasions.
Millikan calls these kinds that are alike because of these historical forces that work to ensure similarity “historical kinds.” Ethnic groups, like the Scots, are historical kinds (On Clear and Confused Ideas, p. 22). Picture historical kinds as groups of properties that tend to clump together and stay together over time because of the working of these forces. Things like wearing argyle, playing the bagpipes, drinking Scottish whiskey, eating haggis (this is just an example for argument’s sake; today, I assume, very few Scotsmen actually do these things as the homogenizing process of modernism has flattened many historical ethnic groups). These behaviors, characteristics, and properties tended to clump together in Scottish people for historical reasons. If you plotted all the people in the world on a massively multidimensional graph that had dimensions like frequency of eating haggis, frequency of wearing argyle, frequency of listening to bagpipes, etc., you would find a clump on this graph which denotes the Scots. Other dimensions like speaks German, eats sauerkraut, wears lederhosen, celebrates Octoberfest, etc. would form a German clump (again, for sake of argument).
Now, switch your vision, as it were, and look out on this landscape of clumps kinda like how a geologist looks at a landscape. What forces formed these clumps? Why are there these valleys between clumps? Why are some clumps closer to others? Why are the Scottish and English clumps closer together in this space (whether they like it tor not) than the Scottish and Somalian? Why are some big and others small? Why are Angus and Bonnie close together in this clump centered on Scotland, and Toshiro and Mikayo close together in this clump centered on Japan? Like a geologist, the answer to these questions will be that natural historical forces produced these clump and explain their features.
So the pro-fallacy side is arguing that to the anti-fallacy side, “Scotsman” is a class that means something like “lives in Scotland and isn’t a sex maniac” (to again use the Anthony Flew example). But — aha! — the pro-fallacy side proclaims, here is someone who lives in Scotland and is a sex maniac. Therefore, your definition of the class is false.
But this is itself a fallacy in that it attacks a strawman; to the anti-fallacy side “Scotsman” isn’t a class, it is a kind. The anti-fallacy side is asserting that the word “Scotsman” is ambiguous; there exists the kind “Scotsman” and the class “Scotsman.” A true Scotsman is one who upholds the historical traditions of Scots, and being a sex maniac ain’t it. So no fallacy is committed.
Saying that x is no true Scotsman is not to make a claim about kind membership. It is to claim that a certain trait is central to being Scottish–that it is part of the Scottish clump of properties–and that x has violated this trait. Compare with the claim that a dog with three legs is not a well-formed instance of dog-kind. If some poor dog has lost its leg you are not claiming that this animal is no longer a dog. You are claiming that some characteristic historical feature of dogs is missing. The same goes for the “no true Scotsman is a sex maniac” example.
So why does this matter? Always pay attention to how terms are being used and whether they are referring to a class or a kind. Terms like Scottish, German, Polish, and American used to refer to kinds but liberals have succeeded in turning them into classes. These terms now simply mean, at best, “is a citizen of Scotland” (or Germany, or Poland, etc) and at worse merely “lives in Scotland,” or “lives in Germany,” or “lives in America.” The idea that Germans, or Russians, or Poles might be historical kinds denoting a common history or tradition is verboten. There was an article not long ago about how a gang of “Swedes” had raped a woman on a ferry. See here. It turned out these Swedes weren’t even Swedish citizens, they just happened to be living in Sweden at the time. I remember after 9/11 there was an ad on television called “I am an American.” It showed a wide variety of the class “American” proclaiming that they were American. See here. Even if they were members of the class “American” they weren’t members of the kind-formerly-known-as-American. I suppose “European-American” is now the name of that kind. These kinds of word games are always politically motivated to claim that there is no difference between true Swedes and nominal Swedes, and attempt to manipulate the affections people naturally have for their kind, and extend it to a class.
What’s worse is that the Left will not allow the kind “European-American” to exist. The Left seems to tolerate Irish American cultural centers (or German, or Italian, or Polish, cultural centers), but any attempt to create a European-American cultural center would be met with protests. European-Americans are definitely a distinct kind; European-Americans are not necessarily Germans, or Irish, or English, or Italian. And we have our own history, our own traditions, our own style, and so on. But you can just imagine the reaction if European-Americans tried to have European-American celebrations, festivals, parades, or holidays.
I don’t give a damn about the class “American.” Why should I? (This is not to say that members of this class aren’t entitled to basic human respect). You can be a member of the class American and care nothing for baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet (to use the slogan from an old commercial). You don’t need to celebrate the 4th of July, give a damn about the “land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims’ pride,” or the Civil War, or World War 2. You don’t even need to care about the Constitution, or life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to be a member of the American class. My patriotism, affection, or loyalty contributes nothing to a class. One’s affection for one’s people means you love something and want it to endure and be passed on, to be inherited. I do feel a loyalty to my kind because loyalty helps your kind to survive and endure.
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Source: Darwinian Reactionary