Argument Clinic: Linguistic Nihilism

This clinic is going to be a bit less prescriptive and more theoretical.

Is this the right room for an argument?

Is this the right room for an argument?

We are going to look at a powerful technique for pulling your opponent into a discussion-ending quagmire; it’s the rhetorical equivalent of sneaking off the battlefield under cover of darkness.

To begin with: I am not aware of a term of art for this technique, and I’ve always thought of it as “linguistic nihilism.” Let’s backfill on nihilism: it’s a philosophical position of extreme skepticism that withholds judgement on the reality of pretty much everything. There are sub-versions of nihilism, e.g.: moral nihilism, which say “I am unconvinced that there is a coherent objective morality, therefore I prefer to reject your use of moral language because you don’t appear to know what you’re talking about.” It’s sort of a doomsday device in philosophical debate because it amounts to denying your opponent has anything worth listening to (more precisely: your opponent has failed to convince you of anything) and therefore they cannot possibly win.

Linguistic nihilism is a version of nihilism I don’t see used very much, but it’s a very effective way of making your opponent spend a while chasing their own tail. Here’s how it works: you erode your opponent’s ability to use language by destroying your shared vocabulary with nihilistic skepticism. It depends on the limited sizes of vocabularies that are available to us – if I can exhaust your vocabulary resources then what can you talk about?

Plato’s Socrates used linguistic nihilism a couple times, to destroy his opponent’s



understanding of what they thought they were talking about, then building up his own version of the word being examined, and parasitizing his opponent’s position. I think it’s a cheap trick, to be completely frank, but it’s going kind of far out on a limb to accuse Plato of debating in bad faith.

In Plato’s classic Euthyphro, we see: (lines omitted)

Socrates: And what is piety, and what is impiety?

Euthyphro: (tries to explain)

Socrates: […] But just at present I would rather hear from you a more precise answer, which you have not as yet given, my friend, to the question, What is “piety”?

Euthyphro: (tries again) (Now, Euthyphro tries to define ‘piety’ as loving what is “noble” “just” and “good”)

Socrates: (attacks “noble” and “just” and “good” in detail, destroying Euthyphro’s ability to use them as components in his definition of ‘piety’)

Euthyphro: I really do not know, Socrates, how to express what I mean. For somehow or other our arguments, on whatever ground we rest them, seem to turn round and walk away from us.

Socrates’ attack on Euthyphro’s “noble” and “just” renders them useless as components of his definition – Socrates is doing a resource-exhaustion attack on Euthyphro’s vocabulary.

Another form of linguistic nihilism, my favorite, is to realize that pretty much all definitions are circular. It’s really part of the nature of language – we use words as labels to classify groups of things, and if I need to convey a new word to you, then you need words to do it, ad infinitum. Sextus Empiricus, who formalized the hypotyposes (methods of argument) of Pyrronian skepticism, alluded to this as a generalized attack on epistemology (trope #4: by challenging someone’s source of knowledge, you can always dissect their response by challenging the epistemology of their response as well, in infinite regress). The definition of “nihilism” I gave above can serve as an example:

It’s a philosophical position of extreme skepticism that withholds judgement on the reality of pretty much everything.

Q: Well, what do you mean by “pretty much everything?” Marcus? And what is “Extreme skepticism”?

A: Extreme skepticism is a form of argument which begins without assuming the truth of anything; a person making a claim of fact is challenged to support that claim. This often turns out to be remarkably difficult.

Q: What do you mean by “truth” in that context?

A: AarrrrrGGGHHHH!!!!!!

Weaponized dialectic is a good smoke-screen for covering your retreat, but it pretty much ensures that a debate is dead as soon as the silo doors roll back and one party or the other begins deploying it.

Let’s assume you’re an intellectually honest person who’s arguing in good faith: you won’t use this technique and, if you ask for a definition, you’re genuinely seeking to understand your opponent.

If you’re on the receiving end of a linguistic nihilist first-strike, your strategies are already constrained:

  • Go meta
  • Out-nihilist your opponent
  • Flip the table over and walk away

Going meta- will sound something like this: “Aha, I see you’re attacking our ability to share a common vocabulary. That’s a pretty effective rhetorical trick but it’s a conversation-killer. Do you want to stop now? Can I assume you’re adopting sophism because you’ve run out of worthwhile things to say?”

Out-nihilisting your opponent could be a sarcastic Clintonism like “It depends what you mean by ‘is’ in that question.” (pause) “stop bullshitting around.” Or you can stake out a threatening position on their flank by indicating that your familiarity with Sextus Empiricus is deeper than theirs: “Oh, it appears to me now that I am debating with a pyrrhonian skeptic of language. How adorable! Do you realize that if you adopt an extreme skeptical pose you’ll just refute every statement of fact you’ve made so far in this discussion?”

The table-flip is to say, simply, “Ah, skeptical nihilism. So you’re not interested in arguing in good faith; does this mean you’re done or do you want to waste more of our time?”

I’m hard-pressed to think of a good faith way to go nihilist on your opponent; think of it only as a smokescreen for a retreat from battle, and expect your opponent (if they are sophisticated) to poke at you for arguing in bad faith as you scuttle back under your rock.

Aside: My understanding of this is largely informed by reading Popkin’s “History of Skepticism from Savanarola to Bayle” which I highly recommend. (i.e.: it is covered under my recommended reading program) Popkin’s history traces how extreme skepticism came into ‘Western’ thought from ancient Greek sources via Sextus Empiricus and was weaponized as a tool by various factions of christians to attack eachother’s claims of knowledge of the divine will. Popkin shows Martin Luther’s attack on papal infallibility as an epistemological challenge, to which the catholics responded (using remarkably bad strategy!) by demolishing the protestant’s truth-claims as well. He portrays a scorched-earth war on claims of religious knowledge that culminated in enlightenment thinkers who adopted humanist principles for guidance because the religious had cheerfully demolished eachother’s foundations – leaving David Hume the last man standing on the rubble. (Hume leaned heavily on Sextus)

It’s a great read and Popkin’s view of history has become an essential framework for my understanding of religion, skepticism, and epistemology.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … we use words as labels to classify groups of things, and if I need to convey a new word to you, then you need words to do it, ad infinitum.

    Wow – a whole post on this thesis, without once using the string-of-letters “postmodernism”. I wouldna thunk it possible!

    … hypotyposes (methods of argument)…

    A new word (on me, that is) – thanks especially for the parenthetical definition, or I’d’ve read it as a self-referential homage to Tpyos!

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … leaving David Hume the last man standing on the rubble. (Hume leaned heavily on Sextus).

    Ah, for the artistic skills to render this as an image of a devastated city littered with broken crucifixes & rosaries, centered on a lightly scratched pedestal under a stereotypical Greek marble bust, that in turn holding up a ragged, bruised, and obese irate Scotsman*…

    *Pls pardon the oxymoron.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Re: my # 1: per, “hypotyposis” (no plural given) means

    noun, Rhetoric.
    1. lifelike description of a thing or scene. [no # 2 given]

    Whence cometh the Ranumian denotation?

  4. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#3:
    Whence cometh the Ranumian denotation?

    Sextus Empiricus’ work ‘outline of pyrrhonian skepticism’ is entitled: “Pyrrhoniae Hypotyposes” and Benson Mates uses “hypotyposes” in his book; I think I may have mistakenly absorbed the term from there. It’s not an English word, so I guess I am guilty of pedantry or pretension, your call.

    I think I’ll have to do a Sunday Sermon on the pyrrhonian tropes. Or maybe an argument clinic. It’s basically: “how to win every argument by destroying all claims of knowledge.”

  5. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#1:

    Well, now that you mention postmodernism … :) It’s hugely relevant but I deliberately avoided it in my discussion because I was afraid it was more likely to be a distraction than not. Yes, arguing with postmodernists is something I’ve done and I’ve noticed that they throw up the linguistic nihilism smokescreen fairly often. That may be pretty much what postmodernism is:
    1) destroy common vocabulary by:
    – 1a) arguing your opponent is culturally biassed
    – 1b) arguing that your opponent is merely labelling things
    – 1c) argue against your opponent’s epistemology in general
    2) announce that cultural bias and epistemological uncertainty are classist, racist, or culturally driven and are therefore invalid
    3) ???
    4) profit!!

    Now that you’ve shared your picture of Hume standing triumphant in the rubble it’s stuck in my head, too. I know an artist who could bang it out for me, but I don’t want to presume on him (as I have done many times before) because I know he’s super busy right now..

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 4: It’s not an English word …

    Well, it’s in an English-language dictionary, so …

    Anthony Burgess argued somewhere (Language Made Plain?) that, given how many words have been adopted already – and how many more await that fate – we might as well consider Latin and Greek as de facto (come on, how could I resist that?) fully annexed into English.

    … pedantry or pretension, your call.

    Neither of those terms precisely fits the lapse at hand. Harrumph!

    Marcus Ranum @ # 5: That may be pretty much what postmodernism is…

    Apparently it started as a legitimate approach to text-criticism and rhetorical analysis, until a whole bunch of somebodies strayed into the weeds and tried using it for general epistemology. Yet another peer-review process failure.

  7. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#6:
    it started as a legitimate approach to text-criticism and rhetorical analysis, until a whole bunch of somebodies strayed into the weeds and tried using it for general epistemology

    That’s a pretty good description of the situation. I blame Sartre and later Derrida and Foucault: they taught endless numbers of philosophy undergrads that if you’re obscure, you don’t actually need to show your work.

    Hopefully, you’ll notice that the philosophers I tend to cite here are ones that try to be as clear as possible.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Daniel Dennett, in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (endnote 12 for chapter 8):

    … John Searle once told me about a conversation he had with the late Michel Foucault: “Michel, you’re so clear in conversation; why is your written work so obscure?” To which Foucault replied, “That’s because, in order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.” I have coined a term for this tactic, in honor of Foucault’s candor: eumerdification (Dennett, 2001a).

    Personally, in the small amount of (translated) Foucault I’ve managed to read, my between-the-lines takeaway was, “I am a major, erudite, and insightful French Philosopher® – and you are not.” A pity nobody seems to have saved and published his informal verbiage (except this bon-bon from Searle).

  9. John Morales says

    Post-structuralism is an extreme form of post-modernism, which has more in common with existentialism than with nihilism, treating meaning as subjective rather than as fatuous.

  10. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#8:
    “I am a major, erudite, and insightful French Philosopher® – and you are not.”

    Pretty much. It’s a poor substitute for being able to construct an argument.
    Argument by obscurity?

    I prefer the surrealists. At least they’re up front about it.

  11. says

    John Morales@#9:
    I thought the idea was that since all meaning is cultural it’s all subjective and therefore it’s all really just a matter of opinion. That’s sort of the nihilism 101 position, I think, except the nihilists don’t tie it to culture – they just remain unconvinced about objectivity.

  12. John Morales says

    Marcus, as I see it both stances hold meaning (and perforce purpose) to be abstract and subjective*, but nihilism goes further and declares it pointless.

    (Or, one is associated with freedom, the other with despair)

    * Note mathematics is abstract but not subjective.

  13. John Morales says

    PS cf. “Existential angst”.

    The phenomenon has existed since time immemorial — an aspect of it was once called melancholy (now it’s being emo).

  14. says

    John Morales@#12:
    nihilism goes further and declares it pointless

    Minor nit: nihilism that derives from skepticism tries to avoid being dogmatic. Declaring something to be pointless opens the declarer up to epistemological challenge, so the skeptical nihilist would say something like that they are unconvinced that “meaning” means anything.

    it’s being emo

    Yes! :)
    “Why the long face?”