What’s the Argument from Authority?

What’s the Argument from Authority? A logical fallacy.

The argument from authority, or AA, is a logical fallacy used to validate a point of view just because someone – the authority – thinks that way, instead of using a logical demonstration. Having referents is key to building knowledge. The issue appears when critics to these theories are not allowed because they come from the authority.

The Argument from Authority in Scholasticism

The prerequisite to AA’s existence is to define who is and who is not an authority in each knowledge field. Scholasticism solved that in a simple way: just God was an authority. Trick: And by derivation, church hierarchy, sacred books and a bunch of ancient texts –essentially Aristotle – but only interpreted in the way this ecclesiastic hierarchy said.

We think AA was fancy just in the Middle Ages due to the lack of available divergent sources to enrich intellectual discussions. And that with printing machine allowing the diffusion of divergent points of view, the AA passed away. Trick: Even with lots of published opinions, they weren’t so divergent. They needed to be previously approved by the ‘authority tenants’.

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Empiricism, Rationalism and the Argument from Authority

Descartes, Locke, Hume, Leibniz… they all worked on knowledge generation explanations, and even if they reached antagonist conclusions, they coincided in something. AA negatively impact knowledge construction.

Locke – in the empiric team – said that we could go further in knowledge discovery using our own thoughts instead of others’. In the rationalism side, Descartes said the same… but he had the temptation to use AA in the Discourse on the Method. And he did. Soon after the ‘cogito ergo sum’ he reached a cul de sac. How could he assure the veracity of data he received from his senses? Well, he proved first God’s existence (4th part) – no one could object to that –. And then he said that God – who is completely perfect and truthful – wouldn’t permit your senses to cheat you.

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Kant: the end of the Argument from Authority?

Kant ‘Sapere Aude’ definitively vindicated the value of using our own brain in the 18th Century in his essay ‘What’s illustration?’. He explained Illustration as the adulthood of human beings, clarifying we artificially extended our childhood, because of the incapacity of using our own understanding without a guide.

Clear, clean, maybe harsh, neat. Brilliant and exact.

So was this the Argument of Authority end? Definitively not. Kant is Kant and we, the other mortals, are not Kant. AA is today as pervasive as ever. The Internet provides us with alternative sources to fund genuine thinking processes, but there are unavoidable global omnipresent authorities… We just changed archbishops by influencers, celebrities, Google and Wikipedia.

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