To be promiscuous is to "mix forth" in your relationships. This morning I want to talk about how scholars sometimes mix their writing forth, or "go forth mixedly" when writing, if you will. Last week, we looked at the Frank Fischer plagiarism case, which I think offers a good example.
Suppose it is true, as Fischer and his peers say, that he was merely "sloppy". What does that mean in this case? Well, it means that he has mixed together words and ideas from multiple sources without marking them properly. As Petkovic and Sokal show in their report (PDF, p. 44), Fischer takes two paragraphs from Giandomenico Majone's Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process (1989) without even citing them, let alone quoting them. Here's what Majone wrote:
Argumentation differs from formal demonstration in three important respects. First, demonstration is possible only within a formalized system of axioms and rules of inference. Argumentation does not start from axioms but from opinions, values, or contestable viewpoints; it makes use of logical inferences but is not exhausted in deductive systems of formal statements. Second, a demonstration is designed to convince anybody who has the requisite technical knowledge, while argumentation is always directed to a particular audience and attempts to elicit or increase the adherence of the members of the audience to the theses that are presented for their consent. Finally, argumentation does not aim at gaining purely intellectual agreement but at inciting action, or at least at creating a disposition to act at the appropriate moment. (p. 22-23)
(…) A logical or mathematical proof is either true or false; if it is true, then it automatically wins the assent of any person able to understand it. Arguments are only more or less plausible, more or less convincing to a particular audience. It has also been pointed out that there is no unique way to construct an argument: data and evidence can be selected in a wide variety of ways from the available information, and there are several alternative methods of analysis and ways of ordering values. (p. 32)
In Reframing Public Policy, Fischer writes:
Whereas a logical or mathematical proof is either true or false (and if it is true, purportedly accepted by those who understand it), practical arguments are only more or less plausible, more or less convincing to a particular audience. There is, moreover, no unique way to construct a practical argument: data and evidence can be selected in a wide variety of ways from the available information, and there are various methods of analysis and ways of ordering values.
Practical argumentation thus differs from formal demonstration in three important respects. Whereas formal demonstration is possible only within a formalized system of axioms and rules of inference, practical argumentation starts from opinions, values, or contestable viewpoints rather than axioms. It makes use of logical inferences but is not exhausted in deductive systems of formal statements. Second, a formal demonstration is intended to convince those who have the requisite technical knowledge, while informal argumentation always aims to elicit the adherence of the members of a particular audience to the claims presented for their consent. Finally, practical argumentation does not strive to achieve purely intellectual agreement but rather to provide acceptable reasons for choices relevant to action (such as a disposition to act at the appropriate moment). (p. 190)
Notice that, in addition to appropriating the content of whole passages from Majone's book, Fischer appropriates Majone's style. For example: "...practical arguments are only more or less plausible, more or less convincing to a particular audience." That's nicely written, and flows much like speech. It is also exactly the way both texts put the point. Fischer takes the writing credit for himself (all references to Majone are made well away from this passage in Fischer's book, and never to the pages he here draws on. That is, he does not cite Majone for these words in any way.)
This way of writing cheapens the relationship between Fischer's body of work and Majone's. It shows that Fischer is mixed up about his textual identity, that he goes from one text to another and learns from it in a merely superficial way. He uses other people's writing in his own texts, but he doesn't let the encounter transform his understanding of the subject. Any sincere reader of Fischer, i.e., one who is going to let the encounter with a text "kick [his or her] ass with its transformative power", as Jonathan Mayhew once described his love of literature, will feel cheapened too. Cheated. After all, consider the reader who thinks Fischer just "nails it" it here, i.e., really captures the difference between argument and proof. Suppose he or she develops a profound respect for Fischer ("falls in love" with his work, let's say). Now, suppose, s/he comes across Majone's text. What will happen to the respect s/he had developed for Fischer's style. S/he would feel like taking a shower, I suspect.
It does not matter, of course, what Majone thinks about this case. He may be "fine with it". Indeed, he may be as promiscuous as Fischer (as Petkovic and Sokal in fact suggest in a footnote). And the whole field may even have loose textual morals (as both Fischer and his supporters find themselves almost arguing in his defense), it does not affect the point that the textual morals in this case are, well, loose. Majone may have known about Fischer's plagiarism for years and simply not cared. They may even have laughed about it. Or they may look at each other, today, like two colleagues who had a drunken fling many years ago at an office party, whose spouses are the best of friends, etc. Promiscuity is an issue not just for those who engage in the proximal textual act, the two writers involved. It is an issue for the whole community of readers because it interferes with our ability to form deep, lasting relationships with texts. That ability is called trust.