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I have problem understanding this Arab Proverb:

Look at what is being said not who is saying it.

another version:

Examine what is said, not who speaks.

I have googled to find arguments about it but there is no one with good reasoning behind it. The reverse makes sense in many cases to me although that is not always true.

Simply the emphasize is on the content rather than context in that quote while the reverse comes handy in some cases.

Is it a known philosophical argument? Is there any strong debate on this topic?

  • Proevrbs are proverbs, and not theories (either scientifical or philosophical). They try to summarize and transfer "the wisdom od the ancient". Why do you think that they enclose "philosophical arguments" ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA May 10 '17 at 9:09
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA: The sentence carries a concept while doesn't reveal the reasoning behind it. Since it can be either true or false seeking the reasoning behind helps to accept or reject it. – Xaqron May 10 '17 at 9:12
  • Look at these three fallacies: argument from authority and argument from the people and ad hominem. – Not_Here May 10 '17 at 9:39
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    All three of these fallacies are examples of "examining who is speaking and not what they say." The first is a fallacy because you are accepting an authority's opinion without analyzing their position (judging the person instead of their words). The second is a fallacy because you are accepting a majority's opinion without analyzing their position (judging the consensus as showing the truth of the statement without analyzing its truth). The third is a fallacy because you are attacking a person instead of what the person is saying (which is irrelevant to the truth of what they're saying). – Not_Here May 10 '17 at 9:41
  • @Not_Here: Even here when we are gonna down-vote a question and notice the guy is a known reputable member of community we think he has some in mind to ask this. To me, context precedes content, so I may think days on this sentence of Einstein and the context he said that to figure out the real meaning behind: The sky is high. – Xaqron May 10 '17 at 10:01
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This sentiment is analyzable by studying three specific fallacies:

Argument from authority

Argument ad populum

Ad hominem

The first fallacy is an example of "examining the person instead of their argument" because it makes an appeal to the authority of somebody without actually analyzing the words they are saying. An example would be a chemist telling you that hydrogen bonds are an example of covalent bonding. This is false and believing the chemist purely based off of their status as a chemist would be fallacious. The truth of the statement is not determined by the person's job or education level; the truth of the statement is determined by the facts of the situation. This means you should not evaluate them as a person, instead you should evaluate their words (their argument).

The second fallacy is an support of the proverb because it makes an appeal to popular consensus. For this example, imagine that the year is 300 B.C.E. The example would be: "many people believe that the Sun orbits the Earth, therefore the Sun orbits the Earth." This is a fallacy because it is an appeal to the amount of people that believe a statement instead of the actual facts relating to the statement. The reasoning goes like this: Many people believe this, it would be improbably for a large amount of people to believe something false, therefore it must be true. You can see that this argument has nothing to do with the actual statement, it is merely an appeal to the large amount of people that believe it. It supports the proverb because it shows the fallacious nature of only looking at the amount of people speaking and not at their actual words.

Finally, the third fallacy supports the proverb because it shows the irrelevance of attacking a person instead of their argument. Suppose that Alice and Bob are having a discussion about which flavor of ice cream is the best and Alice says chocolate. If Bob then replies "Well, you voted for Nixon so what do you know?" that would be an example of an ad hominem fallacy. The truth, or merit, of whether or not chocolate is the best ice cream has nothing to do with whom Alice voted for. Bob is trying to show that Alice's opinion cannot be trusted because she made a poor decision in the past but, again, this is irrelevant to the topic at hand. It is not impossible for someone who showed poor judgement once to show good judgement later and whom Alice voted for has nothing to do with the qualitative values of flavors of ice cream.

See also: genetic fallacy

  • According to your last paragraph, history means nothing. Based on that communities like StackExchange won't work because we are what we are at the moment . Someone aware of mentioned fallacies still looks at who asks/answers a particular Q/A. As Isaacson mentioned in his answer it is more practical. – Xaqron May 10 '17 at 12:02
  • No you are incorrect, ad hominem does not mean that 'history means nothing.' Do you think that because somebody said something correct once they are alway correct? Do you think that because somebody said something incorrect once they are always incorrect? The truth value of a statement such as "The sun orbits the Earth" is not determined by who is saying it, it is determined by the facts of the situation. – Not_Here May 10 '17 at 12:32
  • If Alice is a chemist and says that hydrogen bonds are an example of covalent bonds and Bob failed high school chemistry but says that they are not an example of covalent bonds, should we believe Alice because she is a chemist? No, because she is incorrect. The fact that she is a chemist is not what determines the truth value of her statement. That doesn't equate to "history means nothing." It means that the truth of an argument is not evaluated solely by who is saying it. It might be practical to always listen to a chemist on chemistry matters but that doesn't mean they're infallible. – Not_Here May 10 '17 at 12:35
  • If Alice says "the Earth orbits the Sun," and Bob says "no, you voted for Nixon so I don't trust what you say, that is wrong," do you see how that is completely irrelevant? Whom Alice voted for does not determine the truth value of her statements. It is completely irrelevant to whether or not the Earth orbits the Sun. That does not mean that 'history means nothing.' Do you think that who you vote for determines anything about how the solar system works? – Not_Here May 10 '17 at 12:41
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    In philosophy you examine every single statement, that is the entire point of philosophy. Yes, I understand and agree with the sentiment that analyzing every single statement ever said is ridiculously tedious and impractical. But you asked this question on a philosophy.SE so the answer is going to have to do with philosophy. The point I am making, which is the point of that proverb, is that the person who makes a statement is not the only thing that determines whether or not it's true. – Not_Here May 10 '17 at 13:15
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I think the answer you're looking for is the distinction between argumentum ad auctoritatem and argumentum ad verecundiam. Both are arguments from, or appeals to, authority but the first is valid inductive reasoning in the sense that one might say the argument is more likely to be right because of the particular characteristics of the person. The logic does not need to apply only to authority, it could be that the person is known to be clever and so their reasoning is more likely to result in a sound theory than others.

The second form is invalid in that it is the type of reasoning that supposes (incorrectly) that authority transfers across disciplines (presuming a expert mathematician is more likely to be an authority on biology, for example).

The debate on the topic, as far as I'm aware, is not largely philosophical, but practical. knowing that in some cases it is valid to reason that an expert is more likely to be right than a lay person does not itself provide you with the crucial parameters need to make any decision about whom to trust - namely; how much more likely (needed when the expert is saying something implausible and the laymen something much more credible), and what factors to agree define and "expert".

I suspect the preponderance of sayings emphasising the need to examine the content of a pronouncement rather than its orator is largely to do with the fact that the opposite is the pragmatic status quo most of the time. We simply don't have time to personally examine the veracity of every statement and so have to engage with the process of trusting it or not on the basis of who said it.

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