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poisoning the wells


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  • During the last century a famous controversy took place between Charles Kingsley and Cardinal Newman. It began by Kingsley suggesting that truth did not possess the highest value for a Roman Catholic priest; that some things were prized above truth. Newman protested that such a remark made it impossible for an opponent to state his case. How could Newman prove to Kingsley that he did have more regard for truth than for anything else, if Kingsley argued from the premiss that he did not? It is not merely a question of two persons entertaining contradictory opinions. It is subtler than that. To put it baldly, Newman would be logically 'hamstrung.' Any argument he might use to prove that he did entertain a high regard for truth was automatically ruled out by Kingsley's hypothesis that he did not. Newman coined the expression poisoning the wells for such unfair tactics...The phrase poisoning the wells exactly hits off the difficulty. If the well is poisoned, no water drawn from it can be used. If a case is so stated that contrary evidence is automatically precluded, no arguments against it can be used.

    June 5, 2011