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The Ploughman's Lunch fallacy.

Posted: Sun Nov 10, 2019 2:14 pm
by Ben C. Smith
I am posting this brief treatment of a logical fallacy so as to have it in writing in a form I can refer back to as needed.

The title for the 1983 movie The Ploughman's Lunch derives from a bit of modern lore summarized by the following bit of dialogue from near the end of the script:

Matthew: That food you're eating.

James: Yes.

Matthew: What would you call it?

James: I dunno. Ploughman's Lunch.

Matthew: Ploughman's Lunch. Traditional English fare.

James: Uh huh.

Matthew: In fact, it's the invention of an advertising campaign they ran in the early Sixties to encourage people to eat in pubs. A completely successful fabrication of the past, the Ploughman's Lunch was.


The claim that the Ploughman's Lunch, far from being a traditional part of the English culinary heritage, was merely the invention of such an advertising campaign was possible in 1983 because at the time the earliest relevant instance of the phrase listed in the Oxford English Dictionary came from 1970. Further searching in 2005-2006 was consonant with the claim, since an instance was discovered from 1960 in advertising materials associated with the Milk Marketing Board, materials designed to sell more milk in the UK in the form of British cheese.

The research, however, was far from complete. First of all, the combination of bread, cheese, and beer for the working class in Great Britain happens to far predate any advertising of these three staples together in the Sixties, and the status of the meal as pub fare is attested from in between the World Wars. Second, however, it turns out that, while the exact phrase ("the Ploughman's Lunch") may hail from a marketing campaign, that marketing campaign happened in the Fifties, not in the Sixties, and at the behest of the Cheese Bureau, not at that of the Milk Marketing Board. Furthermore, the phrase seems to have been a modification of a very similar phrase which was apparently in currency at the time, "the Ploughboy's Lunch." (Perhaps someone wanted the meal to sound more "manly.")

Whatever one may think of a national commodity board standardizing a name for a traditional meal, the notion that the Ploughman's Lunch, whether as a meal or as the name of a meal, is the result of an advertising campaign in the Sixties is false.

The notion is, in fact, itself the result of a logical fallacy which I might summarize as: the mistaking of the first extant instance of some phenomenon with the first historical instance of that same phenomenon. For a few years now I have liked to think of this error as the Ploughman's Lunch fallacy. Sometimes there are circumstances attending the first extant mention of a phenomenon which imply that it is also the first historical instance of that phenomenon, but not usually (especially in antiquity, as opposed to in modernity). In this case, while the use of terms such as "invention" or "fabrication" might make the purported origin of the Ploughman's Lunch sound like the results of critical historical inquiry, the truth is that the whole idea depends upon a recklessly uncritical dearth of historical methodology. It is one thing to admit that our first extant instance of something is all that we have (so far); it is quite another to draw inferences from that fact which necessarily entail it also being the first historical instance of that same thing.

The hard version of this fallacy, of course, is the assumption that the first extant instance of something is exactly equivalent to its first historical instance. But there is a soft version, as well, one which eschews that exact equivalence but still maintains that the first extant instance of something must be very close (whether conceptually or chronologically) to its first historical instance, that it may be fine to think there might be other instances nearby in the historical record, but to go any further afield would be folly. Someone indulging in the soft version of the above fallacy would probably be willing to give up on the Milk Marketing Board having originated the phrase in the Sixties in exchange for the Cheese Bureau having originated it in the Fifties instead; the "moral of the story" would be pretty much the same in either case. But to learn that a very similar title was actually current in at least one actual pub before even the Cheese Bureau got its hands on it is already a step beyond; and to learn that the meal itself is probably medieval in origin, and was certainly a part of pub culture before World War II, is a leap and a bound beyond even that. In fact, both versions (hard and soft) of the fallacy are fallacious. (I might add that, in my experience, both versions are also very frequently tied in to a preferred historical narrative on the part of the person buying into the fallacy; but such motivations are not an intrinsic or necessary part of the fallacy itself. Also in my experience, the fallacy tends to view all social classes through a singularly literary lens insofar as it relies heavily upon written records, even though, historically speaking, most of humanity has not left much of a written trace, and the lower classes especially are less likely to have left literary remains than the upper classes.)


Re: The Ploughman's Lunch fallacy.

Posted: Sun Nov 10, 2019 2:15 pm
by Ben C. Smith
A concept related to the OP (in a balancing sort of way) is that of an idea being "in the air" at a particular time and/or place:

Paul Hartog, "1 Corinthians 2:9 in the Apostolic Fathers," in Intertextuality in the Second Century, edited by D. Jeffrey Bingham & Clayton N. Jefford, page 123:

As an illustration, consider the phrase “speaking truth to power,” an adaptation of the title of a book published by the American Friends Service Committee in 1955: Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence. The volume was widely discussed in the press and media, both secular and religious. The saying has since become commonplace. In fact, the phrase has become so increasingly popular that now there is a whole shelf of books bearing such a name: Aaron Waldavsky’s Speaking Truth to Power (Little, Brown, 1979); Manning Marable’s Speaking Truth to Power (Westview, 1996); Anita Hill’s Speaking Truth to Power (Doubleday, 1997); Paul A. Bové’s Edward Said and the Work of the Critic: Speaking Truth to Power (Duke University Press, 2000); Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and Eddie Adams’s Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World (Crown, 2000); Sipho Seepe’s Speaking Truth to Power (Vista University, 2004); J. Deotis Roberts’s Bonhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power (John Knox, 2005); the multiple-authored Speaking Truth to Power (Oxford University Press, 2008); Mignette Y. Patrick Dorsey’s Speak Truth to Power (University of Alabama Press, 2010); and, Walter Brueggemann’s Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture (Westminster John Knox, 2013). And this list is by no means comprehensive!

Let us imagine a duo of contemporary authors today who subtitle their own book on whistle blowers in the corporate workplace as Speaking Truth to Power. Are our hypothetical authors “adapting” the original American Friends Service Committee book title by changing “speak” to “speaking”? Or could they be “adapting” Cuomo and Adams’s title or Dorsey’s title through the same alteration? Are they changing Bové’s title by dropping the phrase about Edward Said or changing Roberts’s title by dropping the reference to Bonhoeffer and King? Are they influenced by Waldavsky’s or Hill’s book more than the original 1955 study because the more recent books by Waldavsky and Hill statistically far outsold the 1955 original (and the verbal parallel is more exact)? Or, as one could obviously wonder, are they really even citing or quoting anyone else in particular at all? One might perhaps argue that our hypothetical authors have indeed been influenced in some sense by the 1955 book (at least indirectly and unconsciously) by means of living in the socio-cultural milieu that carries the tradition along—even though they are not necessarily “citing” it. If one were to inquire of the exact source of the book’s title, however, the authors may not even be able to pinpoint a singular source. This may be an acute example of a phrase becoming part of the cultural air one breathes, but the scenario illustrates our point.

Hartog claims that the phrase "speaking truth to power" originated precisely in 1955 as part of the title of a Quaker book. He may be correct; as I mentioned in the OP, in modern history it is more often possible to demonstrate that the first extant instance is also the first historical instance than it is in ancient history (mainly because of the relative paucity of sources from antiquity compared to from modernity). Let us assume for the sake of argument that Hartog has not himself fallen into the Ploughman's Lunch fallacy (I have not checked his claims at all). In this case the concept of "speaking truth to power" seems to have spread across certain arenas of modern culture to the extent that we can say that it was "in the air," so to speak. Sometimes an idea becomes so prevalent that nobody needs to have any idea what its first expression happened to be. It is culturally available practically to anyone living in the culture at issue.

Another example of this is the modern charismatic/authoritarian concept of "seed faith," which I am pretty sure originated with Oral Roberts, but which I had heard of long before realizing that it came from Oral Roberts. It is a fixture in modern charismatic/Pentecostal culture. It is "in the air" and available to anyone partaking of that culture.