Tackling the Thermian argument

The Thermian argument so themed by its creator Dan Olsen, is an invention to shut down people who use in context defenses to in his words “shut down critics of fictional works”. The argument is that criticism of a fictional world, is in embryo the criticism of the decisions made by the creators of that world. (You can find his video here)

I’m inclined to accept the logic of the argument as it seems to be fairly valid, here is how I would structure it:

Major premise: All fiction is made by a creator.

Minor premise: The creator has full control over a work of fiction he or she produces.

Conclusion: All fiction is the result of the creators control. 

The argument that Mr. Olsen is making is to make the creator of fiction inseparable from that fiction. So, for instance “I’m not criticizing the amount of foul language in “Gran Torino” I’m criticizing the director, writer, actors, key grip, and anyone else involved for allowing that amount of foul language in the movie.” 

This eliminates the need to defend a criticism of a work from arguments about that work. Such as “This makes sense in context of the work”. However, it kind of doesn’t because the argument works both ways.

If criticism of a fictional work is the criticism of the decisions made by the creator of that work. Then criticisms of the criticism is criticism of the person who made the original criticism. Furthermore, the “thermian argument” is in reality a defense of the decisions made by the creator, anchored in the original work.

The reductio ad absurdum of Mr. Dan Olsen’s argument in this video is:

  • Criticism of the world is in fact criticism of God (if you believe in god)
  • Criticism of a culture is in fact criticism of the people within that culture.
  • Criticism of religion is in fact criticism of the people who support and maintain the religion.

Just to show how fallacious and ridiculous Mr. Olsen’s argument is, take a look at this painting by Jackson Pollock:

Thermian argument 2

I could say a lot of things about it, however, I’m going to play out an argument:

Person 1: My 7 year old could have painted that, it’s just paint splattered on a canvas, it looks like the floor after I painted my house last time and spilled paint all over the place.

Person 2: Well, actually the style is called abstract impressionism, it sprung out from surrealism and makes perfect sense when put in context of the development of painting focused on subconscious or automatic painting, based in creating art that is viewer dependent.

Person 1: You are just making a Thermian argument.

Of course, a rebuttal to the argument I’ve spent the last 400 or so words on is possible, in that a person could argue that I unfairly generalized and employed the argument outside of its intended sphere. That it’s only meant to deal with artistic expression in context of art, taken to mean writing, film or video-games. I suppose that is a fair criticism, however it misses the point, that art is an artist sharing their imitation with us, in good ways and in bad ways. Context matters, without Blofeld, you have no James Bond, without Mr. Hyde you don’t really have a decent novel, without the “first night” rule in “Braveheart”, you lose the characters motivation and without what I think was a very upsetting scene in “Law Abiding Citizen” you have no plot.

7 comments on “Tackling the Thermian argument

  1. Ross Van Loan says:

    Also, there’s no such thing as absolute control, artistic or otherwise : aspects of the creator’s subconscious direct and sway the brush, pen, voice box from the convolutions of psyche hidden from the illumination of the reasoning mind. Even Shakespeares, and Da Vincis do not know themselves entirely enough to be able to escape such emergent creative acts ; and ergo the Thermian Argument, along with the already posited argument, is doubly destroyed.


    • If you are trying to create work that has value, your job is managing interpretation to get across your intended value. Even if your failure to do so is not entirely intentional on your part, it is still failure. The chaos of emergent creativity must be accounted for in creation.


      • Ross Van Loan says:

        I bow down sardonically before the vastness of both your intellect and your god-like lack of subconsciousness.


  2. Benjamin Telford says:

    The Themian argument isn’t saying that context doesn’t matter at all, rather that context doesn’t work as a defence against certain specific criticisms. In the example Dan gives, a writer may try to defend their work from the criticism of it depicting rape monsters by arguing that there is a reason these rape monsters exist within the context of the story. That defence basically boils down to “I can’t help depicting the rape monsters, because I invented a context in which these rape monsters must exist”. The logical response to that defence is “your hands aren’t tied because you chose to invent the context that particular way, so it was your decision – and still a bad one – to include the rape monsters”.

    Going back to Pollock, does pointing out that the painting is an example of abstract expressionism actually defend against the criticism that it looks like a childish mess? Yes, within that art context, the painting is a fine example of that form of art, but the important thing to remember is that the artist still chose to paint within the confines of that context, and if the beholder considers abstract expressionism itself to be a childish, messy art style, the defender hasn’t actually defended anything. All the critic needs to do to respond is say “well then abstract expressionism is a bit rubbish, and you’re a rubbish artist for using it.


  3. Warren says:

    Dan’s argument is saying an in-text justification for something in a work does not counter critiques subtext.

    While the argument he makes is entirely in regards to fictional worlds in books, movies, and video games, out of that context I don’t think your example hold up.

    Dan is saying:

    Criticism of the world is not countered by saying that’s how the world is.
    Criticism of a culture is not countered by saying things are okay within the culture’s view of itself.
    Criticism of religion is not countered by saying a religion is views something the critic disagrees with as okay

    Person 2 is not making a Thermian argument in regards to Pollock, because art styles are not a product of fiction, but things that exist in the world we live in.


  4. Josef Stadtfeld says:

    Gratulation, you completly missunderstood a 5min Video over a single subject 😉
    The Argument states, that the context within a fictional work is no defense of what happens within the world.
    Thats it.


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