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.

14 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.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 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.


  5. It’s unfortunate but not surprising that a certain tribe deems it necessary to construct and subsequently parrot a video analysis to mask moral badgering.

    A reply here demonstrates how this is overlooked:

    “The Argument states, that the context within a fictional work is no defense of what happens within the world.
    Thats it.”

    But that isn’t “it”. The problem lies in the subversive and partisan nature of the critique itself. The critique which armors itself on the topic of “artistic integrity” is nothing more than criticism based on the moral sensibilities of the critic and culture of the critiques origin. Dan Olson and others simply do not want to admit to engaging in a culture war over media. They don’t want to admit to pinning people into a corner of either constructing justifications or admitting to moral wrongdoing. “R-pe should not be pornographic” is a moral stance, but they want that stance to be shrouded as clinical.

    They believe so fervently that media consumption leads to real life results, but cannot open with that idea because adults are not children and do not take rules imparted on them about consumption seriously. It MUST be framed as the capacity to do harm and spread unhealthiness. So in order to relay that certain media is unacceptable and repugnant, they must first lay the groundwork for their overt clinical argument. Bring any of this up, however, and they begin to recoil at the very notion that you would in-turn consider the human element of their critique.

    People always start with the strongest and undeniable premise first. Then they begin to fallaciously pontificate.

    I mentioned partisanship before and this is quite important – it doesn’t matter if a SA victim argues against the moral advocacy about “r-pe porn”. Standpoint theory is a thin veneer of justice based on an acceptable premise, but in reality it plays out as partisanship and derision of all other perspectives as Uncle Tom’s. That’s what happens when you uphold the collective cause as favorable to acknowledging principles and individuals. What do you suppose Dan says about a woman or a lesbian that doesn’t have problems with ‘problematic’ or ‘unhealthy’ media existing?

    There’s quite a lot of the quagmire to unpack and I could continue for a while, but I’ll end it there. Overlapping, intertwined stances are annoying.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. If you want to find a good counterargument against the idea of the “Thermian Argument”, look no further than Pokemon.

    If we were to judge it according to Dan’s rules, then Pokemon is an animal abuse simulator and that is deeply problematic. You literally own Pokemon, and make them fight other Pokemon without their consent. You beat the wild Pokemon up, capture them, and effectively, own them. And after you catch a Pokemon, it obeys your very command even though you just bashed them to near death and possibly even poisoned it. This is total Stockholm Syndrome.

    Not only that, but you get to force your Pokemon to fight other trainers who also have captured their Pokemon. And if you win, you win money that you can use to buy more Pokeballs. As a result, you are abusing fictional animals to make a profit, which feeds into a positive feedback loop to abuse even more fictional animals.

    And the game portrays it as if this is a normal thing. This is extremely problematic because it will send wrong messages to the players and poses a danger of normalizing real animal abuse. “But the Pokemon see you as a friend”, you may say. “When you battle and capture Pokemon, they listen to you because they acknowledge your strength and skills”. Well, it doesn’t matter if that is true. That’s a Thermian Argument. What only matters are the moral real life implications, that Pokemon poses a danger of normalizing animal abuse.

    See how absurd the idea of the Thermian Argument is if we are to judge on Dan’s criteria? The moral argument is obviously lunatic, but is artificially propped up by crying “Thermian Argument!”. Basically, it’s less so an argumentative concept and more of an authoritarian tool to stifle reasonable defenses of fictional works.


    • Werty Wilhelm says:

      No, I don’t see. You just state the argument is “absurd” and “lunatic”. But the analysis and argument(sans the T. A.) is very compelling.

      How did you manage to write all this and forget the counterargument?


      • “You just state the argument is “absurd” and “lunatic”.”

        This just shows that you only read part of my comment. Not an argument.

        “How did you manage to write all this and forget the counterargument?”

        What counterargument? The idea that the Thermian Argument exists is nothing more than Jack Thompson-esque busy-bodying. And the Pokemon example is just the tip of the iceberg of the myriad of flaws the Thermian Argument has.


      • Ross VanLoan says:

        Good Lord, if I’d had any idea how long this inane ghost would linger…. I don’t care what you think ; I have no idea who you are! Please feel free to keep your brilliance to yourself, magus.



      • Are you referring to me or Werty, Ross?


  7. Vance says:

    My issue is that people like Mr. Olsen keep making assertions about ‘x leading to y’ without providing evidence. Statements such as “depictions of rape monsters is detrimental to society” are statistical claims that require evidence. I refuse to limit my creative expressions based on conjecture alone.


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