Monday, June 27, 2011

A Couple of Brief Thoughts on the Art Discussion (or Arguing)

(Please forgive any lapses in clarity, or crazy typos--my almost-one-year-old is helping me today.)

Man is a social creature. Part of being social is conversation and discussion of thoughts, ideas, and opinions. Often times these discussions can turn into arguments, because there are multiple thoughts, ideas, and opinions on the same subject matter. It can be quite easy to get caught up in one of these conversations and hurt someone's feelings, or to get one's own feelings bruised.

Being married to a Philosopher means that I have lots of experience with discussions! I have, on occasion, found myself trapped into an absurd position because of a long line of the following:

Philosopher: "If you say That, then you really are saying This, right?"
Me: "Well, I suppose so. That does logically follow."
Philosopher: "And This means that you hold Absurd Position."
Me: "Well, that's what it seems like. (Pause as the absurdity of the position fully sinks in.) But that's not what I mean!"

I have also seen what another blogger terms a "philosopher-attack". This is where the philosopher in question gets so engrossed in the discussion that it can sound angry, or feel offensive, but in all actuality the philosopher is simply trying to get as much information as possible and see how the information holds together.

With my experience I believe that I have some ideas that others might find helpful:

Words like "Never", "Always", "Every", etc, are incredibly overused today, and generally should be avoided in most discussions. There are so many exceptions! Also, people like to say things like,

"Blank is NEVER right."
"Insert your choice of objection."
"Oh, well, of course I don't mean in THAT circumstance--that would be ridiculous!"

Well, then you don't really mean NEVER, do you? Just because something seems like obvious exclusion to you doesn't mean that it will obvious to someone else.

Discussion has healthy back and forth, it should be a give and take exchange. Don't just talk past one another--LISTEN and give thoughtful consideration to what is being said. Be careful not to shoot questions as if they were on trial. No one likes to feel that they are in the middle of an inquisition.

Be considerate of other people's feelings. Don't let a discussion turn into a personal attack. Also, don't take criticism of an idea as a personal attack. I find this "rule" to be especially difficult to follow in online discussion--such as on Facebook. In that format so many of the little things get lost: general body language, voice inflection, a smile.

This is the most important point that I would like to make today.

Are you ready for it?


When discussing a difference in opinion the objective is NOT to "win" the argument. The objective is to discover the truth. There shouldn't be "winners" or "losers". Both/all parties engaged in a discussion should feel that they gained some new insight into the subject matter.


  1. This article made me angry!

    And that's because I wrote a very very long and brilliant comment, but my browser timed out and it was lost. And I am not retyping *that* -- it was ginormous.

  2. Oh no! That's a shame. Maybe you could go for the condensed version? :-)

  3. Mmmm... well despite having several paragraphs devoted to various aspects of personal observation and discussion of this topic with Dane, I think my main point was that, in my experience, it is less often a discussion, or a Platonic Dialogue, than an interrogation. While I see the philosophical connection between the intellectual curiosity displayed by the on-going discussion and the particular attention to terms, the form of the so-called discussion reflects the Law Student and not the philosopher.

    Hence for Christmas, I expressed my intent to procure a gift of long black robes and a powdered wig.

    My reasons for saying this are:
    A) Peter generally focuses on the circumstantial terms used to express a certain idea, rather than the idea itself.
    B) I believe a discussion would include counter proposals, which Peter's rarely does.
    C) The discussion devolves into an argument over terms so that instead of the original thesis being discussed or debated, some qualifying and tangential argument which may not even be relevant, becomes the main focus.
    D) One rarely finds out what Peter actually thinks on the original topic, which is generally why one has a discussion--to express ideas and get input...about the idea, not how it was just stated.
    E) Peter is not wearing a Toga, at least not when I have argued with him. A Philosopher would.
    F) I have never seen a bust of Aristotle on Peter's premises.
    G) In the end, it always feels like one is on the stand and Peter has picked apart one's statements to the point that the original point is lost and feels irrelevant--exactly how a defense lawyer disqualifies and disorients a witness.

    Obviously terms and qualifications are very important to an argument, but sometimes more than others, say if I were a scientist proposing a theory, the Vatican writing a catechism, I was teaching a class, I was a politician who needed to be clear, etc. But in general everyday discussion sometimes it is beneficial to show one understands what is meant by reflecting the statement or idea back, perhaps in better or more perfect terms, then continue with where the discussion was intended to go, rather than become bogged down on terms or a tangential argument.

    And this is where I give Dane credit. People used to complain when we lived together about how he argued with them, but while Dane did a very similar thing Peter tends to do, there were three distinct differences:
    A) Dane usually revealed he was playing devil's advocate
    B) At the same time he usually revealed he actually agrees
    C) In any event he proposed his own theory or idea; in fact this was usually the reason for him dissecting one's argument in the first place, to see why the person thought that and how it contrasted/aligned with his own reasons for conclusion.

    All of the above made it more fun. Dane also laughed at his proponent less.

    That all being said, I enjoy sparring (at least that's what it ends up feeling like) with Peter, and look forward to it. It certainly should not be concluded that I resent it, even if I criticize the methodology, which I complain of primarily because the original thesis is lost by the wayside and the argument becomes stuck on a tangent, as I mentioned before. An experience Dane I believe has noted for himself as well. I think some may have thought I was angry at Peter over one such discussion on our past vacation; truth was, I was annoyed at everyone *except* Peter (And Catherine, who at least pretends to be innocent); what I dislike most is dismissive silent treatment. Another downside is, that since Peter seems to rarely express his own concrete views, ie, when you can actually stop the argument and say, "Well, what do you think about idea x?" Usually the response is, "I think I *would say* that.." (Emphasis added). This can give the impression of ambiguity of outlook, etc.

    So I just want to know what Peter really thinks, not just what he might say.

    Thus ends the condensed version.

  4. Apparently, you aren't paying enough attention to the Jem'Hadar. If you were, you would know that "victory is life." :-P


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