Linda Martin Alcoff tells an interesting tale about Roderick Chisholm in her Stone piece yesterday in the New York Times. As a graduate student, she asked a question in his seminar; he replied by demolishing and ridiculing her (as a philosopher of his ability could easily have done with any graduate student). But later he approached her to ask if she was ok. She writes:
I knew his capacity to turn a student’s dissenting opinion into a jello mold of quivering meaninglessness, to the class’s mirth. I admired his abilities. But I still wanted to see how he would respond to my specific questions. Despite his jokes, one could garner from his response to my questions a substantive philosophical rejoinder. It was a perfectly legitimate philosophical exchange, livened up a bit to keep his students awake.
Does the discipline really need to be legalistic in form, with one side posing adversarial arguments against the other? To some extent, yes. The sides are not supported by experiment or observation; they are supported only by argument. To the extent that philosophers go opposite ways, there is bound to be argument on two sides of a position.
That much is true. But why does there have to be so much argument against? True, people sometimes make errors, and these should be pointed out, if they are important enough. Much more often, disagreement depends on how one weighs the evidence, and it is often more constructive simply to say why one accepts a certain point of view, why the evidence in favour compels you more than the evidence opposed. As Alcoff writes: "the aim of truth is enhanced less by adversarial argument than by a receptivity that holds back on disagreement long enough to try out the new ideas on offer." Does counter-example need to be such a major trope in philosophy?
Encouragingly, argument of the adversarial type is going out of style. There is a great deal more cooperation and mutual appreciation now than there was in the days of Chisholm and Fodor. This is perhaps most true in fields where there is a core of undisputedly factual material. The history of philosophy is markedly less pugilistic now than used to be the fashion; the same is true of areas where empirical research provides some of the data—empirical philosophy of mind, philosophy of biology, and so on.