By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
It is well known that philosophers like to argue, and one of the things they like to argue about is arguing itself. Argumentation is frequently (and rightly, to my mind) taken to be a core feature of philosophical practice, and thus how to argue becomes a central topic for philosophical methodology. But many have claimed that the centrality of argumentation within philosophy is a weakness rather than a strength, deploring the excessively adversarial nature of argumentation in philosophy. Critics point out that philosophers are trained to find objections, counterexamples, rebuttals etc. to what their philosophical interlocutors say, who are tellingly described as one’s opponents. On this conception, argumentation is a duel between two opponents, and only one of them can win; blood will often ensue. Much of the criticism has been motivated by feminist concerns: aggressive, adversarial styles of argumentation are oppressive towards women and other disadvantaged groups, emphasizing competition (which is often presented to be an essentially ‘male’ feature) at the expense of cooperative, presumably more productive endeavors. Some of the authors having defended ideas along these lines are Janice Moulton and Andrea Nye (see here for a survey article by C. Hundleby).
A few years ago I became interested in how the presumed adversarial nature of philosophical argumentation affected not only the practice but also the outcome of philosophical investigation. It seemed to me that, while some of the feminist criticism definitely struck a cord if not with the theory at least with the practice of philosophy in some (well, many) quarters, the general critical stance that is characteristic of philosophical interactions was still an essential and epistemically valuable feature of the philosophical method. (Btw, it may be worth noting that this is not unique to philosophy; mathematics seems to proceed by ‘proofs and refutations’ (Lakatos), and in many if not all of the empirical and social sciences, objections and criticism are the bread-and-butter of the theorist.)
And so I began to toy around with the concept of ‘virtuous adversariality’, which is an attempt to show that a certain element of adversariality, thus understood, could be combined with a generous dose of cooperation in fruitful, productive ways (see here for reflections on the concept by Ian James Kidd). An author who has made similar points is Trudy Govier in The Philosophy of Argumentation; she too wants to take onboard some of the feminist criticism of the belligerent conception of argumentation, but does not want to abandon the adversariality component altogether. To this end, I take inspiration from ancient dialectic, in particular some of Plato’s dialogues and Aristotle’s Topics, to develop the concept of virtuous adversariality. (I’ve given a few talks on this material at a number of places and wrote a few blog posts, but the ultimate article version of the story is still waiting to be written. Next item on my to-do list!)
Indeed, one important component in how we think about philosophical argumentation concerns the metaphors we use to talk about argumentation. [UPDATE (Jan 21): an important reference on metaphors for argumentation is D. Cohen's 1995 'Argument is war... and war is hell' Check also his TED talk.] As correctly pointed out by a number of authors, the duel metaphor is pervasive, so much so that interlocutors are described as opponents (as noted above); moves in the dialogue are described as ‘attacks’ and ‘defenses’; one ‘keeps score’ of how many points each side has scored. In argumentation understood as a zero-sum game, for someone to ‘win’ will necessarily entail that someone will lose. Check out the infelicitous cover of a widely popular textbook on argumentation (one of the authors being my wonderful colleague Erik Krabbe):
But going back to at least some of the passages where Aristotle describes dialectical interactions in the Topics (admittedly, some other passages have clear belligerent undertones), what one finds is the description of a practice where participants have a common goal rather than being in overt competition against each other (although there is still the minimally adversarial component of defending opposite views) -- see here. What this suggests is the possibility of combining adversariality and cooperation, as suggested above. Classical game-theory has somehow convinced us that there are two basic kinds of games, purely adversarial, zero-sum games and cooperative games, but the truth is that most interesting human practices fall somewhere between a spectrum of which flat-out adversariality and unconditional cooperation are the two extremities.
There are, however, other metaphors to think about argumentation that do not fall within the ‘game’ spectrum in obvious ways. In some of Plato’s dialogues (e.g. the Gorgias) the Socratic method is described as a form of therapy whereby an interlocutor is purged of false beliefs (in the spirit of the classical conception of disease as corresponding to the presence of impurities in the body). In a similar vein, Socrates sometimes presents himself as a kind of ‘midwife’. An interesting aspect of this conception is that some amount of unease and pain will typically be associated with the ‘treatment’, just as it befits genuine medical treatment (on the classical conception at least, centered around practices of blood-letting and so forth). But as a result, he or she who undergoes the treatment will after the pain find him/herself in a healthier epistemic state. It may be worth noticing that the Socratic idea of philosophy as a kind of therapy is also to be found for example in the later Wittgenstein (though Socractic therapy and Wittgensteinian therapy are conceived in very different ways).
I find the therapeutical conception of (philosophical) argumentation quite attractive for a number of reasons, but there is a paternalistic component to it that does not sit well with me. In particular, there seems to be an inherent asymmetry between the person administering the treatment and the person receiving it. So recently, I’ve been thinking about yet a different metaphor for argumentation, taking as a starting point the idea that (one of) the point(s) of argumentation is the transfer of reasons (see here for the concept of transferability).
If I hold belief P and I want to share with you what I take to be something of value, namely the belief P (which I take to be true, or at least plausible), I can do this by sharing with you my reasons, my grounds for believing in P. What is characteristic of argumentation is the presumption that my reasons for believing P are likely to be reasons for you to believe P too, unlike for example in the case of knowledge obtained by illumination or from an oracle (which is not sharable in the same way, though perhaps in different ways). So when presenting an argument, rather than seeking to force you to grant P, what I truly want to accomplish is to transfer to you my belief in P by offering my reasons for endorsing P. The degree to which you will take these reasons at face value will change according to the context. In mathematics, for example (as I’ve argued in a number of places), quite stringent criteria of what counts as appropriate grounds are in place (and in fact these criteria vary between different areas of mathematics), in particular what counts as a valid proof. In other contexts, there is no need to scrutinize the reasons offered to the same extent. This conception also highlights the importance of the reliability attributed to the informant, the one providing reasons – currently a core topic within (social) epistemology.
Naturally, there are many circumstances in which the producer of an argument has much to gain in practical terms if she manages to convince her interlocutors to endorse the belief P argued for. So the point is not to argue for a naïve conception of argumentation as always amounting to sharing and all being happy together; of course argumentation can also be put to very ugly uses. But on this conception, the receiver is also in a position to refuse the epistemic goods being passed on to him, and may then go on to offer his reasons for viewing the reasons of his interlocutor to endorse P as implausible. With some exaggeration perhaps, we may want to describe this conception as the ‘gift-exchange’ conception of argumentation.
Now, this is all very much work in progress, and indeed much still needs to happen for the ‘gift-exchange’ analogy to become fully articulated. But prima facie at least it seems to have a number of attractive features, in particular the symmetry between participants and an emphasis on the social and cooperative nature of knowledge production and circulation as the exchange of reasons (cf. Brandom’s ‘game of giving and asking for reasons’). After all, sharing is caring, and if argumentation can be cashed out in terms of epistemic practices of sharing, all the better!