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.)