On Recovering Dialectic in Argument

A few years ago, I was teaching college freshmen how to write argumentative research papers: Taking a side of a particular issue and using actual research to make a compelling case for that side. Invariably, I would have a student who was especially passionate about a particular topic: legalizing marijuana, abortion rights, and lowering the drinking age were what drew the most attention. These papers were always well researched; it seemed as though students thought that if they could convince me, they would have an impenetrable case for something that was deeply important to them–a worthwhile endeavor. The most glaring issue with a large number of these papers, however, was that they typically failed to take into account the opposing viewpoint. The university at which I taught even had a database called Opposing Viewpoints as part of its library resources which linked students to a variety of periodical and peer reviewed sources. As a result many of these papers ended up being a victory parade before any challenger was ever faced: a self-congratulatory exercise. The best papers I received always took their opposition seriously and tried their best to meet those challenges head on, whether they were entirely convincing or not. Sometimes engagement with the other side even led a student to change his or her position.

I want to state a case for something very simple that has been important in the philosophical understanding of rhetorical argument but which I very much doubt has ever been a consciously recognized tool in popular argumentation. Dialectic, which I will define in a minute, is a tool as old as Plato that would be immensely helpful if applied publicly. By “publicly,” I don’t mean in the political sphere necessarily (though it certainly couldn’t hurt), or the Media at large (because critical thought is not what they’re in the business of selling), and I’m not really interested in arguing for its importance within the Church as such (then again, a little could go a long way); my aims aren’t that grandiose. I just want my friends to use it, at least think about using it, in social media when they’re arguing about issues like gun control, gay marriage, or any other myriad of hot topics that seems to flood my newsfeed daily.

Argument is a techne, to use Aristotle’s term–an art. It requires finesse, guile, and above all a level head in order to see how one can appeal to those one is attempting to reach. It seems over the last five years or so with the exponential rise Internet message boards and social media comment threads, we’ve been bombarded by voices upon voices screaming their viewpoints at the top of their lungs. At the risk of oversimplifying, there seem to be two options: Ignore those sorts of conversations altogether, or change the disposition with which we enter them in the first place. What I want to propose here is called dialectic, but it doesn’t even need that name. It’s simply taking a viewpoint opposed to yours seriously enough to critically reflect on it and honestly ask yourself if there is something worthwhile there that you may be missing. This isn’t as a hard and fast system of rules by which we must abide; it’s a guide and a means for opening the door to productive discourse in the first place.

Dialectic consists of three parts: Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. If you ever participated in a “Socratic Seminar” method of classroom discussion in high school or college, then you’ve probably encountered this either explicitly or not. The idea is that one person offers a claim, a thesis statement. This is countered by another statement, the antithesis. The method, recognizing that there is probably value in both statements, seeks to draw out the truth kernel in each and form a synthesis of both, thus creating a new thesis statement. The process then starts over until, as Socrates [Plato] hoped, one arrives at Truth itself where no more antitheses may be offered against the True thesis statement.

The problem with most popular political debates is that they begin from the point of Truth. That is, the first argument offered is itself Truth in the mind of the person offering it. There is nothing more to be said except subpoints which can do nothing but support the initial truth claim. Those themselves are of course true because the initial statement is. This is called circular reasoning. At the risk of being incendiary, take this example:

P1: All marriages are between man and woman.

P2: All homosexual relationships are between man and man or woman and woman

Q: Therefore, all marriages exclude homosexual relationships.

This simple syllogism (a kind of logical philosophical argument) is logically valid but not logically sound. It’s valid because we have two premises and a conclusion drawn from them that doesn’t contradict either. But if we think about the premises, we might see a problem. Both are definitional, but only one is what we would call a tautology: P2. Put simply, a tautology is a statement in which the predicate repeats what the subject is in all possible interpretations. In other words, we define a homosexual relationship as a relationship between two people of the same sex. There is no other way to interpret the term “homosexual relationship.” But consider P1. A person making this argument would probably assume that P1 is also a tautology. But it begs the question: Is it? Is marriage only between man and woman? This is indeed the very crux of the debate itself. P1 is not an agreed-upon definition for marriage; to state it as such is to inevitably draw a fallacious, unsound conclusion. That’s not to say one couldn’t make a case for why P1 should be accepted, and if you’re compelled to quote the Bible or talk about God’s covenant, then I’ve done my job–you realize that further proof is needed for P1.

Dialectic demands two things of us in an argument. First, we are required  not to begin with Truth, but to realize that one’s initial proposition is simply a thesis that one expects to be rebutted with an intelligent antithesis. (The word “intelligent” is problematic, of course, in these sorts of disagreements because the assumption on both sides is almost always that the opposition is not intelligent; for our purposes, however, we will proceed as if the opposition does have some degree of intelligence. We want to be generous dialecticians.) Second, the method forces us to listen to the opposing viewpoint receptively. Dialectic doesn’t work if we’re not actively trying to draw out what might be true in what the other person is saying.

That’s all I’m after here. What would a social media debate look like if two (or more) people engaged in this type of discussion or, at the very least, allowed it to inform how they enter into these sorts of disagreements? I’d like to go one small step further and submit that even if a person on the other side of the fence seems unwilling to engage in this sort of discussion, begins with a mild insult, etc., it is still possible to treat that person’s propositions as theses to be considered and synthesized if for no other reason than to exercise our own critical thought muscles. I want to expand our notion of what is engageable in argument and how we should go about engaging others (to an extent and within one’s own practical limits of course. There are most certainly very serious exceptions where a proposition is simply abusive, offensive, and genuinely offers no usable insight, but at that point, one should feel no guilt about simply exiting the thread.)

With these very basic principles of argument in mind, even engaging someone like this Sam Elliot meme should be possible.

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2 thoughts on “On Recovering Dialectic in Argument

  1. wellis68s says:

    Great stuff! I think your suggestions provide exactly the sort of posture we should adopt if we are ever going to be able to redeem social media as a legitimate medium for dialogue. Thanks!

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