In November of last year I shelled out lots money and put an extensive amount of effort into attending the Society for Phenomenology and Existentialist Philosophy’s annual conference in Chicago. Eventually I made it and found myself listening to both good and bad papers, drinking many a cup of coffee from Cafe Descartes (their motto was “I drink therefore I am”), and unfortunately being rather confused by how both professor and student alike conducted themselves. Through out the conference I heard many post lecture discussions become pointless bickering motivated more by personal pride rather than any kind of noble quest for truth and knowledge. I suppose the final straw came when the key note speaker was interrupted by philosopher Alfonso Lingis (perhaps some of you attended his lecture at UNF) snoozing loudly through his presentation.
By the following Spring semester I had come to notice that the negative trends I saw in the arguments of the philosophy conference permeated much of the discussion in my philosophy classes as well. To focus my criticisms here, I’d like to establish exactly what these negative trends are and spend the rest of the post discussing how me may over come them to better facilitate productive and enjoyable philosophical discussion.
To begin I’d like to bring to mind the contemporary notion of the term ‘argument’. I believe it’s typically something involving two opposing view points being angrily discussed. Very rarely is logic given much value but rather we end up with a situation in which someone becomes the “winner” via some kind of terrifying brute force. As much as I hate referencing the dictionary, it in fact provides two subtly differing definitions, the first of which roughly corresponds to the description I just provided (we’ll discuss the second shortly). Though we, as philosophers, like to think our arguments are somewhat different, this unfortunately is not the case. I’m sure we can all agree that remaining calm, collected, and open minded is not easy when our philosophical paradigms (some of which we may have held for years) come under fire. I’m reminded of a recent anecdote when a very intelligent class mate of mine nearly exploded during an argument of realism vs. anti-realism. Beyond this I’m sure many of us know the story of Wittgenstein’s poker.
Such vicious methods of argument are truly not suited for philosophical debate and I believe stand in the way of productive collaboration between philosophers. I’d like to reveal the dictionary’s second definition of argument which goes something like: a set of reasons meant to persuade others of a certain idea’s validity. With this definition we see a shift of persuasive power. In the concept of argument I discussed above the main persuasive force eventually becomes the angry forcefulness of the participants eventually rendering the ideas being discussed obsolete. However in the second, more peaceful notion of argument it is the idea itself that is the main locus of persuasive power. This is where the true craft of philosophical argument is at its peak as the philosopher must construct an argument powerful enough to persuade others with out bullying them into submission.
Brutal arguments can have another effect on philosophical exchange that I would like to discuss. As most of you know, philosophical arguments are often constructed of many intricate parts that are essential to a true understanding of the final conclusion. If these details are overlooked a misunderstanding is very likely to occur setting the stage for some very confusing conversation. Here we realize the undeniable value of listening (or reading closely as is the case with the blog). This kind of listening is best achieved with an open mind (a phrase so over used I feel all too cliche using it here). If someone enters into a philosophical conversation having already decided their position, it is clear that not only are the details meaningless to them, so is the conclusion. If everyone recalls the post I made on this blog a year and a half ago, I made an attempt at Peter Singer’s notion of Speciesm with the general conclusion being that I really did not find Singer’s notions of speciesm very convincing. Many of the replies I received were somewhat thoughtful, however there were also a great amount that were wildly off topic. In the end I had gone from not buying speciesism to being accused of defending ill treatment of animals and being a speciesist myself.
I feel like I’ve gone a bit astray here so to brings things back to focus, if you’re going to respond to an argument, it is best to respond to the actual argument itself, and in doing so adequately consider each intricate premise to best maintain the original notion meant by the argument’s originator. All too often I’ve seen people disregard an argument’s details to instead attack the argument based on its philosophical paradigm or on the various notions a person may have associated with the argument (i.e. someone arguing against one notion of the christian god being lambasted as an atheist).
Despite only really outlining two negative trends in argument, I feel as if I’ve covered enough ground to get my point across. To wrap up I’d like to briefly outline what I’ve meant through out this post by good or productive philosophy (which I believe to be the aim of good philosophical discussion). In engaging in such discussion I think in one sense it always important to remember that we are dealing with something that is much bigger than ourselves and thus should always treat it in such a way. Whether you espouse realism, egoism, phenomenology, or the flat earth theory (yes, it still exists) keep in mind that the ideas and methodologies you are discussing are the collaborative result of many individuals. Thus when arguing in their defense do not use it as an opportunity to defend your own pride and dignity but rather as an opportunity to add to the philosophical collaboration by way of your arguments. Above all I think it is important that we as philosophers enjoy our discipline, as there is nothing that replaces the satisfaction that comes from better understanding a bit of Heidegger, getting that one point up on your substance dualist friends, or even being stumped by the neighborhood idealist.