Archive for November 27th, 2012

In praise of argument

The title of this blog is, obviously, a bit of a joke. But not entirely a joke. Arguing is not necessarily, I’d argue, a bad thing. Indeed, given how given I am to arguing, I tend to see it in rather a positive light.  For what’s an opinion worth, any opinion, if it doesn’t have a bit of argument to go with it?

Looking around various discussion boards on the net, there appears to be a general feeling that an opinion is, somehow, sacrosanct. “It’s my opinion and I am entitled to it.” I’ve frequently seen that sentiment expressed quite explicitly. The mere statement of mere opinion is widely seen as the end of discussion, and challenging it virtually a personal affront. Patrick Stokes, lecturer in philosophy, takes issue with this: you’re not entitled to your opinion, he thunders. (Or, at least, I imagine he would thunder, for if anything is to be thundered, it is this.) You are entitled only to what you can argue.

Splendid rhetoric, but even as I applaud, I can see that it’s not really true. Of course you are entitled to your opinion. Everyone is. But what you are not entitled to is to have that opinion taken seriously. That accolade you only get that if you can present an argument for your opinion. That argument may be a good one or a bad one, or, most usually, something somewhere in between; but when an argument is at least presented, we have a starting point from which we can go on to determine how good or otherwise the opinion is. Without argument, we have nothing – not even that starting point.

And yet, arguing is something we never teach our children to do. We tell them when they are very young not to argue – and quite rightly, for arguing is not something one can do well without first acquiring some ability; but we never reverse this teaching when they are old enough to learn to argue properly. For, properly considered, arguing is a skill, and it does need to be learnt. The art of rhetoric, and the understanding of even the most basic rules of logic, are all inexplicably absent from our liberal education, and, as a consequence, argument is seen as a bad thing, and “argumentative” as a pejorative. And all we are left with is mere opinion. To which, we convince ourselves, we are entitled.

I do not mean to be dismissive when I speak of “mere opinion”. No, on second thoughts, I do. For “mere opinion” can and should be dismissed, even if it should turn out to be a good opinion. The dictionary defines “mere” as, amongst other things, “being nothing more than what is specified”. In short, “mere opinion” means “no more than opinion”. Or, in other words, “opinion unsupported by argument”. And what, I ask myself, is the point of that?

I often post on this blog thoughts that are not fully formed, in the hope that it will lead to discussion and debate; and that, in the course of this discussion and debate, I can come to viewpoints more considered, less inchoate. If I were to be restricted only to my own opinions without offering arguments for them, I would merely be trapped within my own mind. And, believe me, that’s not a pleasant place to be trapped in.

Inevitably, words are important. This is our means of communication – and, on this blog, where the occasional picture I put up is intended to be no more than decorative, our sole means of communication. Words have denotative meanings, and also connotative meanings, and they all count. This is why, when we debate matters, the words we use should be scrutinised, questioned, and their various levels of meaning teased out – those meanings we had intended, and those we hadn’t.

This is what I understand as “argument”. I understand it to be probing each other’s viewpoints; questioning the wording, and teasing out subtleties and complexities that are not immediately apparent; picking holes in what others are saying, and having holes picked in what I myself am saying, so that in attempting to fill in these holes, we may consider things we hadn’t considered before.

And the point is not necessarily to win. Often, the point is simply to see how well one’s thoughts stand up to scrutiny. If I come out of an argument without having modified my own thoughts in the light of something I had not previously considered, I tend to feel that the argument has somehow been unsuccessful; that, at some vital point, it has failed.

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The titling of this blog was inspired by the title of this book by Amartya Sen. Indeed, my first title for this blog was “The Argumentative Indian”, but having now spent 47 of my 52 years in Britain, and rather liking it here, I really don’t know, culturally speaking, how much of an Indian I still am. But if, as Sen argues, questioning, disputing, arguing; being combative and contentious and disputatious; are all time-honoured aspects of Indian intellectual traditions, then these are traditions to which I am happy to lay claim. If I am indeed argumentative, then I am happy to be so; and if not, then this is a state to which I aspire.

So three cheers for being argumentative!