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.

***

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!

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21 responses to this post.

  1. Hip, hip, hooray!

    My parents definitely encouraged me to argue- so long as I was making a logical point and not just complaining.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Brian Joseph on November 28, 2012 at 2:12 am

    Great post.

    I would say however that the best conversations usually involve a mix of argument, agreement and explaining. Like life human communications works best when it is complex.

    I will not argue your point about arguing well 🙂 I love a great conversation between folks who communicate, listen to one another, and of course remain civil. It seems that as of late, at least in the USA, too many people resort to downright rudeness and emotional rants when disagreeing. Of course politics is the obvious example of this, but this tendenc,.seems to be creeping into all kinds of discourse. Of course not everyone is guilty of this, but too many are.

    Reply

    • It’s not just in the USA!

      As far as I can see, what usually passes for argument is, effectively, people shouting at each other and not listening to what the other is saying; and even, quite often, not listening to what they are saying themselves. How often do you get anyone say in an argument “Yes, good point – I’ll need to go away and think about that”? Why is everyone so absolutely sure about everything that they can’t even contemplate the possibility that there may be some things they haven’t consiered?

      I don’t mean one shouldn’t argue passionately: I myself feel passionately about many things, and argue in a passionate manner. But if I want to influence other people’s thought, then surely I should not shut away my own thoughts from the possibility of being similarly influenced!

      I’d love to see argument as a collaborative rather than as a confrontational process, but I can’t see it happening, I’m afraid.

      Reply

  3. Happy to read this. Good argumentation is crucial, more important than correct arguments. Too often I see readers evaluate non-fiction and criticism by the conclusion – do I agree or not. Who cares? More productive – is it well-argued?

    Reply

  4. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on November 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    I think open debate does have a value but I don’t believe it has much to offer in the expounding, consolidating and illuminating of arguement.

    If we think of writing, which until very recently was never an interactive medium in which to express your views and arguements for them, then one great liberty of the writer is that there is nothing to readily take issue with him/her until they have been allowed to fully present their entire hand.

    This simply can’t happen in open debate. One of the purposes of this forum is to prevent one voice taking over. The skills required to be effective in this are quite substantially different to arguing in discourse or isolation, and possibly somewhat shallower.

    Most people also suggest that effective arguement with productive ends comes about when there is diversity within a group of arguers. However, I think the opposite is true.

    if I were to be engaged in debate with, say, a pro-Taliban individual, their views would be too far removed from mine to have any criteria where even the smallest platform of discourse could take place. I would say that there needs to be some commonality of base in any discourse/arguement situation for it to have any value.

    Reply

    • Hello Shonti, you make a good point that writing has only comparatively recently become a widespread means of interaction, and that virtually all debate before the emergence of the internet was carried out in speech, face to face. So it is all the more to be regretted that the one advantage debate in writing has over debate in speech- the time to consider and to ratiocinate before speaking – is so rarely taken advantage of.

      I tend to prefer debating in writing rather than debating in speech, mainly because I am more literate than I am articulate. I will rephrase that: I am even less articulate than I am literate. Often, when one is dealing with subtle and complex ideas, and ideas that may not yet be fully formed in my own mind, I need the time not only to think as clearly as I can, but also the time to formulate my thoughts as best I can in words, and the time to expound all my thoughts in a structured manner. One never has this luxury in verbal debate, where, quite frequently, one gets interrupted even before one has finished speaking. I don’t think I have been involved in a verbal debate yet where I have come away thinking I have expressed myself in even an adequate manner.

      I agree with you that to be able to engage in constructive debate, one must have at least some common ground. The example you give – debating with a pro-Taliban – is, of course, an extreme example. More usually, there is often much common ground between protagonists – even protagonists with widely divergent perspectives. I try not to get into political debate on the net, as that invariably generates more light than heat. I don’t know what it is about political debate – or, rather, what passes for debate – but it is difficult to find anyone with any political views of any shade who does not think that anyone disagreeing with them must be a knave or a fool or both. And before you say so, I know – I can be guilty of this myself.

      Reply

      • I am not sure I fully agree with Shonti’s basic tenet (re: writing), or at the very least I think I may be closer to Himadri. Certainly writing has a quality that makes debate a more extenuated affair than is the case with oral arguments (as Himadri has already pointed out), but writing has always had some element of interaction in it — however, this interaction depends to some degree on the writer and to a great degree on the passivity of the reader’s mind. The more one believes the words are carved in stone, the less one will debate them. But books have margins — and from very early on (long before the printing press) those margins enabled a rather rich interactivity. Not the full, rich interactivity that the internet provides, but not an absence of interactivity either.

        Something of this has to do with how one writes as well as how one reads (i.e it is both a product of rhetorical thought and hermeneutic thought — which to my mind are twins that should never be taken separately and whose absence from the modern curriculum, I think, Himadri is quite right to disparage). Himadri, as an apt example, has a writing style that really opens up space for his readers to think their own thoughts, and he tends to share his own thinking process, his own equivocations — the style of the personal essay (at which I think Himadri ecxcels) has always had something of this nature. It is this that makes Montaigne more than just readable today, but somehow, curiously, very current.

        Now having disagreed with Shonti’s first point — and that only to a small degree — I would add now a strong agreement with his second point. When we have no sense of shared thoughts — debate becomes difficult and tedious. It cannot be an absolute of shared thought or there would be nothing to debate, but when it feels like it is an absolute lack of shared thoughts (which, I believe, never actually happens), then the debate just seems to go no where, or becomes exasperatingly circular, or falls into barbaric name calling or worse. I think, all too oftne, we get to a certain point where the shared thoughts that may exist become too difficult to uncover and we lose the motive of communication and replace it with the motive of self-expression — my opinion loud and simple and brutal and angry and vengeful are motives that are all too easy to fall in to.

        To some degree, however, the perception of differences, and I think we see this a lot today, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy — modern conservatives and liberals (in my book they are both liberals — at least to the extent that they all believe in some measure of liberty and some form of democracy) have tremendous common ground — but when it comes to debate we seem to believe that any admission of common ground is an admission that those who are our moral inferiors (for it is our tendency to see the other party in this light) may have some moral right to hold those positions that we are sure (conservative and liberal alike) are utterly and totally and morally reprehensible.

  5. Yeah, I have a lot of thoughts on this one. First, when I hear the phrase, “Thunder against,” or “he thundered…” or anything like that, I immediately think of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. So, for me, that’s automatically a cue that the person described is not to be taken seriously. Don’t think you meant that though…

    As for arguing, my wife hates to argue, especially with me. She’s rather extreme, but she sees it as inherently negative, disrepectful, and unproductive. The examples she could give would support that quite well. In my case, she feels I tend to get sarcastic and dismissive, and she’s probably right…sometimes. She prefers ‘discussion’ with an ‘exchange of views.’ It can be difficult to maintain the right tone, but on balance, it’s probably more valuable to do so.

    I like a good argument, but I have to admit that it’s difficult to have one. That is, for many, arguing is exactly what my wife says it is. And even at its best, I find that it is often better to refrain from ‘arguing’ and simply ask questions. I have lost most of my desire to convince anyone of anything, and I learn and gain more by trying to understand why people think the crazy things (they’re all wrong, totally, all the time) they do. Frequently, it causes my partner in conversation (another lost art, that one) to carry on the argument within his or her head by virtue of answering my questions. That’s the goal, anyway. If it doesn’t work, they are probably so dogmatic that nothing will shake them, and then what’s the point of ‘arguing.?’

    Then there’s debate, but that’s more of a structured, public thing. I’m all for that, but what passes for debate on TV and in the press is just pathetic. Your notion of an argument seems close to my wife’s notion of a discussion, but yours is probably a minority view, at least as far as American English goes.

    Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat Senator from NY, used to quip, “You’re entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to make up your own facts.” I think this distinction is lost on people. I also believe that many people regard questions that probe their opinions as hostile maneuvers. Again, experience may have led them to this view, so many just shut down. And then many do not wish to question their own opinions on principle, or out of insecurity. Not everyone agrees that the unexamined life is not worth living. (See my latest post on John Updike for a weird example of this.)

    Finally, I will suggest that many people have an intellectual position on opinion that I feel is just not true. Often, if someone says they “like a book,” a piece of music, a play, or whatever, perhaps one that I do not like, I will ask, “Why do you like it?” I have learned to phrase my question in a very neutral fashion: Not, “Why (on earth!) do you like THAT piece of crap?” but “Uh…and what was it about that book that intrigued you so much..?” Nevertheless, many are loathe to offer more than, “Well, I just did.” Some claim that there isn’t anything more that CAN be said.

    This view that matters of taste cannot be disputed is an old one of course, and it supports the view that arguing over it is useless: people just have their opinions and their tastes, and they’re not much different. For many, opinions ARE just tastes. Even in the case of taste, I think, one can argue, after a fashion. Usually I try to learn what other things the person likes, to try and discern their unspoken or unconscious criteria, to draw out some sort of consistent aesthetic view they have on art or experience. It’s always there, but it can be hard to unearth. And arguing over matters of taste is basically doing this and then presenting alternative views that may stretch one’s tastes. Or pointing out inconsistencies, the recognition of which may do the same. Such as: “How come you like Led Zeppelin but hate Delta Blues when so much of the former is based on the latter? Mebbe you should listen again..?”

    Finally, my two stints on a jury long ago taught me a great lesson about people. Everyone is capable of closely reasoned ‘argument’ using evidence and logic – but only when they want to do it! When the judge comes in and refuses to dismiss the hung jury and all the numbskulls who just won’t listen to or make sense know that there’s no getting out of the room until they convince others or admit their errors, suddenly, reason flourishes. I saw it happen twice. (It wasn’t just giving in to get out of the place – they still argued their points, and it was obvious that they felt pain at having to give way, but give way they did…)

    Unless you’re the type of person who truly values logic, analysis, and the work of getting at the truth, there’s little at stake when arguing other than the lust for victory. Not everyone is a philosopher in this world, thank goodness! People who believe the most idiotic unscientific jibberish about evolution and cosmology will sing the praises of Newton and Darwin if they are in a situation where that knowledge will keep them from starving, and they will APPLY it happily.

    I’ve gone on too long, but I warned you.

    Reply

    • Hello Lichanos, thanks for that. There’s an awful lot to respond to there, and please do excuse me if I don’t respond to it right away: not only am I a bit tied up right now, I need some time to think about your points. I’ll try to get back to you over the weekend.

      Reply

    • Lichanos, I find myself agreeing with much of what you have said. But one thing jumped out at me right away — something that was in the back of my mind relative to this subject in general. Agument has two rather distinct meanings. Its meaning in rhetoric is — the thoughts and ideas that support your position. There is nothing of disagreement in it (as a technical term in rhetoric). Arguments may be put forward that do disagree one with another — indeed, often this is the case. In rhetoric we have the proof and the refutation as two types of argument suggesting this fundamentally disputative nature. Ergo, we use the word argument to also mean disputation and disagreement.

      I wonder if we do not have two questions here:

      1) Should opinions always be supported by an appropriate argument? Which has several corollaries: how does one ask for such arguments in a civil fashion? are some matters of taste incapable of being properly provided with a supporting argument? is it proper to plead that one would prefer not to offer an argument for one’s opinions, particularly when they represent one’s personal taste? Etc.

      2) Are there matters of form we should respect in terms of our disputations (our arguments)? Himadri makes a point of not fully equating passion with argument, but he does suggest that at times passion is appropriate. Discussion, dialog, debate, argument, etc. all have strong connotations today, but very vague forms (denotations). Are all debates formal affairs? Does formal rhetoric apply to debate but not dialog or discussion?

      I won’t offer my opinions on all of these questions. I am a centrist in all things, so my opinions tend to be long. But I do think that confusing these two issues may be a major part of the problem we find ourselves in today. On the first set of questions, those dealing with the nature of argument as a suppor for one’s position, I will simply say that I think we overemphasize (with a zed bcause I spell American) the right to hold an opinion. I think far more important is the responsibility that comes with holding an opinion — which I am sure would suggest that I think we tend today to shortchange our responsibilities for our opinions when we fail to provide adequate arguments.

      Reply

      • I do think that regarding your first point, should opinions always be supported by an ‘argument’, in the rhetorician’s sense of the word, that this is true. I have always felt this way strongly. Furthermore, as I noted, even when people offer an opinion and claim that there is nothing more to it, there always is more. And that more constitutes an argument in your sense.

        I suppose there are some people whose tastes are whimsical, free of any pattern or governing direction, and perhaps totally contradictory, but I have never met such a person.

        People may not be interested or inclined to make the argument explicit, or they may deny that there is one to be made, but people who profess an interest in ideas have an obligation to do so.

        …Of course, not everyone professes to be interested in ideas. But then, when ideas become part of public debate, in politics, cultural disputes, etc., the obligation is imposed on them like it or not. Otherwise, decisions are made on the basis of power and authority, and we’re back to the jungle. For some, that may not be disturbing…

  6. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on November 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    I Don’t think you’ve gone on too long at all.

    The qualities required to be a successful debator are as much, if not more, to do with personality and voice than intellect.

    There is only thing I’d ask you to redress: I accept that it is extremely tiring to argue with people about their tastes of opinions. But we must always retain the idea that it must be done. If we left a large proportion of the human race entirely to their homespun views, well…..

    Like you, I also no longer have the inclination, perhaps no longer the mental aptitude (or never did have). But if anyone out there still does, they must, and must be encouraged to do so until their race is also run in this respect.

    Reply

  7. Yeah, well, some of us have to work sometimes. I understand…

    Reply

  8. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on November 30, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    I have work to do. I run a farm…and a website magazine…and then there’s the shopping, cleaning the car, hoovering…..

    Reply

    • Shonti, I think Lichanos’ comment above (“Yeah, well, some of us have to work sometimes. I understand…”) was directed to me, as I had said that i was too tied up to respond to him before the weekend. Unfortunately, the indentations in this thread indicating responses to a previous post are restricted to 3, and anything beyond that gets posted at the bottom of the thread.

      Reply

  9. Firstly, thank you all very much, Lichanos, Shonti, and Mark, for your contributions. And no, Lichanos, you haven’t gone on too long at all: many years ago, Mark and I (and a few others) used to contribute to the now defunct discussion board on the Penguin Classics site, and we often ended up exchanging essays with each other. This sort of thing I welcome.

    Firstly, if I may respond to Lichanos:
    Having spent much time on various boards on the net, I recognise all too well the sort of thing you highlight. Merely probing someone’s opinion is frequently regarded, as you say, as a hostile manoeuvre”. If people do not want their opinions probed, that is fair enough, but in that case, I can’t help wondering what they are doing on discussion boards in the first place. Mere statement of opinion cannot be regarded as “discussion” by any definition of that term.

    Of course, as that old Latin tag that I can’t remember tells us, taste cannot be disputed. But I would dispute this: up to a point, taste can indeed be disputed. Our tastes are not immutable: do we like and dislike the same things we liked and disliked ten years ago? Twenty years ago? Like so much else about our persons, our tastes change and develop. And what cause them to change and develop are the same things that cause us to change and develop as people: our experiences, and our influences. It is, I admit, unlikely that were I to dislike something, you or anyone else could convince me to like it. But what is is possible for you to do is to make me aware of certain aspects of it that I had not previously considered. (Or vice versa: you could point out weaknesses in something I like that I hadn’t considered: I may decide that the weaknesses are not important given my aesthetic values; but equally, I may decide they are, and reconsider.) And, over time (these things are not instantaneous), even so small a seed can develop into fine fruit. We all influence each other all the time about all sorts of things, and I can’t see why personal taste should be any different.

    But having said this, I think it must be conceded that not every opinion or conviction can be supported by argument. For instance, I like to think that I am a fairly decent person, but there is no way I can prove this by argument. I may, I guess, list some of the good things I have done; but equally, someone who doesn’t like me could list some of the bad things I have done; so, in terms of argument, my belief that I am a decent person remain unproven. But that does not stop me thinking this. Similarly, I cannot prove by falsifiable arguments that would meet with the approval of Popper that I love my children. But, argument or no argument, I know I do. I am as convinced as you are of the importance of argument, but that conviction should come with an awareness of the limits of argument. Just where and how those limits should be drawn, I am not too sure.

    I did find myself smiling to myself when I read this: “Unless you’re the type of person who truly values logic, analysis, and the work of getting at the truth, there’s little at stake when arguing other than the lust for victory.” I couldn’t help smiling because, despite all my protestations of disinterestedness, I am familiar with, and love, this “lust for victory”. But even so, I think I can truthfully say that this is not the only reason why I value argument: I do value the greater insights I gain from participating in argument, although the sort of argument which yields insight are increasingly difficult to come across.

    And finally, I hadn’t thought of Flaubert’s comments on the use of the word “thundered” when I was writing it. Having now been reminded of that comment, I am now going to fall back on that time-honoured defence and claim I was not being entirely serious when I used that word. Will that do? 🙂

    Mark: I think do find myself siding when Shonti when he says that interaction with writing is a comparatively new thing. Of course, as you say, books have margins; and quite often, the most enjoyable books are not those with which you agree, but those where you find yourself getting into a fight, as it were, with the writer. However, the interaction is limited; for while it is true that books have margins, and that one may scrawl one’s own reactions into these margins (when I am moved to do so, these scrawlings are frequently obscene!), the writer, especially if he or she should happen to be dead, cannot answer back. The scope for interaction is thus necessarily limited, although the breadth and depth of vision of many writers do more than compensate for this limitation. (However, I do note that your disagreement with Shonti is only by a very small degree, so we’re possibly all in agreement here.)

    I accept, Mark, that I have, perhaps disingenuously, conflated the two different meanings of “argument” that you provide.

    I do feel that if one feels strongly about something, one should argue passionately. However, passion is clearly not compatible with a dispassionate spirit of enquiry. How this discrepancy may be resolved, I really do not know.

    And finally Mark: “…with a zed bcause I spell American…”

    Surely, as an American, you should spell it with a zee?

    Yours very Bengali-Scottish-English,
    Himadri

    Reply

  10. Himadri,

    The zed was me trying to be cosmopolitan. I did not mention, and should have, epistolary writing, rather than books. Books are indeed much more limited in interaction, but correpsondence can be very interactive.

    Lichanos,

    In your comment way up the page, you mention “power and authority” as the only apparent alternative other than reason for decision making. I would say that far more common than either is that social sense we all possess that leads us, more ofthen than not, to decide in favor of that which gives us the strongest sense of belonging. This is true even of those who think themselves highly independent and full to the brim of self-initiating thoughts.

    Fun dialog, debate, argument, Himadri. Thank you for hosting it.

    Reply

    • That ‘social sense,’ the need to be a member of the tribe, is indeed powerful. I guess I consider that a form of ‘authority.’ I didn’t mean just the type that is promulgated by ukase or fiat.

      Reply

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