No Arguing Here!

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This is not philosophy.

Last time we did some philosophy. (Yes, I recently posted a World Philosophy Day special edition, so keen eyed pedants counting all editions technically I am referring to the time before last. However, counting only regular editions it is rightly last time; this is what I mean when I say ‘last time’ here. Okay.)

My aim (last time) had been to show you that with a good tool (my guiding principle) and a little guidance (my blog’s aspiration) everyone is — that is, you are — capable of engaging philosophically with the ideas of philosophy, even those of its greats. Instead of just letting the ideas of such formidable thinkers simply wash over us or blindly adopting them as our own, we can all be philosophers and gain a deep and clear understanding of someone else’s thought. To my mind this is probably the greatest skill any human, let alone any philosopher, can have — to properly come to understand another human’s thought.

Also last time (re: pedants, as per above) I gave you an example of how the view of one of philosophy’s great thinkers can be questioned, along with revealing potential problems and weaknesses in his argument. I showed that the powerhouse Daniel Dennett is human too.

But I worry.

I worry that this might be mistaken for the ugly face of philosophy. That philosophy game face that is wholly about ‘taking the other/top guy down.’ A lumbering heavyweight who wields a killer blow facing off with some other guy, whose only chance is a heftier counter punch or a fleet bob and weave.

This illustrates the idea that philosophy is the intellectual equivalent of boxing. Round after round of argument and counter-argument until only one argument and its arguer is left standing. On this picture, being a philosopher is about winning arguments, with the great philosophers being the intellectual heavyweights who, having an aggressive offence and defence, ‘take everyone down’ apparently at all costs.

No matter what you have thought, seen, or heard philosophy is NEVER about winning arguments. Philosophy examines, engages with and offers arguments. Occasionally they are right, usually they are wrong, and it regularly takes much effort, many minds, and several centuries to work out these rights and wrongs. Even then they are still open to review.

Let me repeat, philosophy is NEVER about winning arguments. Most of the time we philosophers are carefully working out how other philosophers’ arguments work to simply get a handle on what to think ourselves. Done with due care such consideration can lead to us completely recalibrate our own thinking. Or it can lead to us gaining a new view on existing arguments which expands everyone’s understanding. Plainly,this has nothing to do with winning arguments.

Often understanding why an argument is wrong is as philosophically significant as understanding why it is right. For instance, last time (yes, still that last time) I mentioned Descartes’ argument for the proof of God mistakenly relies on already assuming that God exists. Now his proof is not taught in philosophy departments worldwide just so undergrads can get a turn at sucker punching Descartes. It is actually not at all straightforward how Descartes goes wrong and it takes real philosophical skill and effort to understand it. Understanding, skill and effort that is valuable to being a philosopher. None of this has anything to do with downing an opponent.

Still, ideas are serious business for philosophers. Things get heated. Passions are raised. It is important to get the ideas straight. We can be wrong, we can be unclear, we can be misunderstood, and sometimes there is no delicate way for us philosophers to tell each other when we are wrong, unclear, misunderstood. But fundamentally it is all about the ideas. And the greatest philosophical ideas may not even be true/right/win but are always the ones worth coming to understand.

Admittedly, much of philosophy and philosophical discourse is presented as arguments and counter-arguments, giving philosophy the appearance of an intellectual boxing ring that philosophers enter to serve knock-out punches. But boxing rings and knock out punches are the wrong metaphors. As I have been trying to demonstrate throughout this blog, philosophical practice is a conversation. Think about when you chat with a friend over coffee, you question, counter, and readily challenge each other, not to ‘take them down’ but to truly understand and see each other clearly. Through this clarity and common insight you can care for each other even if you do not always agree. Genuine philosophical discourse works in the same way.

Nevertheless, philosophers’ training is largely spent thinking carefully, and hopefully clearly, about arguments. Due to this practice, us philosophers happen to be very good at arguing — winning arguers, in fact. The mistake is to think the converse — that being a philosopher is being good at arguing. If you just want to be good at arguing go join a debating team or become a politician. Please stay away from philosophy and philosophy departments.

Finally, I realise that academic philosophy can be exactly the intellectual boxing ring that I describe. But I boldly contend that this is not really philosophy. And if it is, then it is not the philosophy I am interested in here. For your reference the technical term for philosophising of this sort is being a dick.

So let me pull no punches.

There are people who are dicks. There are people who are philosophers. Sometimes philosophers are dicks, sometimes they just look like it. But being a philosopher is NOT being a dick. Got it?

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2 thoughts on “No Arguing Here!

  1. Yeah, I think this is bang on! One thing that puzzles me is that philosophers get very attached to their favourite philosophical position, and can regard opponents/different frameworks as bunk. This seems really bizarre; surely we shouldn’t have enough credence in our own beliefs that we’re prepared to hold that views shouldn’t be fleshed out?!

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  2. It is very hard for everyone to change or give up their beliefs (seen in confirmation bias) – philosophers are no exception. The troubling mistake is when we philosophers believe we are exceptional, and argue fervently for it! (Admittedly I am no exception in believing I am such an exception, but I am slowly learning to get over it.)

    In an upcoming post I shall talk about changing our minds, which may address this further.

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