Wednesday, May 23, 2018

against debating


Most intellectuals don’t have fans. They are lucky to have respondents to pieces they publish in small academic journals. But there are some intellectuals who do have fans. Especially among rightwing intellectuals who achieve a certain name recognition (Christopher Hitchens, Jordan Peterson, etc.) you will find an odd romanticism about “debate”. The fans are always lauding the debating skills of their idols.

I was a member of the debate club in high school – as I suspect few of the fans were – and the one thing you learn about debate is that it is not an instrument for truth. Rather, it is an instrument for winning an argument. The mark of the good debater is to win both as a supporter of “x” and as an opponent of “x”.

The dispute about the meaning and methods of debate are ancient. Around 500 BC, sophists – to give them a slightly anachronistic name – discovered and developed the techniques of argument and rhetoric. Discovered, here, means simply brought into consciousness styles of argument that no doubt pre-existed the sophists. You can see what argument looks like without these styles, or consciousness of these styles, in the book of Job, where Job’s friends make a mess of his excuses, but without any convention whereby Job would be convinced that his friends were right. In fact, Job’s friends provoke God’s wrath: which shows you how much one needs debating skills.

Plato was worried about the sophist’s art – worried that it was an art that obscured, rather than revealed, the truth. The truth, that is, about being. Plato wrote dialogues, so it wasn’t as if he were worried about argument per se. He was worried that debate was oriented towards winning. The idea that one should win at all costs sacrificed the very goal that the argument was meant to inch us towards.

I suspect that creating a sport out of intellectual work is at the heart of the rare phenomenon of the intellectual with fans. And it is a bit too snooty to think that brainwork and entertainment are separated by rigid ethical and veridical lines. I see no reason to believe that. But I also see no reason to jettison Plato’s worry: that debate debases the very truths it seeks to capture by making them secondary to the impulse to win.

Debates, in other words, are an inferior intellectual tool. And when they take center stage, you know that something shifty is going on.


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