Thursday, May 24, 2007

Persuade Me

For the rabble, such as me, philosophy seems more a matter of temperament and sentiment. Which philosophers from the Western philosophical canon do I regard the most? David Hume for one. Why? I find his writing and empirical skepticism the most agreeable. I agree with Kant that our minds condition our notions of causality, etc., yet Hume’s skepticism always seems a prudent first step when analyzing propositions that leave one feeling uneasy about their truth—ah, the truth and its arguments.

Philosophy is partially about answering important questions. Regarding one’s preferences for answers as matters of temperament and sentiment seems antithetical to the philosophical enterprise. I wonder if it is unavoidable. I do not believe in projects of pure rational inquiry. Passion guides us in selecting those problems and writers who engage us into thinking about answers.

The debates over the distinctions and objectives of continental versus analytic philosophy make me cold. They are two sides of the same coin. To me philosophy should promote persuasive dialogue and argumentation. Yet we find in both schools, continental and analytic, an arid analyticity. I view Aquinas as the paradigm example of persuasive dialogue. We have disputed questions. We have the best arguments for and against. This seems more informative and compelling than the treatise that does not present the other side of an argument.

Philosophy is a collection of disputed questions. One may feel that one has arrived at a probable certainty about them, yet the questions remain in dispute, for others have not arrived at your position.

I lament the sorry state of political discourse in the U.S. Disputed questions abound; persuasive dialogue and argumentation are scarce. I want to know the truth, but I also want someone to persuade me of it. That is the human connection. It turns a foe into a neighbor whom I respect.

Informal logic and persuasive dialogue are nearly nonexistent. These days, to dispute a question automatically is to become the enemy of many people. Affirmation and refutation are merely matters of pronouncing propositions true or false depending on sentiment.

This returns us to philosophical preferences and the sentiments that give rise to them. What guard is there against the danger of philosophy being merely sentiment and agreeability to one’s prejudices? Informal logic, persuasive dialogue, and critical argumentation are the key. One of the cornerstones of a good education is the productive ability to participate in persuasive dialogue and critical argumentation, yet there are few classes teaching the subject. What would Aquinas think of our current state of affairs?

I know there are many who do not believe in the efficacy of rational discourse, or at least that is what they claim. Their opinion often evaporates when they want to engage in persuasive dialogue and their opponent will not engage in the practice or rules. Then we often hear much lamenting about their opponent’s unwillingness to play fair and by the rules.

Persuasive argumentation does not prevent the more egregious kind of violence we expect from tyrants and bigots. Violence in return is sometimes unavoidable. However, resorting to violence as a first step in every disagreement rather than attempting to persuade or negotiate is a fatal mistake.

When one disputes a question and still disagrees with one’s opponent, then at least one can say more than “I disagree.” One can say, “I am not persuaded.” The emotional impact is significantly different between the two statements. This distinction is mostly lost on many people. In politics, we have the hopelessly ideologically committed. No amount of logic or evidence will move them beyond those commitments.

Some people think that the current state of U.S. politics has grown more shrill and unforgiving. History shows that it is not. What has changed though is that there are fewer people willing to engage in persuasive dialogue. People merely assert answers, propagandize for them, and close issues to disputation. The media aids the process. What can be more entertaining than watching two emotionally motivated opponents violently battle it out, whether on The Jerry Springer Show, Fox News, or CNN? At the end of it all, disputants accomplish nothing.

Maybe, persuasive dialogue seduces me like a well-narrated myth. However, for now, if you want to convince me, then logically persuade me. I will do my best to return the favor. Otherwise, just put your gun to my head. I will assent to about anything when that happens.


At 6:13 PM, Blogger Orla Schantz said...

Lynn, good post.

Don't forget that Kant openly stated that Hume "awoke me from my slumber".

Philosophy is about sentiment, true. But basically it is about our human ability of asking questions which we can not answer.

That is beauty. And maddingly attractive.


At 11:31 AM, Blogger Lynn said...


Some have said that good mathematics is about asking good questions? The good questions are often the easiest to understand, yet the most difficult to answer.

In philosophy, the good questions often are not the easiest to understand in the first place, let alone answer.


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