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2010 Winter Issue 6 (February 19, 2010)

The difference between argument and discussion

February 19, 2010
By Peter Berg

The following is an attempt to better understand the effect of different types of discourse on what I’ve termed the “intellectual constitution” of the individuals involved. For this purpose, I’ve drawn a distinction between two modes of discourse – argument and discussion – the former of which embodies the intellectually unhealthy aspects of discourse and the latter, the healthy.

Argument, as I will use it here, is a mode of discourse in which each participant’s goal is to assert the superiority of his own view over that of his opponent. This sets an ad hominid tone insofar as it implies something negative about one’s opponent for having an inferior point of view (i.e. that he is stupid). Furthermore, neither participant has any interested in understanding or contributing to the other’s point of view.

Discussion, on the other hand, is the collective non-biased examination of the ideas of the participants. Should the discussants come across a flaw within a given idea, they do not take it to be a sign of its impotency, but rather a sign of their own lack of understanding of it. They will then together attempt to resolve it with the understanding that, if they can’t, this does not mean that no resolution exists. Though each participant in the discussion may have different ideas than the other(s), none claims the absolute or objective superiority of her view (i.e. each acknowledges that it is possible that she is in error).  

Also, important to note is that in discussion there exists the underlying notion that the truth of an idea will ultimately speak for itself. Therefore, it becomes unnecessary for any participant to advocate for any specific idea, for it will become apparent through the thorough analysis of a set of ideas which, if any, is the most valid.

In argument, however, the notion that each participant must speak for or assert the truth of her idea predominates. This, in my opinion, is foolish insofar as if a given idea is, in fact, better, the idea should speak for itself – the holder of such an idea need do no more than modestly present it as a mere opinion, or thought – and, if it’s false, the asserter is found to be in worse error than he would’ve been otherwise.

Argument is not healthy for the intellectual constitution of either party involved for two main reasons.

First, it has the effect of making each individual less fair-minded and rational in his consideration of the issue in question. Ironically, this leads to dogmatism and an even greater desire on the part of each individual involved to cling to the viewpoint with which he entered into the argument, despite the original intention of each party to convince the other of his view.

Second, argument often results in the conflation of an idea with an individual’s understanding of that idea, which can cause one to mistakenly believe that he has both been exposed to the entirety of and/or “defeated” an idea, when in fact he has not.  For example, let’s say Person A has a well-developed and comprehensive understanding of idea A and Person B has a new idea (idea B), which he is in the process of developing and coming to fully understand. Person B begins a discussion of this new idea with his friend, Person A, with the intention of improving his understanding of it. Unfortunately, this discussion devolves into an argument in which Person A “defeats” Person B.

Through her conflation of idea B with Person B’s understanding of that idea, Person A has come to the conclusion that she has both become fully acquainted with idea B and adequately demonstrated the superiority of her own idea to it when she has actually done neither. In this way, insofar it was misleading for her, the argument has been unhealthy for Person A.
On the other hand, as a result of this “defeat”, Person B could be disheartened in his pursuit of understanding idea B, when in actuality that he has been defeated in argument by Person A says very little concerning the merit of his idea (as it is still only in the early stages of development). Additionally, such an argument could potentially result in a sort of intellectual paralysis for Person B whereby this individual, being so concerned with the argumentative tenability of his thought, focuses only on the defense of any potential deconstruction of his idea, neglecting entirely the construction of it. In this way, the argument has had a negative effect on the intellectual constitution of Person B.

Discussion, on the other hand, is quite healthy for the intellectual constitutions of those involved.

Through its encouragement of fair-mindedness and the building up of ideas, discussion allows us to progress as thinkers towards a more sophisticated understanding of whatever issue it is that’s at stake.

Furthermore, discussion cultivates a healthy respect for different opinions insofar as it causes the participants to attempt to see things from different perspectives. Because of these things, discussion also happens to be the type of discourse that has the greater potential to change minds, despite that not being its goal.

I can’t help but feel as though discourse in our culture often tends more towards argument than it does discussion.Though I think this is less the case in academia than it is in society at large, in my experience it has been present in the classroom, as well as in many of the texts we focus on and the assignments we’re given. Most importantly though, its present in my own thought as I consider the validity of my own, my classmates’, and the thinkers that we read for class’s thought – that is, this tendency to treat ideas as constantly at war with one another rather than as working in concert towards similar ends. This is not at all to say that we can’t have the opinion that one idea is better than another – for this would defeat the purpose of thought itself – it’s merely to say that I think it is to our benefit to genuinely understand our ideas as existing among many others of equal status, any of which could be more valid than ours and thus all of which we need to respect

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