Logic and Dialogue

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

PlatoIn last month's post, we contrasted a formal conception of argument with a dialectical one. We claimed that a dialectical model must be developed in order to capture the breadth not only of the good arguments we give, but also the bad. To review, the formal conception takes arguments as products, specifically as sets of claims with subsets of premises and conclusions. These arguments are understood as abstract objects, and they are, as one might say, purely logical entities. By contrast, the dialectical perspective sees arguments as more like processes; they happen, unfold, emerge, and they take various twists and turns. They erupt, get heated, go nowhere or cover ground. In short, on the dialectical conception, arguments are events of reason-exchange between people. And just as there are rules for argument-construction as formal entities, there are rules for good argument-performance as interpersonal processes.

The first thing to note is that argument-as-process is a turn-taking game. Alfred and Betty may disagree – perhaps Alfred accepts some proposition, p, and Betty rejects p. They aim to resolve their disagreement through argument. They could, of course, resolve the disagreement through other means – Alfred could threaten Betty, or bribe her – but they, instead, decide to enact a means of deciding the matter according to their shared reasons. That's argument, and the point is to share and jointly weigh the reasons. That's where the turn-taking is important. Alfred presents his reasons, and Betty presents hers. They respond to each other's reasons in turn.

A few things about the turn-taking are worth noting. When the sides present their respective cases, they present arguments in the formal sense – they articulate sets of claims comprised by premises and conclusions. The other side, then, may accept the premises but hold they don't support the conclusions, or they may hold that the premises themselves are false or unacceptable. Or they may change their minds and accept the conclusion. In that case, the argument concludes: Dispute resolved. Otherwise, what the two sides do is give each other reasons and then take turns giving each other reasoned feedback about how to change their arguments so they can rationally be better, or how they can change their views to fit with the rationally better reasons. When it's well-run, argument is a cooperative enterprise. Hence it's not uncommon to use the term argumentation in discussions of the dialectical conception of argument.

The turn-taking element of argumentation makes the feedback process possible. And this feedback process is what separates argumentation from simple speechmaking or sermonizing. But there's no guarantee that things will work out like they should. Sometimes, there are misfires in argumentation. One common misfire involves misrepresenting the other side in providing critical feedback. The straw man fallacy occurs specifically when one side strategically misrepresents the other side's arguments as weaker than those they actually gave. Straw-manning is a dialectical fallacy par excellence – it is a failure of the turn-taking element of proper argumentative exchange; it's a turn that doesn't properly respond to the contents of the previous turns.

Turn-taking in argumentation also allows for particularly well-developed disagreements. Specific points of contention can be identified made explicit. One side can request clarification or challenge a crucial premise; the other side can respond by explaining things more clearly or introducing new considerations. In the process, well-run critical dialogue educates us in the matters that divide us. Of course, it is rare that critical dialogue yields tidy and complete resolutions to our disputes, but when argumentation is well-ordered, the opposing sides can emerge from their exchange seeing each other as reasonable and their ongoing conflict manageable. Moreover, the sides can come out of their argumentative exchanges knowing not only the opposition's side better, but with a firmer grasp of their own view. Argumentation can enhance both self- and mutual-understanding.

The problem is that some regard the enhanced mutual-understanding that argumentation can facilitate as something to be avoided. Those who hold that there is no reasonable opposition to their preferred views cannot see the other side's position as anything worth trying to understand; for them, all opposition is merely to be diagnosed and possibly condemned. The argumentative process for those with this perspective is more a battleground, an occasion for dispatching opponents. To be sure, if you disagree with someone, you argue with them for the sake of correcting them. But when one has one's defaults set on seeing all opponents as not merely wrong, but as stupid, evil, or irrational, it's hard to take their critical feedback concerning one's views as anything more than noise. Moreover, it will be hard to see what one offers in support of one's view as arguments per se, since arguments are what one offers to rational, well-meaning, honest people. If one's view is that those on the other side are none of these, then one's approach to discussion with them will be less a matter of giving and taking reasons but more like verbal combat. In such cases, what will matter is winning, not having the cogent case or well-framed objections or conceding to a good point. And so the fallacies of relevance, like attacking the person, invoking outrage, and fear-mongering will tend to prevail.

The lesson, of course, is that the dialectical conception of argument enables us to track how these informal tactics are deployed and why they are (while in the heat of exchange, at least) appealing. The dialectical conception also helps us to see that they are distortions of argumentation.

Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse are authors of the new book Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement.