Daniel H. Cohen

For argument's sake

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My name is Dan Cohen and I am an academic, as he said. And what that means is that I argue. It's an important part of my life. And I like to argue. And I'm not just an academic, I'm a philosopher, so I like to think that I'm actually pretty good at arguing.


But I also like to think a lot about arguing. And in thinking about arguing, I've come across some puzzles. And one of the puzzles is that, as I've been thinking about arguing over the years — and it's been decades now — I've gotten better at arguing. But the more that I argue and the better I get at arguing, the more that I lose. And that's a puzzle.


And the other puzzle is that I'm actually okay with that. Why is it that I'm okay with losing and why is it that I think good arguers are actually better at losing? Well, there are some other puzzles. One is: why do we argue? Who benefits from arguments? When I think about arguments, I'm talking about — let's call them academic arguments or cognitive arguments — where something cognitive is at stake: Is this proposition true? Is this theory a good theory? Is this a viable interpretation of the data or the text? And so on. I'm not interested really in arguments about whose turn it is to do the dishes or who has to take out the garbage. Yeah, we have those arguments, too. I tend to win those arguments, because I know the tricks. But those aren't the important arguments. I'm interested in academic arguments, and here are the things that puzzle me.


First, what do good arguers win when they win an argument? What do I win if I convince you that utilitarianism isn't really the right framework for thinking about ethical theories? What do we win when we win an argument? Even before that, what does it matter to me whether you have this idea that Kant's theory works or Mill is the right ethicist to follow? It's no skin off my back whether you think functionalism is a viable theory of mind. So why do we even try to argue? Why do we try to convince other people to believe things they don't want to believe, and is that even a nice thing to do? Is that a nice way to treat another human being, try and make them think something they don't want to think? Well, my answer is going to make reference to three models for arguments.


The first model — let's call it the dialectical model — is we think of arguments as war; you know what that's like — a lot of screaming and shouting and winning and losing. That's not a very helpful model for arguing, but it's a pretty common and entrenched model for arguing.


But there's a second model for arguing: arguments as proofs. Think of a mathematician's argument. Here's my argument. Does it work? Is it any good? Are the premises warranted? Are the inferences valid? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? No opposition, no adversariality — not necessarily any arguing in the adversarial sense.


But there's a third model to keep in mind that I think is going to be very helpful, and that is arguments as performances, arguments in front of an audience. We can think of a politician trying to present a position, trying to convince the audience of something.


But there's another twist on this model that I really think is important; namely, that when we argue before an audience, sometimes the audience has a more participatory role in the argument; that is, arguments are also [performances] in front of juries, who make a judgment and decide the case. Let's call this the rhetorical model, where you have to tailor your argument to the audience at hand. You know, presenting a sound, well-argued, tight argument in English before a francophone audience just isn't going to work.


So we have these models — argument as war, argument as proof and argument as performance. Of those three, the argument as war is the dominant one. It dominates how we talk about arguments, it dominates how we think about arguments, and because of that, it shapes how we argue, our actual conduct in arguments. Now, when we talk about arguments, we talk in a very militaristic language. We want strong arguments, arguments that have a lot of punch, arguments that are right on target. We want to have our defenses up and our strategies all in order. We want killer arguments. That's the kind of argument we want. It is the dominant way of thinking about arguments. When I'm talking about arguments, that's probably what you thought of, the adversarial model.


But the war metaphor, the war paradigm or model for thinking about arguments, has, I think, deforming effects on how we argue. First, it elevates tactics over substance. You can take a class in logic, argumentation. You learn all about the subterfuges that people use to try and win arguments — the false steps. It magnifies the us-versus them aspect of it. It makes it adversarial; it's polarizing. And the only foreseeable outcomes are triumph — glorious triumph — or abject, ignominious defeat. I think those are deforming effects, and worst of all, it seems to prevent things like negotiation or deliberation or compromise or collaboration.


Think about that one — have you ever entered an argument thinking, "Let's see if we can hash something out, rather than fight it out. What can we work out together?" I think the argument-as-war metaphor inhibits those other kinds of resolutions to argumentation.


And finally — this is really the worst thing — arguments don't seem to get us anywhere; they're dead ends. They are like roundabouts or traffic jams or gridlock in conversation. We don't get anywhere. And one more thing. And as an educator, this is the one that really bothers me: If argument is war, then there's an implicit equation of learning with losing.


And let me explain what I mean. Suppose you and I have an argument. You believe a proposition, P, and I don't. And I say, "Well, why do you believe P?" And you give me your reasons. And I object and say, "Well, what about ...?" And you answer my objection. And I have a question: "Well, what do you mean? How does it apply over here?" And you answer my question. Now, suppose at the end of the day, I've objected, I've questioned, I've raised all sorts of counter counter-considerations and in every case you've responded to my satisfaction. And so at the end of the day, I say, "You know what? I guess you're right: P." So, I have a new belief. And it's not just any belief; it's well-articulated, examined — it's a battle-tested belief.


Great cognitive gain. OK, who won that argument? Well, the war metaphor seems to force us into saying you won, even though I'm the only one who made any cognitive gain. What did you gain, cognitively, from convincing me? Sure, you got some pleasure out of it, maybe your ego stroked, maybe you get some professional status in the field — "This guy's a good arguer." But just from a cognitive point of view, who was the winner? The war metaphor forces us into thinking that you're the winner and I lost, even though I gained. And there's something wrong with that picture. And that's the picture I really want to change if we can.


So, how can we find ways to make arguments yield something positive? What we need is new exit strategies for arguments. But we're not going to have new exit strategies for arguments until we have new entry approaches to arguments. We need to think of new kinds of arguments. In order to do that, well — I don't know how to do that. That's the bad news. The argument-as-war metaphor is just ... it's a monster. It's just taken up habitation in our mind, and there's no magic bullet that's going to kill it. There's no magic wand that's going to make it disappear. I don't have an answer.


But I have some suggestions. Here's my suggestion: If we want to think of new kinds of arguments, what we need to do is think of new kinds of arguers.


So try this: Think of all the roles that people play in arguments. There's the proponent and the opponent in an adversarial, dialectical argument. There's the audience in rhetorical arguments. There's the reasoner in arguments as proofs. All these different roles. Now, can you imagine an argument in which you are the arguer, but you're also in the audience, watching yourself argue? Can you imagine yourself watching yourself argue, losing the argument, and yet still, at the end of the argument, saying, "Wow, that was a good argument!" Can you do that? I think you can, and I think if you can imagine that kind of argument, where the loser says to the winner and the audience and the jury can say, "Yeah, that was a good argument," then you have imagined a good argument. And more than that, I think you've imagined a good arguer, an arguer that's worthy of the kind of arguer you should try to be.


Now, I lose a lot of arguments. It takes practice to become a good arguer, in the sense of being able to benefit from losing, but fortunately, I've had many, many colleagues who have been willing to step up and provide that practice for me.


Thank you.



Why do we argue? To out-reason our opponents, prove them wrong, and, most of all, to win! Right? Philosopher Daniel H. Cohen shows how our most common form of argument — a war in which one person must win and the other must lose — misses out on the real benefits of engaging in active disagreement.

About the speaker
Daniel H. Cohen · Philosopher

Philosopher Daniel H. Cohen studies language and the way we argue through reason.

Philosopher Daniel H. Cohen studies language and the way we argue through reason.