Sunday, August 23, 2009

Offensive and Defensive Argumentation

Patrick Appel (and others) here seems to make an amazing discovery: yes, the philosophical method actually makes sense and is worth using! Instead of changing positions in argument only when your opponent has defeated elements of your own position, you should actively seek out to create better arguments for your opponent, utilizing a strong principle of charity, and in the process learn things that lead you to alter your own position. Of course, many students would not agree.

When I teach the method in this way, I always have students who question it. They look at me, almost stunned, and want to know why in the world a person should create a better argument for their opponent. Isn’t that the opponent’s job? This way of viewing arguments is, as Appel and others note, entirely defensive.

However, there's more to it. The defensive strategy views the argument, and the thinking behind it, as complete. As a result, there’s nothing more for the holder of the argument to learn. All that remains is the job of occasional defense and the need to adjust the argument when one’s opponent is successful. The contrary method (call it the offensive strategy) sees one’s position as essentially incomplete and so constantly under development. As a result, it doesn’t adjust only in defense. It adjusts as it seeks out its opposition and creates better arguments for the opposition position.

Perhaps for some (students and others) committed to the defensive strategy, all that exists is rhetoric, dogma and arrogance. Argument is a zero-sum game of winners and losers competing for finite goods. With the offensive strategy, participants are motivated by truth, greater understanding and humility. Argument is not zero-sum, and the goods of the practice are available to both sides in the exchange.

I'm wondering what reactions people here at ISW have about this. Do you teach the offensive strategy yourself? How do you teach it? How do you frame the worth of this approach? Do you find from time to time that you, against your better instincts, reward defensive strategy thinking in students (I know I do)? What do your students say to the offensive strategy? How do they view the function of good argumentation?


  1. I've gotten those same amazed stares when I talk about the related principle of charity with my students. But I've made some inroads my talking about what you call the "offensive strategy" in terms of anticipating future weaknesses. This seems to be something that everyone can appreciate. If I'm designing a bridge, for instance, I don't just want to adapt my design to the actual weather/load/geographic conditions, or even the recorded conditions. Instead, it's prudent to plan for the potential conditions: how bad might the wind get, how heavy might the load get, etc. If we see the construction of arguments as being akin to designing a bridge, then it makes sense that we'd try to anticipate not only the counterarguments that have already been made, but also those that could reasonably be made. Putting the distinction in these rather practical terms - arguments are made to do things - instead of (or in addition to) leaning on some abstract principles of humility or intellectual responsibility has been successful in my classes.

  2. Boone,

    I like your bridge/engineering analogy -- very helpful! I'll have incorporate that into my bag of "tricks."

    In terms of being successful in actually persuading students to use the offensive strategy, I think you are right -- the abstract discussion is of little use (for most).

    Still, and even if it does little to persuade most, the abstract argument seems important to at least attempt (as a supplement to pointing out practical use).

    The reason is that the bridge analogy really is, in essence, a way of taking a component of the "offensive" strategy but using it for defensive purposes. In a way, this method takes "enlightened self interest" into account. Of course, if you want the *best* argument -- the one that is not dislodged from its bunker -- then you should think ahead about all of the hypothetical field conditions and possible weaponry of your opponents so that you can make the best defensive bunker possible.

    This is surely valuable, as you note. But I think it is important that students see argumentation not just as a tool designed to solve this or that problem, but also as a methodology through which they can up engage with the mysteries of life in way that is deeply authentic and fulfilling.

    Of course, this relies on the assumption (one not shared by 99% of students) that being a human being means more than serving as a technician whose job it is it get better and better at solving this or that set of practical problems.

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