Tag Archives: Rhetoric

Arguing for the Truth

Anything can be said in the heat of argument—even more important, anything can be said and be taken seriously. The point, however, of arguing with anyone does not seem so clear, considering our methods. When I squint my eyes hard enough, most arguments seem more like contact sport than quest for truth. Today I consider what it means to argue, and I’ll do this from from an off-the-record perspective. That means I will not quote Wittgenstein just yet, but remember, this is only the beginning. (Some of you are thinking “Damn—I wanted some Wittgenstein.” You’ll get your chance soon enough.)

Let us make up a couple of characters for the sake of argument (about arguments): Daniel and Jennifer, husband and wife. Dan just tied the knot with Jen, and they’ve moved in with one another. They, unfortunately enough, have never lived together. Hell, neither of them have lived with anyone other than their own families. And oh, what a surprise—they’re arguing over chores.

”…that’s because you never wash the dishes,” an exasperated Jennifer exclaims.

Dan’s eyes widen—redden. She has plucked a chord. “You must be blind then,” he says.

”When I wake up, everyday, I see the same dishes sitting there. You never wash them!”

”That’s because I eat every day, damn it. I eat, I wash, I eat, I wash.”

Jennifer appeals to evidence of an empirical nature. ”You’re lying. I never see you do anything but sit on your ass,” she asserts.

”How could you? You’re not around when I wash them,” Dan retorts with an attempt to invalidate her evidence.

Most of us have heard this sort of argument many times before. It would be a lie to say that I have not participated in such an argument before (I’ll let you guess which side I’m on). I, then, put myself on the line when I ask: both sides think they’re correct, but do Jen or Daniel care about the truth at all?

My question sounds peculiar. It would be easy to say that Jennifer knows the truth, and she refuses to be lied to. Many would sympathize with her (in long telephone conversations where Jen chooses to vent her frustrations). We could say the same for Daniel: he knows the truth. Both Jen and Dan “know the truth,” so their argument is not meant to discover the truth but to convince the other of it. Truth looks like it is just the hammer used to strike the enemy.

How would such an argument be resolved? If he admitted defeat, what would he do? I suppose he could wash more dishes, but recall that Dan claims Jennifer is never around to see him wash the dishes. If he’s correct, Jennifer would still be discontent no matter what the outcome of the argument, since she would never believe that he has ever washed a single dish. Winning—for either side—the argument might change matters very little, but in the short term victory feels substantial.

In conflicts between husband and wife, father and son, friends, we believe a conflict will be resolved by our efforts. This rarely ever occurs. What could a person do to resolve it but back down and admit defeat?—this is not an option for most of us. The truth, which we claim to know so intimately, is not on the line. What is on the line is our dignity, the thrill of battle, and the sweet elation “that’s right, I sure told her what is what.”

This isn’t to say that both Dan and Jen wouldn’t be better of examining their lives to see what the truth of the matter is; I only claim here that “truth finding” may be something altogether different, something that is difficult to do in an argument—where “facts” are used as weapons. Philosophy, in light of this, might have no winners and only losers. It is, before all else, the pursuit of endless and painful debate. What is going on here, I wonder? Am I imagining things?

Academia and Serious Students

Lately I have been thinking about College. What occupies me is not limited to exams, papers, and classes–but the institution itself and how we fit into it. An example from class, though, would be appropriate. At the beginning of the quarter, I was told that Kant’s Critique of Judgment is a discussion of how “nature comes to know itself” and how it manifests in the act of judgment. “Isn’t that what Hegel said?” my first instincts told me. My second instinct: “what the hell are we talking about?” It was at that moment that I remembered how far removed from the real world (common knowledge) our theories can be. The idea of “reality” itself is up for philosophical/intellectual debate, and I wonder why. What do we gain from talking about things this way?

Even more odd is how students start to see the entire world through the eyes of their textbooks. Like a demented Tootsie Roll commercial, I could imagine sophmores singing “whatever it is I think I see becomes psychology to me!” I’ve seen it: psychology recruits analyzing characters in movies, philosophy sophists prattling about dialectics, and science students trying to explain everything in terms of collapsing wave-functions. These acts seem downright ridiculous, but they seem like an attempt to make sense of the things they have spent so much money to learn. If not, then they are just attempts to sound clever.

It could be asked, “Why the hell are you in philosophy then?” I can only hope that there is some insight, some point, to be gained from all of this. Asking why we are talking about something–or why we speak of things in a certain manner might be a way of staying on the right track. It might be that, through questioning the legitimacy of the authors we have chosen to read, we will “thicken up” our understanding of life at large.

I won’t make any such appeals this time though–there’s something fishy here. Intellectual debate seems like a burden, a parasitic disease, that creeps it’s way into every aspect of the serious student’s life. It becomes difficult to watch movies or talk to friends without thinking about aesthetic puzzles, Aristotle on rhetoric, or whatever catches your fancy. The serious student–without a way to mix everyday life with her coursework–is left covering her mouth to keep herself from mentioning an unsightly philosophical problem. Even as I write this, I think to myself: “do I sound pretentious?”

The question to consider is how to be serious without alienating oneself. It is tougher than it looks, the ones I’ve seen keep a false distance from their work. With a few students, I would never have known them to care about their work until they stepped foot into a classroom. Philosophy, psychology, politics, biology, and all other subjects are in conversation with the world at large. Academia plays it’s part in the way the world works. Why should we treat it as if it were something to be done behind closed doors? Perhaps a discipline that proclaims to know “how nature comes to know itself” should be conducted behind closed doors.

There must be a better way to think about this.