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?