Dialectic and rational arguments in philosophy

Socratic dialogue is modeled on dialectic, and for that reason it is a central part of Western philosophy. In the previous post, I pointed out that, historically speaking, dialectic contrasts with three other argumentative styles — rhetoric, scholasticism, and mathematics. Unlike rhetoric, dialectic is not about persuasion for its own sake, but the pursuit of stable conclusions (as we saw in selections from both Gorgias and Phaedo). Unlike scholasticism, the dialectician attempts to resolve disputes through engagement (i.e., the method of disputation), not through deference to written authority in the form of scripture. And unlike mathematics, dialectic investigates the worthiness of its premises (i.e., what I called the ‘collapse-and-consequence’ model), instead of treating premises as axiomatic.

Last time, I suggested that these three historical contrasts help to hone in on a particular feature of concept of dialectic, which is that dialectic is a form of second-order rational persuasion. I suggested that the constitutive point of dialectic is to convince people that some passages of thought or speech are rational, and to resolve disputes in that minimal sense of creating directed change towards a state of intellectual common ground. I called this ‘persuasionism’. A vital part of the persuasionist thesis is the idea that dialectical arguments occur in the context where they are directed towards change in mental state (what Gilbert Harman calls a “change in view”), leading to resolution of dissonance. I argued that the persuasionist theory is superior to the purity thesis, i.e., someone who thinks the collapse-and-consequence model is sufficient to characterize dialectic, and that no reference to effective perspective change is strictly necessary.

The persuasionist thesis says that dialectic involves a directed change in view accomplished by means of demonstrating the rational defensibility of a passage of thoughts in light of potential challenges. One might wonder whether demonstrating defensibility of some train of thought actually counts as “persuasion”. But a moment’s reflection shows it clearly does. As a matter of definition, to persuade just is to cause someone to believe or act in some directed fashion that they did not before. When you subject a set of reasons to potential objections, you leave the set of reasons altered — stronger, if all goes well for the defender of those reasons. This means that in the process of demonstrating defensibility, you have produced a change in view about the status of the arguments as being more reasonable than they seemed at the outset, all other things equal. And my suggestion is that this sort of directed change is not an accident or an irrelevant side-effect, but rather is a part of the dialectician’s stance of attempting to direct a change in view during the course of presentation of argument. Notably, though, it is an attempt at mutual persuasion between defender and opponent; that is to say, it is as a joint enterprise with reciprocal expectations. Hence, when the dialectician fails to persuade their good-faith interlocutor of the rational qualities of their passage of thought, they thereby gain some reason to regard those passages of thought as irrational under some description.

In the rest of this post, I provide reasons to think that persuasionism makes the most sense of dialectic in philosophy. First, I’ll make a brief remark on the consequences of persuasionism on meta-philosophy. I suggest, briefly, that is persuasionism is conducive to productive philosophy. (Indeed, I think it is even more conducive than the purist’s alternative, which I think is worse than sophistry; but I will not argue this point in this post.) Second, I will consider some attempted refutations, based on the idea that I am excluding some kinds of argument as examples of dialectic.

1. On meta-philosophy. When I say that dialectic is not just an autodidactic exercise of getting ideas clear in isolation — of studying logical implications and entailments, or (Harman again) “what follows from what” — my emphasis is on the word “just“. Dialectic involves the study of such entailments, but is not reducible to that study. I offer two reasons. First, as we have seen in the previous post, Socrates himself thought he was attempting rational persuasion. Indeed, one of the characteristic tropes of Socratic argument is his willingness to throw the whole game away, if only a good answer can be given to a master question (which he then shows cannot be done).

But second, even in a parallel world where our Hellenistic heroes thought they were just making ideas clear independently of their audience’s convictions, it is still a fact that people can do a lot of things with all sorts of side-effects, and some of those side-effects might actually be the thing that makes the activity essentially worth doing. Sometimes, a practice has a function, and that function occurs independently of the ways the practice is conceived; it, instead, has to be recovered by examination of intuitively valenced presuppositions. And that fact makes it possible to engage critically with the tropes in Socratic dialogues, to separate the stuff Socrates thought he was doing well from the stuff that he actually was doing well. Which is just to say that contemporary critical thinkers could probably do without Socrates’s leading questions, for example, or Plato’s noble lies, even if for whatever reason Plato and Socrates in our parallel world had decided these  ideas were essential parts of their whole philosophical package. Revisionism is the price we sometimes pay for rational reconstruction.

2. On excluded cases. Most of this post derives from a spat I had with the author over at Siris blog, who seems to be a purity theorist. In our exchange, he argued that the persuasionist view of dialectic excludes a few cases of rational argumentation. 1) It seems to exclude cases where we apply the collapse-and-consequence model through habit. 2) It seems to exclude practice arguments, e.g., as when the student makes use of natural deduction. 3) It seems to exclude cases involving a stimulating exchange of reasons for exploratory purposes. But these examples are not on equal footing. So, my view is that (1) is not an argument at all, (2) is rational argument but not dialectic, and (3) is an unobvious kind of dialectic.

Habitual processing. I reject the idea that arguments are, or can be, merely habitual passages of thought. For a person to suggest that habitual passages of thought are not directed at change in view, is for that person to fail to attend to the internal point of view, and in particular to neglect the intuitive force of argumentation. Intuitively, there seems to be a difference between mere regularities and rules, and rational arguments are about rules, so regular habits of thought are not themselves arguments.

The point can be made in part by appealing to the philosopher’s ego. If merely habitual orderings of thought counted as philosophical arguments — if it were even possible to follow the quick turnabouts in collapse-and-consequence model into habits — then it would turn philosophy into something even worse than sophistry. Indeed, it would collapse the study of rational argument into the study of the psychology of reliable heuristics, or the study of computational processing. It is a rare philosopher who is eager to make themselves Turing-incompatible in this way.

Perhaps the purity theorist would consider it a strength of their view that they think they can rationally argue as a function of personal habits. And, indeed, much of logic feels like habitual or schematic, once it is mastered. And if they could get away with that, then to be sure, “persuasion” would drop out of the analysis. But the only *rational* way you can get away with the habitualist’s conviction is by finding some independent means of calibrating your passages of thought by placing them into an orderly rule-like quasi-sentential (propositional or imperative) structure. And it is difficult to see how habits or mere regularities could have that rule-like character — a man who “argues” with himself habitually is not engaged in inference, hence not arguing rationally at all. In that sense, the approach from habits is going to founder on the question, “What makes this rational?”, and one does not even have to be a persuasionist to suspect that it is a mistake. But even if we come up with an adequate causal account of rules (as, indeed, we might), there is the remaining requirement of needing to account for the ‘following‘ part of ‘rule-following’, which is an intentional activity that seemingly requires both identification of rules and calibration of them.

Practice arguments. A different argument proceeds by observing that, when we are doing proofs in natural deduction, we aren’t trying to persuade anyone of anything. From premises, we are given the task of showing their consistency. Sure enough, this does not look like rational argument.

In this case, I think it would be useful to remember that philosophical argument is not all dialectic. The geometric or analytical method, of deriving consequences from axioms, is one method in philosophy, though it is not a Socratic method. So, one might insist (correctly) that the geometric method has got all the bells and whistles of a rational methodology, and that this is being ignored in a conversation about dialectic. And then one might notice that practice arguments have the form of analytical arguments.

This argument has my blessing, though it is not of first importance in a conversation which is meant to be about the merits of rational argument insofar as it has been conceived of through the Socratic approach. It also reminds us that we ought to notice that a presumptive dichotomy, between dialectic and rhetoric, is a false one. The mathematician is not just doing rhetoric.

Bullshit sessions. The author of Siris also asserts, plausibly, that the persuasionist view of argument seems to make no sense of ‘stimulating thought’ exchanges, where the aim is apparently to open oneself to exchange, not to create a directed change. I agree these contexts are not obvious attempts at rational persuasion; it is easier to say that they are attempts to explore the space of reasons. In bullshit sessions, for example, rational people can take on points of view “for the sake of argument”.

But appearances are deceiving, because the difference has got to do with whether or not the attempts at change are built to last. I submit that in these cases, participants are attempting to persuade others into the view that it is rational to regard some perspective as appropriate in a context, not to persuade people that it is rational to hold the positions are true. The attempt is still to show that, in a contest of reasons, one comes out stronger, even if the contest is local, and comes to an end when the sun goes down. So they still fit with the persuasionist model of dialectic.

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