How to Argue With Kindness and Care: 4 Rules from Philosopher Daniel Dennett

Pho­to by Math­ias Schindler, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Drawn from Aris­to­tle and his Roman and Medieval inter­preters, the “clas­si­cal trivium”—a divi­sion of thought and writ­ing into Log­ic, Gram­mar, and Rhetoric—assumes at least three things: that it mat­ters how we arrive at our ideas, it mat­ters how we express them, and it mat­ters how we treat the peo­ple with whom we inter­act, even, and espe­cial­ly, those with whom we dis­agree. The word rhetoric has tak­en on the con­no­ta­tion of emp­ty, false, or flat­ter­ing speech. But it orig­i­nal­ly meant some­thing clos­er to kind­ness.

We might note that this ped­a­gogy comes from a logo­cen­tric tra­di­tion, one that priv­i­leges writ­ing over oral com­mu­ni­ca­tion. But while it ignores phys­i­cal niceties like ges­ture, pos­ture, and per­son­al space, we can still incor­po­rate its lessons into spo­ken conversation—that is, if we’re inter­est­ed in hav­ing con­struc­tive dia­logue, in being heard, find­ing agree­ment, and learn­ing some­thing new. If we want to lob shots into the abyss and hear hun­dreds of voic­es echo back, well… this requires no spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion.

The sub­ject of sound rhetoric—with its sub­sets of eth­i­cal and emo­tion­al sensitivity—has been tak­en up by philoso­phers over hun­dreds of years, from medieval the­olo­gians to the staunch­ly athe­ist philoso­pher of con­scious­ness Daniel Den­nett. In his book Intu­ition Pumps and Oth­er Tools for Think­ing, Den­nett sum­ma­rizes the cen­tral rhetor­i­cal prin­ci­ple of char­i­ty, call­ing it “Rapoport’s Rules” after an elab­o­ra­tion by social psy­chol­o­gist and game the­o­rist Ana­tol Rapoport.

Like their clas­si­cal pre­de­ces­sors, these rules direct­ly tie care­ful, gen­er­ous lis­ten­ing to sound argu­men­ta­tion. We can­not say we have under­stood an argu­ment unless we’ve actu­al­ly heard its nuances, can sum­ma­rize it for oth­ers, and can grant its mer­its and con­cede it strengths. Only then, writes Den­nett, are we equipped to com­pose a “suc­cess­ful crit­i­cal com­men­tary” of another’s posi­tion. Den­nett out­lines the process in four steps:

  1. Attempt to re-express your tar­get’s posi­tion so clear­ly, vivid­ly and fair­ly that your tar­get says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agree­ment (espe­cial­ly if they are not mat­ters of gen­er­al or wide­spread agree­ment).
  3. Men­tion any­thing you have learned from your tar­get.
  4. Only then are you per­mit­ted to say so much as a word of rebut­tal or crit­i­cism.

Here we have a strat­e­gy that pays div­i­dends, if under­tak­en in the right spir­it. By show­ing that we under­stand an opponent’s posi­tions “as well as they do,” writes Den­nett, and that we can par­tic­i­pate in a shared ethos by find­ing points of agree­ment, we have earned the respect of a “recep­tive audi­ence.” Alien­at­ing peo­ple will end an argu­ment before it even begins, when they turn their backs and walk away rather than sub­ject them­selves to obtuse­ness and abuse.

Addi­tion­al­ly, mak­ing every effort to under­stand an oppos­ing posi­tion will only help us bet­ter con­sid­er and present our own case, if it doesn’t suc­ceed in chang­ing our minds (though that dan­ger is always there). These are reme­dies for bet­ter social cohe­sion and less shouty polar­iza­tion, for deploy­ing “the artillery of our right­eous­ness from behind the com­fort­able shield of the key­board,” as Maria Popo­va writes at Brain Pick­ings, “which is real­ly a men­ace of react­ing rather than respond­ing.”

Yelling, or typ­ing, into the void, rather than engag­ing in sub­stan­tive, respect­ful dis­cus­sion is also a ter­ri­ble waste of our time—a dis­trac­tion from much wor­thi­er pur­suits. We can and should, argues Den­nett, Rapoport, and philoso­phers over the cen­turies, seek out posi­tions we dis­agree with. In seek­ing out and try­ing to under­stand their best pos­si­ble ver­sions, we stand to gain new knowl­edge and widen our appre­ci­a­tion.

As Den­nett puts it, “when you want to crit­i­cize a field, a genre, a dis­ci­pline, an art form… don’t waste your time and ours hoot­ing at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone.” In “going after the good stuff,” we might find that it’s bet­ter, or at least dif­fer­ent, than we thought, and that we’re wis­er for hav­ing tak­en the time to learn it, even if only to point out why we think it most­ly wrong.

via Brain Pick­ings/Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Daniel Den­nett Presents Sev­en Tools For Crit­i­cal Think­ing

Oxford’s Free Course Crit­i­cal Rea­son­ing For Begin­ners Will Teach You to Think Like a Philoso­pher

Mon­ty Python’s “Argu­ment Clin­ic” Sketch Reen­act­ed by Two Vin­tage Voice Syn­the­siz­ers (One Is Stephen Hawking’s Voice)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Ruth von Fuchs says:

    I just recent­ly dis­cov­ered Dan via an arti­cle in an old New York­er (a neigh­bour had put out a cubic foot of them for pick­up by passers­by). Of course I gained only a nod­ding acquain­tance with his ideas but I thought he might enjoy a metaphor that has come to me: the mind/brain/whatever is the kitchen of behav­iour, and con­scious­ness is the kitchen smells — some­thing that just aris­es when a cer­tain thresh­old is crossed dur­ing a cer­tain kind of “cook­ing”.

    I stud­ied phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­o­gy for my BA, back in the 1960s, and cook­ing is one of my prin­ci­pal hob­bies. I also share Dan’s love of a good tune — one of my favourites is Win­ches­ter New, a hymn tune that goes back to 1690.

    Ruth von Fuchs

  • Sam Konor says:

    Good advices, but hard to fol­low them. Espe­cial­ly when your inter­locu­tor is not very smart.

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