Because I’m a really huge nerd, I’ve been reading an argumentation book for fun. When I was an undergraduate in philosophy, I actually had no idea this sub-discipline of argumentation theory existed. It’s one of the unfortunate parts of the fact that very few people can specialize in everything in a discipline anymore.* When I got to McMaster, I did discover argumentation theory, and found it quite fascinating. One of the department’s professors, Dr Hitchcock, was a specialist in argumentation theory, and my colleague Young Breezy in the PhD program was raised on theory of argument and informal logic in his undergraduate years at University of Windsor.
* If I was still on a career path in academia, I would have liked to become one of those people who had his specializations, but knew a little of the basics of every field, enough to point an inquiring student in the direction of the major works. I still plan on writing and publishing philosophy independently of the university system, so maybe I still can.
When I did discover argumentation theory, I thought it had a lot of potential for explorations in meta-philosophy. If philosophical discourse consisted of arguments, then the study of argument structure would double as the study of philosophical discourse.
|"An argument is a connected series of statements intended|
to establish a proposition."
"No, it isn't."
So I found it a little sad that most of the argumentation theory that I read tended to be mostly about colloquial arguing. The meta-philosophical angle was rarely addressed except in asides and quips. I did assemble a paper on disagreement theory that eventually found a home in a young journal of argumentation and epistemology called Cogency, that’s published out of Universidad Diego Portales in Chile. It was an implicitly meta-philosophical paper about the idea that reason itself comes in many forms.
And that little paper received quite a lot of negative peer reviews in my initial attempts to publish it, even though, predictably, I was never able to follow their advice because my different peer reviewers (even for the same journal) gave mutually contradictory feedback. One said my paper wasn’t worth publishing because the notion that there are different types and frameworks of reasoning and reason was actually pretty obvious. Another said that my idea was ridiculous and immature, because the fact that people can mutually understand each other at all demonstrates that reason is entirely univocal and any attempt to describe it as plural misunderstood what argument was.
But today, I’m reading, for my fun book, Coalescent Argumentation by Michael Gilbert. It originally dropped in 1997, and Dr Hitchcock recommended it as a strong book in the kind of argumentation theory that I would enjoy. I had often spoken with my colleagues about how displeased I was with the confrontational form of argument that tends to dominate academic philosophical discourse: the notion that critique consists in attack.
To me, a philosophical idea first exists as a hazy notion, and the purpose of criticism is to let the idea go to work, see what it can do in thought and what its implications are for action. Subjecting a tentative hypothesis or notion to aggressive critical attack, searching for its flaws as if it were a fully-fleshed out concept from the start, only nips creativity before it even has the chance to establish itself. I was interested in finding models of argument that approached the subject with a little more nuance. Dr Hitchcock assured me that Gilbert’s book was the most fruitful for my meta-philosophical discourse about discourse.
I only started it recently, but I do enjoy one key idea. Gilbert describes the example of two academics. Smith writes a complicated 500 page book. Jones writes a review of the book, summarizing and attacking its ideas in about 2000 words. Smith explains that Jones has completely misunderstood her. Summarizing a large book in a couple of thousand words and expecting your attacks on this summary to stick isn’t solid philosophical analysis or even charitable engagement.
We don’t need to be precise in what we say (because we so rarely are) to be understood (as we so often are), even though the bulk of argumentation theory tends to believe that precision of necessary for comprehension. I’m only at the beginning of the book, so I’m not sure where Gilbert ultimately takes this. But I consider it a promising start.