Why Exactly Are We Having This Argument Anyway? Research Time, 08/08/2014

A still from In Plane Sight, a landmark 9/11 conspiracy
documentary. One of my ideas for argumentation theory is
a deflationary paper: If the goal of rational argument is to
construct a position that cannot be denied, then the
conspiracy theory is the prime case. Any reason you raise
against believing in the conspiracy can be dismissed on the
ground that it is a product of the conspirators to distract
from their plans. If it is irrational to believe falsehoods,
then you are irrational to believe the lie that Al Qaeda
destroyed the WTC. The conspiracist would dismiss your
dismissal of conspiracy thinking as inherently irrational as
itself irrational on the same ground: your conception of
rationality is flawed because you believe the falsehood that
the conspiracy is false. Airtight, isn't it?
I finished Michael Gilbert’s book, Coalescent Argumentation, last night. As I’ve said in earlier posts where I’ve described my reactions to his ideas, argumentation and disagreement have long been side interests to me. I have published one essay in argumentation theory, broadly speaking, but the subject is, disciplinarily speaking, so far outside my major areas of focus that I probably won’t publish specifically in it again.

But I do have a few thoughts on Gilbert’s ideas that I think are worth airing. One is that I rarely read books whose authors are so firmly set in the academic world. This is just a trivial observation philosophically, but one with a little more bite in the context of the politics of post-secondary education. Right now, I’m in the process of revising my Collective Vision statement for the SERRC, a short essay that’s getting a complete overhaul to become something of a manifesto for what I hope is a growing movement, in which I would like to play a healthy role over the next years, to liberate critical knowledge producers in the humanities disciplines from an increasingly compromised university system. 

In this context, I find Gilbert’s book, originally written in 1997, to be quite naïve in many ways. For one, a plurality of his examples of arguments are in university settings: faculty members of different ranks and job securities discussing affirmative action, students disputing grades. It reminds me of the essays I’ve read, written since philosophy was institutionalized in universities, that when referring to a raw experience in the authors' daily lives, often describe the inert clutter that they stare at on their desks. It speaks to an insularity of one’s life that can separate your thinking, often against your own desires, from the ability to engage with the world.

Gilbert’s take on argumentation theory makes for a brilliant example of this hopeful but hopeless naïveté. He explicitly pitches his framework for a theory of coalescent argumentation as a way for the theory of argument to engage with and reflect the ways that people actually argue in real life. He identifies four modes of argument: the rational/logical (giving reasons and drawing conclusions based on the implication laws and theorems of formal logic), emotional, visceral (making statements, premises, and conclusions using gestures and other non-verbal signals), and what he calls, in a neologism, kisceral (intuitions, hunches, and gut feelings). This framework is a tool to analyze how people act in different moves of real-life arguments. Its analysis aims to identify the goals of people in a dispute and eventually bring or guide them to agreement.

He opposes this to what he called the Critical-Logical school of argumentation, which focusses only on those elements of disputes which are traditionally taken to be rational. Argumentation is understood as essentially antagonistic, and the goal of arguers is to defeat their opponent and in so doing demonstrate the rational superiority of their position. The Critical-Logical school is also the style of argumentation that produces jackasses. 

This is the form of argumentation and informal logic that, despite the attempted impact of Gilbert’s work, remains the dominant form of teaching informal logic and philosophical argument in the discipline’s undergraduate university programs. Despite Gilbert’s hopes to transform argumentation theory, his ideas remain trapped in the place of an outsider.

This is a shame in an even greater sense, because Gilbert, like many theorists of argumentation that I’ve encountered over the years, expresses a deep social and political hope in their sub-discipline. He believes that the study of argument and education in argumentation can actually aid the resolution of disputes and prevent the escalation of violence in conflict. 

I have heard and read proponents of traditional Critical-Logical argumentation theory similarly express that their goal is to help people express their conflicts more rationally. This is why they stress the verbalization of all premises and contexts for an argument, and decry emotional and instinctive appeals and moves. Gilbert pitches his argumentation theory as a way to teach people how to come to agreement in apparently intractable conflicts. The Critical-Logical perspective would be immediately prescriptive about argument, instructing us from the start on what makes a proper argument. Gilbert's coalescence concept is ultimately normative as well, because it is a means to settle disputes. But he takes there to be far more descriptive work to be done to understand all the facets of how arguments develop and unfold. 

These are all, from their various perspectives, profoundly admirable goals. But I still have doubts about whether the broad political goals of argumentation theory can be applied wholesale to the conflicts of the world at personal, community, national, and global scales. Call it my lack of faith in the naïve hopes of a university town.

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