Note: this post started as a comment to Joseph Kugelmass’ post on “The Love of Argument: A Response to Michael Berube” (cross-posted to The Valve). Since the reply has grown a bit cancerous, I’ll post it here instead, with the caveat that the post still has the character of a comment, in the sense that it refers directly to the post without making an attempt to summarise comprehensively the post content. I’d suggest that readers look at the post first, and then read this response…
My reaction to your post is a bit complicated. On the one hand, I tend to agree with this position:
Argumentation is a regrettable means, not an end; believing otherwise leads one to fetishize intelligence, misinterpret opponents, maintain incompatible ideas, and worse.
I’m not sure, though, that my reasons for agreeing reflect your reasons for writing the statement. The fetishisation of argument bothers me because I think, as academics, as intellectuals, we ought to be engaged at least in principle in a truth game – that we ought to care sufficiently about truth, that assessing truth claims matters more than “winning” or the aesthetic gratification of constructing an elegant argument. And I tend to become deeply uncomfortable with situations where I feel that opponents are being misinterpreted, or where some sort of self-reinforcing in-group consensus abridges analysis at the level of “well, of course we all know what’s wrong with [x]“, when one gets the sinking feeling that very few people would be able to articulate what, precisely, is wrong with [x]. I say this with full cognisance of the epistemological issues involved – my concern is with our willingness to engage in a discursive process that is more than purely agonistic, where the parties in the exchange are each in principle committed to the same goal of testing, refining, improving – and, if necessary, abandoning – their starting positions, with the goal of arriving at better positions.
I agree with your concern about aestheticising the perpetuation of debate, of conflict, of opposing positions – as though these were substantive ends in their own right, above and beyond other substantive endpoints. At the same time, I do think it’s very important to remain aware that not all debates have definitive conclusions that can be rationally determined at any given point in time – I may even personally lean toward the notion that most important debates at a given historical moment in fact do not have such conclusions, although I won’t assert this as a strong position – and I actually think that recognising when this might be the case can be a very important dimension of positioning argument as “a regrettable means”. Behaving as though all reasonable people would reach our personally preferred conclusion, when this is not in fact the case, undermines the orientation to truth just as strongly as aestheticising argument for its own sake. (As a side point – and I know we’ve had this discussion before – the insight I would personally draw from Habermas is not that consensus – understood as some sort of achievable static endpoint – is our goal, but that our awareness of the possibility for consensus represents a kind of counterfactual ideal: this counterfactual ideal is then useful for practice because, as long as we keep firmly in mind that we’ll never reach something like TRUTH as a static endpoint, it still lifts our game if we all behave in ways that are compatible with seeking this unattainable endpoint…)
I have not yet read Berube’s book (yes, yes, I know… I should get to it… it’s been a hectic period…), but I understand the concerns you express in your analysis of the miscommunication that persists through Berube’s “teachable moment” discussion of his interaction with a conservative student. You argue that Berube has aligned the student with an intellectual tradition not actually expressed in the student’s own statements, and thus empowered the student (in your account, at the evident expense of the other students in the room), without actually enlightening the student any further about the rational bases (or lack thereof) for their own position. I understand your concern – without reading Berube myself, it’s difficult to know whether I would agree with your reading of the situation. But I did at least want to indicate that something like the strategy you describe – where Berube addresses himself to the broad intellectual tradition of which the student’s views are a “symptom”, so to speak – is something that I’ve found, in practice, can actually be a very good way of getting students from various political backgrounds to step back and gain some critical distance on their own positions – to recognise that more than just “common sense” is involved in constructing their views.
In postgraduate courses, for example, my preferred teaching style (not appropriate to all subjects, of course) is to begin by essentially scribing the student discussion: ideally, I say only as much as I have to say to get discussion started – preferably via questions, rather than positive statements – and then let the students run with the day’s topic. The scribing is not random, however: as students speak, I’m mapping what they say according to where the points sit in intellectual and social history, drawing lines between connected points, sketching trees to show the relationship between points that have unexpected common ancestors, etc. When the discussion begins to repeat, or students run out of things to say, I then use this sketch as the basis for an impromptu lecture about the intellectual traditions with which their positions are affiliated – and then I open the discussion back up, on the basis of the broader questions this new background allows us to discuss. (Note that I’m not necessarily promoting this technique, or my own skills in deploying it – among other things, as one of my students this past term commented with some dismay, “I’ve never really seen anything like this: we come up with these ideas, and we’re thinking we’re being really original and creative, and then you come along and tell us that everything we think has already been thought, in much greater detail, by someone three hundred years ago – and that dozens of people are experts on the topic now… My other courses don’t do this…” ;-P) This technique sounds, at least superficially, somewhat like what you describe Berube to be doing – and I would suggest that it’s at least possible to use this sort of technique, as I attempt to do, to help students achieve some level of critical distance on their received concepts – as well as some critical empathy for other people’s received concepts…
The notion of critical empathy brings me to your other major point:
I have no interest whatsoever in seeing right-wing positions (say, for example, the “flat-rate” income tax, or the privatization of social services) preserved out of respect for their long and distinguished histories. I am only willing, as a private citizen, to continue to participate civilly in debates over taxes, social services, abortion, etc., because it is my hope that these debates will one day be ended, replaced by a steady state of reasonable policy and maximal human welfare….
I see definitive limits on the amount of “intelligence” one can muster in defense of right-wing arguments, since they always reason from false premises. I write this with a wincing awareness that it shows some disrespect to conservatives. I apologize for that, because this isn’t the forum for arguing the specifics of the issues.
I realise I’m responding to a blog post, and so this may not be the phrasing you would choose in a more considered medium. And I’ll confess that I’m coming off a term where I’ve probably spent a bit too much time arguing with people who hold very similar views, so I’ll apologise in advance if I take some of my long-term frustration out on you. I understand your anger at prominent public figures who seem themselves to have little concern for truth or rationality in putting forward their positions – and I have no problem with the decision to dismiss out of hand opponents who have placed themselves outside the parameters of rational discourse. If this is all you mean, I don’t disagree.
But your statement seems more far-reaching than this – and I do tend to think that, if we seriously cannot perceive how a relatively mainstream position could conceivably be defended intellectually, or why such a position might appeal socially or psychologically, this should probably be taken as a sign that we need to do more homework. Note that achieving greater insight into how someone could reasonably embrace or defend a position does not entail agreeing with the position: something can be plausible, and still completely wrong. As a matter both of intellectual integrity and of practical politics, however, I don’t believe that wholesale dismissal of the potential rationality of an opposing position is a good starting place. If our goal is critique, I also tend to feel that we are better off reconstructing what opposing positions would be at their best – at their clearest and most rational – and then aiming our critique at this highest possible expression of an opposing position. This approach produces, in my opinion, a more fundamental critique – and is also generally most productive as we try to refine our alternative concepts – but it does require a bit of dancing with the devil: a serious attempt to place yourself in what can sometimes be a very alien thought-space, so that you can seriously test your ideas against opposing claims… I do understand that this process may not be reciprocated. But the point isn’t to gain the respect of intellectual or political opponents – the point is to test ourselves, and to practice commitment to a particular standard of intellectual engagement. I think both of these goals are extremely important – and that both are actually related to the desire for discussion oriented to truth claims, rather than discussion centred on the fetishisation of argument…