Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Argument as End and Means

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…

5 responses to “Argument as End and Means

  1. Joseph Kugelmass November 29, 2006 at 9:56 am

    I apologize for responding briefly; after posting to the Valve it’s always a challenge to keep up just with the flurry over there.

    The short way of responding to your post is to say that I absolutely espouse the more generous, more tentative readings of the lines I wrote for that essay, rather than the absolutist or intolerant ones. To begin with, I read Habermas exactly the way you do, which is why I refer to the Habermasian consensus as a “fantasy” rather than as something I see an immediate way to achieve.

    Furthermore, I absolutely agree that mainstream positions, and even extreme positions that get a hearing, should be interpretable to us. That does mean thinking according to alien logics, and trying to understand how reasonable people, leading generally admirable lives, could hold such positions. (In other words, the logic, not the person, is alien.)

    That said, I felt I had to write the way I did for the simple reason that I am not trying to achieve the minimal goals Bérubé proposes: I am not simply trying to make my arguments intelligible “as arguments.” I am trying (not in the Valve post, which has a different purpose and audience, but in my daily life) to make myself useful by advancing certain causes. Above all, I am not trying to make myself “sharper” on the whetstone of opposing beliefs; the poetry, prose, and philosophy I attempt to analyze is good enough for that. The cult of greater and greater acuity in argument is actually a solipsistic replacement for political efficacy.

    There is a very fine line between directing students towards the texts they would find most interesting, and condescending to them by explaining to them how very traditional they are. I do not get the sense that you are condescending, either in your meetings with students, or in the way you conduct seminars. I do think it helps to be aware of the danger, and misleading comforts, of basically telling students that there’s nothing new under the sun.

    Finally, I would assert that certain kinds of policy arguments are based on assumptions about human beings. For example, California is struggling to afford the “Three Strikes” law that keeps all kinds of offenders in jail for extremely long periods of time. This is a terrible idea, practically speaking, but it has endured because of a theory about “born criminals.” This is the sort of unexamined discourse to which my reference to “false premises” refers.

  2. N Pepperell November 29, 2006 at 1:01 pm

    Sorry to drag you to respond in multiple places – I realise that’s very annoying. I basically just thought I had gone on too long to dump this post either at your site or at The Valve… Apologies also for adding a couple of additional comments here – with the awareness that you’ll likely remain busy elsewhere, and I recognise that this remains an inconvenient diversion…

    First, one issue that might need to be clarified is whether we’re talking about pedagogical practice, or whether we’re talking about political debate in civil society. Many of your points are clearly appropriate to the rough-and-tumble of political contestation – where by definition we’re engaged in direct advocacy – but not to the classroom – where I think it can be structurally abusive to engage in certain forms of advocacy. By all means, we must make ourselves useful in the advancement of the causes we care about – but we need to be very, very cautious about believing that we can do this directly in our university teaching roles: ethically, the structural imbalance between staff and student can make this a hazardous proposition; pragmatically, that very same structural imbalance tends, I think, to generate very insecure and short-term political “gains”, at high long-term risk. It’s clear from aspects of your post that you are very sensitive to this ethical concern – but, at the same time, you still seem to be seeking some opportunity for direct political engagement in a classroom setting where I’m not convinced such engagement would be appropriate or, in practical terms, can occur…

    Second, I disagree (but I suspect you would, as well?) with the suggestion in your comment above that an engagement with opposing positions needs to involve some kind of fetishistic search for ever-greater argumentative acuity. I also disagree with the notion that we can gain all the insight we need from tilling our own field, so to speak, without the serious attempt to engage intellectually with competing positions. I don’t believe that the goal in doing this is to learn how to make our positions intelligible “as arguments”. I do believe that the goal is to use every possible means available to us to improve our understanding of the political issues into which we are intervening, the potential consequences of the policies for which we are advocating, etc. – and, from this point of view, thorough engagement with opposing views can be one of the best “natural” checks and balances we have available to us.

    There is a pragmatic dimension to all of this, of course: of course we can’t hide away and refuse to take any political stance while we pursue some pipe dream of total and comprehensive insight. Political engagement involves a level of decision-making on the run – of satisficing – of making the best decisions we know how to make, based on what we know in our minds and feel in our hearts at the time. Still, intellectuals do have greater leisure and training than many others will have to engage with competing views at depth – this is, I think, one of the things we can potentially contribute to the broader political fray…

    And finally, on another topic entirely: I agree completely with your comment about the dangers of convincing students that their positions are, in a sense, nothing but the latest epiphenomenal manifestations of long-term traditions – this is why I reproduced my student’s comment, as a kind of truth-in-advertising disclaimer about the problems with my technique (and also as an indication of the degree to which I can evidently at times completely fail with what I’m trying to use the technique to achieve, which isn’t to turn my students into jaded cynics who think there’s nothing new under the sun, but is something closer to getting my students to appreciate the connectedness between the emergence of particular forms of thought, and broader historical context…). As is evident from my student’s reaction, my technique can fail in spectacular ways… ;-P

  3. Joseph Kugelmass November 29, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    In many ways, I think my response to Bérubé’s own comment (who shared several of your concerns about my post) speaks to the freedom I think students should have in the classroom. Basically, my ideal for the classroom is one free from inaccuracies and advocacy alike. Such classrooms may appear to produce political positions (for example, by proving that the death penalty does not lower homicide rates), but students and others remain free to assert different values (they might support the death penalty on other grounds than deterrence).

    (Note: In my original post, I don’t really get into what I expect in the classroom until the section on mimetic criticism.)

    I think the question of the value of responding to opposing arguments may have something to do with my vocation as a graduate student in English. We just don’t get that many opposing arguments; most of what I have to say about James Joyce or Aldous Huxley is roughly compatible with other readings. It is different, and hopefully original, but it is compatible. Therefore the process of reading other critics is not generally agonistic; instead, they help me by modeling excellent close reading and theoretical reasoning.

    As a result, it is a somewhat odd phenomenon for literary scholars to insist, as some do, on the uniquely therapeutic nature of disagreement; where real disagreements do arise, as they do between Lacanians and New Historicists, there is virtually nothing to be done, though scholars sympathetic to both sides (as you and I are) try to build what bridges they can. It seems like literary scholars should be speaking more about cooperative forms of conversation, even if such forms are not immediately applicable to the most tendentious political debates.

    It is certainly true that one has a responsibility to try to understand political problems by first collecting a range of reasoned opinions, evaluating each on its merits, and continuing thereafter to give new ideas a hearing. My only caveat would be the one you mentioned in your first response, namely that not all debaters or debates show great concern for truth or rationality. That is why I have tried (in the Valve’s comments section) to highlight the unfortunate co-optation of the general theory of liberalism-as-argument by outliers like the Intelligent Design movement.

  4. N Pepperell November 29, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    Fair enough – I have a bad habit of forgetting the substantive differences between disciplines, and was reacting to the more real-world policy examples from your original post, and not thinking about what kinds of topics would likely arise in the courses you would actually teach.

    And, yes, examples that fall into the “nothing can be done” category seem to arise fairly often in my work (which doesn’t mean, though, that I haven’t taken fire myself for not taking a more definitive side on some of these issues – not everyone may regard things as unresolved, that I regard as unresolved…)

    I definitely do think that people – and, in the case of something like Intelligent Design, entire movements – can behave in ways that indicate that rational discussion would be something of a one-way process… And confronting all sides in a debate with “inconvenient facts” is the point, in many ways, of good pedagogical practice – so, yes, certainly no need to dance around discussing information that might challenge a student’s political position – as long as this knife cuts in any direction the evidence leads.

    Thanks again for detouring over here to discuss the issue – I’m aware that this is not your main discursive front… ;-)

  5. Joseph Kugelmass November 30, 2006 at 5:05 am

    For this post, it isn’t my main discursive front, but it continues to be one of the most rewarding forums I’ve found. Thanks for these remarks.

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