Tuesday, August 05, 2008

CD Review: Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning

This is a rather different review from what I usually write, as it discusses a series of audio compact disks, not just a single one. What I'd like to take the time to consider is a 12-disk, 24-class collection offered by "The Teaching Company." Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning is quite possibly one of the most important classes a layman can take without attending college. Why? A sampling of talk radio on either side of the political spectrum will suffice: we are losing the collective ability to discuss matters of controversy rationally.

Western Civilization owes much of its durability to its willingness to argue. This might seem counterintuitive, given how most of civilization's nastiest wars have been born out of arguments. However, perhaps the most important gift that the Greeks (and then the Romans) bequeathed to us has been a framework for conducting reasoned arguments among political equals to prevent war. After all, if human beings are to live in a democratic (lower-case "d") society, and we are not going to resort to brute force to resolve all disputes, then we must find some other means of settling them. This was what the Greeks felt separated them, for example, from the Persians. Free men (and now women) have a whole set of tools and strategies for getting their way. Those tools and strategies are found in well-reasoned arguments.

The arguments one often hears on talk radio today (Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter are two of the worst offenders here) are not about finding a resolution or common understanding with the other side. They are all about winning. Well, of course argumentation exists to win one's point; however, the specific methods Hannity, Coulter, and many of their detractors employ--argument through ad hominem attacks, appeals to tradition or authority, appeals to emotion, etc.--do not advance the state of our national conversation. The teacher of this class, Professor David Zarefsky of Northwestern University, describes argumentation as a type of knowing. What he means by this is that argument provides a structured means for advancing different ways of settling a dispute when the correct answer to a question or the proper way to act is unclear.

For example, if a healthy man is standing in the way of a train and has the desire and means for escape, that would not require a great deal of moral questioning; however, if the man has decided to lie down in front of the train on purpose because he is protesting something that he feels is more important than his life, then there is some dispute about his actions. Is suicide worth it? Is there some other way to make his case? Is he lying down on the tracks, not for a cause, but simply because he is depressed? Those are questions that are open to interpretation and, thus, argument.

Zarefsky takes the listener through nearly the entire field of questioning and argumentation, from its historical roots to the structure of arguments to attack and defense, evaluating evidence, reasoning from parts to whole, moving from cause to effect, identifying valid and fallacious arguments, and the appropriate use of argument between individuals, experts, and societies as a whole. The level-headedness of the argumentation process is not natural; we would rather just win and get it over with. However, if we are to function as a civilized society, we must continue these traditions. Otherwise, we leave ourselves open to several dangers (as identified by me, not Zarefsky):

  • Being outsmarted by those who do understand argumentation but are wholly unscrupulous.
  • Losing the roots of our civil society by losing the ability to understand and rationally counter arguments with which we disagree.
  • Having more and more people left out of important decisions that directly affect their lives simply because they are left out of the conversation (my primary concern with technocracy).
  • Settling all arguments by irrational means, such as appealing solely to emotion, appealing to group-ism (black vs. white, men vs. women, etc.), and sheer clout or use of force. Again, wars are not the result of argumentation, they are the result of a failure of argumentation to produce results that are readily accepted and understood by leaders or nations.
  • People giving up on politics and demanding a single leader to settle all disputes because debate has failed.

This set of classes will not cause conservatives to accept liberalism, nor cause liberals to better accept conservatism. Ideally what it will do is give each side a better vocabulary for understanding the other side and for learning how to take other viewpoints into account when arguing for one's views. The class also provides better tools for winning arguments than simply shouting at one another or talking past each other because each side is using a different moral vocabulary to encompass the same words or situation.

The teaching is very Aristotelian, as it strives to teach arguers in a public forum how to appeal to "the middle" or "the undecided" individual or voter rather than simply the already-converted partisans (which is how American politics was conducted up through 1968 or so). It forces issues out into the open, but it also forces those issues to be settled rationally as the antidote for civil war. And that can only be to our advantage, as our society becomes more and more fragmented. Argumentation--even something as old as Graeco-Roman methods of argumentation--just might be what we need to keep the nation together.

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