Sunday, February 01, 2009

For the Sake of Argument

This posting is a weak attempt at beginning a much-needed study of the idea of "argument" - seen, of course, from a Chestertonian point of view. As I am a computer scientist and so (unlike the typical philosopher of the day) have to keep one foot in the real world, I will rely on the tools of the Scholastics, the great philosophers of the Ages of Light, and so
I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.
[GKC Heretics CW1:46]
While it may end up being a book - or, more likely, a booklet, for now it will just be a series of jottings, mostly excerpts from GKC, or from a Scholastic text, with my own comments. But I do think it is about time we try to get something done, and show how argument is different from quarrelling, and how argument can work better when undertaken with a friend, and why it's not what most of us think, and all sorts of oddities.

But first of all, we need to state very clearly, that argument is a technique for getting at the truth of things. Parts of it may look like a game, or perhaps I might say a duel: a war of words (not worlds, not swords). I am not a fan of any video game, or indeed of most games of any kind, be they sports or parlour or board or any such thing. But games in general are usually wars or duels, and yet for most if us games are most fun when we play them with a friend. The same is true for argument: it may be fun, and feel very much like a game, but it has the advantage over all common games that both contestants come out ahead, regardless of who "wins" in any given "bout". (We'll find out more about the rules of the game in a future posting.)

But since this is just an introductory post, let us just hear two short excerpts from GKC's writing - please read them, and think about them, and next time we'll try to get a little more definite in our approach to the subject.

All too often an argument is a matter of the precise use of words. Yes, once in a while someone may misapply logic, or may make some hidden assumption, or overextend some idea, or commit any of the various faults of sloppy or bad thinking. But words do have to come first, and there must be agreement about their meanings. Often we say "argument" when we mean "quarrel", or something more nasty - or more vague. But we have to find agreement, or resort to argument of some kind:
Why shouldn't we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn't any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn't there be a quarrel about a word? If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about.
[GKC The Ball and the Cross]
However, that does not always mean that we are at odds with our opponent in the argument - we may be his most intimate friend, or even his brother:
[My brother Cecil and I] really devoted all our boyhood to one long argument, unfortunately interrupted by meal-times, by school-times, by work hours and many such irritating and irrelevant frivolities. But though he was ready at first to take up the cudgels for anarchism or atheism or anything, he had the sort of mind in which anarchism or atheism could survive anything except the society of anarchists and atheists. He had far too lucid and lively a mind not to be bored with materialism as maintained by materialists. This negative reaction against negation, however, might not have carried him far, if the positive end of the magnet had not begun to attract him.

My brother, Cecil Edward Chesterton, was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue. He continued to argue to the end; for I am sure that he argued energetically with the soldiers among whom he died, in the last glory of the Great War. It is reported of me that when I was told that I possessed a brother, my first thought went to my own interminable taste for reciting verses, and that I said, "That's all right; now I shall always have an audience." if I did say this, I was in error. My brother was by no means disposed to be merely an audience; and frequently forced the function of an audience upon me. More frequently still, perhaps, it was a case of there being simultaneously two orators and no audience. We argued throughout our boyhood and youth until we became the pest of our whole social circle. We shouted at each other across the table, on the subject of Parnell or Puritanism or Charles the First's head, until our nearest and dearest fled at our approach, and we had a desert around us. And though it is not a matter of undiluted pleasure to recall having been so horrible a nuisance, I am rather glad in other ways that we did so early thrash out our own thoughts on almost all the subjects in the world. I am glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarrelled.

Perhaps the principal objection to a quarrel is that it interrupts an argument. Anyhow, our argument was never interrupted until it began to reach its conclusion in the proper form; which is conviction. I do not say that at any particular moment either of us would have admitted being in error; but as a matter of fact, it was through that incessant process of disagreement that we came at last to agree. He began as a more mutinous sort of Pagan, a special enemy of the Puritan, a defender of Bohemian enjoyments, sociable but entirely secular. I began with more disposition to defend in a vague way the Victorian idealism, and even to say a word for Puritan religion, chiefly from a dim subconscious sympathy with any sort of religion. But in fact, by a process of elimination, we came more and more to think that the same sort of non-Puritan religion was the more plausible and promising; and to end eventually, but quite independently, in the same Church. I think it was a good thing that we had tested every link of logic by mutual hammering. I will even add something that sounds too like a boast; though it is meant to be a tribute. I will say that the man who had got used to arguing with Cecil Chesterton has never since had any reason to fear an argument with anybody.
[GKC Autobiography CW16:160, 187-8]


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