A Good Scrap

Ever get in an argument? I bet you have; they are pretty hard to avoid in life. Unless you are Colm McGregor, you may have been able to avoid having many of the physical sort. The other sort are harder to avoid. They can also be hard to get anywhere with, since all parties in an argument tend to be very interested in the idea of winning, especially when the egos of the participants are involved, as they usually are (a human and their ego are rarely separated for long).

Often, conceding a point to another person in an argument is considered to be some kind of climb-down from the original position, an admission that one has been completely wrong about all one’s opinions in relation to the topic. This isn’t true, from a logical perspective, as it is as likely that you could still be right about a few things, while getting a few things quite wrong.

Let’s take the logic thing a bit further, by looking at how it’s used in arguments. We’ll need to get our terms right to know what it is we are talking about when we say the word ‘argument’, as it has a particular definition in philosophy that is narrower than in ordinary speech. There are also several parts of an argument, such as the starting point(s), or premise(s). This video explains the parts of an argument, the phases an argument passes through, as well as the two main types of argument. Hopefully it won’t  come as a complete surprise that an argument can be conducted without the boxing gloves coming out.

How can you get yourself unhooked enough from your ego to even want to enter into a logical argument with someone? It probably helps if you realise that the other person, even if they don’t agree with you, might still have something interesting to say that could add to your knowledge. Lots of times people fail miserably to even get this far, and never get into the discussion, or argument as we are calling it here, that leads to further understanding, perhaps just of the other person’s perspective, or even of expanding their own knowledge about a topic. Socrates was a big fan of starting out from the beginning point of an argument saying to himself that the one thing he was wiser in than other men, was knowing that he knew nothing. The Dalai Lama‘s starting point is to start out from a position of doubting everything. Both mindsets are a way of removing oneself from one’s high-horse at the outset, so that the ego won’t kick up a stink and spoil the whole show, creating a situation where being right is more important than even hearing what the other person has to say.

Socrates had a good sense of humour, by all accounts, and was pretty equatable in the temper department, both assets in an argument, when unhooking emotionally enough to ensure that the intellect is fully engaged without being biased too much for logic to co-exist with it. Sad to say,  emotionality often looms large in many arguments, at the expense of logic. Just think of political debates you may have had with friends, or strangers, with differing political outlooks, and you can see how over-emotionality can quickly shut down discussion.

Some of Socrates arguments were a bit sneaky, to say the least, and when they reach their conclusion we can see that something went wrong somewhere along the way, though it can be hard to disentangle it enough to figure out at what stage it went so horribly wrong. Arguing well isn’t an easy thing to do; an argument can turn out to have more logical traps than the hunger games has ways to bump the players off.

The ultimate no-no and power-user tip for engaging in a decent argument, is to only use an ad hominum argument when you have already been talking to someone for a while, and are getting so little from the experience that you wish to tick them off to the nth degree. This will quickly send the whole logical structure of the argument off the rails, and reduce the argument to a shouty ego-driven, who can pee the highest mess, which might give you three seconds of relief before you start feeling thoroughly ashamed of how primitive and reptilian-brained you really are, beneath the civilised veneer. Not to worry; you’ll live to fight another day.

Homework: Watch the video and read the lesson transcript over here. (If you don’t want to do it, you can always say the dog ate it). More on the Socratic Method here.