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Posts Tagged ‘logic’

Conversation

Monday, June 4th, 2012

What is the point of conversation and argument? I mean “argument” somewhat in the spirit of the logical and philosophical sense of the word, summarized on wikipedia as:

In philosophy and logic, an argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something, by giving reasons or evidence for accepting a particular conclusion. The general structure of an argument in a natural language is that of premises (typically in the form of propositions, statements or sentences) in support of a claim: the conclusion.

(Edited to remove footnotes)

A conversation can be made up of one or more arguments. While the point of an argument is to persuade, that’s not necessarily the point of a conversation.

Very few people actually make arguments as defined above. What most people do is assert opinions. That may be fine, but those aren’t arguments, and they don’t always make for very good conversation.

What I’m trying to get at is that I tend to irritate people, and vise-versa. I don’t really approach a discussion adversarially. If you want to “win”, that’s what debate is for. Yet this is exactly how many people approach conversations, especially when politics are involved. That, in fact, is the raison d’être of talking points. How cynical are talking points? They are employed to steel individuals for contrary beliefs and opinions, not to encourage an enriching, belief-challenging conversation. The very concept is irrational and depressing.

Note that I’m not implying that people need to be persuaded or concede anything. If they genuinely question the soundness of an argument, and as long as they are being intellectually honest, a conversation need not conclude with one participant conceding defeat. In fact, the vast majority of political discussions end this way, with no consensus. In the best of these cases, people find themselves unable to agree on a point that is difficult to prove one way or another. If they can acknowledge that, they at least have isolated a core point of dispute. In the worst cases, the conversation ends irrationally with name calling or (much worse) violence. In between are the sort of conversations we usually have, especially with people of a different political or philosophical persuasion.

I always try to have the best kind of disagreements. It’s very, very hard to have those conversations with most people. I’m frequently accused of being mercilessly (or foolishly) logical. There’s some truth to that. I am quick to find inconsistencies in peoples’ thoughts. Please note that I’m not bragging here — I know many people who are much brighter and better than I am. There are plenty of people who can absolutely destroy me in an argument. But because for me the conversation itself is the reward (not “winning”), I’m more likely than not to enjoy having my argument eviscerated. It’s not about proving yourself right, it’s about finding out what’s wrong and narrowing down what’s right.

There are a handful of things that will truly ruin a conversation for me. The first (and foremost) is irrationality. You can’t “just know” something. Supernatural revelations are likewise useless in a conversation, or at least only as useful as a statements like “Yesterday, blue was my favorite color”, or “I know in my bones that the president is a socialist”. This tells me something about how you think or see things, but it doesn’t tell me anything else. Related to this are appeals to common sense. Common sense is an attempt to assert something without providing any support, the implication often being that only an idiot would question it.

Speaking of idiots, another thing that ruins a conversation for me is if one participant really does believe that anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot (or is evil). If that person is also adept at rhetoric, odious in their treatment of others and prone to dismissing counter-arguments as meaningless or nit-picking, I won’t even give that person the time of day. A conversation should be respectful and should adhere to the rules of logic.

So when I get into a meta-conversation, I find myself in the awkward position of trying to defend the way I argue, because it irritates people. But defending myself is itself an argument.

The point of a conversation, for me, is to challenge beliefs — my own and others’. It’s to root out what we believe without sound basis. It is, in short, to learn. Sometimes, when making an argument I’ve never articulated before (or articulated well), I’ll go about disproving myself. That’s always an interesting, exciting moment, and it sadly doesn’t happen often enough.

I hope I don’t sound sanctimonious. I’m being sincere — after all, I got my B.A. in Philosophy and English. You have to love discourse to study that. When getting my degree, I was surrounded by many people who approached conversation the same way. Not all, but many. Maybe that spoiled me. Regardless, it also gave me hope that others could come around to this approach.

When was the last time you approached a conversation with the intention of learning something rather than proving someone wrong?

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