Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 48, April 2004

Intellectual midwifery

The philosopher David Hume allegedly once said that “truth springs from arguments amongst friends” (I have actually been unable to source this quote). Perhaps, and yet many Americans don’t think it is polite to engage in arguments with other people on anything worth discussing, like politics, sex or religion (this doesn’t include fundamentalists engaging in “witnessing,” which isn’t a discussion at all, but rather an aggresive monologue to save your soul).

Even should one be lucky enough to join a discussion group (on the Internet or, more rare and precious finding, in flesh and blood at the local bookstore or coffee house), it seems like people simply talk past each other, using the other person’s time at presenting her views only to catch their breadth and begin thinking what to say next. I know because I’ve been guilty of precisely such behavior when I was younger, obviously motivated more by the urge to parade my knowledge, or to “convince” my opponent, rather then... well, rather then what? What exactly is the purpose of discussion supposed to be?

Let us go back to the first written record of people engaging in discussions of a philosophical bent: Plato’s dialogues allegedly reporting what Socrates said to his interlocutors. Socrates often explains that his role is that of a philosophical midwife, not to tell people what the truth is, but rather to help them get out the truths that are already inside them. For example, in Theaetetus, Socrates tells the title character: “Well, my art of midwifery is in most respects like theirs; but differs, in that I attend men and not women; and look after their souls when they are in labour, and not after their bodies: and the triumph of my art is in thoroughly examining whether the thought which the mind of the young man brings forth is a false idol or a noble and true birth.”

Today educators world-wide still think of the “Socratic method” as the best way to teach: not by lecturing students, but by engaging them in a discussion that leads the students to a better understanding of the matter at hand. What is left out of the modern version is another important aspect of Socrates’ approach: that the teacher stands to gain as much as the pupil. Again, from Theaetetus: “And therefore I am not myself at all wise, nor have I anything to show which is the invention or birth of my own soul, but those who converse with me profit.”

Now, I actually doubt that Socrates was as ignorant as he professed to be, or that he had as much to learn from his interlocutors as they from him. The same doubt should reasonably be raised in the broader case of any teacher-student relationship (after all, if you don’t know anything more than your students do, what business do you have in teaching them?). However, Socrates’ attitude applies perfectly to the way we should all approach discussions with peers, if we wish to learn something from the activity, and incidentally to avoid coming across as insufferable know-it-alls (once again, I speak from personal experience...).

Come to think of it, here are some of the best reasons why we should engage in discussions to begin with:
1) To better understand our own positions; nothing shows us our contradictions and limitations as to have to clearly explain what we think to somebody else.
2) To better understand our interlocutor’s thinking, to see if there is something good in it (Socrates’ “noble and true birth”), or to find better ways to challenge his or her mistaken ways (Socrates’ “false idols”).
3) To involve and stimulate additional people to think and to participate in the dialogue. It isn’t only that discussions with more than two participants are more fun and likely to be more informative; more importantly, informed dialogue is at the core of a functional liberal democracy.
4) To keep our own mind open to change; changing your mind on something important is a liberating experience, not to mention one that is likely to dramatically improve both your sense of self-esteem and your standing with your friends or colleagues.

Notice that the obvious objective missing from this list is what most people take to be the only or chief goal of engaging in a discussion: to change one’s “opponent’s” mind. That may happen as a side product of attempting to achieve the four aims referred to above, but more likely than not this will occur only over a long period of time, not instantly in the middle of the dialogue. After all, discussions aren’t religious experiences, and changing one’s mind shouldn’t be akin to a conversion. Rather, we need to digest the arguments advanced against our point of view, think of possible counter-arguments, try the latter out on different people, read some more about the issue at hand. Only then we can feel justified in changing our opinion, rather then simply be bullied into submission.

And remember, as Thomas Babington (1800-1859) wrote in his Southey’s Colloquies, “Men are never so likely to settle a question rightly as when they discuss it freely.”

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2004