Monday, April 20, 2009

"This Isn't an Argument." "Yes it is."

This is the 1000th post on Philosophers' Playground. That's a lot of conversations. So, to celebrate, let's discuss the functionality of discussion.

We had our annual "Get Acquainted Day" at the college last weekend where incoming and undecided students are invited to campus for a day of events including meet and greets with department faculty. We were struck by several students who said that what brought them to philosophy was that they loved to argue. This led to a conversation amongst us over the nature of this love. Did it reduce philosophy to mere sport? Was this a manifestation of competition in which the need to win would blind these young people to insights from those they chose to disagree with? Or could this be seen as a desire to break loose of the intellectual bonds of high school in which they were never to challenge the authority of their teachers, a desire to stretch their own wings and become intellectuals instead of passive learners? Is it an urge to become participants in meaningful discourse or to become obnoxious sophists?

So, the question for us then is the value of debate. In philosophy classes and on this blog, are we training people to be mindlessly, if not effectively, contrary like John Cleese's character in argument clinic or is it more like those baby tigers you see wrestling on nature programs who are practicing and training to engage well when they get into actual situations of conflict in the real world? Is there an intrinsic worth to adversarial discourse like we have here or is it just a meaningless pastime?