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How to Think and Argue Well (a crash course)

How to Think and Argue Well

Prelude

  • Is social media making us simple-minded?
  • Are we losing our capacity for critical thought?
  • Have our education institutions let us down?

I believe the answer to all of these questions is YES

I have written about these subjects before, however, in the wake of recent scenes emerging from the US: 

  • The Amy Cooper video
  • The senseless and savage MURDER of George Floyd
  • and the riots, violence and vandalism that have emerged in response…

 … I feel compelled to weigh in again.

Image by Nick Loundes
Image by Nick Loundes

In short, we need to stop talking past each other.  

The problem as I see it is that we have become a sound bite society, increasingly reliant on memes, buzz-words and catchphrases, which are diminishing our capacity for higher reasoning.  

I’m not sure the majority of us were ever equipped with the tools for rational and critical thought, bolstered by respectful and constructive dialogue. 

With that objective in mind, if you never attended lessons in philosophy, logic or classical rhetoric, here is my modest attempt at a crash course:

3 Laws of Logic

Logic is a pretty complex subject, often taught with a dizzying taxonomy that starts to resemble algebra. So, in the interest of keeping this net, let me limit this to a basic overview of Aristotle’s three laws of logic. These are the fundamental laws upon which rational thinking is based.

1)     Law of Identity – If a statement has been determined and accepted to be true, then the statement is true. Put another way, a statement cannot remain the same and change its truth.

A rose is a rose

 2)     The Law of Non-Contradiction – No statement is both true and false – Nothing can exist and not exist at the same time.

A rose is not a different flower

 3)     The Law of the Excluded Middle – Something either exists or does not exist. Every statement is either true or false.

Either this is a rose or it is a different flower

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5 Canons of Rhetoric

The five canons of rhetoric were codified in classical Rome. These can be regarded as the steps to follow in order to develop a sound argument:

5 Canons of Rhetoric

1) Invention (Inventio) – The beginning of the thought process to form and develop an effective argument. 

2) Arrangement (Dispositio) – Organize your arguments into an effective discourse. 

3) Style (Elocutio) – Today we often refer to this as elocution which really means “good in oratory style”. There are four ingredients considered necessary to achieve good style: Correctness, Clearness, Appropriateness, and Ornament

4) Memory (Memoria) – It is worth recalling that these canons grew out of oratory in ancient Greece when it was necessary to memorize a speech. Today, we can organize our positions in writing or read a speech from a teleprompter. That said, by memorizing your speech you will be freer to focus on style and delivery. 

5) Delivery (Pronuntiatio) – The effective use of voice and gestures (actio) – This is similar to style but emphasizes the modulation of your voice (volume and pitch), phrasing, pace, emphasis, stance, posture, and facial expressions.

Now that we have some basic rules for How to Think, and How to Formulate an Argument, let’s establish some ways they can be applied constructively to Disagree or Argue Well

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10 Rules for Arguing Well

10 Rules for Arguing Well

I have curated this list from a few sources but they are largely inspired by Timothy Keller’s “6 Principles for How to Argue When You Disagree”[i], with further insights derived from Bishop Robert Barron[ii]. It is also perhaps useful to consider the last 9 of these as being nested within the first, so I will give that one particular attention. 

1) Win the Person, Not the Battle – A debate can be seen as a battle, but the point of a discussion or argument should be the pursuit of truth. It is not only possible but preferable to disagree with love, which signals your interest in the other person and the truth. There is nothing wrong with being passionate about your ideas or even being edgy in how you present them. But your objective should be to persuade, not to antagonize. We should always be prepared to adjust our thinking based on the persuasiveness of the other’s argument. 

2) Steelman[iii], not Strawman – We are more likely to make mutual progress if we try to represent the other person’s argument in its strongest form (Steelman), not its weakest (Strawman). Avoid misrepresentation. In the pursuit of truth, we first want to understand the other party’s position with clarity. We typically do that better by starting with questions rather than retorts. 

3) Use humour to make your point – Humour is a great way to inject moderation and goodwill, especially as arguments become heated. It is also a powerful rhetorical device that can be disarming and persuasive. 

4) Stick to what was said, not what you infer – Or as Timothy Keller puts it: “Never attribute an opinion to the other person they didn’t state”. – e.g. If I were to quote Donald Trump in an argument, it doesn’t imply I agree with everything Trump says. 

5) Don’t Pick on Omissions – Give the other person the benefit of the doubt for omissions in their argument. No one can cover all angles while communicating their perspective. Everything we can say has a contra, so we are best to avoid hasty generalizations. 

6) Avoid False Dichotomy – I consider this a major contributor to the growing sense of polarization, especially when it comes to political discourse. We have a tendency to reduce an argument to one of two possibilities. This in turn lessens the potential for compromise. – e.g. “You’re either with us, or against us”. 

7) Avoid the burden of proof reversal – Provide your own evidence for your argument. The burden of proof should not be on the person questioning your claim. 

8) Avoid non-sequiturs – For THIS to follow THAT there must be a logical connection. – e.g. “I read about a Pitbull attack. Our neighbor owns a Pitbull. My life is in danger.” 

9) Avoid the Bandwagon Fallacy – Just because a premise is popular doesn’t mean it’s true. 

10) Avoid Ad Hominem attacks – Don’t denigrate the person themselves or their motives, just their ideas.

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[i] http://andynaselli.com/tim-keller-6-principles-for-how-to-argue-when-you-disagree

[ii] https://youtu.be/SaKbY0axWd0?t=356

[iii] https://youtu.be/Uh-DKbKlfag

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