Yesterday’s post about weird adventures in argument generated a brief exchange in the comm box with malcolmthecynic. Mr. Cynic points out that I paid my pound for a 5 minute argument, but all I get is gainsaying, because what I think we’re doing – dialectic in the Platonic sense – is not at all what the man in room 12A thinks he’s doing – “winning” using rhetoric.
And he’s right. Somehow, I keep thinking that other people are interested in the truth and honor-bound to follow the argument wherever it leads. Further, I just assume men of good will will go at the argument hammer and tongs, beat it up, turn it upside down, shake it around with all the vigor they can muster, and then part friends afterwards with no hard feelings, because a good argument presupposes a level of mutual respect that is not affected by the argument itself.
I suppose all this because my first, indelible experience of intellectual sparing (or, outside books, my first intellectual experience in any respect) was St. John’s College, where I spent 4 years in small classes arguing over every damn thing with 300 other people. In a tiny, isolated college like that, doing vigorous dialectic for several hours a day for 4 years with the same small group of people over and over, if you don’t learn how to not take it personally, pretty soon you won’t have anybody to talk with at all. ‘No hard feelings’ is as much a requirement as ‘go at it with everything you’ve got!’
And what a mix! In any given class, you’d find devout atheist Nietzscheans, Hegelians, Marxist Freudians, people who called themselves Existentialists (but could never offer any explanation of what that meant, other than ‘cool and ironic like Kierkegaard’) and just about any other weird mix you could dream up – and people would change those configurations, or try on new ones to see how they fit, all the time. No matter what position you took, it was guaranteed that somebody in the room would think it utter foolish nonsense. You expect people to disagree with you vehemently. It was cool, and fun, and educational, and confusing and disconcerting all at once. Next to getting married and having children, it was the greatest experience I’ve had in this life.
I had no experience with real argument before St. John’s, and precious little since – but I still, somehow, expect that that’s what people mean when they try to talk something over. I expect people to be reasonable.
In other words, I am an idiot.
My father grew up on a farm and became a welder and then ran his own little shop. My mother grew up in east Texas among Czech immigrants. The kind of intellectual discussion we are here addressing would be as foreign to them as speaking Swahili. They were perfectly intelligent people, it just was not their world. I suspect at least some of my friends from college, those sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and professors, would have learned at home exactly how far one can push honest discussion among a more general population, and when to ratchet it back or avoid it all together. I never did.
Maybe a hundred years ago, one could get into a real argument with most any college grad, because you’d both share a large core of common learning, and, more important, share expectations of how an argument works. Maybe. It is what the legends say.
Now? After 150 years of Hegelians and Marxists running the schools? I should be pleasantly surprised to run across interlocutors who can string a couple good sentences back to back. Hardly anyone shares any common basis for discussion, unless one wants to count the more or less express Marxism that permeates all ‘education’ in America today. Even fewer share the expectation of how an argument should work. Unfortunately, Hegel and especially Marx set the standard for what passes for argument today – you either agree with me, and are among the enlightened elect, or you don’t, and are among the benighted, hopeless souls on the wrong side of History. Since you don’t get it, there is nothing you can say to me about the subject. Logical arguments are for little people, and so I need not hear yours.
Since the idea that enlightenment obviates argument is a necessary step to acceptance of Marx or Hegel – you sure as hell aren’t going to get to those positions by reasoning about it, as Hegel expressly acknowledged – the sort of thing I described yesterday will be found, necessarily, more among those who have more or less unconsciously accepted that premise. A Venn diagram of which would show a huge overlap with self-identified liberals.
Perhaps I should shoulder more of the blame myself (a good idea in many cases), for overstepping the bounds of polite behavior, when I’m the only one in the crowd actually interested in an argument. People just want to vent, mostly, and hear people agree with them. Maybe I should find ways to sow some doubt without actually seeming to jump on people? This might require a level of social awareness far outside my wheelhouse.
Nonetheless, even granting this, there will be occasions where standing up for the truth is the only morally viable path, where no amount of finesse or sidestepping will do. I just can’t expect a rational response in those cases.