What Is An Argument, Anyway?

When I used to teach philosophy, I saw it all the time- perfectly civil discussions descending into shouting matches.  Some people did it for sport, because it just felt good to contradict someone.  Other people took things personally, or decided to hurl insults at others.  Either way, it didn’t much resemble philosophy anymore.

Learning to present an argument in a philosophical way takes practice, and there are basic guidelines to follow.  Here are a few tips:

1. Present an idea that you think is a good one, and then give a few reasons why you think it works.  This is what philosophers mean when they talk about an “argument”.  The better your reasons, the better your argument.  Philosophers cringe when someone says “just because”.

2. If someone disagrees, let them disagree, as long as they give reasons for their disagreement. This is all part of the fun! When you’ve heard them out, you can either take their suggestions and change your idea a little, or you can give more reasons why you still think your idea works.  If all else fails, you can agree to disagree and keep thinking about your idea.

3. Try to think of your discussion as a dialogue, as opposed to an argument.  It’s okay if you don’t come up with an answer that works 100% of the time.  Philosophy has been going on for thousands of years, and people are still working on it.  The idea is to keep trying out new ideas and discussing them with others.

4.  Never let things get personal.  Insults and put-downs are not only rude, but they’re not very logical.  Generally speaking, if someone takes a shot at your choice of shoes or what you ate for lunch, they’re doing it because they haven’t come up with anything better.

If you’d like an example of how not to conduct a philosophical argument, take a cue from this very famous Monty Python sketch.   Who says philosophy can’t be funny too?

Amy Leask