Thursday, February 25, 2016

Genuine Philosophical Dialogues

There's a possible format for written philosophy that, despite great potential, is almost non-existent. I'll call it genuine philosophical dialogue.

Here's how I imagine it.

It's a dialogue between two (maybe three or four) philosophers who respect each other as equals and who are fully committed to the process. Not, for example, Socrates and some passersby. Not a sage answering questions from his students. Not Berkeley's Philonous or Hume's Philo speaking for the author against manufactured opponents.

The philosophers enter the dialogue with a substantial disagreement. The philosophers aim to actually learn from each other -- exposing themselves the possibility of changing their minds or at least figuring out what common ground they share, aiming to find the root sources of their disagreement.

There are many conversational turns. Not just essay, objection, reply. At least 25 conversational turns. Time enough to go somewhere, shift, make progress, get past the well-rehearsed objection and response, interrupt each other for clarifications, then push back against the attempted clarifications, then push back against the pushback, then return to the main thread....

Both philosophers' positions are genuinely their own -- something they are invested in and expert about -- real, sophisticated philosophical positions, worth taking seriously. Not a novice's first impressions. Not a straw man. Not a cartoon.

The participants aim to present their real reasons for thinking what they do -- not the lawyerly or debate-team approach of reaching for any argument that might seem convincing. The participants expose to critique not only their positions but their best understanding of their own underlying reasoning and motivations.

Each philosopher takes responsibility for revising the whole dialogue, including the words of the other. This is one advantage of written format over live dialogue. If A and B agree that some thread was a false start, they can cut it away. If B sees a striking presupposition in what A says, B can point that out and then either trim it away in favor of more agreeable shared language if both agree that the presupposition is inessential, or bring the presupposition more explicitly forward if it looks like the disagreement might partly turn upon it. If A thinks B's point could be more clearly made in a different way, A could revise B's words and see if B agrees. The aim of these mutual revisions would be twofold: (1) for each to aid the other in presenting each position in its best light; (2) to avoid wasting the reader's time with distractions and confusions.


Russ Hurlburt and I, in our 2007 book, aimed to have a dialogue of this type, as we did also in some subsequent exchanges (though Hurlburt's academic affiliation is psychology, not philosophy). I am unaware of other examples of philosophical dialogues that meet all of the above criteria, though surely such dialogues must exist. Examples welcomed!

Genuine philosophical dialogues of this sort would, I think, tend to decrease misunderstanding, strawmanning, distraction into side issues that aren't the heart of the matter, boxing each other into unrepresentative and unflattering "isms", talking past each other, the general use (intentional or not) of unhelpful rhetorical moves, and excessive reliance on idiosyncratic jargon.

What if Kant and Hume had tried to build one of these dialogues together? It's almost unimaginable that they would try (even bracketing their language differences), but fascinating to contemplate what might have arisen, could they have pulled it off. Or consider 21st-century philosophers who prominently disagree -- it could be fascinating to see what common ground they would find, and where they would finally locate the heart of their disagreement after an extended exchange of this sort.

[image source]


P.D. Magnus said...

The Chisholm/Sellars correspondence (published in Minnesota Studies in Philosophy of Science) has many of the listed features. With only about a dozen letters, though, it fails to meet the bar of "25 conversational turns" - but I'm not sure why that should be the standard or even what exactly it means.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Cool -- thanks for that suggestion, P.D. I'll check it out.

I'm thinking 25 turns partly because there should be space for B to catch some of A's background assumptions and for them to have a few rounds of back-and-forth on them before returning to the dialogue to see what results from having brought that out into the light, with the thought that that probably should happen more than once; and then on the back end, objection, reply, response, and then something like "hey, what's the metaphilosophical/methodological difference between us that makes this response convincing to you but not to me" (which is pretty common, I find, in philosophical conversations once they have proceeded far enough) -- and then you need some back-and-forth to work that out.

In principle, some of this could go on in parallel ("regarding your X1 I say Y1, and you seem to be presupposing X2, and..."), in which case 25 wouldn't be necessary. Maybe that's true of Chisholm/Sellars.

howard berman said...

I'm wondering whether other academic fields offer examples in your kind of dialogue, or do historians, psychologists, literary critics disagree and discuss differently

Arnold said...

Don't get me wrong , I enjoy reading Splintered Mind, but...
Western philosophy began...when 'Socrates's live format became Plato's written format...
...providing 2,500 years of digressive nonaffective turns from live dialogue...

The mind becomes an object for "affective turn" when positioning in live dialogue...
Where affective turns may actually lose spontaneity and disappear from the mind in written dialogue...

Sergio Graziosi said...

It's easy to agree that such dialogues would be very useful, welcome and productive.
But, but!
I've been enjoying my participation in many discussions that meet a handful of your criteria [The most recent occurrence is here (not even close to being concluded)], albeit never this criteria: "Both philosophers' positions are [...] sophisticated philosophical positions, worth taking seriously. Not a novice's first impressions" as I don't qualify as a "professional" philosopher: I should be regarded as "novice" for most of the things I say. Note also that all I can offer are some personal thoughts inspired by first-hand experience.

First and foremost, the exercise is difficult, prohibitively so. Even when the starting criteria are met (mutual respect, genuine disagreement, mutual willingness to learn from each other), the whole process is inherently at risk because after all, we are all human and we are dealing with genuine disagreement(s). At each iteration, misunderstandings and profoundly held beliefs threaten to degenerate the dialogue, despite the best intentions, or maybe even because of the best intentions. To me, this sad conclusion is very predictable: we all harbour misconceptions, and we do because are unable to recognise them as such. Thus, we are naturally inclined to see straw men even when there is none. For example, my replies might become unhelpful whenever a rebuttal I'm responding to refutes something (typically, an unstated assumption, usually unstated because I'm not aware of it) that I am deeply committed to, and I am deeply committed to it because I'm unable to see why it is questionable . Under these circumstances, I would naturally be inclined to interpret the rebuttal in a way that makes sense to me, but the interpretation would be wrong, unless I've managed to clearly see my foundational mistake. From there, it's all downhill towards the worst case scenarios that we all know too well.

Secondarily, if I'm allowed a good dose of cynicism, there is an issue with aims: when one's reputation and professional standings are at stake, how can we expect that these aims will not influence the dialogue? I've participated in and/or read many dialogues that closely followed your guidelines, but the overwhelming majority did not involve professional philosophers (or more in general, they involve people who don't have a reputation to defend which is directly linked to the debated topic). I think this isn't a fluke: once philosophy is your profession, indirect aims (standing, recognition, career, etc.) inevitably will produce measurable effects. Is suppose you may say that they make meeting the initial criteria very difficult, if not impossible. From my private perspective, this line of reasoning is one reason why I'm protecting my amateur/newbie position: makes sure I have nothing to lose, so I can trust myself more (e.g. be reasonably confident that I do want to learn from my "opposing partner(s)"). But even then, it is exceedingly difficult to remain on productive grounds.

In summary, I would love to see more of what you are proposing, but I don't see a viable way to make it happen.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howard -- I don't know! Suggestions welcomed.

Sergio: Your concerns make a lot of sense to me and perhaps are the best explanation of why this thing is so rare. It does involve both substantial investment as well as some professional risk. (The latter could be mitigated by giving all parties veto power over the final result, but that of course increases the risk that all the investment will come to nothing.)

And yet... I think it could be done. It would have to be the right people, of course, with considerable mutual trust and respect going in.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, I like it.

But I'm not sure I would value it as much as one similar in most of the respects you describe (assiduously avoiding fallacious argument, etc.) but in which there is little, if any, evidence of the interlocutors' minds being changed. I just wonder if, at least from an audience perspective, that would not be ultimately more illuminating.

One reason I have for saying that is that it is more realistic. Generally even intellectually honest people don't change their minds under those conditions. They listen and then go home and think about it. So I feel like it would be difficult for your version not to feel phony and staged.

Another is that when we are dealing with an opponent we really respect, in that both play by the rules, then our best performances (in this case in terms of making the best possible case for our own positions) result from knowing that they wil brook nothing but the most powerful considerations against their views. That situation seems to me to be the one in which the audience could potentially derive the best understanding of the issues involved. Whereas the effort involved in tracking the twists and turns involved in your model could leave them more either more deeply confused than ever, or, alternatively, deciding that the resolution the philosophers came to was the right one, since they were, after all, being so genuine.

None of that amounts to a reason not to do it, though.

howie berman said...

You remember of course the objections to Descartes' Meditations- informal and free form, in some cases civil in others, such as Hobbes, nasty.
Would that precedent illuminate your project?
In fact, the internet era might facilitate such ease of exchange, take your exchanges on your blog!
On the one hand Descartes' case was among a small circle and private to a degree- but the participants had honor at stake.
You could see those philosophers as trailblazers in your approach

Sergio Graziosi said...

Thanks Eric,
if something is prohibitively difficult, that's a good reason to try it. My doubts were more about the possibility of making your format a recognised standard: it can work in exceptional circumstances, with the right people, but I unfortunately I don't see how it may become the norm or common.
(By the way: when good conversations happen to me, I usually find that my aim was to find out the source of disagreement, while not explicitly trying to find an agreement.)
One probably significant element is that using media such a blogs, and in general, not institutional channels, the personal risks are reduced, and at the same time it becomes possible for the thing to just happen serendipitously. I don't think the fact that we are having this conversation here is the result of pure chance - nor that you found yourself able to implement the format is unrelated to what you are doing here.

Randolph, you made me think about two distinct aspects. The first is changing our own minds: I find it extremely interesting to stubbornly watch out for signs that I've changed my position, the interesting side is that in many cases it is surprisingly difficult. Sometimes you just have an epiphany, and the change of direction is very clear. More often, my position gradually creeps in a given direction, and I end up in a new place without even knowing how. Re-reading my opinions expressed before the change, they are inevitably coloured by my current stance and it becomes more or less impossible to reconstruct a reliable picture of what I was thinking back then. I find this process fascinating, and also a sign of progress, even if really puzzling. In this context, the format proposed by Eric seems to facilitate this kind of mission creep. For example, in order to answer to a round of objections, one could find new, more convincing ways to uphold their pet theory, but while doing so change ever so slightly their underlying assumptions, making them somewhat less questionable. Would that count as changing one's mind? I really don't know.

The second aspect is that leaving the readers deeply confused isn't in my eyes something that should be actively avoided. If whatever I write induces someone to think hard about new questions or to revisit old question in a new light, I'd consider it a success. Same thing if as a result of disagreeing with someone I end up changing my position: a sign I've learned something. Overall, I don't see it as a hard requirement that the debating parties need to eventually converge, as I hint above, just agreeing on exactly why they disagree would be equally useful. In fact, I don't think Eric was proposing that convergence on an agreed conclusion is necessary.

Scott Bakker said...

Putting on my Devil's advocate hat: Emphasizing epistemic humility is generally a good thing, but isn't there a potential social *danger* in further institutionalizing 'epistemic propriety.' Academic philosophers are already extremely disinclined to engage others in non-institutionalized--or 'unsafe'--communicative contexts--arguably, the kinds of contexts where they are arguably most needed. They make all the mistakes the untutored make (only in domesticated environments), so it is worthwhile to envision practices and contexts that might help them overcome their own cognitive shortcomings, but my worry is that this would simply serve to remove academic philosophy even more from general culture, that if it caught on it would simply devolve into a kind of monastic impulse, the desire to create 'safe rationality zones' apart from the noise of culture, instead of inculcating the courage to abandon the authority gradient and actually mix things up with Donald Trump supporters.

A model of rationality to (potentially) resolve theoretical disputes, I fear, is at odds with the need to use rationality to ameliorate practical debates. I sometimes feel that the vast majority of academics have no clue of what's happening on the greater web, how thoroughly the bigots are winning the recruitment war, for simple want of educated resistance.

To paraphrase the Great One: 100% of the arguments never made lose.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting continuing comments, folks!

Randy: Your concerns seem right to me, but I think a well-constructed dialogue of the sort I imagine will tend to avoid them. Of course knowledgeable interlocutors rarely change their minds on the big point, from P to not-P. However, being *open* to changing one's mind is consistent with that (and shows in one's speech, I think). Also, very skilled and knowledgeable interlocutors do sometimes change their minds about how powerful a consideration pro or con is, when it's one among several, and the relationship between various related positions and the target position. I also agree with Sergio about "creep". One difference between the dialogue I imagine and naturally occurring unedited dialogues is that needless twists and turns can be edited out. The aim is to get at the core of it, for the reader as well as for themselves. One thing Russ and I did in our 2007 book was have lots of "boxes" in which we explored side issues. So there are various ways to flag core disputes vs. tangents.

Howie: Descartes' objections and replies is valuable. So is the Behavioral and Brain Sciences model of inviting lots of comments and then giving the authors a turn for a synthesizing reply to all of them. There are lots of format for dialogue. But I do think that there's something to be said about having many brief turns and having a collaborative relationship, which are less common features.

Sergio: Yes, thanks! I think I agree with all of that. I very much doubt it would become a standard. It would probably take somewhat unusual people in a somewhat unusual circumstance. But it would be nice to see it once in a while!

Scott: I agree about philosophers' tendency to avoid "unsafe" spaces. And I have been *very* fortunate on my blog, over the years, to have such high-quality comments with almost no need of screening! (May it continue. I must be doing something right!) The dialogues I imagine are a kind of compromise: the philosophers take certain risks in exposing themselves to probing and dissent in a way that might more clearly reveal their ignorance and flaws of reasoning, but then do it in partnership with someone they trust and with editing and veto power over the result -- rather than in real-time comments feeds with whoever happens by!

Nat said...

Hi Eric,

Are you familiar with the volume The Philosophy of Mental Representation, edited by Hugh Clapin (OUP 2002)? It has some really engaging, candid dialogues between Andy Clark, Dennett, Robert Cummins, John Haugeland and Brian Cantwell Smith. It's a pretty wonderful example of the genre you're describing.

Callan S. said...

Scott, maybe I'm not getting Eric's idea, but basically it's like a flow chart - the less ambiguously worded it is, the more clear it is when any interlocutor has left the flow chart. Initiated with a challenge to adhere to the flowchart, to any potential recruits it's more clear that an interlocutor avoided the flow chart/challenge to begin with or that they abandoned the challenge mid run. It has real potential to put credibility on the line without it just coming down to a name calling contest. The challenge doesn't have to be laid just at other philosophers - it can be laid at anyone.

The problem might be where one thinks one can convince by sheer sinuous capacity and don't need no stinkin' prosthetic flow chart/badge.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi Nat -- Thanks for that suggestion. Very cool! Callan: One of the ways Russ and I handled the "flow chart" issue in our 2007 book -- since the back-and-forth can be interminable, is by cross-referencing at the ends of the side boxes, so that readers know that what we have said in any one box is not the last word. But it is kind of tricky to handle that well. You don't want to *falsely* create the impression that one of the interlocutors has nothing more to say or has fully conceded the point, if that's not so.

Callan S. said...

Eric, I'm not sure I was saying there was an issue?

The feature I saw is how, instead of relying on whatever argumentative patterns everyone involved has (and some I've run into are pretty bad...and maybe I've done some pretty bad ones?), we have a structure we can point at - and it's a challenge. Bigots would have a lot harder time - he either has to engage the flow chart and it shows glaringly when he does, or he has to turn down the challenge and loose credibility (or he'll try to dismiss the flowchart and disrepute his otherwise interlocutor - but it still shows that he avoided the flow chart and suffers credibility loss on this point).

I'm probably seeing it's potential more in a cage match sort of way! Might not be what it was originally designed for, but out in the rough and tumble of various forums, it could be a very useful tool! I wish I'd thought of it myself, instead of just trying to be all sinuous in my argumentation! I'll have to review your post and start working on a rough and tumble version on my own blog...

Peter Hildebrand said...

Sorry in advance for necroposting! I just recently started reading your blog again after a deluge of graduate school responsibilities.

I just wanted to throw out the book "What Makes Us Think: A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue About Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain" by Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricoeur. It seems to have many of the qualities of a "genuine philosophical dialogue" that you lay out.

Thinking about that book and your book together makes me wonder if there's something about interdisciplenary dialogue that makes them more likely to succeed. But I probably shouldn't overgeneralize from an n of 2...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that suggestion, Peter! I'll check it out. I think there might be something easier about not being in the same discipline. Maybe one is more open to letting the other be an expert on things outside your discipline, making it easier to hear and be taught.