Professor Cohen giving a TED Talk.

Professor Cohen believes we need to change the way we argue.

You are having a heated debate with friends about, say, equality of the sexes. You’ve taken a standpoint and you’re sticking with it. Before you know it, you’ve got so worked up that, regardless of whether you believe your argument is the most valid, you simply just want to win, employing tactics and subterfuge to seek victory.

The war model for argument has deforming effects on how we argue

Professor Daniel H. Cohen is a philosopher who specializes in argumentation theory, analysing how and why we argue. He claims there are three modes of arguing: argument as war; argument as proof; argument as performance (rhetorical). Of these three by far the most dominant is argument as war, which Cohen thinks is a problem.

Argument as war

He says, “The war metaphor or model for thinking about arguments, has, I think, deforming effects on how we argue. First it elevates tactics over substance…It magnifies the us-versus-them aspect of it. It makes it adversarial. It’s polarizing. And the only foreseeable outcomes are glorious triumph, or abject, ignominious defeat. I think those are deforming effects, and worst of all, it seems to prevent things like negotiation or deliberation, compromise or collaboration.” Cohen notes a peculiar result of the war-like argument: an implicit equation between learning and losing.


He explains, “Suppose you and I have an argument. You believe a proposition, P, and I don’t. I’ve objected, I’ve questioned, I’ve raised all sorts of counter-considerations, and in every case you’ve responded to my satisfaction. At the end of the day, I say, ‘You know what? I guess you’re right.’ So I have a new belief. And it’s not just any belief, but it’s a well-articulated, examined and battle-tested belief. Cohen continues, “So who won that argument? Well, the war metaphor seems to force us into saying you won, even though I’m the only one who made any cognitive gain. What did you gain cognitively from convincing me? Sure, you got some pleasure out of it, your ego stroked, maybe you get some professional status in the field but just from a cognitive point of view who was the winner? The war metaphor forces us into thinking that you’re the winner and I lost, even though I gained and there’s something wrong with that picture.”

Can you imagine an argument in which you are the arguer and the audience?

While Cohen concedes there is no easy answer to ending the dominance of the war-like argument he does have a suggestion: that the individual tries to embody all three modes of argument.

Arguer and observer combined

Cohen says, “If we want to think of new kinds of arguments we need to think of new kinds of arguers. Think of all the roles that people play in arguments: there’s the proponent and the opponent in an adversarial, dialectical argument; there’s the audience in rhetorical arguments; there’s the reasoner in arguments as proofs. Now, can you imagine an argument in which you are the arguer but you’re also in the audience watching yourself argue? Can you imagine yourself watching yourself argue, losing the argument, and yet still, at the end of the argument saying, ‘Wow, that was a good argument.’ He continues, “I think, if you can imagine that kind of argument where the loser and the audience and the jury says to the winner, ‘Yeah, that was a good argument’ then you have imagined a good argument. And more than that, I think you’ve imagined a good arguer, an arguer that’s worthy of the kind of arguer you should try to be.” Watch Professor Cohen go into more detail about his theory of argument in the TED talk above.

Image credit: TED

The End
  • DevinC

    When I argue, I generally don’t direct my arguments at the person I’m arguing with. I imagine a rational third person, skeptical and with a strong distaste for rational sleight-of-hand and intellectual dishonesty. That’s the person I am trying to convince.

    I don’t know if I ‘win’ more arguments this way, but I feel better when I know I’m being honest.

    • Leslie Dawson

      women simply don’t know how to argue: MANHOOD101. C O M

  • fusionkitty

    Some people will continue to argue until you concede, no matter how logical your arguments and how specious theirs. I’ve found it’s best to concede so they’ll shut up. But, funniest thing, they’ve often adopted my positions the next time we meet! So abandon the ego; it doesn’t get you anything.

    • Leo_Kent

      You’re right, when it turns into a battle of the egos, it’s all about saving face as opposed to winning a logical argument.
      Employing Socratic irony can be a useful method.

  • putaro

    Well, I guess the arguments philosophers have don’t have any real impact on anything so “winning” doesn’t mean anything. However, I’ve had plenty of arguments where “winning” was the difference between success or failure of a project. “Winning” may mean that you get to do what you want instead of what the other person wants. Haggling is a form of argument and the winner gets the price they wanted.

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