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.
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.
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.