Tag Archive: discussion

Capable of being improved

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spon­taneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. [ch. I, 14-5]

The salutary effect of discussion on the bystander

I acknowledge that the tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest discussion, but is often heightened and exacerbated thereby; the truth which ought to have been, but was not, seen, being rejected all the more violently because proclaimed by persons regarded as opponents. But it is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil: there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood. And since there are few mental attri­butes more rare than that judicial faculty which can sit in intelligent judgment between two sides of a question, of which only one is represented by an advocate before it, truth has no chance but in proportion as every side of it, every opinion which embodies any fraction of the truth, not only finds advocates, but is so advocated as to be listened to. [ch. II, 66-7]

The necessity of explaining a truth

As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the in­crease: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested. The cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinions, as it is dangerous and noxious when the opinions are erroneous. But though this gradual narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion is necessary in both senses of the term, being at once inevitable and indispensable, we are not therefore obliged to conclude that all its consequences must be beneficial. The loss of so important an aid to the intelligent and living apprehension of a truth, as is afforded by the necessity of explaining it to, or defending it against, opponents, though not sufficient to outweigh, is no trifling drawback from, the benefit of its universal recognition. Where this advan­tage can no longer be had, I confess I should like to see the teachers of mankind endeavouring to provide a substitute for it; some contrivance for making the difficulties of the question as present to the learner’s consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for his conversion. [ch. II, 56]

Real understanding

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and con­sidered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavoured to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all impor­tant truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up. [ch. II, 47-8]

Truth and authority

There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents un­doubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument. Waiving, however, this possibility—assuming that the true opinion abides in the mind, but abides as a prejudice, a belief independent of, and proof against, argument—this is not the way in which truth ought to be held by a rational being. This is not knowing the truth. Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.[ch. II, 45-6]

The dead dogma of unexamined truth

However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth. [ch. II, 45]

As important a service as a human being can render

To discover to the world something which deeply concerns it, and of which it was previously ignorant; to prove to it that it had been mistaken on some vital point of temporal or spiritual interest, is as important a service as a human being can render to his fellow-creatures […]. [ch. II, 36]

Discussion and the growth of ideas

The Western rationalist tradition, which derives from the Greeks, is the tradition of critical discussion–of examining and testing propositions or theories by attempting to refute them. This critical rational method must not be mistaken for a method of proof, that is to say, for a method of finally establishing truth; nor is it a method which always secures agree­ment. Its value lies, rather, in the fact that participants in a discussion will, to some extent, change their minds, and part as wiser men.

It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that this is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one’s partner in the dis­cussion, which includes a genuine wish to understand what he intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will be the more fruitful the more the partners’ backgrounds differ. Thus the value of a discussion depends largely upon the variety of the competing views. Had there been no Tower of Babel, we should invent it. The liberal does not dream of a perfect consensus of opinion; he hopes only for the mutual fertilisation of opinions and the consequent growth of ideas. [474]

Explanation as the antidote to extremism

The challenge in an election season that largely takes place in the form of 30-second advertisements and fire-up-the-base rallies is that rarely is anybody — candidate or voter — asked to explain his or her positions. American politi­cal discourse, in short, is not discourse at all.

So what can be done to turn it into one? The answer implied by our research is not that we should all become policy wonks. Instead, we voters need to be more mindful that issues are complicated and challenge ourselves to break down the policy proposals on both sides into their component parts. We have to then imagine how these ideas would work in the real world — and then make a choice: to either moderate our positions on policies we don’t really understand, as research suggests we will, or try to improve our understanding. Either way, discourse would then be based on infor­mation, not illusion. […]

Strong opinion and vigorous debate are key parts of democracy and the foundation to American culture. Yet most people would agree that it is not productive to have a strong opinion about an issue that one doesn’t really understand. We have a problem in American politics: an illusion of knowledge that leads to extremism. We can start to fix it by ac­knowledging that we know a lot less than we think.

Strengthening your opponent’s case

Throughout the history of advocacy and controversy the approach even of polemicists of genius, like Voltaire, has been to seek out and attack the weak points in an opponent’s case. This has a severe disadvantage. Every case has weaker as well as stronger parts, and its appeal lies, obviously, in the latter; so to attack the former may embarrass its adherents but not undermine the considerations on which their adherence largely rests. This is one of the reasons why people so rarely change their views after losing an argument. More often such a reverse leads eventually to a strengthening of their position, in that it leads them to abandon or improve the weakest parts of their case. It often happens that the lon­ger two intelligent people go on arguing the better each side’s case becomes, for each is being all the time improved as a result of criticism. The Popperian analysis of this is self-evident. What Popper aims to do, and at his best does do, is to seek out and attack an opponent’s case at its strongest. Indeed, before attacking it he tries to strengthen it still further. He sees if any of its weaknesses can be removed and any of its formulations improved on, gives it the benefit of every doubt, passes over any obvious loopholes; and then, having got it into the best-argued form he can, attacks it at its most powerful and appealing. This method, the most intellectually serious possible, is thrilling; and its results, when success­ful, are devastating. For no perceptible version of the defeated case is reconstructable in the light of the criticism, every known resource and reserve of substance being already present in the demolished version. [91-2]

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