Tag Archive: intellectual honesty

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]

Distinctly social

What Popper argued is that a problem classically treated as logical (the demarcation of science) is insoluble in that form. Yet science does seem distinctive, i.e. demarcatable. The solution to its distinctness is found in its institutionalised rules of inquiry. These rules can be circumvented without violating any rules of logic. In the choice or decision not to circumvent them we find the hallmark of science. Such choice is not individual but social: it is constitutive of and depen­dent upon institutions. Moreover, being institutions, the rules of science are not like rules of inference: discoveries about the properties of logical systems. Institutional rules can be assessed against given aims, such as fruitfulness, and be discussed and modified. Science and its distinctiveness are open to modification. [83]