Philosophers may be forgiven for doing a double take at this headline at The Atlantic: “The New Science of How to Argue—Constructively“. New??? Hello there? Perhaps you’ve heard of… philosophy?
The article, by Jesse Singal, is about the writings of a Swedish blogger, John Nerst (a “sociotechnical systems engineer” with broad interests) who writes about what he calls “erisology,” the study of disagreement.
Erisology, Nerst says, draws from philosophy, social psychology, rhetoric, anthropology, literary theory, and other disciplines in order to address problems with how people online disagree and argue:
A lot of online discourse is hostile and often needlessly adversarial (I trust no one needs to be convinced of this). Specifically, a lot of this disagreement is dysfunctional, by which I mean that it results from (or is exacerbated by) one or both of the parties, intentionally or unintentionally, misunderstanding the other party’s position or the nature of their differences… Erisology is the study of this dysfunction and, theoretically, the attempt to fix some of it by making people more aware of how it happens and how it doesn’t always need to happen.
There was a lot of pushback against Nerst, and Singal’s article about him, on social media. Many reactions were along the lines of “Congratulations, you’ve invented philosophy!” or “…rhetoric!” or “…argumentation theory!” or “…the humanities!”
I understand this. People have been studying and working on ways to improve arguments and disagreements for eons, and it is annoying to see one’s discipline or area of research get short shrift compared to a random blogger plucked from relative obscurity by a journalist writing enthusiastically for a popular magazine. (Though short shrift is better than no shrift.) (Note to self: look up “shrift”.)*
I also get why Singal’s article rubbed people the wrong way. Intentionally or not—and this is probably difficult to avoid, given the topic—it conveys the smug “if only people were more rational” mentality that so often seems to hinder people from really understanding what’s at issue in many debates.
First of all, good for Nerst to make this his main project. Of all the things non-philosophers could do with their time, that someone has decided to take up the study of disagreement and share his thoughts about it is something philosophers should be jumping for joy at.
Second of all, whatever you think of his article, Singal has done us a favor. Singal is one of the few journalists who actually pays attention to the philosophy profession, and still, when it came to writing up something about improving disagreement and argument, what got his attention was not the work of a professional philosopher working on this subject, but Nerst. This is good evidence that those philosophers who have something useful to say to the rest of the world in this area are probably not being heard.
Why aren’t they being heard? It is tempting to say that Singal needs to pay better attention, but usually blaming the intended audience for not showing up is a losing strategy. Forget blame, and see the article as a message: “Hey, philosophers (and other academics), people outside of academia are interested in and could benefit from the work you do on arguments and disagreement, and you are currently not meeting this demand. This seems like a missed opportunity.”
A constructive response to Singal’s article would be to ask oneself, “What can I be doing to better meet this demand?” Another would be to share work by philosophers on disagreement and argument that’s out there and that would be useful for the public to know about. Please use the comments here to do that.
UPDATE (4/9/19): “it should be warning enough to find Daily Nous speaking so encouragingly of a writer who appears to more or less exclusively cite other people more or less in his own auto-didactic community.” George Hemington thinks I should have been more critical.
* Looked up “shrift“. Doesn’t really work the way I want it to. We should do something about that.