Don’t Roll Your Eyes at the Guy Who Recently “Invented Philosophy”
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.” One commentator 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.
I learned a great deal about constructive disagreement from two philosopher pioneers of contemporary informal logic: Michael Scriven’s *Reasoning* (McGraw-Hill, 1976) and Stephen Toulmin’s *The Uses of Argument* Cambridge, 1958) , both still in print and widely cited classics of what is now called critical thinking.
But I would not trade either for the highly formative experience of junior high school debate, when a coin toss at a city-wide championship determined the side I would argue. (I won arguing for a position I disagreed with thoroughly!) That mind-expanding technique can be applied to most any classroom situation.Report
On the model of pteridology, shouldn’t it be *eridology*?Report
Yes, it should, because the stem is ἐριδ-, not ἐρισ-.Report
“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.”
This doesn’t exactly meet the criteria but I do believe philosophers may find it interesting:
Ubuntu: I am because you areReport
I look forward to hearing more about erisology, from Nerst or others.
Readers may want to check out the recent book, Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Oxford U Press 2018). It is a readable and practical introduction to rhetoric for the general public, with only a few technical terms, such as tu quoque and ad hominem.
Let’s learn how to argue constructively, or at least in a fashion that leads to some minimal light in dark places.
Vince in Grand RapidsReport
The study of argumentation and its relationship to logic and epistemology dates back some thousand-odd years in Indian philosophical traditions. A classic treatment by a modern analytic philosopher is The Character of Logic in India, by B.K. Matilal. A more recent book, which is more accessible, but still scholarly, is Vāda in Theory and Practice by Radhavillabh Tripathi (link to review), Professor and Vice-chancellor of the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan. In both books, and the texts they describe, you will find discussion of epistemic and emotional virtues, rhetoric, formal and informal fallacies, logic, and the relationship among them.Report
Oh, and I think you are right that short shrift is better than no shrift, at least insofar without a “short shrift” one is executed right away.Report
“Another potential avenue for erisology is to produce interventions to promote more healthy ways of arguing. …only experimental studies can answer the question.”
I’m glad to see that so many philosophers have been quick to treat this experimental approach to improving reasoning as an instance of philosophy. Given my experience, I would have expected most philosophers to say that this might be interesting, but it’s obviously not philosophy.Report
The OP has an update, quoting George Hemington: “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.”
This is not an accurate characterization of Jesse Singal’s article (nor, in my assessment, of Singal’s other writing, though that’s a longer story). Singal’s article is mostly about Nerst’s work, so of course he cites and discusses it extensively. Other than that, there are three people cited in the article. One is a conservative commentator, cited briefly as an illustration of unproductive online discourse. The other two are mainstream figures in political science (an associate professor at Syracuse and another at Arizona).
Following the link to George Hemington’s longer commentary, it doesn’t accurately describe Singal’s Atlantic article. Hemington says that two of Singal’s three interviewees are Nerst and the mathematician and blogger Sarah Constantin (that’s the basis of Hemingon’s “more or less exclusively cite” quote, I think). But Constantin isn’t interviewed in the piece, nor is her writing discussed in its own right. She features only in one sentence, in which Singal notes that Nerst is drawing on Constantin’s work and that Constantin in turn draws on psychologist Keith Stanovich. So it’s not that Singal drew from two different sources who just happen to be part of the same community: he’s discussing one person’s work, and noting the intellectual origins of that work. He does indeed interview three people, but the other two are mainstream academics.
In summary: Singal comes across a set of ideas that he thinks are interesting (I think so too); he interviews the proponent of those ideas and explains their intellectual lineage; he seeks out academics in mainstream disciplines for comment, finds that they are critical, and quotes their criticism sympathetically and at length. That looks like exactly the way science opinion journalism is supposed to work.Report
I don’t understand why, if you have read my piece, you would say that I claimed Singal had interviewed Constantin: I make no such claim. I say he cites Constantin, and he does cite Constantin, with a link to Constantin’s work. In my 2/3 claim – which you’ve correctly identified isn’t right – it is still the case that Singal only links to the work of 3 authors, and if we go by that I’m still doing fine.
You correctly point out that he did in fact talk to two academics rather than one. Fair, I conflated the two as I was writing the post. However, of the two academic sources Singal cites the one whose work he does NOT link to is the one who disapproves of his opinion/position.
So it looks like you’re in a bit of a bind here. You incorrectly say that I claimed Singal was interviewing these people (easily checkable). Then you say that of the four people directly spoken of or linked to I missed out one, and yet the one I missed out was the one Singal didn’t link to and who disapproved of his programme.
I admit the omission, but this hardly looks like it makes things better for Singal.Report
Correction: “links to these authors and texts they discuss”, I was rushing: mea culpaReport
From George Hemington’s reply to me:
“I don’t understand why, if you have read my piece, you would say that I claimed Singal had interviewed Constantin: I make no such claim.”
From George Hemington’s original article: “Consider Singal’s other interviewee: Sarah Constantin.”
I’m not even really trying to play gotcha here. I genuinely don’t understand how you’re making the claims you’re making.Report
You’re actually right here, and that was an oversight, I don’t know how the word “interviewee” slipped in there from the first draft and thought I’d deliberately edited it outReport
That makes sense! Thanks for the correction.
But I’d caution about drawing any inference from who actually gets linked to: as I say elsewhere in this thread, hyperlinks in magazine articles are very often done by editorial staff or interns, not by the author.Report
Oh, and as a minor point: as I understand it (happy to be corrected) hyperlinks in online journalism at mainstream outlets tike the Atlantic are usually added by in-house staff, not the author: don’t read too much into them! (The sane holds for titles and bylines.)Report
David, if I understood correctly, the part about “a writer who appears to more or less exclusively cite other people more or less in his own auto-didactic community” was intended to refer to *Nerst*, not Singal. George, correct me if I’m wrong about that.Report
I don’t think that’s the natural reading of the text (the sentence immediately following it is a reference to “Singal’s other interviewee” – but of course online comments are written in haste (gods know, mine are) and I’d happily accept that was the intended meaning.Report
I probably should have said in my original comment that I can definitely see how you got that reading, I think the original post and context is less than maximally clear. The main thing that really fuels my impression (not to belabor the point, just to show how I got my reading) is that the bulk of the post is criticising rationalists (i.e. the community of which Nerst, not Singal, is a member) for mostly only citing each other. So “community” seems to me to pretty clearly be “rationalist community,” and since Singal is not a member of the rationalist community (as far as I know), the “his” in “his … community” seems most naturally to refer to Nerst, which makes “writer” also most naturally refer to Nerst. And I think there’s a way to read that next sentence where “Singal’s other interviewee: Sarah Constantin” is intended as an example of “other people in [Nerst’s] own auto-didactic community [namely the rationalists].”Report
re Constantin: that is, as an example of “other people in [Nerst’s] own auto-didactic community [namely the rationalists]” rather than an example of “people who [writer] more or less exclusively cites”Report