Departments

Argument

Argument has rules. Argument is not a game – the rules are more in spirit than in letter – but there are rules. Certain moves – certain appeals – appeals to personal experience, to scripture, to studies and statistics, even to logic – break the rules and make argument impossible. Of course these are all useful instruments of judgment. But judgment and argument are different things. Judgment ends argument, but arguments do not want to end.

“Arguments want?” Arguments want what we want. Sometimes we argue selfishly, to win. Sometimes we argue selflessly, to keep the conversation going. But mostly we argue precisely to prevent judgment: to reassure ourselves that some matter is open to question, that equivocation is not irresponsible.

Argument has rules, but agreeing to definitions is not one of them. That is putting the cart before the horse. Definitions are liquid: when they meet, they mix. These triboluminescent encounters are what argument is for. All the valid moves in argument – making a distinction, putting in context, elaborating, unpacking – these are all ways to make definitions meet, merge, and mature. Definitions are always at the center of arguments because shaping definitions is what arguments are for.

Argument is harder than it looks. In large part this is because, while contradictions, fallacies, and biases break the rules, pointing them out is a far worse offense. Argument at the level of fallacies and biases is boring. Argument about argument is not argument. Whatever the point at stake, the opponents are in the same old ring, trading the same old jabs and blocks.

Argument is not a way of deciding. It is a way of not deciding, of doing something else instead: learning, wondering, waiting. You know it is the real thing when it is unpredictable – irreducible – and, therefore, nontrivial. More than anything else, argument wants surprise.