When we argue, we are using reasons to justify or support a particular claim or belief. When we do this, it is usually due to a certain goal or purpose. Usually, the goal of arguing is concieved as trying to ‘win’ the argument and obviously not to ‘lose’ the argument. The most clear example of this are organised debates where one side will be declared the official winner, usually decided by how much of the audience found one side of the debate to be the most persuasive. The goals aimed in philosophy, or at least meant to be, are to give knowledge and to get knowledge. Next, I will explain how these goals differ and have different implications on how arguing is conducted.
Persuasion is, roughly, succeeding in convincing someone to believe what you believe to be true. At times, this can be done by providing them with a good argument. Sadly, this is not necessarily always the case. Many people can be persuaded by other means even if the argument isn’t very good. People can be persuaded by being led by their emotions, biases, the confidence and charisma of the person giving the argument, being outright lied to, and so on.
In politics, such tactics are often described as rhetoric, which means ‘the art of persuasion’. There is nothing intrinsicly wrong with persuasion or rhetoric. We can imagine a world where everyone is only persuaded by good arguments, thus providing good arguments would be a form of rhetoric. But this is not the world we live in. When we understand that there are many ways people can be persuaded other than by good arguments, and if the goal is merely to persuade, there will be those who will not rely on good arguments to achieve that goal.
Winning and not losing
If the goal is to win the argument, or in other words, to demonstrate that we are the ones who are right, the goal will quickly become more prioritised with persuasion than with good argument. Similar, the goal can also be if we cannot persuade enough that we right, we will attempt to persuade enough to create enough doubt about what is being argued so we do not have to concede that we were wrong.
The fear of being wrong is what can steer us away from prioritising good arguments for persuasion. In the abstract sense, everyone will admit they get things wrong from time to time. However, in the concrete sense, it will take a lot of work to get someone to admit they are mistaken about a topic being discussed at the time.
The goal, at least in principle, in philosophy is to give knowledge. What this means is that we have made someone know something that they did not know before. If your argument is a good argument, and they can see that it is a good argument, they now know something they did not know before. What about the person who does not see that it is a good argument? If this is the first time they heard your argument, they now know a new argument for an opposing view to what they believe.
The other side of the coin in the goal of philosophy is to get knowledge. We may think our reasons for believing something are good reasons. However, when we present our arguments to someone, they may point out that the reasons are not as good as we thought, or may be able to provide a better argument for the opposing view. If we can see that their arguments are better than ours, then there is something that we previously thought was true but was actually false. Thus, we have gained knowledge. Having this as our goal is superior to winning and not losing, since it treats being wrong as a gain in knowledge. Nothing bad about that!
Similar to when giving knowledge, someone’s objections to our argument may not be good objections, hence have not given us knowledge regarding changing our beliefs, but knowing a new objection or counter argument gives us more confidence that our belief is the correct one. Also, knowing those objections gives us knowledge on what reasons are guiding those who hold the opposing view.
So, the goal in philosophy is to get and give knowledge. The goal is not to win or avoid losing arguments, or to persuade at all costs. Knowledge is the game. In the next post, I will discuss certain kinds of argument: valid and invalid arguments.
I highly recommend purchasing the book ‘Understanding arguments’ by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, which is available for purchase in the link below. If you do purchase the book via this link, you are helping support this webpage. Thank you.