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How the principles of philosophy can be applied to our everyday conversations

The Department of Philosophy at Auburn University offers its students the gift of thinking clearly. It also cultivates skills in writing and logical criticism, and it increases the power and discipline of the imagination. With so many of us at odds over issues on numerous fronts, we asked Michael Watkins, a professor of philosophy, how to apply the teachings of philosophy to our everyday conversations, happening both in-person and on-line. 

Q: What are some of the philosophical principals of engaging in debates with others in-person? 

A: People generally think about debates and arguments as disagreements. The winners of such debates, if there are winners, are those who convince the most people by whatever rhetorical means they might find. For a philosopher, you provide an argument when you give reasons or provide evidence for whatever you claim to be the case. Philosophers think of arguments not primarily as attempts to convince others, but as a means to advance knowledge. We expect to learn from arguments, both from arguments that we develop and from those presented by others. If someone presents an argument for some claim about which I disagree, then I am rationally required to accept the argument (and so the claim) or find some flaw in the argument. I might, of course, believe that the claim is false even though I can find no flaw in the argument. But, at least until I can find a response, the discussion—the rational discussion—is over. So if you want to have a rational discussion, then you have to treat arguments as arguments. You cannot simply make claims without supporting those claims with reasons, and you cannot simply deny what someone else is claiming without responding to their reasons.

Q: Are there any that could be applied to having discussions or debates on-line with others?

A: As philosophers think about debates and arguments, we hardly ever see them in the political arena or in on-line discussions, and even when arguments appear, they are rarely sincere. You provide an argument when you present evidence for a claim. If you sincerely present an argument, then you sincerely accept those reasons, and you sincerely believe that those reasons support your claim.

One way to tell that a discussion is not a rational debate is when the response merely denies (without reason) either the evidence provided or the claim being defended. If my evidence something happened is that I read about it in a newspaper, then it might be perfectly reasonable for you to deny my claim. Perhaps you read the article and have reason to believe that I misread it. Perhaps you have reason to believe the newspaper was mistaken. Newspapers are sometimes wrong. But shouting out “fake news” is just a way to ignore any evidence you don’t like. Accepting only those claims that you like is not rational; it is not sincere.

Q: Philosophy teaches us to engage in reasoned discourse, a form of discourse that requires that we change our mind when someone has a better argument than you do. Given our current climate of disinformation and harmful dialogues and exchanges happening on-line, how do the principles of philosophy affect the tenets of democracy?

A: Democracy is hard. It demands that we accept results with which we don’t agree. A philosophical education provides at least three elements essential for a healthy democracy. First, it teaches the rules for rational discourse. It teaches what it is for an argument to be a good argument, what it is to rationally provide reasons in support of some claim. Second, philosophy teaches a respect for language and meaning. For almost any debate you see online, there is simply no fact of the matter about what is being disputed. Words you continually see, like ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘socialist’, ‘communist’, ‘pro-life’, ‘pro-choice’, are thrown around without anyone getting clarification about what they mean. I’m not saying people using these words do not know what the words mean, although that is also often the case, but that people using these words often don’t know what they mean by those words when they use them. And so, as best as I can tell, most of those “shouting” the loudest on social media don’t know what they are arguing for or against; they literally do not know what they are talking about. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, philosophy teaches a kind of humility. Every philosopher, and every philosophy student, has been forced by reason to change their mind. That kind of humility – and I’ll be the first to admit that philosophers tend not to be, in many other respects, very humble – has played a central role in philosophy since its beginning. I think, too, that kind of humility, an openness to the possibility that you are mistaken, is an essential component of rational and civil discourse.

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