Friday, December 03, 2004

Defending and Arguing

Keith Burgess-Jackson writes:

Philosophers pride themselves on their mental acuity, but they routinely make a gross error. They confuse defending a view with arguing. . . . They speak as if defending and arguing are two names for the same activity.

Suppose I evaluate something. I might say that a person is good (or bad), an act right (or wrong), a practice fair (or unfair), a law just (or unjust), or a painting beautiful (or ugly). You may ask me to defend my judgment. I will do so by stating the grounds or basis of the judgment, i.e., that which supports it. There is no implication when I do so that you share these grounds, and therefore no implication that you should make the same judgment. All I’m doing is stating the grounds of my judgment. This shows that my judgment is not groundless, i.e., that it has a rational basis, that it follows from or is supported by other judgments I make.

To argue . . . is to try to persuade others, either individually or collectively. To succeed in this activity, I must use only premises that my interlocutors accept. There is no implication, when I argue, that I accept the premises I use.

BV replies: I agree that to persuade others, one must use only premises they accept. I also agree that one can do this without oneself accepting the premises one employs. I furthermore agree that there is an important difference between giving one’s reasons for a belief or judgment and trying to persuade rationally another person to accept a belief or judgment. But I would describe this difference differently. Whereas Burgess-Jackson describes it as the difference between defending and arguing, I would describe it as a difference between two uses of argument, or two types of arguing. Just as I can argue another person into a view or out of a view, I can argue myself into a view or out of a view. (The argument may be buried in a notebook that no one else ever sees.) And just as I can defend a view that I hold by giving my reasons for it, I can defend a view another person holds (but that I do not hold) by constructing an argument for that other view. For example, I might come to the aid of a logically untrained atheist friend by supplying her with an argument for the nonexistence of God.

Of course, a philosopher is free to use terms as he sees fit subject to the proviso that he define them – even when this usage diverges somewhat from standard usage. This is because a philosopher’s use of terms is likely to involve a precisifying element: the philosopher takes a term in use and ‘sharpens’ it, giving it a more precise meaning in accordance with his purposes and background assumptions. So I cannot reasonably object to Burgess-Jackson’s use of ‘defend’ and ‘argue.’ What I can reasonably object to, however, is his opening statement that philosophers "routinely make a gross error" by confusing "defending a view with arguing." I think that is false.

Any philosopher that does not appreciate the distinctions K B-J is drawing is confused and in error. But the mere fact that a philosopher uses a different terminology has no tendency to show that he does not appreciate the distinctions in question. One cannot validly move from

1. X doesn’t accept Y’s terminology


2. X doesn’t accept Y’s distinctions.

Further reading: K B-J's How to Argue and my Five Uses of Argument. Both are in my TOOLBOX on the sidebar. My piece is a rough draft and needs a bit of cleaning up.