Argument is the midwife of ideas (and other metaphors)
August 10, 2016 11 Comments
In their classic book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue — very convincingly, and as I’ve reviewed before — that “[m]etaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally” and that these conceptual metaphors are central to shaping our understanding of and interaction with the world we are embedded in. Based on the authors’ grounding in linguistics, part of their case proceeds by offering examples of, by my count, over 58 different metaphors and metonymies in our everyday language; and given their book’s intentions, they chose a particularly pertinent first case: ARGUMENT is WAR.
They show this metaphor in action through some example of common usage (pg. 4):
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all my arguments.
Notice that the even the xkcd I borrowed for visual reinforcement is titled ‘Duty Calls’, an expression usually associated with a departure for war. With our awareness drawn to this militaristic structure, Lakoff and Johnson encourage the reader to ask themselves: how would discussions look if instead of structuring arguments adversarially, we structured them after a cooperative activity like dance?
Argument is Therapy
Unfortunately, I don’t know how to think about argument as dance. So instead, I will start by considering ARGUMENT is THERAPY. Whereas a classical conception of medical therapy is to eliminate a disease — eliminate an impurity in the body. A philosophical therapy eliminates false beliefs. This imagery is widely used, especially by movements like the New Atheists. It is a central part of memetics and we can see it in action with claims that religion is a “virus of the mind” (Dawkins, 1993). It is a great rhetorical tool to suggest that your opponent’s belief is tainted and unclean. It also turns the tables on who benefits from an argument. Here, if you lost the argument then you have been cured of your false belief and thus benefitted. I have not gained anything from convincing you, except maybe some moral smugness at a job well done.
Argument is therapy — imperfect like all metaphors — can draw our attention to important aspects of how arguments and beliefs develop. In particular, we can look at the accompanying metaphor that IDEAS are GERMS. This puts the idea first and human minds as the environment that they inhabit. We can then reason about the dynamics of the resultant knowledge ecology.
By being repeated again and again, ideas and lines of argument mutate, with some becoming more effective and more repeated. Creativity in argument becomes mere mutations in the mind. In analogy to evolution, the (apparent) design we see in well-constructed ideas moves from the individual thinker to the process of selective propagation through minds of the community. Ideas develop through sharing, discussion, and argument — not through individual deliberation. Even if the individual does not intend it, their participation in argument allows the community to pursue cooperative discovery and through variation learn something new.
Unfortunately, it is important to remember that reproductive success is not goodness. And this is easy to see in pop-culture and the meme factories of the internet, where some of the most wide-spread ideas are far from the best. Instead, they are the most comforting, the most enraging, the simplest, or the easiest to share. This is made worse when two ideas that differ in content can set up totems-of-the-other around which minds can gather, rage, and continue the idea propagation. This draws in bystanders, who instead of synthesis join one side or the other, and increase the pool of hosts.
Even when proponents of one idea do interact with the other, the argument-is-therapy metaphor (just like the ARGUMENT is WAR metaphor) prevents them from finding a synthesis. Instead, it is too easy to take a position of moral smugness, and see yourself as the doctor that will cure your interlocutor of their mind disease. Of course, they too view themselves as doctors, not patients. And nothing is achieved.
Argument is Gift Exchange
The medical metaphor’s paternalism of elevating myself above my interlocutor does not sit well with Catarina Dutilh Novaes. Instead, she suggests that ARGUMENT is GIFT-EXCHANGE. Viewing an idea as a gift to be given highlights that the idea is something valuable that I want to share. This is in sharp contrast to a germ that is to be avoided or cured. In the medical metaphor for argument, it doesn’t matter how we cure a bad thought-germ — revelation, propaganda, and brainwashing are just as good as a philosophical argument. But with a gift, there is an emphasis on honesty and the desires of the recipient. An argument is a better gift because it is sharing the reasons you have for an idea — things you find valuable — instead of propaganda that might proceed by lies and misdirection. Thus, Dutilh Novaes’ metaphor draws our attention to what sets apart (philosophical) argument from other ways of instilling beliefs or sharing ideas.
The endorsement of an argument by the informant as something valuable also provides extra information for the interlocutor. Just like receiving a gift from someone close to you changes your perception of the value of that gift. With this, Dutilh Novaes aims to draw attention to a current topic of interest in social epistemology: the reliability of the informant.
The argument-is-gift-exchange metaphor is more egalitarian in its conception, and probably more conducive to learning from arguments. Although, it is still easy to forget the ‘exchange’ aspect, and just view yourself as donating ‘gifts’ to the destitute that is your interlocutor. In fact, packaging beliefs, ideas, and the outcomes of arguments as discrete states instead of an ongoing process might distance this view even further than therapy from my understanding of argument. It suggests that the purpose of argument is to convey wholly-formed quanta of thought, not to generate them. Generation is left to the separate apparatus of reason.
Argument is Midwifery
But it is not clear to me that reasoning can be separated from argument. To understand this, let’s start with The Pragmatic Programmer, and the a classic tale of a software engineer and his rubber ducky. When the engineer had to debug his code, he would turn to his rubber ducky and explain each line of the code to it. In the process, he would stumble on his own mistake, something that he missed during his initial conception of the program.
Why was this effective? By explaining to his ducky, the programmer didn’t just share his premeditated reasons for why he wrote certain lines of code. In some cases, he actually had to generate those reasons as he spoke. Eventually discovering ones that clash with his intent for the program. And although in common usage, arguing is not the same as explaining, I would say that a philosophical argument — especially as we often present them now — shares enough in common with an explanation. An explanation of something the interlocutor does not already believe.
This view puts argument as a central player in reasoning. It suggests that we reason through argument or (at least) in anticipation of an argument. A view that would be at home in an ancient Athenian assembly.
In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates constantly engages in discussion, argument, and dialectic with his interlocutors. He uses two metaphors to describe this activity and his role. In the Apology, Socrates describes himself as a gadfly that through his questioning bites at the noble steed that is the citizenry of Athens to encourage them out of intellectual and moral sluggishness. This is a metaphor I’ve borrowed before for theorists.
But my concern in this post is Socrates’ second metaphor. Phaenarete — Socrates mother — was a midwife and, in the Theaetetus, Socrates views himself as continuing his mother’s trade. Except instead of helping women birth children, he helps his interlocutors develop ideas. Socrates views himself as barren: he is not gifting an idea that he developed, nor curing his interlocutor of a mistaken belief. For he knows only one thing: that he knows nothing.
Prior to a discussion, Socrates does not know the idea that will be born, nor if the idea currently held by his interlocutor is wrong (and thus in need of curing). Socrates views himself as a servant to his interlocutor, just as a midwife to a mother. He does not push his own ideas on them, just like a midwife does not give her own child to the expectant mother. Instead, through argument, Socrates helps his interlocutors develop and explore their own; just like a midwife helps a mother deliver her own baby. ARGUMENT is MIDWIFERY.
I prefer this metaphor over both the medical and the gift-exchange metaphors. I think it is best at humbling the informant, without making them irrelevant. It places the final idea — or baby — as the focal point, with the interlocutor — or mother — as the hardest working agent. This metaphor associated good argumentation with a certain skill — midwifery — that can be developed over time. And it presents an argument as a fluid process that responds in different ways to different ideas and interlocutors — not as an exchange of prepackaged thoughts.
As with all metaphors, the argument-is-midwifery metaphor is a tool that only lets us comprehend partially the concept of philosophical argument. In the contemporary setting, most arguments are presented as single written monologues that aim to convince us of a conclusion. We can view this as a retelling of an argument that the writer had with herself, but this seems to be a stretch. Although for me, the question becomes: is monologue the right way to present philosophical arguments?
- Although Lakoff & Johnson were thinking about any sort of argument, whether it be convincing your roommate to take out the trash, or that the two-aspects is superior to the two-objects as interpretations of Kant’s transcendental idealism, for the rest of this article I will only concentrate on the latter kind of cognitive arguments — mostly because TheEGG seldom tries to convince you to do more house chores.
When comparing to dance, Lakoff & Johnson obviously expect us to ignore the bboy battles that were emerging in New York while the authors were releasing their book at the start of the 80s. But the particular alternative doesn’t matter as much as the question itself.
In his TEDx talk, Daniel H. Cohen asks the same sort of question, although calling the structuring of arguments ‘modes’ instead of ‘metaphors’. Along with an introduction, he stresses the difficulty of changing these entrenched metaphors but suggests some ways forward for moving toward more cooperative modes. I recommend watching the talk if you haven’t read Metaphors We Live By, or if you just like TED-style talks:
- Here, I think it is important to go beyond simple caricatures of adaptationism and consider carefully Julian Xue’s supply driver evolution. The individual mind’s treatment of ideas is the mechanism for generation variation, and it is far from an unbiasedly random process. This creates a certain structure to the mutations and that structure can drive the direction of evolution of ideas, even when natural selection is the motor. I suspect that this can be pushed further to strike a nice balance between the role of the individual and the role of the community in the concepts of knowledge (and truth).