Argument is the midwife of ideas (and other metaphors)

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.[1]

They show this metaphor in action through some example of common usage (pg. 4):

What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they'll keep being wrong!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?[2]

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,[3] 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?


  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  3. 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).

About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

11 Responses to Argument is the midwife of ideas (and other metaphors)

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    For the kinds of argument that involve logical inference, Aristotle identified three distinct species — abductive, deductive, and inductive inference — and he analyzed analogy as a combination of induction and deduction. Peirce developed these ideas in his work on understanding how scientific inquiry works. Here are some notes on that —

    Functional Logic : Inquiry and Analogy

  2. Jon Awbrey says:

    The doctrine that teaching is midwifery (maieusis) is designed to complement the doctrine that learning is remembering (anamnesis), perhaps in a former life or in the eternal matrix that delivers our souls to time. Which brings us back to the divide between tabula rasa and innate ideas.

    • Yes. I enjoy the learning as remembering part of Plato, too. And do like how it goes together with his other imagery. Not in its literal form, of course, nor the reductionist genetic reinterpretation that I see (mind modules). But I do like the version of it where knowledge is about cultural constructs and we are aware implicitly of these cultural constructs, and part of the dialectic is to transform that implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge. My favourite personal example of this is with language: I speak Russian fluently, and so I implicitly change the ending of words for one object versus two, three, four objects versus five or more objects. However, I never explicitly knew that I did this until a friend studying linguistics asked me about it. A lot of moral philosophy seems like a similar uncovering of rules, except on a different aspect of culture. I’ll discuss this more coherently in a post at some point in the future.

      • Jon Awbrey says:

        Indeed, the analogy between moral compass and mathematical knowledge is one of the themes, or at least devices, in that carries Plato’s Meno along but it’s likely linguistics where the tension between nature and nurture has gotten its most thorough thrashing out in recent times, coming to a head perhaps with the dialogue/debate between Chomsky and Piaget (Piattelli-Palmarini 1980).

  3. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Nice and fresh way of approaching an old debate (did I write debate?).
    I have far too many thoughts about it all, it’s going to be hard to put them in an ordered comment. Certainly not a short reply!

    First thing I’d like to comment on is the “cooperative like dance” bit. I too can’t say much about dance, but I play guitar at amateur level, have witnessed and been into plenty of arguments between band members. In such circumstances, making music is without doubt a cooperative endeavour, and yet, experience tells me that so often the arguments that happen are indeed like war, with winners and losers, sore egos, broken friendships (or almost broken), the lot.
    Direct experience thus brings me to note the importance of the emotional element: when people care enough about the subject of any given disagreement, it really is hard to avoid falling in the “argument as war” pattern. I’ve no doubt philosophical arguments are susceptible to the same kind of destructive spiral, perhaps in academic contexts it is even favoured by context: there is a fine line between conceding a point and invalidating your own previous work, which could in turn generate loads of negative career repercussions. It’s one reason why I’m resisting the temptation of going professional: I don’t want the academic system to put pressure against changing my views (AKA acknowledging my mistakes), it’s hard enough to do it anyway!

    Going back to music, it’s remarkable how philosophising influences my music making, and, in particular how my thoughts on pluralism of ideas, the importance of embracing different (and perhaps opposing) theoretical frameworks find immediate applicability in music making. So much so that one of the few things I feel are good enough to be made public is a piece of music which is explicitly about arguing. The title says it all: A successful argument (links to the recording – full story of the piece is here).
    Self-promotion aside, I mention all this because the whole piece is supposed to tell the story of how a good, cooperative argument feels to me (and hopefully to Simon Eyre, the piece is co-written/performed).
    I think this is relevant, for the metaphor you end up preferring still doesn’t satisfy me. It doesn’t because (productive) “argument as midwifery” is inherently asymmetric. Don’t get me wrong, I frequently latch on the same metaphor myself, but because I do, I also know that whenever I do I also feel uncomfortable. It is far too easy to assume that I know best, and that I’m “helping” the counterpart to make their own ideas better. Specifically, if I already think their ideas can be improved, I’d normally have a precise picture of where their ideas are (somewhat) wrong. In these cases, playing the midwifery game becomes a trick: even if I don’t want to, I fear that I’m merely using rhetorical expedients to “correct” the mistakes (I think) I’ve seen.
    Still on music, the piece I’ve linked tries to be an example, a non-verbal description, of a different approach, where the exchange is mutual, where both parties benefit from the exchange, and, as I wrote in the accompanying text, where “both players end up not knowing who convinced the other about what” – positions shift as a result of the exchange. Perhaps it’s worth noting that there is definitely a war-like section in the middle…
    Anyway, all this is to say that in the metaphors you’ve explored, I think the one that would be most helpful (in describing the most productive way to argue) is also the one you’ve skipped. Something like the approach we’ve tried to describe in music, which strikes me as probably similar to the dance metaphor. (Albeit some dances do incorporate somewhat ritualised fight-like routines – but then, something similar happen in the music piece as well!)

    Also, Eric Schwitzgebel has written a short post on Genuine Philosophical Dialogues (and more!) which seems to be very relevant, and (as you may notice in the comments section) seems to espouse a position that is very similar to what I’m trying to articulate here…
    Overall, I remain to be convinced that the midwifery image is good “at humbling the informant”. For me at least, it’s not good enough (I can fool myself in much more sophisticated ways ;-) ). Perhaps it’s just a matter of actually believing that “I know nothing”. Hard to do!

    Minor points: I note that the metaphor of “argument as medicine” can still easily be re-described in war-like terms. War on the infection, etc. The gift metaphor is still too asymmetric, I agree.
    Thinking about music and dance, perhaps it’s worth noting how much of what you write doesn’t necessarily apply to philosophical arguments alone. It seems to be a good way to look at human interactions in general…


    is monologue the right way to present philosophical arguments?

    Well, I don’t think monologues are a terrible way to present a philosophical thesis. An “argument” as in “this is why I think that X”. But, yes, exchanging monologues doesn’t strike me as the most efficient way to develop new theses…
    Therefore, I’ll interrupt mine!

    • I feel like with metaphors, especially for social things like arguments, I am always walking a fine line between description and prescription. I think that the reason we see war creeping into argument so often is because our culture conditions us to think of argument is war and so we make it like war. In fact, I was surprised by the extent of this when I was writing the post. I constantly found myself using war imagery even when I wasn’t using the war metaphor, and had to explicitly rewrite sentences here and there. Some implicit use probably still seeped through, though :(.

      I agree that argument as medicine is often similar to war. I think that this is because we tend to also use the DISEASE TREATMENT is WAR metaphor. Sometimes very explicitly like with the war on cancer. This can be bad for the patient. I have a post in draft on this, maybe one day I’ll finish.

      But continuing with the call to prescription. The asymmetry of midwifery is a desired feature for me. Because it is asymmetry in the opposite direction of the asymmetry of the metaphors that implicitly structure our arguments (War, Disease, etc). The hope is that when if I try to explicitly think in terms of Midwifery then I will be able to arrive at a more neutral and symmetrical position.

      Of course, the midwife metaphor doesn’t mean that the informant can’t “know what’s best”, in terms of giving specific comments/statements. After all, a midwife is supposed to know better than the woman she is serving on how to deliver a baby. However, unlike in disease/war, she isn’t trying to “get rid of” or “eliminate” the baby with her comments, but “give it a life of its own”. I guess the distinction is between destructive and constructive criticism? I find myself often falling into destructive criticism and dismissing ideas out of hand, and I want to avoid doing this for ideas I am engaging with by focusing more on midwifery rather than disease/war. Obviously, I have a long way to go.

      Thanks for the links. I look forward to reading Eric Schwitzgebel’s post.

      • Sergio Graziosi says:

        On description versus prescription: in this case it really is a difficult line to draw, isn’t it? I suppose the first part of my comment was “descriptive”, observing that “argument as war” is a metaphor that works well in many cases. In prescriptive terms, I also suppose that I use the heuristic “is this interaction best described as war?” and flag a warning (“try to find a way to change this”) whenever the answer is “Yes”.
        Problem I find is that while it takes two to Tango and you can’t have a war unless there are multiple actors, it only takes one side to push a productive argument into a war-like pattern.
        I can see why you latch-on the midwifery vision, reversing the asymmetry in an effort to compensate for the most common unhelpful bias. However, my last consideration above helps me understand why I’m not ready to jump on the midwifery prescription.
        If I accept to take the “I know best” attitude (even when it is entirely justified), I make it much more likely that my counterpart might go into “war/defence” mode, which guarantees the rest of the exchange will be best described in conflictual terms…

        As for the effect of our culture on our automatic acceptance of the war-like scenario, I have this toy idea of approximately getting rid of the right/wrong distinction and replacing it with a fit-for-purpose gradient. The rationale being that if we don’t start assuming that for any two conflicting ideas at least one must be wrong, we could in principle talk about it without feeling that our beliefs are being threatened. The key part being that my beliefs might be good for X, but when considering X’ (a slight variation of X), your beliefs might work better, hence the fit-for-purposedness part. I don’t know how to describe this approach in metaphoric terms though…
        In your framing, the assumption I’d like to remove is the one that normally facilitates going into defence mode (i.e. “of the two ideas one must be objectively worse”): the moment one does, the war metaphor applies.
        In other words, if we do accept the idea that of two different positions one has to be better than the other, in absolute terms, it follows that a debate about the two positions can be described in conflictual terms. It’s more a consequence of our assumptions about “truth” in my eyes. This would explain why war-like metaphors and conflictual language is almost unavoidable, it’s not that we are lacking the correct concepts / descriptive language, I’m suggesting that our underlying assumptions make the concepts we have actually fit-for-(descriptive)purpose…
        What a sad thought!

        There is an obvious link to Bayesian theories of cognition as well, so that’s a plus!

  4. Catarina Dutilh Novaes says:

    Nice post! However, my full view is in fact very close to your midwifery view, precisely because I’m also very much inspired by Socrates/Plato. However, the trouble with this metaphor is that it introduces the asymmetry that I find problematic with the therapeutic metaphor. With the gift-exchange metaphor, there is true *exchange* in that the producer of the argument potentially transfers epistemic assets to the receiver, but the receiver gives the gift of listening. I can see that the metaphor seems to imply that what is being given is already fully formed, but in my full story that’s not the case. It is the interaction between the two interlocutors that gives rise to new insight for *both*. One good illustration of this general idea is the process of producing mathematical knowledge by means of proofs and refutations, as described in Lakatos’ book.

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