There’s been some recent discussion–most of it, I believe, ironic–about winning arguments. It got me to thinking. Those of us who pride ourselves on logic and rationality hate losing an argument; it damages our self-respect. But that aside, none of us expect to actually win an argument of the sort we’re having here. In fact, I can only remember winning an argument once in my life, when a better man than I said, “You haven’t convinced me, but I can’t answer you.” I didn’t gloat about winning; rather my jaw dropped at his honesty.
But, you see, convincing someone isn’t the point of arguing. At least, for me. For me, the point is to sharpen and clarify my own ideas by testing them against others. Sometimes, in fact, I only learn what I think about something when I hear myself making an argument. When someone is so far from my position that arguing would be absurd; or says something so preposterous that nothing can be gained or clarified from the discussion, I will usually opt out. Case in point: the discussion of Capital that was going on until I lost my copy: I was reading it to help me understand what are to me difficult concepts; and people who hold positions far, far from mine sometimes said things that were helpful in clarifying things. There was no point in arguing with them. If someone believes that the exchange of commodities is determined by pure ideas, I’m not going to change his mind, and he isn’t going to change mine. Why argue? But nevertheless, some of the “value is all the in the head” people said very, very useful things that helped me piece together concept I was having trouble with.
Another use of a good argument is to make subtle distinctions sharper and clearer. If someone starts out saying, “We should do more to prevent voter fraud,” and, through the course of an argument, it becomes clear that his attitude is, “the poor should be disenfranchised,” then that argument was useful in showing anyone listening the basis of his original position.
To summarize: I will engage in argument to help me clarify my positions; to expose the logical conclusions of another’s positions, and that’s about it.
Well, no. I’ll also do it because I’m pissed off, or because I thought of a clever way to trash someone who annoys me. But I shouldn’t do that, and I try not to.