The purpose of disagreement

I do not really believe that one can convince another person of a philosophical point to which they are constitutionally opposed. That is to say, at best we have a conversation, and we come to understand the context of our interlocutors’ convictions, but because in philosophy there are seldom indubitable rights and wrongs, there is never a guarantee of understanding, never mind consensus. So what transpires is we translate our rationalizations into the language of reason, we divest decision-making of the emotion inherent to it, pretending it isn’t there – and even if it were there, we say, it’s not important. Then we play you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine with these rationalizations. This sounds a little tragic, as though I have no hope in philosophy or conversation, but I don’t think pessimism necessarily follows.

We all know the benefits of debate in a “civilized” context as replacing the settlement of disagreement through violence. Often, however, we do not settle disagreement. So what happens then? I assume we have all had that experience in conversation or debate, where we make a point in passing which we regard to be innocuous, only for it to be turned around on us, and given a spin which we would never have thought possible. This is not just the innate malleability of language, nor is it the result of applying logical strictures to discussion which is rather more fluid and informal (if you had to point out all the fallacies one commits in a given sentence, we would rather quickly run out of will to speak). It is that the intent behind your words, irrespective of the form or content of your utterance, is made alien to you. Your very context is hijacked. In such a conversation, not much happens in the way of reasoned debate. But what does happen is we get to know how this other person’s mind works. The content of the debate or disagreement may be irrelevant. The real goal here is not rational, but social, because we are using language to defuse conflict by discussing it. This is one of the hidden glories of language. It is not only of benefit to us in the zero sum game of logic and rational debate.

Through discussion – without the prerequisite of resolution – we come to understand the mind of others. Even more fascinatingly, this resolution of conflict begins to flow forward in time; we come to know a little better when what we are saying will be taken up as problematic by this other person. This still is a little tragic though, philosophy as a democratic crutch. There is more to it however. If we come to know how our interlocutor’s mind works, we can in a sense borrow some of their mental operations. This is to say, knowing how another person thinks is the ability to think that way yourself. In this example of intellectual empathy, though they may not convince you in terms of content (and vice versa), they still might influence you via their style of thought, how they think. In this, conflict again is preempted, and some of our damaging individualistic impulses are overcome. The solipsism  of pure logic is muted in favour of all the benefits what accrue in the social realm. As such, in this picture, you can be incorrect but right. This sounds troubling, yes, but I regard the overall task of philosophy as adding to and extending our species-wide repertoire of mental tools and tactics. It is ideally a means of making ever more connections, across cultures and generations. It is a means of altering the fundamental architecture of our total society, the entire Noosphere, making it ever more massively parallel, distributed, resilient.

We have many ways of articulating this ideal of an advanced degree of connectivity. We use big words like Justice, or big concepts such as Cosmopolitanism, or new metaphors such as ecological thought. These all ultimately refer to the same abstraction of a highly networked structure. Philosophers, artists, writers, poets all seek to provide us with innovations in thought, like elegant snatches of code which we can use as and if we require, in fascinating new constructions of our own making. Even the system builders in philosophy must know that in essence they write anthologies, these are but collections from which we make our selections, because no one but a tyrant expects to be read with the subservience that would be required of such a totalizing project to make the “philosophical system that explains it all”.

We are all magpies of thought, and the best thinkers realize and expect this. The great systems of philosophical identiy-thought, of logic that seeks to put an end to disagreement, these are to be respected as individual achievements. But actually, each of us must attempt to fashion a system for ourselves, and the best we can hope for is a little more coherence, and a little more connectivity. Even those who do not give much time to speculation, or who have swallowed a certain philosophical or ideological or religious outlook whole, without rumination, even these people ad lib elsewhere in their lives, be it in their style of speech, dress, cooking, song, movement…

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