The Main Points to Consider when Debating
1 Never miss out on the chance to argue your point
Hardly any scientific dispute has inspired recent pop culture so much as this: the hip-hop video Fear the Boom and Bust, uploaded to YouTube in 2010, has now been viewed almost seven million times. The theories of the two economists Friedrich August von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes are presented in the form of a rap battle. Historically, Keynes emerged as the clear winner of the debate on the causes and solutions of the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Hayek’s time came in the 1970s when Keynesian political solutions were thrown into crisis. At that time, Margaret Thatcher carried around a copy of Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty in her handbag and implemented his ideas into her policies. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, Keynes’ concepts made a comeback. Even today, many “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence”, as Keynes put it in one of his many aphorisms, are the “slaves” of these “defunct economists.”
2 Choose a topic that you can argue aboutt
Although history is anything but lacking in controversy, hardly any debate in the German-speaking world has made as many waves as the Historikerstreit (the Historians’ Debate) of the 1980s. When, in an article for the Zeit, Jürgen Habermas criticised the contemporary historical theses of the likes of Ernst Nolte as being revisionist, it triggered quite a polemical debate about German historical images, which filled the feuilletons for months. The irreconcilability on both sides can essentially be attributed to the fact that scientific and ideological questions were aggressively mixed with each other — but the following has always applied in relation to such ideological questions: Contra principia negantem non est disputandum.
3 Find an opponent who you can argue with
This dispute almost seemed pre-programmed: in 2004, liberal philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who had previously described himself as “religiously unmusical”, and the supreme dogmatist of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), met in the Catholic Academy of Bavaria. They debated the pre-political moral foundations of democracy. Instead of a dispute, however, the meeting became a “summit of kindness” as the Zeit referred to it. Reason and faith, as both men agreed, stimulate each other in a reciprocal learning process. “In the operational area, we are in agreement” is what Ratzinger supposedly said in conclusion.
4 Prepare your arguments meticulously
For several weeks in 1830, the Paris Academy of Sciences played host to a dispute between zoologists Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. At the centre of the debate was the question of whether there was such a thing as a common plan for the structure of all living things (influenced by Lamarck among others) as Geoffroy assumed, or whether the same anatomical features in living beings could only be traced back to the same functions, which was Cuvier’s view. At the meeting of the Academy on February 15th, Geoffroy presented an essay by two scientists which appeared to confirm his thesis. He indirectly attacked Cuvier as a result, who then came to the next meeting fully armed with evidence to support his own thesis. Overall, the two opponents argued with each other for eight sessions. Finally, Geoffroy ended the debate which had long since become a public spectacle. Although Cuvier at the time was widely regarded as the winner, Geoffroy was later recognised as an early representative of the theory of evolution. Last but not least, Darwin’s On The Origin of Species also referred to the debate between the two.
Argue with Sense and Purpose
5 Arguments for science
1743 erwarb Friedrich August III., Kurfürst von Sachsen und Sohn Augusts des Starken, ein Gemälde Hans Holbeins d.J., die sogenannte Madonna des Bürgermeisters. Neben Werken wie Raffaels Sixtinischer Madonna wurde sie als eines der Meisterwerke deutscher Schule in Dresden ausgestellt. Zweifel an ihrer Echtheit kamen auf, als 1822 ein zweites, identisches Madonnenbild von Frankreich nach Preußen gelangte. Von da an stritten Kunstgelehrte, Künstler, aber auch die Öffentlichkeit darüber, welches der beiden Bilder denn nun der echte Holbein sei. Der Streit gipfelte in der Holbein-Ausstellung von 1871 in Dresden, bei der beide Bilder nebeneinander und gemeinsam mit anderen Werken des Künstlers gezeigt wurden. Mithilfe damals neuer stilkritischer Methoden urteilte eine neue Generation von Kunstgelehrten, dass die Dresdner Madonna eine Fälschung sein müsse. Der Holbeinstreit trug letztlich dazu bei, die Kunstgeschichte als methodengeleitete Wissenschaft zu etablieren.
6 Ignore an argument every now and then
7 Out-think your opponent
How does evil come into the world? This is the central question of theodicy, which arises as a result of the idea that we are made by a loving and almighty God. For wouldn’t an almighty God who loves everyone spare mankind from suffering? The philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz suggested in 1710 that the dilemma could be explained by the fact that the world is not perfect, but that it is the “best of all possible worlds”. But he was harshly criticised by Voltaire. In his novel Candide, or Optimism, Voltaire created a hero who internalised Leibniz’s thoughts and lived according to them, but consistently failed. This is exaggerated as a parody 200 years later in Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, in which good reasons are (satirically) assigned to every evil act, e.g. “war improves relations”.
8 Question meaning
Hermeneutics is based on the assumption that texts convey information that is sometimes unclear but can be understood if interpreted appropriately. Deconstruction — as conceived, for example, by Jacques Derrida — is radically opposed to this assumption; explaining words with words or signs with signs does not aid understanding, but simply creates a new statement which is just as understandable or incomprehensible as the previous one. It is not possible to trace the intention of a statement, but only to follow the ‘drift’ movement of the signs which jump from one sign to the next, without ultimately getting closer to the sense or meaning. What might seem like a game of literary theory was actually fundamental to the possibilities of ideological criticism in the second half of the 20th century.
9 Arguments alone are not enough
The dispute between Galileo and the Church is today considered an example of the struggle for (supposedly) rational knowledge against a (supposedly) unreasonable faith. But things are not that simple. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI was denied a visit to the Sapienza University of Rome because in 1990 — when he was still known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — he claimed in a lecture that the church was much closer to reason than Galileo at the time. The future Pope had quoted philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who argued in his theoretical work Against Method that the Copernican revolution was in no way initiated on the pure basis of reason, but also by “clever methods of persuasion”.
10 Use the power of metaphor
11 Respond with a poem
Shortly after its publication, Goethe’s epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) sparked controversy among contemporaries as to whether a poet was responsible for the actions of his characters. Accordingly, he was then obliged to comment on these actions from a moral perspective. The critics’ idea of the “Werther effect” was proven following a series of suicides. Among those critics was Friedrich Nicolai, who even published the satirical novel Die Freuden des jungen Werther (The Joys of Young Werther) in response to Goethe in particular as well as against the Sturm und Drang movement. Among other things, Goethe responded with a poem in which Nicolai relieves himself on Werther’s grave with the words: “Poor fellow, a life spent amiss! / If only he’d learned to shit like this, / He’d be alive today!”
12 Praise your opponent to the skies
13 Expose nonsense with even greater nonsense
Do not Argue Alone
14 Let others argue for you
“I wonder what a chimpanzee would say to this?” wrote Charles Darwin in a letter from 1857; he simply couldn’t stomach the opinion of the great anatomist Richard Owen, according to whom humans are clearly separated from apes from a developmental point of view. In Owen’s view, the anatomy of the human brain has some special features in comparison to apes. Following the publication of Darwin’s Origins, Owen was involved in wide-reaching public debates about his views — not by Darwin himself, but by the anatomist Thomas Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog”. A meeting between Owen and Huxley at the British Science Association in 1860 was the beginning of a dispute that lasted for years, in which the public took a lively interest. Huxley eventually decided the outcome of the gorilla wars for himself — or for Darwin, who kept himself informed with copies of the debate and with letters from members of his party.
15 Never interfere in the disputes of others
The Prussian Academy of Sciences was the setting for a scientific dispute in the 18th century which brought about a veritable court scandal. Frederick the Great had appointed French naturalist Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis as President of the Academy. When, in 1751, Samuel König — mathematician and academician — suggested in a document that Maupertuis had plagiarised an idea from a letter written by Leibniz, the president quickly pronounced the letter in question a forgery. König then left the academy. A few weeks later, news of the case reached Voltaire who was in Potsdam and didn’t much care for Maupertuis. In an anonymous polemic, he addressed the supposed plagiarist severely. Frederick the Great found himself compelled to reprimand the “talentless libelist” in a paper, which Voltaire didn’t react kindly to. He wrote the satirical diatribe Doctor Akakia and cunningly secured the royal printing permit. A furious Frederick had Voltaire’s text burned publicly by an executioner. After the relationship between the King and the philosopher worsened as a result of a series of other writings, Voltaire left for Leipzig in 1753 and never returned to court.
16 State theses which posterity can work on
Can machines think? Philosophers and computer scientists have been having heated debates on how to understand and answer this question since the mid-20th century. The question was first raised in the mid-19th century by British mathematician Ada Lovelace, who could be considered the first computer scientist. Lovelace had a clear view: computers cannot think since they only reproduce what someone has previously programmed and are not capable of independent creativity. Alan Turing disputed this argument in 1950 under the title of “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” and rejected it: just like humans, computers are capable of surprising other people with what they do. Even today, Lovelace’s viewpoint has a dedicated following. Thus, the American cognitive scientist Selmer Bingsjord characterised Turing’s arguments as “at best mysterious, at worst incompetent”.
17 Let history be the judge
Make your Argument a Talking Point
18 Every argument needs a good hook
In 1785, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi sparked an argument amongst philosophers which had it all. It dealt with the question of how to interpret Spinoza’s philosophy: as being so rationalistic and deterministic that it must end in atheism — as Jacobi claimed — or rather as a variety of pantheism that would be perfectly compatible with religious and moral values. The latter was the position of Moses Mendelssohn, Jacobi’s main opponent in the debate, in which Goethe, Kant, Herder, later the idealists and also Feuerbach were directly or indirectly involved. The hook of the whole thing was Jacobi’s paper entitled Über die Lehre des Spinoza (About the Doctrine of Spinoza) which was addressed in the form of a letter to Mendelssohn and in which he — rightly or wrongly — publicly “outed” the recently deceased Lessing, a close friend of Mendelssohn, as a convinced Spinozist.
19 Always take hold of the hot potato
20 Heating up an old debate
21 Sharpen your argument (or the way it’s presented)
22 Become political
23 Move away from parody and take action
n 1990, American philosopher Judith Butler published her famous book Gender Trouble. In it, she distinguished between sex and gender, i.e. biological and social gender. Following Michel Foucault, she also linked gender concepts back to power structures. In order to break existing power structures, she claimed, it is necessary to overstate them in the form of parody. For the latter, Butler was harshly criticised by Martha Nussbaum. In an article titled “The Professor of Parody”, Nussbaum wrote that Butler remained solely committed to academic theory and was not interested in real changes in the world. Butler’s approach, as Nussbaum summarised, “collaborates with evil. Feminism demands more and women deserve better.”
Take a Chance
24 Discredit your opponent without mentioning them
Shortly before the end of World War I, Thomas Mann published his Reflections of a Non-Political Man. Despite the title, it is a decidedly political text. Over more than 600 pages, Mann views his position in the present and regrets (more or less explicitly) the fall of the Empire. But these views find their culmination point in the connection between politics and family; the main addressee (and opponent) was his brother Heinrich, who had clearly positioned himself on the side of democracy. He was denigrated by Thomas for this — without being named a single time — as a “member of the civilised literati”, which betrays central values such as the bourgeoisie, culture, and nation. Thomas Mann expresses just how much he blamed his brother for the loss of ideals in the following passage: “His ‘rehabilitation of virtue’, his progression to moralising combative purposefulness means […] the end of all bohemia, of all irony and melancholy […].”
25 Death by association
26 Have a drink (or rather, don’t)
27 If you run out of arguments: use insults
Arthur Schopenhauer and G.W.F. Hegel only met once at a lecture given by Schopenhauer in Berlin in 1820 on the types of causality, where they briefly argued over the question of what is meant by the term “animal functions”. The fact that Hegel (and his students in particular) hardly took any notice of him was probably one of the main reasons why Schopenhauer, following Hegel’s death, constantly ranted about Hegel and his “Hegelei” that was regarded as the ultimate philosophy. In keeping with his Art of Being Right, he resorted to gross insults. On Hegel: “a flat-headed, mindless, nauseating, ignorant charlatan, who, with unprecedented audacity, scribbled together crazy nonsense”, “a spiritual Caliban”, “a thoroughly disgraceful patron”. On his philosophy: “windbaggery and charlatanry”, “nonsensical Hegelian spurious wisdom”, “the greatest impudence in serving up nonsense, in the scribbling of meaningless, furious phrases, which have only been seen until now in a madhouse”.
28 Grab a poker
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