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

The Earth is not even one hundred million years old yet — too young to be compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution. At least that was the claim of physicist William Thomson, who was elevated to the peerage in 1892 as Lord Kelvin. Although Kelvin was deeply religious, he came to his alleged refutation of Darwin’s theory by using science. His calculations on the age of the Earth using the thermal gradients of the Earth’s interior were based on the preparatory work of the French mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier and were not entirely wrong. But they neglected the influence of radioactive elements on geothermal energy (as well as convective heat transfer in the Earth’s mantle). Although the standard version of the story goes that Kelvin could not have known anything about the radioactivity which was discovered later in his lifetime, he was sat in the front row of a lecture on radioactivity given by Ernest Rutherford in 1904 – but Rutherford later reported that he was asleep for most of it.

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«.

Argue Attractively

10 Use the power of metaphor

»God does not play dice« is what Einstein famously wrote as he rejected Niels Bohr’s (and Werner Heisenberg’s) Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. At the heart of the Bohr-Einstein debate was the question of the completeness of quantum theory; while the Copenhagen interpretation reduced the randomness of quantum mechanical events to a significant uncertainty that lies in the events themselves, Einstein assumed a general certainty and determinability of physical events: the coincidences of the events were just proof of the incompleteness of the interpretation. Karl Popper spoke about the two major interpretive approaches in quantum physics, about which physicists continue to argue over, as the »schism of physics«.

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

Isaac Newton was not only persistent when arguing. He was also able to pass scathing judgements using inspirational quotes. »If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,« he wrote in 1676 to his rival Robert Hooke. This rivalry had begun four years earlier when Newton presented his »New Theory about Light and Colours« to the Royal Society in London. In it, he argued that light consists of unchangeable particles that are similar to atoms. Many members of the Royal Society, including Hooke, did not agree with this theory. Hooke was rather convinced that light is not made of particles, but of waves. This difference in opinions made Newton and Hooke bitter rivals for their entire lives. Newton’s words »on the shoulders of Giants« – a metaphor which has been circulating since the Middle Ages – may also be understood as a hidden swipe against his rival, since Hooke was small in stature.

13 Expose nonsense with even great­er nonsense

The »three insults of humanity« (Freud), referring to Galileo, Darwin and Freud, are still causing cultural debates. For example, since the 1990s, the neo-creationist Intelligent Design movement (ID) in the US has argued that instead of teaching the theory of evolution – or at least alongside it – pupils should be taught the scientifically claimed doctrine of a divine creator in nature. In 2005, the Kansas State Department of Education ruled in favour of the ID movement, whereupon physicist Bobby Henderson picked up his pen and demanded in an open letter that the belief system on the creation of the world that he shared »along with many others«, i.e. the Flying Spaghetti Monster with »His Noodly Appendage«, should also be taught. The »religion« of Pastafarianism spread throughout the US and around the world. In many countries, their »church« seeks recognition as a religious community in a satirical-critical position against the entanglements of the state and religious communities in supposedly secular societies.

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

Rf, Db, Sg, Bh and Hs: these are the shorthand notations for transactinide elements 104 to 108. These are generated by nuclear reactions, such as bombarding plutonium with neon ions. Normally, newly discovered chemical elements receive systematic element names and are baptised by their discoverers. Elements 104 to 108, however, were discovered almost simultaneously by different researchers, which, starting in the 1960s, led to a decades-long dispute between American and Soviet research groups. In the USA, for example, element 104 was named Rutherfordium (Rf) in memory of Ernest Rutherford, while in the USSR it was called Kurchatovium in honour of Igor Kurchatov, the father of the Soviet atomic bomb. Both terms were considered unacceptable in the other country. The suggested name for element 106 was again excluded for some, because its discoverer Glenn Seaborg was still alive. Only after the end of the Soviet Union could the dispute over the naming be resolved at the meeting of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry in 1997, where the elements were given their final names: Rutherfordium (Rf), Dubnium (Db), Seaborgium (Sg), Bohrium (Bh) und Hassium (Hs).

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

Since its beginnings, Freudian psychoanalysis has been subjected to harsh criticism from the outside and from within. Generally known is C.G. Jung’s attack on the critical core of psychoanalytic theory and practice: sexuality, which ultimately led to a rift between Freud and Jung. Another serious dispute occurred between Freud’s daughter, Anna, and Melanie Klein on the issue of infantile psychological conflict. While Anna Freud took the position that infants do not yet have a psychic structure and so there are no conflicts to verbalise or analyse, Klein developed a child analysis which used play as the starting point for the analysis of the infantile unconscious. The theories of both women strongly influenced the development of psychoanalysis in the 20th century. The Anna Freudian ego psychology led to the emergence of a cognitive psychological strand of psychoanalysis. Klein, in turn, had a great influence on Jacques Lacan, who reformulated psychoanalysis on the basis of structuralist theories from the 1950s onwards.

20 Heating up an old debate

Even before the First World War, the sociologists and economists Max Weber, Gustav Schmoller and Werner Sombart argued over the relationship between science and politics: are scientific judgements and value judgements strictly separate or should science provide recommended actions? This argument came to light again during the positivism dispute of the 1960s. At that time, the representatives of the Frankfurt school, Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, argued with the critical rationalists, namely Karl Popper. The main question was whether the social sciences in principle have the same relation to their subject matter as the natural sciences, or whether there is a separate »logic of the social sciences« (also the title of the conference during which the dispute began in 1961). The argument was never settled and continues to flare up again and again even today, for example in the “new dispute over methods” in economics after the financial crisis.

21 Sharpen your argument (or the way it’s presented)

The ancient dispute between (Platonic) philosophy and sophists is about two different ways of thinking and acting. The philosopher is interested in the essence of things and thus tries to look beyond appearances and – as Plato describes it in his allegory of the cave – recognise the ideas which underlie the world. The sophist, on the other hand, is a pragmatic rhetorician. He doesn’t allow himself to be blinded by the sun in a world of ideas, but sees his sphere of influence within the ‘cave’ of reality. His goal is to convince fellow human beings; the content is secondary. This attitude is exemplified in an anecdote from the Greek philosopher Carneades’ visit to Rome (although Carneades is not directly linked to the Sophists). On the first day, Carneades gave a speech for justice, and, on the second day, against justice. The public were fully convinced of his argument both times. The fact that strategies of rhetorical immunisation are still called ›sophistry‹ today goes back to such approaches.

22 Become political

At a press conference in the summer of 1975, Dietrich Sattler announced a new edition of Friedrich Hölderlin’s works. What sounds like a note in the margin of German studies was in fact a slap in the face for science. The Stuttgart Hölderlin edition had recently been completed, which claimed to make Hölderlin’s texts accessible to the readership in the best possible version. It is often difficult to compile such a ›best possible‹ version of Hölderlin’s poems since the texts are available in numerous (sometimes contradictory) forms. Whereas the Stuttgart edition was made up of the most complete texts, the new so-called Frankfurt Hölderlin edition radically called this approach into question and instead presented all fragments of text equally side by side. It renounced any authoritative intervention by the publishers; nobody could decide which version of a poem is the better one. What seems to be a piece of trivia in edition philology actually had broader implications (shortly after 1968), as it stood exemplary for an argument between (authoritarian) order and (democratic) chaos.

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

The so-called »war of currents« between Thomas Alva Edison and George Westinghouse began with the question of whether the power supply in the United States should be supplied by direct or alternating current (DC or AC) at the turn of the 20th century. It was less about technical scientific aspects and more about hard market interest. Westinghouse had acquired the patent rights for the AC system from Nikola Tesla in 1885 and thus became direct competition to Edison, who earned good money by licensing his DC power system. Edison took advantage of the fact that a series of high-voltage accidents had sparked a public discussion regarding the safety of alternating current; when he was asked to develop a new method of execution with the electric chair, he used his competitor’s AC technology and referred to the process as »being westinghoused«. But Edison’s strategy didn’t work out in the long run. Despite his attempts to discredit the technology as a deadly danger, the alternating current eventually prevailed.

26 Have a drink (or rather, don’t)

The escalation of the dispute between Tycho Brahe and Manderup Parsberg is just one of many extraordinary stories that shaped the eccentric life of the Danish nobleman. In the 15th century, Brahe was an outstanding astronomer whose findings laid the foundation for the development of modern astronomy and astrophysics. In his time, there was no telescope. His observations of fixed star and planetary positions were carried out with the help of mural quadrant. The precision and scope of his observations are nothing short of amazing. The legendary quarrel that marked his life forever took place while drinking. Brahe was just 20 years old when he had a violent altercation with his cousin and fellow student Parsberg at a wedding reception. They disagreed on a mathematical formula; a disagreement which escalated into a sword fight. Brahe lost part of his nose. For the rest of his life, he wore a prosthetic nose which he made himself. It was said to be made of gold and silver and was kept in place with an ointment.

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

The first encounter between the two philosophers Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who both grew up in Vienna, was to be the last. In October 1946, Popper gave a lecture at Cambridge on the question of whether there are philosophical problems. While Popper affirmed this question, Wittgenstein argued that the alleged problems were merely linguistic puzzles. As the dispute became more heated, Wittgenstein, who was actually leading the seminar, started to wave a poker around. Popper cleverly knew how to make the incident work in his favour, and later reported that he had answered the question of a generally valid moral rule with the example of »one should not threaten a guest with a poker« – then Wittgenstein stormed out the door.

Lukas Haffert, Oliver Rymek, Erik Schilling, Ricarda Winkelmann


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