Author Topic: "Rules for Conducting a Discussion" by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler  (Read 3989 times)

Recusant

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"Rules for Conducting a Discussion" by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« on: August 20, 2010, 06:38:20 PM »
These rules, or guidelines, are posted as a sticky at a history forum to which I belong.  As you might imagine, discussion of history can elicit some strong emotions, and though this essay does not stand as official rules for the forum, it does serve as a reminder to members that a good discussion is not about winning or losing. Enjoy!

Quote
From Chapter 22 of How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler

Discussion is the method by which adults learn from one another. And as so conceived, it differs quite strikingly from that sort of learning in which an older person teaches a younger person.

Real discussion consists of two or more persons talking to one another, each asking questions, each answering, making remarks and counter-remarks. Such conversation is at its best when the parties to it tend to regard each other as equal. That is the heart of the difference between learning by discussion and learning by instruction. In adult learning by discussion, each party to the discussion is both a teacher and a learner. Just as in the political republic, each citizen is ruler and ruled in turn, so in the adult republic of learning, each adult is both teacher and taught.

With this background, let us consider the nature of adult conversation. And let's consider the rules which should govern it if such conversation is to develop into good, profitable discussion, profitable as a means of learning.

There are three things that are required of conversation for it to become discussion in this good sense.

First of all, the subject matter being discussed must be the sort of subject matter which permits genuine discussion to take place. Not everything is discussable, and not all the things which are discussable are equally discussable. For example, facts are not discussable. If there is a question of fact, the best thing to do is to go to a reference book and look it up. You can't settle a question of fact by discussion. Ideas are discussable, and the more fundamental the ideas, the more controversial they are, the more discussable they are.

The second condition or prerequisite for good discussion is that right motive must prevail. The purpose we have in carrying on our conversation must be to learn, and if persons get engaged in serious discussion of serious themes, then their aim must be to get at the truth, not to win the argument.

The third and perhaps the most important requirement of good discussion is that we should talk to the other person, not just at them. This means that listening is important, an essential part of discussion. In fact, listening is more important, even as it is more difficult, than talking. Because if one person doesn't listen to another, what that person says in the course of the conversation is not going to be very relevant.

I just finished telling you the three basic requirements that conversation must meet if it is going to become discussion, that is profitable for learning. I would like to give you some of the rules that we have to observe to make discussion profitable in this way. These rules fall into two large groups: first, a set of rules governing the use of your mind in discussion; second, a set of rules governing the control of your emotions in discussion.

The five "intellectual" rules:

    * Be relevant, which means "find out what the issue is and stick to it." Divide the issue into its parts; every complex issue has parts, and move along from one part to another.
    * Don't take things for granted. State your assumptions and see if you can get the other participants to state theirs. Make an effort to find out what the other person's assumptions are.
    * Try to avoid arguing fallaciously. Don't cite authority as if they were conclusions. Don't argue ad hominem -- that means, don't argue against the person as opposed to against the point. Don't say to the other person, "Oh, that's the kind of thing Republicans say or Democrats say or Socialists say," as if calling it by that kind of name necessarily proves it wrong. That is a terrible fallacy of guilt by association.
    * Don't agree or disagree with the other person until you understand what that person has said. This rule requires you in the course of discussion to say to the other person, "Now let me see if I can say in my own words what you have just said." And then having done that, you turn to them and say, "Is that what you mean?" And if they say, "Yes, it is; that's exactly what I mean," then you are for the first time privileged to say, "I agree with you," or "I disagree with you," and not one moment sooner.
    * If, after understanding the other person, you do disagree, state your disagreement specifically and give reasons why. You can tell the other person what is wrong with their argument in four very sharp, specific ways. You can say: 1) "You are uninformed of certain relevant facts and I will show you what they are." 2) "You are misinformed. Some of the things you think are relevant facts aren't facts at all, and I will show you why they are not." 3) "You are mistaken in your reasoning and I will show you the mistakes that you have made." 4) "You don't carry your reasoning far enough. There is more to say than you have said and I will tell you what it is." These are all very polite and much to the point.

The three "emotional" rules:

    * Keep your emotions in place. That means, keep them out of the argument, for they have no place in the argument.
    * Catch yourself or the other person getting angry. Starting to shout, overemphasizing the point by repeating it again and again, using sarcasm, teasing, getting a laugh on the other person, all these are signs that someone's temper is getting out of hand.
    * If you can't control your emotions, at least beware of the results of emotional disorder. Realize that your emotions can lead you either to say things you don't mean, or stubbornly refuse to admit things you really do see.

The hardest thing of all to do in discussion is to know how to ask good questions, the kind of questions that by their very nature generate good discussion. This is the hardest thing because asking good questions is much, much harder than answering them.

We ought to be able to distinguish between questions of fact on the one hand, and questions of interpretation on the other. Such questions as whether something is the case or exists, and on the other hand, what it means, what it implies, what consequences it leads to.

And then we should be able to distinguish between questions of fact and questions of value. Here we ought to know if we are asking about whether something happened, or whether it was good; how someone behaves, or how they should behave; questions of what is the case, as opposed to questions about what should be or what ought to be.

It's very important to distinguish between asking someone what they think, and asking them why they think so. Asking for a statement of belief or opinion is different from asking for the reasons to support that belief or opinion. And above all, we should be able to ask hypothetical ("what if?") questions and recognize them.

I wish that I did a better job of following these guidelines myself.  I try, and occasionally I re-read this essay to remind myself of the ideal that I can aim for.
« Last Edit: May 25, 2016, 06:39:51 AM by Recusant »
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


skwurll

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #1 on: August 20, 2010, 07:48:55 PM »
Great rules, if only more people followed them.  ;)

Thumpalumpacus

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #2 on: August 20, 2010, 07:54:30 PM »
Now I have a guilty conscience.
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Reginus

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #3 on: August 20, 2010, 08:11:37 PM »
Idk, his points seem pretty obvious and common-sensical to me.

Quote from: "Adler"
Discussion is the method by which adults learn from one another.
He forgot to mention teenagers and children here.
"The greatest argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter." - Winston Churchill

humblesmurph

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #4 on: August 20, 2010, 08:33:17 PM »
We talked about Adler in college.  My prof claimed he was a bigot.  Bigot or no, these seem like reasonable straight forward rules.  I'm glad you posted them. I would have never come across them otherwise.  This will help me improve my arguing style to extract more knowledge from discussions (and maybe piss less people off as well).  Thank you Recusant

Sophus

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #5 on: August 20, 2010, 09:47:26 PM »
I have a problem with the first sentence. Why adults?
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Martin TK

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #6 on: August 20, 2010, 11:45:27 PM »
Well said, and worthy of reading.  I will attempt to follow some of the advice, though I think passion is important in a debate, particularly one on religion.  Just my humble opinion.
"Ever since the 19th Century, Theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are NOT reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world"   Richard Dawkins - The God Delusion

Sophus

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #7 on: August 21, 2010, 12:38:46 AM »
Quote from: "Martin TK"
Well said, and worthy of reading.  I will attempt to follow some of the advice, though I think passion is important in a debate, particularly one on religion.  Just my humble opinion.
Personally, I don't think there's any right or wrong way to go about a discussion, although there are certainly productive and unproductive ways. Incivility is sometimes completely appropriate. As PZ Myers suggested to call the absolute 'end of times' loons "demented fuckwits" some thought that was too much. His response was:

Quote
Look, people, I've met a few of them. You have to realize that you are proposing a rational discussion with a guy who believes that the all-powerful god of the cosmos is waiting for him to butcher the exactly right cow, and then this deity will come to earth and engage in a holy war against the people who eat bacon and clams. That is, he is a demented fuckwit.

I can tell you exactly what will happen if you engage him. He will quote Bible verses at you with absolute certainty. He will recite well-practiced dogma over and over again. He won't falter, he won't doubt, he won't think. And your audience will be impressed at his unwavering command of the "facts," and that you, O Wise and Rational Science Guy, think his story is worth arguing about, as equals.

Being uncivil at times is the only thing you can do. When some says democracy is flawed and we should have a Catholic dictatorship are you suppose to sit there and reason with him? You're wasting your time. Instead, show him how much contempt you have for such an archaic, dangerous and vile idea. It's not likely to change him but at least you'll have honestly conveyed your disgust, so others may be cautious to relate or associate with the "demented fuckwit".

There is an excellent article on this subject if civility in discourse (IMHO).
‎"Christian doesn't necessarily just mean good. It just means better." - John Oliver

Martin TK

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #8 on: August 21, 2010, 02:40:44 AM »
Quote from: "Sophus"
Quote from: "Martin TK"
Well said, and worthy of reading.  I will attempt to follow some of the advice, though I think passion is important in a debate, particularly one on religion.  Just my humble opinion.
Personally, I don't think there's any right or wrong way to go about a discussion, although there are certainly productive and unproductive ways. Incivility is sometimes completely appropriate. As PZ Myers suggested to call the absolute 'end of times' loons "demented fuckwits" some thought that was too much. His response was:

Quote
Look, people, I've met a few of them. You have to realize that you are proposing a rational discussion with a guy who believes that the all-powerful god of the cosmos is waiting for him to butcher the exactly right cow, and then this deity will come to earth and engage in a holy war against the people who eat bacon and clams. That is, he is a demented fuckwit.

I can tell you exactly what will happen if you engage him. He will quote Bible verses at you with absolute certainty. He will recite well-practiced dogma over and over again. He won't falter, he won't doubt, he won't think. And your audience will be impressed at his unwavering command of the "facts," and that you, O Wise and Rational Science Guy, think his story is worth arguing about, as equals.

Being uncivil at times is the only thing you can do. When some says democracy is flawed and we should have a Catholic dictatorship are you suppose to sit there and reason with him? You're wasting your time. Instead, show him how much contempt you have for such an archaic, dangerous and vile idea. It's not likely to change him but at least you'll have honestly conveyed your disgust, so others may be cautious to relate or associate with the "demented fuckwit".

There is an excellent article on this subject if civility in discourse (IMHO).

I agree with you completely.  I only wish there was a way we could express ourselves using voice inflection and body language, which is often lost in the typing of posts.  For me, a LOT of my debate ability comes from my ability to speak, not type or write.  As one of my grad assistants once said to me, "Martin, you could tell someone they were stupid and ugly, and they would thank you for it."  Not that I would EVER do that, but the point was my ability to deal with people, face to face.

I DO take some things on here personally, but I try not to, and sometimes it may appear that I am offended, when in fact, I am just going with the flow of the discussion, not really upset.  I'll say things that might be taken wrong, simply to force the conversation in a direction, or to get a true measure of the person with whom I am debating.  I think anyone who gets terribly upset on a forum, is really taking it too seriously, and maybe needs to step back and take a day or two off.  Just my humble opinion, of course, NOT my clinical opinion..  lol
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Thumpalumpacus

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #9 on: August 21, 2010, 08:00:09 AM »
Quote from: "Sophus"
Being uncivil at times is the only thing you can do. When some says democracy is flawed and we should have a Catholic dictatorship are you suppose to sit there and reason with him? You're wasting your time. Instead, show him how much contempt you have for such an archaic, dangerous and vile idea. It's not likely to change him but at least you'll have honestly conveyed your disgust, so others may be cautious to relate or associate with the "demented fuckwit".  

[Emphasis added]

There is another alternative: rather than resort to personal insults, understand that the debate is not about changing the fuckwit's mind, turn to the audience (be it IRL or online), point out his fallacies, and retain your own dignity.  While I agree that there are fuckwits in this world, and while in a 1-on-1 scenario my suggestion is irrelevant, to resort to ad homineim is a tacit admission of defeat on the part of the insulter.
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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #10 on: August 21, 2010, 02:07:04 PM »
Quote from: "Thumpalumpacus"
Quote from: "Sophus"
Being uncivil at times is the only thing you can do. When some says democracy is flawed and we should have a Catholic dictatorship are you suppose to sit there and reason with him? You're wasting your time. Instead, show him how much contempt you have for such an archaic, dangerous and vile idea. It's not likely to change him but at least you'll have honestly conveyed your disgust, so others may be cautious to relate or associate with the "demented fuckwit".  

[Emphasis added]

There is another alternative: rather than resort to personal insults, understand that the debate is not about changing the fuckwit's mind, turn to the audience (be it IRL or online), point out his fallacies, and retain your own dignity.  While I agree that there are fuckwits in this world, and while in a 1-on-1 scenario my suggestion is irrelevant, to resort to ad homineim is a tacit admission of defeat on the part of the insulter.
When you must, this would be a better tactic. With that said, the faulty assumption is that you even have to talk to or about such people in the first place. If someone is so moved to call another human being that terrible name, deserved or not, it shows that there is a very high level of emotion involved, in which case, it appears the person is simply gratifying their own anger more than anything else. It's far better to simply shrug your shoulders and walk away. When people stand on absolutely blind faith, you aren't going to change their mind. You have zero chance, and all you do in the process is legitimize their position with others. On the other hand, when you resort to self-gratifying insults, you only succeed in making yourself look small and unable to cope with their "arguments."

If you must respond, the best tactic is to simply say, "Look - your position is fundamentally built on blind faith/personal belief system/whatever. There is no way to discuss it rationally because you will allow no facts any contrary implications. You interpret everything to support your view. In the same way a that a word that can mean anything really means nothing, an argument against which there can be no contrary evidence isn't really an argument. It's just something you choose to believe. Now, I know that even this won't change your mind, but I hope it does explain why I think that anyone who tries to have this conversation with you is just wasting their time."

Here, you aren't lowering your own standards with a silly attack. You aren't giving into mere emotionalism as children do. You aren't giving their position any credibility. You are denying it credibility to any potential audience as you disengage. But calling people names -- that's never appropriate.

For the record, this is precisely the position I take with conspiracy theorists of pretty much any kind, be they political (9/11 Truthers, Birthers), religious (Jesus never existed, X is the Antichrist!), or even domestic (I think we can all think of examples of when people have concocted conspiracies to explain the actions of people we know, possibly even ourselves). In my own experience, it's proven to be the best possible approach.

edit: Very good OP, btw. Well worth reading. Again. And then probably again. :)
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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #11 on: August 21, 2010, 03:07:15 PM »
Hmm... that there, it's good. I try to follow a much similart set of rules with varying degree of success.
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Sophus

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #12 on: August 21, 2010, 05:37:44 PM »
Quote from: "Thumpalumpacus"
Quote from: "Sophus"
Being uncivil at times is the only thing you can do. When some says democracy is flawed and we should have a Catholic dictatorship are you suppose to sit there and reason with him? You're wasting your time. Instead, show him how much contempt you have for such an archaic, dangerous and vile idea. It's not likely to change him but at least you'll have honestly conveyed your disgust, so others may be cautious to relate or associate with the "demented fuckwit".  

[Emphasis added]

There is another alternative: rather than resort to personal insults, understand that the debate is not about changing the fuckwit's mind, turn to the audience (be it IRL or online), point out his fallacies, and retain your own dignity.  While I agree that there are fuckwits in this world, and while in a 1-on-1 scenario my suggestion is irrelevant, to resort to ad homineim is a tacit admission of defeat on the part of the insulter.
Agreed. Good strategy for interwebs' forums. Maybe just a time-waster for casual real life encounters.
‎"Christian doesn't necessarily just mean good. It just means better." - John Oliver

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #13 on: August 22, 2010, 10:27:08 AM »
Excellent post and thread. Added to my introduction boiler plate.

Useful links for new members
Mission Statement Why this place is here.
Forum Rules More of a set of guidelines really, upset Whitney (She who must be obeyed) and you'll find the exit door very quickly!
How to discuss efficiently and effectively Before entering  into a serious discussion I implore you to read the first post of this thread.
How do I use the quote feature? If you are new to forums this is an important feature to understand. The maximum number of nested quotes is 3.
Help desk. Any problems this is where to ask them.
What's on your mind today? The general chit chat thread.
Somewhere to discuss the fear of dying. Many ex-theists have to come to terms with death, this is a place to discuss this issue.
How to tell your family you are an atheist. Some suggestions about how to deal with this thorny issue.
Parenting Beyond Belief. The forum for discussing how to raise your children 'Faith Free'.
Just a little advice for new Atheists Some thoughts for those new to reality.
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Recusant

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Re: Rules for Conducting a Discussion by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
« Reply #14 on: September 03, 2010, 03:07:56 PM »
Quote from: humblesmurph
We talked about Adler in college.  My prof claimed he was a bigot.  Bigot or no, these seem like reasonable straight forward rules.  I'm glad you posted them. I would have never come across them otherwise.  This will help me improve my arguing style to extract more knowledge from discussions (and maybe piss less people off as well).  Thank you Recusant


You're most welcome!  I'm wondering on what grounds your professor accused Adler of bigotry?  In this article on the Democratic Paideia Project, the authors begin with a quote from Cornel West (certainly not somebody one thinks of as a bigot  ;)), and seem to find no conflict between his views and those of Adler. From the article:

Quote
Writing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and moved by the hard fought victories claimed by the feminist and civil rights movements, he [Adler] declared "we are on the verge of a new era in our national life."  As the result of these victories, he believed, "democracy has come into its own for the first time in this century. Not until this century have we conferred the high office of enfranchised citizenship on all our people, regardless of  sex, race, or ethnic origin."

This does not sound like the writing of a bigot.  I think that your professor was full of himself, and paradoxically, at the same time full of a particular agricultural by-product.
« Last Edit: August 04, 2013, 07:41:35 PM by Recusant »
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken