Lovers of liberal learning may have been disheartened by recent reports from researchers who have looked at the consequences of college students testing out their opinions by arguing them against opposing views. Surely, this is what we had thought we wanted: Give reasons! Tell us why you think that! Let me offer you my reasons, and we’ll sort this out!
But no, apparently not. The evidence seems to be that people’s positions actually harden under such circumstances. That is, all parties became even more firmly convinced of their initial views, and more firmly convinced that their opponents were just wrong. Apparently confirmation bias feeds on contradiction. Sigh.
But Plato knew about this problem. Some readers will know by now that I am very fond of a certain passage in Book VII of The Republic. Socrates is talking about the education of those who would be worthy to rule. In a democratic society, all of us get a voice in that. Not that Plato favored any such thing, but let that pass for the moment. His point is that those who rule should know how to think critically, to understand definitions, to compare concepts, to seek reasons and to critique and defend different views in conversation. His interlocutor objects that there is danger in this “dear delight” (Benjamin Jowett’s translation). It is likely that people trained in these skills will be “always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refute them; like puppy dogs, they rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them.”
I think this image is captivating: Those who possess only the techniques of argumentation are like puppies, tugging and ripping at things for sport. Anyone who has ever waited on a Labrador Retriever to outgrow puppyhood can relate to this. I once had a Lab who ate the lawn furniture, the cannas and a small tree. This illustrates Plato’s timeless genius.
So there’s risk. That’s what the study referenced above detected. Plato thought overcoming this problem was a matter of age and training. But some old dogs never overgrow young stunts. The real question is this: What differentiates mere pulling and tearing from the dialogical pursuit of truth?
The answer is, of course, the aim of the interlocutors. What game is being played? If the game is defined as competition and the aim is “my side wins,” then of course we stiffen and become more fixed in our views when confronted with opposition. I learned this playing football. When they hit, hit back. And keep hitting back no matter where the ball is on the field. Who doesn’t love a goal line stand? Or a touchdown on fourth-and-goal?
However much we might love it, though, this isn’t the pursuit of truth. It’s a contest of will and power. If there are things to love beyond that, then the game must be structured differently. The structure of the game flows from the character of the interest we bring to it. Plato thought you could overcome the competitive emphasis on winning the argument by bringing people to love the truth.
Dress it up how you like, something like that must be the case. Even the very thing we are most apt to value — critical thinking — turns out to be risky without worthy dispositions among those who wield it. Did we want a puzzle of consuming importance and compelling interest? How’s this? What dispositions, what stake in the game, transform the mere contest of argument into the dispassionate pursuit of better opinions for all? I keep thinking that our Founders knew what they were doing when they put up three stars and threw in Morality and Friendship along with Philosophy.