In Arguing is pointless Peter Bregman, argues (note: argues) that arguing is pointless, on the grounds that arguing can be counterproductive or ineffective. Indeed it can. His recommended alternative is to just listen. But of course if everyone just listened, then nobody would be making any useful contribution to the resolution of important issues through rational dialogue. The sensible point in the vicinity of Bregman’s muddleheaded musings is that arguing, if it is to be productive, must be done tactfully. A point of view expressed more eloquently and profoundly by Benjamin Franklin over 200 years ago:
There was another Bookish Lad in the Town, John Collins by Name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of Argument, & very desirous of confuting one another. Which disputatious Turn, by the way, is apt to because a very bad Habit, making People often extremely disagreeable in Company, by the Contradiction that is necessary to bring it into Practice, & thence, besides souring & spoiling the Conversation, is productive of Disgusts and perhaps Enmities where you may have occasion for Friendship. I had caught it by reading my Father’s Books of Dispute about Religion. Persons of good Sense, I have since observ’d, seldom fall into it, except Lawyers, University Men, and Men of all Sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh. . . .
While I was intent on improving my Language, I met with an English Grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s), at the End of which there were two little Sketches of the Arts ofRhetoric and Logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic Method. And soon after I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many Instances of the same Method. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt Contradiction and positive Argumentation, and put on the humble Enquirer & Doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury & Collins, become a real Doubter in many Points of our Religious Doctrine, I found this Method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it. Therefore I took a Delight in it, practis’d it continually & grew very artful and expert in drawing People even of superior Knowledge into Concessions the Consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in Difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining Victories that neither my self nor my Cause always deserved.–
I continu’d this Method some few Years, but gradually left it, retaining only the Habit of expressing my self in Terms of modest Diffidence, never using when I advance anything that may possibly be disputed, the Words Certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the Air of Positiveness to an Opinion; but rather say, I conceive, or I apprehend a Thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or I should think it so or so for such & such Reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is so if I am not mistaken. –This Habit I believe has been of great Advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my Opinions & persuade Men into Measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting.-
And as the chief Ends of Conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning sensible men would not lessen their Power of doing Good by a Positive assuming Manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create Opposition, and to defeat every one of those Purposes for which Speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving Information or Pleasure: For If you would inform, a positive dogmatical Manner in advancing your Sentiments, may provoke Contradiction & prevent a candid Attention. If you wish Information and Improvement from the Knowledge of others and yet at the same time express your self as firmly fix’d in your present Opinions, modest sensible Men, who do not love Disputation, will probably leave you undisturb’d in the Possession of your Error; and by such a Manner you can seldom hope to recommend your self in pleasing your Hearers, or to persuade those whose Concurrence you desire.
From Part One of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1793; from The Library of America edition of Benjamin Franklin: Writings, 1987
[Hat tip to Garry Pearson for pointing me to the Bregman piece and giving me a great opportunity to post one of my favourite quotations on the art of deliberation.]
Too funny! Another case where the sheer absurdity of a claim dupes (lets hope just some) people into actually taking it seriously! Thanks Tim.
I agree Peter Bregman is muddleheaded in his thinking. He stated he had his moment of enligtenment that argument was pointless, as the traffic officer walked away.
He only recalled his flash of original enligtenment after he went on to ignore it, argue his case in writing, and pay 25% more than he otherwise would have had to.
In this case it is he the taxpayer who has indirectly supported the rules by supporting his elected representatives. Unless we are prepared to actively advocate for policy changes in the application of such rules, we just have to learn to “bite the bullet” as we Aussies would say.
The article does however highlight two distinct notions of argument and we need to be clear about the distinction between the two. The first is the notion of a verbal argument based on our initial emotional reaction to some external event. Perhaps this is the type of argument Peter feels is most pointless. The second is the notion of a written argument that attempts to weigh up all of the relevant facts, usually independently of our initial emotional reaction.
In Peter’s case, he lost on both counts and no doubt elevated his own stress levels and those of his family, particularly on the day of his travelling away for the weekend.
Certainly any argument we put up might end up seeming to be pointless if we do not “win” it. We just have to accept we cannot win all arguments, but we always win if our reasoning abilities are sharpened and we become more adept at sorting out issues through rational dialogue as Tim van Gelder points out.
This is not of course to discount people’s emotional reactions to external events as being often justified, but being upset as we well know, can often just make a bad situation worse, and ourselves even more unhappy.
Hmm, I doubt Bregman’s generalisation, “arguing with anyone, anywhere, any time” being a waste of time. Perhaps it’s a hyperbole, because taken on face value there are too many factual counter-examples where arguing does seem to work — for example, in court cases.
However, I get the impression that Bregman is talking about informal, interpersonal situations. Even there I’m not convinced, but I think the examples he gives (a traffic officer having written a ticket and a person cutting in line) are particular situations where the pre-conditions for argumentation weren’t met. That is, if one party simply doesn’t genuinely want to enter into argument, then trying to argue is indeed a waste of time.
Socrates used to take deliberate steps to “set up” the argument. For example, he would ask if his counterpart was agreeable to discuss a point and willing to give genuine opinions. Without such pre-conditions, I think even Socrates would feel that argument was a waste of time.
Hi RdR, isn’t your suggestion just amounting to saying that “arguing is pointless, except when its not pointless?” :)
:) far be it for me to argue against tautologies.
But no, I’m actually interested in those pre-conditions I mentioned.