Just searching for items to include in my forthcoming book on “Rhetorical Intelligence” and found this off in a dusty corner of my hard drive. For my friends @Ethos Debate:
On the Art of Argumentation © 2010-17 Dr. Jim Tallmon
Suppose a person will say, “I know how to apply drugs which will have either a heating or cooling effect, and I can give a vomit and also a purge, and all that sort of thing; and knowing all this, as I do, I claim to be a physician . . .” what do you suppose people would say of him? from Plato’s Phaedrus
What passes for debate “theory,” is not theory at all, but stratagems. There is a sort of wisdom there, to be sure, and it is useful and interesting, but it imparts no art. It equips one to engage in the form of debate, but supplies little of the substance of debate. That is why, when one focuses, in the round, solely on debate “theory” so called, focusing doggedly on the flow, very little in the way of substantive argumentation takes place. It resembles more fast paced posturing, evasion, thrusts and parries and ripostes; the “style” of argument without the substance. This activity interests only the insider; it imparts a wisdom that profits but little, satisfies even less. It is soulless.
How has it come to this? In a word: Relativism. If truth is subjective, then it is pointless to model debate after the search for truth (which is the presumptive ideal of the game, no?) because the pursuit of truth is reduced to vanity. So, what is left? Mastering the stratagems of debate. But, as Plato has Socrates observe, this is no more an art of argumentation than knowing how to “induce a vomit,” or conduct a purge, makes one a physician (the imagery is apropos). Knowing, even mastering, techniques related to an art does not constitute an art, but only the “preliminaries to the art.” The practitioner must possess knowledge adequate to inform his judgment regarding upon whom, and under what circumstances, and how much of a given remedy is appropriate. Anything less is quackery! And please note, the remedies themselves provide the substance of healing arts. Truth is the remedy, and if one has not the time to ponder truth claims in a round of debate, because covering the flow dominates, leaving no time to check fallacies, or develop substantive arguments regarding specious presuppositions, or because one suspects the judge may consider the pursuit of truth irrelevant in the round, debate is reduced to form without substance. Debate has the potential to form great habits of mind, and cultivate understanding. At its worst, it perverts these. Let’s not play the game that way at Ethos Debate!
Ethos Debate is a place where debate is practiced the way it ought to be and where students schooled in “Upside Down Debate” excel in an art of argumentation. How ought debate to be practiced? Ideally, it should emphasize substantive argumentation over strategy and debate rules; quick wit informed by truth that matters, over “strategery.” Notice I said “emphasize.” It is not an either/or. A combination of the two is important, but I fear the proper ratios are, in much of American debate, largely reversed. That is, at least, my perception, based on my biases, developed as they were, long before debate devolved into what it is today. The seeds of modern debate were there back in the dark ages, to be sure, but today the bean stalk has grown to new “heights” and, up there beyond the clouds, I fear you will encounter nasty giants. I love you in Christ and pray for your victory. But, more importantly, I pray that your soul is improved and enlarged by participating in this sport, not warped in the process.