Is philosophical discussion pointless?

James Connelly

Discussion is often thought of as the lifeblood of philosophy. But what is discussion for? What can it achieve? Is securing conviction (or refutation) the measure of success in philosophical discussion? In his Autobiography (1939) R.G. Collingwood made some rather startling comments about the pointlessness of philosophical seminars and discussion:

 I enjoyed … the friendship and society of a great many philosophers … I also enjoyed their philosophical conversation and liked to hear, and engage in, their discussions … I used to meet a dozen or so of my colleagues every week in order to discuss a topic or a view propounded by one of us, and more ceremoniously … the Oxford Philosophical Society met on Sunday evenings two or three times a term for the reading and discussion of a paper. Once a year the thing became a debauch, in the annual joint meeting … at which papers and discussions went on for days together … But these discussions serve no philosophical purpose. Viva voce philosophy is an excellent thing as between tutor and pupil; it may be valuable as between two intimate friends; it is tolerable as between a few friends who know each other very well; but in all these cases its only value is to make one party acquainted with the views of the other. Where it becomes argument, directed to refutation and conviction, it is useless, for … no one has ever been convinced by it. Where it becomes general discussion it is an outrage. One of the company reads a paper, and the rest discuss it with a fluency directly proportional to their ignorance. To shine on such occasions one should have a rather obtuse, insensitive mind and a ready tongue. Whatever may be true of parrots, philosophers who cannot talk probably think the more, and those who think a lot certainly talk the less.

(Autobiography, 53-4)

On this view, there is a philosophical purpose to discussion, but only as enabling one person to understand the views of another; pursuing the goal of convincing or refuting another is pointless. However, although I am sure we recognize that Collingwood’s account is an accurate depiction of some philosophical occasions, could it possibly be true of all?

Before proceeding, it is worth recording that Collingwood was not exaggerating his views for public effect. His private correspondence reveals a similar line of thought. Thus he wrote to Isaiah Berlin in 1938 that: ‘I altogether disapprove of these ‘philosophical discussions’, and have never attended one which did not confirm me in my disapproval and make me ashamed of having gone … I won’t further explain my position; I only ask you to believe that it is a position and not a mere churlishness.’ In the early 1920s he remarked to his close friend Guido de Ruggiero that ‘I also send a trifle which I contributed to one of those Congresses … I am not much pleased with it … the rules of the game called a ‘symposium’ (the name is a good deal cheerfuller than the thing) oblige the disputant to take up an exaggerated position and defend his thesis’; he also described the occasion to his father:

we had only one unpleasant moment, when two Cambridge philosophers of great eminence lost their tempers with each other and screamed and shook their fists in each others’ faces and seemed likely to resort to violence over the question of what if anything, was bent when a stick in water looked bent … My own contribution was quite a success … I succeeded in making A. E. Taylor, who wanted to pull me to pieces, say the exact opposite of what he had said on paper, so I was quite happy; and especially when several different people approached me afterwards and said I had done well …

So Collingwood could, on occasion, relish academic sparring: but what of his serious doubts about the value and purpose of philosophical discussion?

Should we reject Collingwood’s doubts about the value of philosophical discussion out of hand as reflecting his purely personal experience? I suggest not: but some distinctions need to be drawn first. In the passage quoted above he distinguishes three possible types of philosophical discussion, the first two characterized by their goals. He accepts the first and denies the second and third. They are:

  1. Discussion with the goal of making one person acquainted with the views of another
  2. Discussion with the goal of employing argument directed to
    1. refutation
    2. conviction
  3. Discussion as ‘general’ discussion

Collingwood’s hypothesis is that philosophical discussion is good only in so far as it enables one person to learn the views of another. Clarification and elucidation is presumably included, but attempts to convince or refute are not. The contrary view is that discussion per se, the critical play of philosophical dialectic, sharpens what each interlocutor says and thinks and that the attempt to refute, for example, acts as a service to the interlocutor.

Which view should we adopt?[1] It is certainly true, for some, that understanding another’s point of view is enough and that the point of discussion and questioning is to clarify, not, other things being equal, to dispute or refute. It is perhaps true for some that critical attempts at refutation, not on paper but viva voce, is where the action is. But, on the other hand, in a typical instance, how many have gone away from a discussion and remained convinced by a refutation that seemed persuasive a the time by contrast with those who go away and think more about their own thinking or the thinking of those to whom they have listened?

To take Collingwood’s possibilities: proposition 1 is certainly plausible. Whatever our view of a position’s merits, in discussion we can at least come to appreciate and more fully understand the view. Proposition 3, it seems to me, is acceptable. It is rare indeed for general discussion to be worth very much. Unless there is a specific question being pursued with tact, care and sympathy, then much of what passes for discussion is merely an airing of whatever a paper prompts a speaker to utter. Proposition 2 is trickier. As noted above, knock down refutation is exceedingly rare, as is knock down conviction. But doubt is not so rare, and doubt in both cases can be engendered by the attempt to explain, clarify and elucidate, i.e. in engaging in discussion as acquaintance. I might try to explain my worked out philosophical position to another or many others and they might ask me questions sympathetically designed to draw out my meaning further to ensure that they have a proper understanding of my thesis or views. But it might be the case that the more I explain the more apparent it becomes that there is a problem (or several problems) with my overall account and that this gradually becomes apparent both to myself and to my interlocutor(s). In this case 1) can lead, by stealth to 2). But it is by stealth, not by direct assault.

Collingwood might be right, that is, that direct assault either to convince or to refute rarely if ever works; but he might be wrong to assert that refutation and conviction are impossible outcomes of philosophical discussion. That is, it might be best if refutation and conviction are not pursued as the directly intended goals of discussion, and that discussion is best conceived of as elucidation. But, like happiness, although refutation and conviction cannot be aimed at directly, they might emerge as a consequence of such discussion. On this interpretation, Collingwood’s scepticism is to some extent vindicated, but conviction and refutation can nonetheless be outcomes even if not the intended goals of discussion.

A biographical coda

Did Collingwood practice what he preached? How did he appear to his colleagues? Isaiah Berlin wrote of him in 1932 that ‘Collingwood is very exciting and risky. He is a very sly lively continental sort of philosopher … I always found him entertaining, enormously ingenious, and frequently deceitful and unsound. He is the only philosophy tutor in Oxford who is also a man of genuine culture.’ It is worth noting Berlin’s use of the term ‘continental philosopher’: this is a very early use of a term which only came into general use decades later. Again, Collingwood’s colleague at Pembroke College, Oxford, the political scientist R.B. McCallum, remarked of Collingwood that:

He was sometimes said to be a sophist, and his auditors felt that they were being tricked rather than properly confuted. His manner in discussion was agreeable but also somewhat insidious. He was concessive; his code word was ‘certainly’. His interlocutor was led on to state certain propositions and then found them to be mutually inconsistent. In an argument with Collingwood one was nearly always defeated but very often not convinced … He rarely contradicted or engaged in emphatic dissent. He would not rudely dismiss a statement made to him, but would usually deal with it in the Socratic manner by asking questions often very embarrassing to the person who had raised the subject. This was not always agreeable to the rash and the self-opinionated.

[1] In what follows I exclude both considerations of basic competence and the making of straightforward and easily refutable blunders.


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