August 2013
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Day 07/08/2013

Daniel H. Cohen On Why We Need To Rethink…* The Metaphors We Use To Think About Cognitive Arguments

In a recent TED talk, philosopher Daniel H. Cohen, challenges us to rethink…* the metaphors that we use to think about arguments so that we may shift our focus away from winning to deeper learning and understanding when we engage in argumentation. Cohen begins his talk by highlighting the three existing models for arguments that we hold:

1. Argument as War: There’s a lot of screaming and shouting and winning and losing. That’s not a very helpful model for thinking about argument, but it’s a pretty entrenched and common model for argument.


2. Argument as Proof: Think of a mathematician’s argument: Here’s my argument–does it work? Is it any good? Are the premises warranted? Are the inferences valid? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? No opposition, not necessarily any arguing in the adversarial sense. 


3. Argument as Performance: Arguments in front of an audience. We can think of a politician trying to present a position, trying to convince the audience of something. But there’s another twist on this model that I really think is important, namely, that when we argue before an audience, sometimes the audience has a more participatory role in the argument. That is, arguments are also in front of juries who make a judgement, decide the case, let’s call this the rhetorical model.


By far the most dominant and pervasive of the three models is the metaphor of argument-as-war.


It dominates how we talk about arguments, how we think about arguments, and because of that it shapes how we argue–our actual conduct in arguments. Now, when we talk about arguments, we talk in very militaristic language: we want strong arguments, arguments that have a lot of punch, arguments that are right on target; we want to have our defenses up and our strategies all in order; we want killer arguments. That’s the kind of argument we want. It is the dominant way of thinking about arguments. 


The issue with this model for argumentation, as Cohen points out, is that it has deforming effects on how we argue.


1. First, it elevates tactics over substance–you take a class in logical argumentation, you learn all about the subterfuges that people use to try and win arguments, the false steps. 


2. It magnifies the US vs. THEM aspect, it makes it adversarial, it’s polarizing.


3. And the only foreseeable outcomes is glorious victory of ignominious defeat.


I think those are deforming effects, and worse of all, it seems to prevent things like negotiation, or deliberation, or compromise or collaboration. Think about that, have you ever entered an argument thinking, let’s see if we can hash something out rather than fight it out? What can we work out together? I think the argument-as-war metaphor inhibits those other kinds of resolutions to argumentation. 


Perhaps, the most negative impact of the argument-as-war metaphor with its either-or framework–either I win or I lose–is that we begin to equate learning with losing.


If argument is war, then there is an implicit equation of learning with losing. Let me explain what I mean: suppose you and I have an argument. You believe a proposition–P–and I don’t. I say why do you believe P? And you give me your reasons. And I object and say, “well, what about…” and you answer my objection. And I have a question, well what do you mean? How does it apply over here? And you answer my question. Now, suppose at the end of the day, I’ve objected, I’ve questioned, I’ve raised all sorts of counter considerations and, in every case, you’ve responded to my satisfaction. And so, at the end of the day, I say, “you know what? I guess you’re right.” So I have a new belief, and it’s not just any belief, but it’s a well articulated, examined, battle tested belief. Great cognitive gain. Ok, who won that argument? Well, the war metaphor seems to force us into saying you’ve won, even though I’m the only one who made any cognitive gain. What did you gain cognitively from convincing me? [,..] The war metaphor forces us into thinking that you’re the winner and I lost, even though I gained.


What we need then, is to think of new ways to frame arguments that would yield more positive outcomes.


What we need is new exit strategies for arguments but we’re not going to have new exit strategies for arguments until we have new entry approaches to arguments. We need to think of new kinds of arguments.


Put in different terms, what Daniel Cohen is urging us to do is to shift from a fixed mindset understanding of arguments to a growth mindset appraisal of argumentation. This idea of mindsets comes from Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck’s research, which I was just writing about last week. Dweck’s big idea is that there are two basic mindsets: the fixed mindset, which sees ability as limited and static–you’re either good at something or you’re not–and the growth mindset which views ability as dynamic and changing over time with effort. Which mindset we hold in any given situation has a wide range of implications on the beliefs we carry and the ways in which we behave. For example, if you believe that ability is fixed and does not change over time, your primary focus is going to be proving your ability, proving that you do have it or, at the very least, hiding that you don’t. The fixed mindset leads to a primary framework of judgement–how good am I at something and am I better than others? Meanwhile, if you think that ability can change over time with effort, you’re going to have a framework that is oriented towards growth and you will develop a  deep desire and excitement for learning. The argument-as-war model puts us in a fixed mindset: this is an either-or model in which you are either a winner–you have talent and ability when it comes to arguing– or you don’t and you’re a loser. If we framed argumentation as fertile ground for growth and learning however, we would be able to place ourselves in a growth mindset from the get go and in doing so, redress many of the distorting effects of the argument-as-war metaphor. Our focus would not be on winning but rather on deepening our thinking and understanding, on discovering new perspectives, on pushing ourselves to keep iterating and refining our beliefs and assumptions.


If we want to think of new kinds of arguments, what we need to do is think of new kinds of arguers. So try this, think of all the roles that people play in arguments–there’s the proponent and the opponent in an adversarial dialectical argument, there’s the audience in rhetorical arguments, there’s the reasoner in arguments as proofs, all these different roles. Now, can you imagine an argument in which you’re the arguer but you’re also in the audience, watching yourself argue. Can you imagine yourself watching yourself argue, losing the argument and yet, still at the end of the argument, say ” wow, that was a good argument.” Can you do that? […] I think if you can imagine that kind of argument, where the loser says to the winner, “Yeah, that was a good argument”, then you have imagined a good argument. And more than that, I think you’ve imagined a good arguer. An arguer that’s worthy of the kind of arguer you should try to be. 


Oh, and one more thing:


It takes practice [effort over time–hello, growth mindset] to become a good arguer, in the sense of being able to benefit from losing. 

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