Monthly Archives: May 2013

These extracted pearls of wisdom from American philosopher Daniel Dennett are mostly about how to engage fruitfully in argument:

His second point (respect your opponent) is allied to his sixth: don’t waste time on rubbish. Twisting an argument into a corner (Dennett doesn’t use the tired expression “straw man”) is too easy to be worthwhile. Instead, give a fair and charitable summary, “list any points of agreement, especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement”, and only then disagree. Such handling reflects how learned debate is supposed to work: whatever consensus there may be stands on the shoulders of past proofs and refutations (Lakatos). The Republic of Letters is a forum, an agora, a community, with no rightful place for a demagogue. As in literature, even the most original voice is in dialogue with tradition.

A splendid example of Dennett’s rhetorical talents may be seen in his rebuttal in a letter to the LRB of a somewhat uncivil attack by Jerry Fodor, though Dennett is here not quite as even-handed as his ideal dictates.