Having explained in Part I why we should allow for good disagreement to happen, I will now explain a bit about how we can disagree well. Again, there is much that can be said here, but for the sake of time, I will only focus on a few key points.
Before any good disagreement can happen, we must be sure that we fully understand our interlocutor’s position. Here I derive much from Mortimer J. Adler’s and Charles Van Doren’s brilliant book How to Read a Book. I understand that this work is principally concerned, as the title suggests, with the reading of books. But there are many principles found in this work that are relevant to spoken disagreement.
Adler and Van Doren point out that when engaging critically with an author (or interlocutor, in our case) we must identify the relevant terms, propositions, and arguments that our interlocutor is setting forth. Without understanding these key elements, we can be sure that we do not fully understand what our interlocutor is saying.
As for propositions, Adler and Van Doren define propositions as a brief statement, usually contained within a single sentence, that sets forth one’s position or idea. As the term proposition connotes, one is proposing something to be examined and accepted or rejected by his interlocutor(s). These are essentially the overarching theses of an exposition of ideas. The overarching proposition of this essay that I am writing, if you have not yet been able to pick it out, is this: We should seek for good disagreement to occur in the public forum.
Now, this is indeed a very broad proposition, but the important thing is that you be able to recognize a proposition when you see it. Some overarching propositions will be more subtle to discern than others. Extracting the relevant propositions from someone’s exposition will take some practice. In some cases, this will be very difficult to do, but for no fault of your own; it is simply that some people are very bad at articulating their own ideas, as they are not trained in the art of argument.
There is much more that I can say on propositions, but I think what I have said is sufficient. One last thing about propositions is that disagreeing with them on their own is not a very good idea, for a proposition does not fully entail one’s argument. Even though many propositions may seem inflammatory, which may provoke a knee-jerk reaction on our part to disagree, we yet have no good reason for disagreeing, for the full argument has not yet been made. Individual propositions will most of the time require a supporting argument, though not everyone makes supporting arguments for their propositions.
Much of today’s social and political discourse is filled with many instinctively-made propositions, yet so few propositions get supported by any sort of argument. If I were to say, for example, that Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a disappointing film, I would be making a proposition. If I were to leave it at that, I would not have gone through the necessary steps of intellectual engagement to persuade anyone that my position is true.
But this business of making unsupported propositions is ubiquitous in today’s political and social discourse. One need only briefly browse Twitter to see the truth of this. The 240-character limit on Tweets–which was, mind you, only 120 characters until recently–is scarcely enough space to adequately express a decent proposition, let alone a fully fleshed out argument. Picket-sign protests and advertisements are also deeply rooted in unsupported propositions: picket signs and advertisements as a rule carry very bold claims, and yet almost never carry with them any sort of necessary argumentation. A quick survey of a few advertisements or photos of a recent protest should be sufficient to see this. And looking back at the most recent presidential debates should also confirm this. You will find rather quickly that those debates were full of grandiose propositions and very few arguments.
But I must admit that speaking with just propositions is more attractive than speaking with well-articulated arguments. There is something poetic to advocating a position by merely positing propositions, or at least more poetic that making a strong argument. We like to listen to vague and soothing aphorisms and platitudes. There would be no such thing as fortune cookies if we didn’t. Aphorisms and platitudes, despite not showing any reason why we should believe them, still sound so nice that we just kind of want to believe them to be true. But there is little intellectual rigor in only speaking through such things.
So here are some of the central tenets of understanding an interlocutor. We must first understand the terms they are using, we must identify and understand their propositions, and we must identify and understand their arguments. In no way can we hope to be able to disagree well with others if we do not first do these three things. This concludes Part II of this series. In Part III I will set forth some of the fundamentals of formal logic, as well as finding good reason to disagree with an interlocutor.