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Debate and the Hope of Resolution

We at the Lyceum are strong believers in the fruits of disputation—but does a disputation differ from a debate? What makes something a debate, rather than a disputation? Both, obviously, present a plurality of positions on a singular question. But what differentiates the two? As often the case, the words’ respective etymologies give a provisional instruction:

dispute (v.)

c. 1300, “engage in argumentation or discussion,” from Old French desputer (12c.) “dispute, fight over, contend for, discuss” and directly from Latin disputare “weigh, examine, discuss, argue, explain,” from dis- “separately, apart” (see dis-) + putare “to count, consider,” originally “to prune, make clean, clear up” (from PIE root *pau- (2) “to cut, strike, stamp”).

The Latin word was used in Vulgate in sense of “to argue, contend with words.” In English, transitive sense of “argue against, attempt to disprove, deny” is from 1510s. Related: Disputabledisputeddisputing.

debate (v.)

late 14c., “to quarrel, dispute,” also “to combat, fight, make war” (senses now archaic), also “discuss, deliberate upon the pros and cons of,” from Old French debatre (13c., Modern French débattre), originally “to fight,” from de- “down, completely” (see de-) + batre “to beat,” from Latin battuere “beat” (see batter (v.)).

And he began for to debate; He smote þe porter. [“Robert of Sicily,” c. 1500]

Transitive sense of “to contend about in argument” is from mid-15c.; that of “argue for or against in public” is from 1520s. Related: Debateddebating.

As we can see from these word-histories, debating comes originally from beating down, while disputing comes from the opposition of thinking. One suggests a violence—oft witnesses today (one needs only to search YouTube for debates to see)—while the other, a reckoning from positions opposed to something resolved.

But today, it may seem that disputation is a futile task. Can we really think through to a conclusion? Do we have no alternatives but to debate—to beat one another down in words? Many despair of truth prevailing through argument, through reason; many believe that the purpose of debate, revealed in its oft-contentious nature, is not to persuade, but only to strengthen those among the audience in their already-determined beliefs. The ability of the intellect to discern and convey truth persuasively has fallen under a dark shadow of doubt in our day. Do we yet have cause for hope? May we still discover and share the fruits of our understanding in conversation with those who hold positions opposed to our own? Come join our Philosophical Happy Hour this evening, where we will discuss debate and the hope we may have for resolution in times of intellectual darkness.

Philosophical Happy Hour

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Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.

The Habit of Conversation

Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
-T.S. Eliot 1935: “Burnt Norton” (first of the Four Quartets), III.

Few poets ever have and likely ever will attain the prescience of T.S. Eliot. I find myself repeating, with increasing frequency, the lines quoted above: not only so that I might recall myself to focus, but to name the phenomena seen in others. We find ourselves struggling to hold meaningful conversations, dismayed either by others inattentiveness or ensnared by our own distractions.

But without conversation, we suffer an enormous blow to the integrity of our human way of life. We ought instead strive to affect a recovery of the habit of conversation. Here, allow us to explore some avenues through which such a recovery might be made.

The Language of Conversation: Holding vs. Having

First, it is important that we be able to say what a conversation is. As with many common phenomena, we likely take for granted that we “know” what a conversation is without needing to define it. But this kind of “knowledge”—experiential familiarity—does not help us overcome our present conversational malaise. In other words, we need to deepen our knowledge of conversation if we wish to have better conversations.

The way we speak about conversations, as with many other things, often reveals our underlying beliefs about what a conversation is, even if we are not consciously aware of that belief. For one thing, it seems that the phrase “holding a conversation has become increasingly rare, replaced by the more transactional “having a conversation.” The distinction between holding and having a conversation is subtle yet significant. “Holding” a conversation implies a sense of presence, responsibility, and of participation. The conversation is held between two people. By contrast, “having” a conversation suggests something that each individual gets or receives from the other(s) involved. It turns the conversation into a possession. This shift in language seemingly reflects the deeper, atomistic individualism pervasive in our society.

It implies, that is, that conversations have become commodities, something we acquire or consume, rather than an essential aspect of our human connection.

Holding Ourselves in Conversation

But holding a conversation is not merely a transitive, extrinsic action. We hold a conversation only by holding ourselves within it. We hold to the conversation. How often do we find ourselves not present or open to the other? Do we listen for an opportunity to speak—to rejoin, respond, to deviate into something else—or do we listen to what is being said? Do we listen so that we might hear or so that we might get something out of it?

Technology has undeniably altered our habits of conversation. Smartphones, in particular, have become both a distraction and a crutch, frequently drawing us away from in-person interactions. But are there other ways technology, other technologies, that affect our conversational habits?

One interesting aside to consider is the role of AI and chatbots like ChatGPT which may shape our conversational habits. The promise of instant feedback and the ability to return immediately to whatever topic offered by these platforms can reinforce the transactional attitude toward conversation: an exchange of information, on-demand. The silence, the gestational pause of thinking, of truly reasoning, plays no role in these technologies. Even our text-messaging habits lean into this: the absolute horror of being too long “left on read” without receiving a response.

Balance: Held by the Word, rather than the World

As humans, we navigate a delicate balance between active and passive engagement. However, it seems that our current approach to conversations may have disrupted this equilibrium. We must consider whether we are too passive or too active, or perhaps passive or active in the wrong ways. Reflecting on our conversational habits and our relationship with technology is an essential first step toward rekindling the art of meaningful dialogue.

Perhaps the best way to rectify this conversational degradation is, in fact, by having one: a thoughtful, careful, and meaningful participation—not an exchange, but truly communicating in the pursuit of truth. Join us this Wednesday for our Philosophical Happy Hour, exploring this critical aspect of human connection and rediscovering the beauty of holding, and being held by, a conversation.

Philosophical Happy Hour

« »

Come join us for drinks (adult or otherwise) and a meaningful conversation. Open to the public! Held every Wednesday from 5:45–7:15pm ET.