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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.