Expressions like “intellectual battle,” “culture war,” “winning an argument,” or “attacking faulty reasoning” employ adversarial metaphors suggestive of something rather removed from Raphael’s depiction of philosophical dialog in his famous painting, School of Athens (shown cropped in the banner of this blog). Surrounded by a collection of other intellectuals of the period, the two men at the center of that work — Plato and Aristotle –– are shown having a discussion. This is the leitmotif of what Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins dubbed “The Great Conversation.” This is a conversation about the “great ideas” that have shaped the intellectual history of the West over the last 2,500 years.

The Great Conversation is an example of the “dialectical paradigm” of argumentation. This paradigm makes certain assumptions about the ability and willingness of arguers to cooperate. That is, they subordinate the expression of their differences to norms of rational debate that provide a framework governing the manner of the give-and-take within their conversations. Notice the body language of the two philosophers in the painting. They gesture central metaphysical themes within their respective systems of ideas and do so with no hint of tension or animosity, despite the incompatibility of their views.

On the other hand, the “adversarial paradigm” invokes metaphors of conflict and competition rather than civility and cooperation. In the civic arena, adversarial metaphors are used when we are “called to arms” by our thought leaders to engage in civic activism of one form or another, or to help “defeat” so-and-so’s agenda, or “beat back the forces” of injustice. Gerry Spense’s book How to Argue and Win Every Time sums up the adversarial paradigm nicely in its very title. If arguing is not arguing to win, what is the point? “Winners” and “losers” are concepts that apply to both games and warfare. Even if the concepts of “offense,” “defense” and the like transcend the war/game distinction, war is the original context in which these terms acquired their meanings.

The adversarial paradigm has been institutionalized in the norms of jurisprudence for centuries. So it can hardly be surprising that today, the courtroom has emerged as an important venue for argumentation theater. Climactic moments in many of my personal favorite films (e.g., Inherit the Wind, Twelve Angry Men, Tucker), occur during dramatic scenes of courtroom argument. The adversarial paradigm of argumentation is deployed routinely to dramatize the power of reason in fictional contexts. In fictional contexts, writers know that they need to exploit the power of moral conflict to create dramatic tension. And therein lies the problem.

How well do adversarial metaphors convey the animating spirit of the Western mind and the driver of its intellectual progress? Is reason essentially a weapon? Need argumentation be conducted on battle footing? Are Plato and Aristotle enemies? Should a philosophical system ever be described as a “fighting creed,” with all that the metaphor suggests?

To answer these questions, notice that the adversarial paradigm of argumentation presupposes the prior failure of rational discussion, not its unqualified success. For example, when a husband and wife can no longer reconcile their differences through civil conversation, they often have no recourse but to go to court, where the rules of engagement are decidedly different. They are no longer seeking mutual understanding through rational dialogue. They enter a competition for assets and child custody. The same breakdown of rational discussion happens when two nations can not settle a trade dispute through diplomacy and negotiation. In such cases, history informs us that the use of force by one or both parties is more likely. Reason ends where the barrel of a gun begins.

The next time you go into “intellectual battle,” consider in what way have you acknowledged a prior failure of rational discussion. Can you reframe your purpose in terms of the dialectical paradigm? If you did, how would you engage your “opponent” differently? Can you stop being “militant” and still keep your intellectual passion?