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Approaches to Objectivist polemics?

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LovesLife
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I'm a recovering rationalist, and I love to argue (mostly online rather than in person), even though I'm sometimes not very good at it. I find it therapeutic; it helps me sort out concepts that I might not completely understand. There's nothing like having someone call you on your basic life premises to stimulate some thought and study -- well, at least for me.

I realize that it's a big topic, but I would be interested in hearing any approaches that others might have found successful with Objectivist polemics. I've found a big gap between understanding the material and convincing others about it (or even just getting them to understand my perspective). Have you run into any good books, talks, etc, along those lines? Approaches that you've tried and that have failed would also be useful.

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One thing that helps is: making things concrete, by the use of examples.

If one is posting, one has the advantage of taking more time to think through a response. So, in that format, I'd say one thing that helps is: play devil's advocate with your draft, and re-write if you find it unconvincing.

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I thought the recent ARC panel on G. Gordon Liddy was a masterful example of arguments that were constructed in order to appeal.

I find that many younger Objectivists as they get better at detecting conflicting ideas in others discussions, still are unable to understand the cognitive context of the person you are discussing with. That is, while they may correctly detect a fundmental issue, the argument placed in response continues to assume correct knowledge of that concept.

If you choose to address an issue higher up in a conceptual heirarchy, then you must stop, back up and reframe the conversation.

That said, if you want to address the issue at hand, one can still do that even in the face of some higher level contradictions, but it requires very careful use of concretization, or teasing out the issue with an example.

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... cognitive context of the person you are discussing with. That is, while they may correctly detect a fundmental issue, the argument placed in response continues to assume correct knowledge of that concept.
How could I forget that! Understanding the other person's context is absolutely vital.

In particular, the other person will sometimes use a word or phrase that might not refer to the same referents as an Objectivist would. Sometimes, one has to stop and clarify that before anything else. At other times, that will merely throw the discussion off track. Often, one has to be willing to work with the concepts the opponent is using. One might point out that one would not use a particular term in that particular way, but will do so temporarily.

In an online forum, another thing that helps understand the other person's context is: probe the person's position politely. Also, if we're assuming we're "talking" with an honest person, then invite them to play devil's advocate with their own position. Instead of "that will mean the following problem", you might ask them if they think the following problem will arise and what they will do about it. Other than not connecting intellectually if one assumes wrong context, one also leaves the person feeling frustrated that he's not being understood.

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I've definitely run into the talking past each other issue. I've found that people often don't agree with basic concepts. Altruism is a big one, for example. More than once I've been accused of making up my own definitions, even though Webster's supports my view. A recent example, someone said: "everyone knows that charity and altruism are synonyms; to claim otherwise is absurd."

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I thought the recent ARC panel on G. Gordon Liddy was a masterful example of arguments that were constructed in order to appeal.

Yes, I agree. Great stuff. However, the format is not typical of most arguments, because the original questioners were given little if any chance to meaningfully respond.

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  • 2 weeks later...
More than once I've been accused of making up my own definitions, even though Webster's supports my view.

You shouldn't need a dictionary to back you up, though. (If you cite it, it does make you look uncertain of your ideas, that you have to use a dictionary as proof.) Just logically and rationally define what a word means and what it doesn't mean.

Like in your altruism vs. charity example. You can simply say "While charity is simply giving something away, altruism is the belief that men should sacrifice themselves for the benefit of other men.", and then explain how charity isn't always a sacrifice (like dropping some spare change in a collection bucket or whatever.)

Edited by Sir Andrew
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I doubt that bit about not referring to a dictionary. You can say, "altruism means so-and-so" and the person can deny it. What then? You can either agree to a definition and run with it, or have reference to a dictionary.

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I doubt that bit about not referring to a dictionary. You can say, "altruism means so-and-so" and the person can deny it. What then? You can either agree to a definition and run with it, or have reference to a dictionary.

That's true, but then you run the risk of losing the debate by pinning your entire argument on whether or not your opponent will accept the authority of the dictionary. It's far more rewarding to get into an argument of semantics before you even start debating actual issues, because your opponent has to defend and (hopefully) reconsider their own definitions, and thus the concepts behind the words of their argument. If you can get them to concede that your definitions are correct, you can then proceed to work through the issues you're debating and move forward with confidence.

Edited by Sir Andrew
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Precisely. You can argue with reason; you can't with authority. If you start saying, "a is true because of authority X", then you're totally relying on something that cannot be reasoned - you're lying on another argument which still has to be proved, that the authority can be trusted. So, you might as well get on with reasoning.

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It's far more rewarding to get into an argument of semantics before you even start debating actual issues, because your opponent has to defend and (hopefully) reconsider their own definitions, and thus the concepts behind the words of their argument.

I have to disagree. More rewarding? Maybe. Less practical? Definitely.

A common language is a necessity for efficient communication. Dictionaries exist to codify language, to establish a standard that both parties can refer to. To basically re-invent language every time you start a discussion is unnecessarily cumbersome.

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I have to disagree. More rewarding? Maybe. Less practical? Definitely.

A common language is a necessity for efficient communication. Dictionaries exist to codify language, to establish a standard that both parties can refer to. To basically re-invent language every time you start a discussion is unnecessarily cumbersome.

Well, you don't have to do it every time. But your argument shouldn't rest on the authority of a dictionary, it should rest on the authority of reason and logic.

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But your argument shouldn't rest on the authority of a dictionary, it should rest on the authority of reason and logic.
The proper use of the dictionary is as an educational tool: if you don't know (and I mean know, not just "kinda have heard") the meaning of "intension", you can use a dictionary to find out what it means, avoiding the embarrassment of thinking it means "a determination to act a certain way". As a kindness to foreigners who may not know English very well, you can share your dictionary knowledge.
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Well, you don't have to do it every time. But your argument shouldn't rest on the authority of a dictionary, it should rest on the authority of reason and logic.

Of course it should be based on reason. However, reason, in order to be communicated, needs a medium, i.e. language. There is no way to deduct logically the One True Meaning of the word "gift". In English-speaking countries it means present, in German-speaking countries it means poison. Who has the one, true, logical meaning?

It's much more efficient to agree to accept the authority of a (any) dictionary and go with it than to pull a Clinton and endlessly bicker over what the definition of "is" is.

An argument need not and should not rely on the authority of a dictionary. Your use of language, however, can and should do so, if only for practical reasons.

Edited by Randroid
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Of course it should be based on reason. However, reason, in order to be communicated, needs a medium, i.e. language. There is no way to deduct logically the One True Meaning of the word "gift". In English-speaking countries it means present, in German-speaking countries it means poison. Who has the one, true, logical meaning?

They both do. German and English speakers are using the same sound to denote a different concept. They are every bit as true and logical as "poison" and "Geschenk".

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Of course, if two people mean different things when they use a word, their argument would be pointless. However, very often, they can proceed to discuss the underlying issue without agreeing on the meaning of some disputed term. If they cannot agree on a definition, the argument can get bogged down. The way out is to discuss the referents and the principles being argued. Often, one may agree on those principles even if one disagrees on the concepts. Having established agreement first, it is easier to work toward an agreement on the concepts.

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However, reason, in order to be communicated, needs a medium, i.e. language. There is no way to deduct logically the One True Meaning of the word "gift".
But we do not approach empirical questions deductively. The question you should be focused on is how to inductively arrive at the meaning of "gift".
In English-speaking countries it means present, in German-speaking countries it means poison.
That's actually not true. First, when I'm in Norway and speaking English, the word "gift" means "present". Second, when I'm in the US but speaking German, the word "gift" means "poison". In fact, when I'm in Norway, Japan or the US and speaking Norwegian, it means "married". We could either conclude that the letters "gift" can refer to numerous words in different languages (each with a different meaning), or simply and more accurately understand that "word" necessarily presupposed the context of a particular language -- thus German "gift" simply is not the same word as English "gift". (In fact, the phonetics of German "gift" is distinct from the phonetics of English [gift] so they are similar in pronunciation.)
It's much more efficient to agree to accept the authority of a (any) dictionary and go with it than to pull a Clinton and endlessly bicker over what the definition of "is" is.
What is the source of a dictionary's authority? When dictionaries disagree, which dictionary has priority, and why?

I'll answer that for you, btw. Webster's Third New International Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary are the most authoritative. Their authority derives from the fact that they have inductively arrived at the definitions which they give by observation of instances of the particular words. They are far from exhaustive.

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Their authority derives from the fact that they have inductively arrived at the definitions which they give by observation of instances of the particular words.

A dictionary does not necessarily need to have authority over any other, although one that has the quality you mentioned certainly has advantages over others. All it needs in order to facilitate communication is an agreement of both parties to defer to the definitions given in any one dictionary, whether you settle on Webster's or Oxford's doesn't matter.

In other words, yes, words can have different meanings in different contexts. Both parties need to have the same context, or dialogue will be much more difficult, if not impossible. Agreeing on a dictionary (i.e. context) (and, as you point out, some are more agreeable than others) saves one the trouble of defining the meaning of words from scratch.

Edited by Randroid
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Agreeing on a dictionary (i.e. context) (and, as you point out, some are more agreeable than others) saves one the trouble of defining the meaning of words from scratch.
When two people are arguing, they already agree on most of the words they're using. Sometimes there may be some one word that is a sticking point.

For example, imagine that the word that is contentious is "socialism". There are two possible ways the contention can arise. Perhaps, the whole argument is about "what is socialism"? Or, perhaps the argument is about something else (say "should the government provide health-care?", and the term "socialism" comes up. For instance, one person might say "that's socialism", while the other might say "no it isn't.

Consider the first case: where the argument is about "what is socialism?' In this case, the dictionary might help, but -- all said and done -- it is an appeal to authority.

Consider the second case: where one is discussing whether the government should provide health-care, and it veers into an argument about what "socialism". In such a case, defining the term socialism has little relevance to the argument. Assume the person supporting government health-care is convinced that it would be socialism. What of it? He's probably going to say something like: "well, I guess certain limited degrees of socialism are okay". Alternatively, assume that the free-market person is convinced that government health-care does not necessarily imply socialism. What of it? Does that mean he is going to support it? No... because the argument is not about socialism as such.

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All it needs in order to facilitate communication is an agreement of both parties to defer to the definitions given in any one dictionary, whether you settle on Webster's or Oxford's doesn't matter.
That's wrong: what you need to facilitate communication is that you use words in the objectively correct fashion. If you need a dictionary to help you do that, that's okay.
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