:: Article

Epistemology and Democracy

Robert B. Talisse and Scott F. Aikin.

Robert B. Talisse (on the right of the picture) and Scott F. Aikin (on the left of the picture) are the dynamic duo of 3Quarksdaily, thinking about the social nature and political significance of argument, about the two things the word ‘argument’ captures, about the straw man fallacy, about misfiring sound arguments, about the intimate connection between epistemology and democracy, about the nature of democracy, pragmatism and Rawls, about Dewey, Elizabeth Anderson and Pierce, about ‘pluralism’ as a halo term, about the truth orientation of our cognitive life, about Nietzsche’s challenge, about being fearless about the fear of regress, about the use of tone, about the need for political arguers and the dangers of cognitive insulation, about when to revise ones beliefs, about civility in argument and about why their new book is keyed to all contemporary democracies. Epistemocracy doubled!

3:AM: What made you become philosophers?

Scott Aikin: I was a Classics major at Washington University in St. Louis, and I was very lucky to have the patient instruction of Merritt Sale, George Pepe, and Carl Conrad there. We would have class discussion about some line from Seneca or Plato, and I’d get hung up on some philosophical issue. I originally thought it was because my ancient languages weren’t good enough, but it became clear that disagreements about virtue or knowledge aren’t solved by dictionaries, but by doing some philosophical work. You had to think about what virtue and knowledge really are. It was like my mind caught fire – I was eighteen years old and could dispute with the greats on what was good and true. Authority with these matters came with having reason on your side, not any status or anything like that. It was exhilarating, and that anti-authoritarian appeal of philosophical work still enlivens me.

Robert Talisse: I grew up in northeastern New Jersey, and I took a class in Philosophy in my senior year in high school. The class was a survey of the great philosophers’ ideas, paying nearly no mind to the arguments they devised. I liked that class, but it left me with the impression that Philosophy was a dead discipline, something that had ended in the 19th Century. So, when I entered William Paterson College (it was not yet a university then), I was not aware that it was possible to major in Philosophy. I spent my first semester as an Economics major, but once I discovered that there was a Philosophy major, I switched immediately. At the time William Paterson was a small commuter school filled with Business majors, yet somehow there was a critical mass of really serious Philosophy students, all of whom eventually earned PhDs, and many of whom are now professional philosophers. In any case, I quickly learned there that Philosophy is about challenging those (including oneself) who claim to know. Like Aikin, I latched on to the anti-authoritarianism of it all. And I soon realized that the impression of Philosophy that I got from my high school class – that it had died as a discipline – was exactly wrong. Philosophy is one of the few disciplines that is not dead. I eventually found myself with a PhD in Philosophy from CUNY and a job at Vanderbilt as a philosopher. To be honest, I’m not really sure how it all happened.

3:AM: Your new book is about the social nature and political significance of argument. You see argument as any attempt to think things through, talk things over or figure out by means of processes aimed at sharing and evaluating reasons. The originality of this is that you broaden the idea of ‘argument’ out considerably so you catch what you call ‘dialectical fallacies’ . So can you first say something about what you’re doing here – and how it contrasts with more common approaches to evaluating arguments – and what a ‘dialectical fallacy’ is.

SA: The first step is to acknowledge that the term ‘argument’ captures two types of things. On the one hand, arguments are informational products – sets of premises and conclusions bearing logical relations to each other. On the other hand, arguments are processes and performances – reason-exchanges between people for the sake of resolving a dispute by finding out what’s true. For the most part, philosophical interest in argument has been focused on the product-side of argument, and the process-side has been left to rhetoric. This is lamentable. First, because the focus of rhetoric isn’t about what normatively appropriate methods there are, but about what methods yield assent. Second, because there are norms of argument as a process that are truth-oriented.

So consider the old straw man fallacy. It’s hard to say what’s wrong about it from a formal perspective, as a straw man fallacy entails erecting a fallacious argument and criticizing it. Nothing is formally wrong with that, but what’s informally wrong is that you’re not hooking up with the arguments and views those who oppose your views have. It’s a kind of misfire between interlocutors. So there are groundrules for good arguments, ones that arise out of (or are the conditions for) the exchange of reasons. And one of those groundrules is that if we are jointly weighing reasons, we accurately assess each other’s reasons – to distort the other’s reasons subverts the process. Consequently, to take on this notion of dialectical fallacy, you’ve got to take on this pragmatic perspective on argument – we’re out for the truth (or at least understanding) by way of the honest exchange of reasons.

3:AM: You say deductive reasoning is not all that its cracked up to be! Are you worried that philosophers – and others – mistake deductive soundness as the sole criterion of argumentative success, and if so aren’t you undermining a whole bunch of pretty well established and taken for granted philosophical positions?

SA: To put it that way is too strong, I think. It is very important to clarify the highest standards for argumentative success. Deductive soundness is clearly a worthwhile objective, and one well worth our attention. Who wouldn’t want an argument whose premises, if true, guarantee the truth of the conclusion and have the premises be true? So I have no objection to formal deductive logic at all. However, that is not all there is to argument, and it’s incumbent on philosophers, especially those with the objectives of clarifying the truth-oriented normativity of non-deductive informal reasoning, to turn to clarifying those norms.

The problem, again, is that even were you to have a sound argument, sometimes they are misfires. A familiar kind of example is simply the form of circular arguments, ones with the conclusion in the premises. They will be valid, and if the conclusion is true, they are sound. But they won’t meet the pragmatic objective of reason-exchange – if you’ve got to give a reason for the conclusion, you’ve got to give a reason that’s different from the conclusion. Otherwise, it’s mere reassertion in the face of disagreement. That not only doesn’t work, but is sheer dogmatism.

3:AM: You claim that we are have responsibly to attempt to believe the truth and reasonably avoid believing the false. This is the groundwork you argue for in order to explain argument’s place in a democratic social reality isn’t it? Can you say something about how you argue for this?

RT: Yes, our view ultimately is that there is an intimate connection between epistemology and democracy. Start with the epistemology. As you say, we begin from the cognitive duty to try to believe what’s true and reject what’s false. But it’s important to note that our argument appeals only to the epistemic norms that are implicit in our practices. The duty to attempt to believe the true and reject the false derives from the fact that when we believe we take ourselves to be rejecting the false and embracing the true – the aspiration to believe the true and reject the false is already implicit in our doxastic lives. One way to see this is to consider beliefs that instantiate Moore’s Paradox; that is, beliefs of the form “I believe that p, but p is false.” First-personally, beliefs typically cannot survive this assessment. Once you assess one of your beliefs as false, the belief dissolves. And when we find ourselves believing what we also regard as false, we begin to see that belief as something alien; in fact, beliefs that do not recede in the wake of the assessment that they are false begin looking to us first-personally as more like symptoms – obsessions, delusions, compulsions, anxieties, and so on – rather than beliefs. So we argue that our doxastic lives are already governed by epistemic norms that tell us to believe the true, reject the false, and, importantly, to believe on the basis of the best reasons we can find. This last imperative is important, as it provides the bridge from what one might call first-personal epistemology to social epistemology. To wit: the aspiration to believe what the best reasons we can find say we should believe requires us to share and exchange information with others. And that means that we must encounter and assess the reasons for their beliefs, and assess our own views in light of that encounter.

We can see a kind of social epistemology emerging, where my epistemic aspirations can be pursued only in the company of fellow inquirers. In order to assess myself as epistemically above-board, I must be able to assess others as above-board as well. But note that this means that we must also see the broader cognitive environment in which collective inquiry occurs to be, at least, not systematically distorted. And part of what it takes to ensure that it isn’t distorted is to ensure that it’s something that can be effectively scrutinized, criticized, and repaired. So there’s the connection between epistemic practice that lives up to the norms we embrace and democratic politics: our most basic epistemic aspirations are best pursued under social and politics conditions best secured in a democracy. There’s of course a lot more to say. But that’s the sketch of our general program.

3:AM: Robert – you’ve written a lot about the nature of democracy – including rejecting Deweyan conceptions of it. What’s wrong with Deweyan democracy – and Elizabeth Anderson’s modified version – and what kind of pragmatism do you put in its place?

RT: Let me say that Dewey is among my philosophical heroes, and I’m an advocate of the kind of democratic theory one finds in Dewey. Like Dewey, I’m a social-epistemic deliberative democrat; I am also allied with much of the social policy associated with Dewey. To your question, it’s important to begin by noting the difference between what we might call orthodox Deweyan democracy (which I oppose), and Dewey-inspired views of democracy (with which I’m generally allied). The orthodox view fails on pragmatic grounds, as it holds that a properly democratic society must be organized around a moral vision of human flourishing, what Dewey called “growth.” In fact, Dewey held that the aim of individual growth should be the single organizing principle not only for the state and its institutions, but for all modes of human association. I happen to find Dewey’s conception of growth attractive as an ethical ideal; however, since John Rawls’s later work, we’ve learned that a properly liberal and democratic political view cannot begin from the assertion of a moral ideal that is controversial among reasonable people. So the orthodox Deweyan view of democracy fails for the same reason that a democratic theory based solely in Millian utilitarianism or Kantian dignity would fail. No matter how one assesses the philosophical merits of those views, one has to recognize the possibility that they could be reasonably rejected. And that’s sufficient to render them unfit to serve as the organizing principle for our democracy, let alone all of human association.

Now, I count Elizabeth Anderson as among the non-orthodox Deweyan democrats. In fact, she appeals (sometimes explicitly, but sometimes not) to the very Rawlsian considerations I just mentioned in constraining the scope of her Deweyan democratic commitments. On her view, the Deweyan vision of democracy must respect the Rawlsian idea of society as a system of fair cooperation among free and equal individuals. Insofar as I have a criticism of Anderson’s view, it’s simply that the Rawlsian constraints she embraces are what the orthodox Deweyan denies. This is why I’ve elected to characterize my view as Peircean rather than Deweyan; Cheryl Misak and I have been allies in broader arguments where we contend that pragmatism’s future lies in the development of certain Peircean ideas and the abandoning of many of Dewey’s views. But in the end, the labels don’t matter much. What matters is that there be a pragmatist option in democratic theory that’s not the non-viable orthodox Deweyan one.

3:AM: And why can’t pragmatists be pluralists? Are your worries echoing Rawlsian concerns?

RT: “Pluralism” is what Aikin and I have called a halo term – it’s a word philosophers like to use only when praising commitments (typically their own). Accordingly, the literature among contemporary pragmatists who ally with the “classical” pragmatisms of James and Dewey is replete with the claim that pragmatism is “pluralistic.” But there’s rarely any analysis of pluralism offered, beyond the useless claim that pragmatism is pluralistic because it is “open-minded,” “inclusive,” “tolerant,” “dynamic,” and so on. This is simply to define pluralism by means of other halo terms that are no less ambiguous. We have argued that if it is to be a philosophically interesting thesis, pluralism must be the denial of monism, which is the view that “value is one big thing,” as Ronald Dworkin has put it. Taking utilitarianism as an especially explicit version of monism, pluralism had better be something that utiltiarians must deny. Instantly, then, we see that pluralism cannot be the thesis that diversity, difference, experimentation, and toleration are all good, since it would be difficult to find a more avid defender of that idea than J. S. Mill, who of course is a utilitarian. Indeed, pluralism can’t be a doctrine about what is of value; it must be a view of what value is. It must either be a thesis about the metaphysics of value or one about moral epistemology. The former (associated with Isaiah Berlin and possibly also William James) says that moral conflict that is not rationally resolvable is built into the fabric of value as such; the latter say that moral conflict that is not rationally resolvable is built into the way we can know about value.

We argue that neither thesis should look attractive to the pragmatist. The pragmatist should be wary of the very idea of “the fabric of value”; and the pragmatist should
similarly be wary of the claim that we’re in a position to conclude that with respect to certain moral conflicts, no rational resolution is possible and further inquiry would prove fruitless. In short, we have argued that pluralism is a violation of Peirce’s cardinal rule for philosophers: Do no block the way of inquiry.

The Rawlsian concern about pluralism is slightly different. He’s concerned with the need for liberal democratic theories to recognize that an ineliminable consequence of the freedoms secured by liberal democracy is that reasonable citizens will come to hold distinct and sometimes opposing visions of their good. Our philosophical articulation of
the moral bases for liberal democracy, then, cannot presuppose (or affirm) the correctness of only one such reasonable view. Liberal democratic norms must be articulated in a way that does not provoke deeper philosophical disputes among reasonable citizens. In my work on Deweyan democracy, the argument is that the orthodox view cannot accommodate Rawlsian reasonable pluralism. But that’s the sense in which pragmatists had better figure out a way to be pluralists!

3:AM: There seem two main challenges to your argument that we should value truth. One is epistemological and the other Nietzschean. Firstly, let’s ask the epistemological question (which admittedly you’ve already touched on earlier): Do you think that it’s possible to knowingly believe the false, or knowingly not believe the truth? There seem to be reasons for thinking that such epistemological positions are impossible. I’m thinking of those Moorean sentences such as ‘I went to the cinema on Tuesday but I don’t think I did’ that Roy Sorensen and others have worried about.

SA: Cognitive life has, for lack of better terminology now, a truth-orientation. We want good reasons because we want the truth, we revise our beliefs when they look false. For sure, there are other cognitive goals of curiosity and understanding – but they themselves are dependent on truth. Curiosity is satisfied only when you’ve got a truth, and to understand something means you grasp truths about it. So the Moorean Paradox of the ‘contradiction in thought,’ when one says one believes p but p is false, seems about right – when you do that, you undo the belief as your belief. You may still ascribe it to some person, you might look at the commitment in a third-personal way. But it’s no longer yours in the assertional, first-personal sense.

3:AM: The other challenge is Nietzsche’s: why be beholden to the post-Socratic fetishisation of Truth – why not have truth as just one of many goods rather than make it a supreme one?

SA: The short answer for me is that the old Socratic take is just about right. Truth is central to all the other values. We want justice and beauty, too, but we want things that are truly just, truly beautiful. Truth is unique in this way. That makes truth special, unavoidable, as a value. It ain’t a fetish if it’s what you should want.

RT: My view on this is slightly different from Scott’s, though not inconsistent with it. The challenge you pose accomplishes a lot by capitalizing the “T” in truth and by then characterizing the concern for truth as a “fetish.” I know that this is a popular tactic in Philosophy. But I don’t fall for it. I honestly do not understand what typographical flourishes like capitalizing the “T” are supposed to achieve. In any case, to describe the concern for truth as a fetish is to embed in one’s premises the claim that such concern is pathological or unwarranted. But that’s the conclusion that the challenge claims to press. Were it true that the concern for truth is pathological, then there might be some bite to the kind of criticism you’re envisioning; but that would mean that there’s a truth about the concern for truth in light of which we had better adjust our attitudes and practices. That would be no challenge to our view at all, as we do not advocate for an improper or pathological concern for truth. But if the challenge does not proceed like this, then it’s just name-calling and not a challenge at all. So I don’t see a challenge in either case. And this goes back to the point made earlier about there being certain epistemic norms implicit in our practices; I think the challenge as you posed it either attacks the idea that the concern for truth ought to play some stronger role in our cognitive lives than it does (a claim Aikin and I are not making), or it attacks the idea that truth should play the role in our cognitive lives that it in fact does play. But there’s no way to make sense of that latter attack without making pretty substantial philosophical claims about what is true, and so again we have truth as the leading concern. So it thereby affirms the role of truth that we endorse.

3:AM: Scott has argued that we shouldn’t fear the regress – this is an argument saying that epistemically justified reasons go on forever – so can you summarise the argument and then say why this isn’t a problem. Surely one of things we finite decision makers need for a decision is finitism not infinitism which seems useful only for an Infinite mind!

SA: Here’s the quick and dirty argument. If you’re justified, you’ve got reasons. Those reasons, if they do the work of justification, must be justified, too. You don’t get to make stuff up or just guess with your reasons – those reasons have got to have backing to provide backing. Well, this sets us on the road to regress. Here’s where everybody goes crazy. The Foundationalist says there must be exceptions to the backing rule. Coherentists hold that reasons come in big mutually-supportive packages, instead of chains. Externalists argue that, sometimes, backing isn’t something the person must be able to articulate or even be aware of, but rather, it must be simply true. And the skeptic laughs at how everyone dials back the demands of reason when their knowledge is put on the chopping block.

Epistemic infinitism is a late comer to the game if only because the other options had to get played out before we got around to giving the least intuitive option a try. But the view isn’t too hard to think your way into, really. Those who know can answer questions about the what they know until there aren’t any more questions – that’s the aspiration of knowing, not just believing a truth. You have command of the issue, and that entails that you can handle questions, meta-questions, and so on.

Is the view practical? Yes and no. Yes, it’s practical, because critical dialogue doesn’t respect foundational principles when the disagreements are wide-ranging. Self-evident truths all too often get quizzical looks! Nor does it respect coherent systems of belief – you need to give reasons to prefer them to others. So infinitism is a better epistemology for the rough-and-tumble game of arguing it out with an eye to reasons that give you justification. But the view is impractical, because, well, you’re always on the hook for giving more reasons. It makes you the person who can’t cut off the debate or tell the 5-year-old who keeps asking ‘why’ that sometimes ‘because’ is just the best answer you can give.

3:AM: You have examples of how you think arguments can fail – and not because of deductive invalidity. Can you talk about the different ways this happens, especially in current political discourse.

SA: It’s important, again, to keep the process model of argument in mind – that we are jointly weighing our reasons with the objective of rational resolution in mind. Contributions to those exchanges that impede that objective and ruin the culture of reasonable exchange are failed arguments, or better, argumentative failures. One strategy Robert and I find rampant in contemporary argumentative culture is the use of tone of voice to distort a dialectical situation. The setup is simple. Person A expresses a view, p. B incredulously restates p – P? A is now in a difficult situation, but has no direction as to what to do. B has clearly expressed rejection of p, made it seem obvious that A is ridiculous for not seeing some obvious problem with p, but doesn’t state it. And, moreover, it’s not just for B that A might do this – incredulous restatement is more often for A’s preferred onlooking audience. That is, A is only play-acting at exchanging reasons with B – A is really asking B to articulate a view and then emoting for those who already reject the kinds of things B says. We call the strategy modus tonens. With modus tonens, you not only reject a view, imply there’s something obviously wrong with it, and communicate that to an onlooking audience, but you also communicate to the interlocutors that they are in need of some educating on the issue – they commit obvious errors, and they don’t even know what they are.

3:AM: Do you think that these strategies of distortion and misrepresentation are working differently today than in the past, or are you arguing that it was ever thus? I guess I’m wondering why it’s only now that we’re getting round to raise the issues you’re raising? And is it the nature of modern politics and social reality that is making this so urgent an issue now, or the nature of a certain style of contemporary philosophy and political thought where formal models (such as deductive inference) are being applied too inflexibly to pick up what’s really going on?

RT: The worry that democracy invites and encourages poor cognitive performance goes back to at least Plato, as does the indictment that democracy is simply rule over the foolish by the demagogues. So there’s a clear sense in which our work on democracy and argumentation is nothing new. However, the broader epistemic environment in which democratic politics occurs has changed markedly in the past 20 years. We now have communicative technologies that were unimaginable just a few decades ago, and these technologies enable enormous numbers of people to communicate in real-time across the globe. They also enable single individuals, or very small groups of individuals, to reach large audiences more or less instantly. This is partly a boon for democracy. But it also occasions new problems, or rather, new instantiations of the old worries that Plato raised. To be specific, as Cass Sunstein and others have noted, democracy’s new epistemic environment enables individuals to pre-select the kinds of political messages they’ll be exposed to; for example, someone who wants to hear the day’s news as told strictly from a progressive perspective can easily insulate herself from any non-progressive reporting. She can also surround herself with messages and commentary that only confirms her antecedent political views. Further, she can just as easily saturate her epistemic environment with messages which confirm the low opinion she has of non-progressives. And all of this increase in the technological power to custom-design one’s political-epistemic environment has occurred alongside a staggering displacement of public spaces by commercial spaces. Public parks and street corners are mostly empty, and people go to shopping malls and corporate coffee shops to meet up with friends. It is increasingly unlikely that one might have in public an unplanned encounter with an unfamiliar political idea. The psychological dangers are well-documented: For one thing, when our epistemic environments are homogenized in this way, we quickly become unable to see the potential for disagreement among reasonable people. And, more importantly, there is the phenomenon of group polarization: Cognitively homogenous groups are doxastically unstable; those who talk only to those with whom they agree eventually come to hold more extreme versions of the beliefs they began with.

But in any case the immediacy of political communication and argumentation has enhanced the need for political arguers to provide for their audiences especially unflattering images of the opposition. So what we’ve seen is the emergence of the following trope: a political communicator explicitly appeals to proper epistemic norms (“the no spin zone”; “fair and balanced”; “straight talk”) when characterizing his own message, and then charges the opposition not simply with having the wrong view but with violating proper epistemic standards. The titles of books of popular political commentary tell the tale: The Republican Noise Machine; If Democrats had Any Brains, They’d be Republicans; and so on. So the communicator upholds the proper epistemic norms and rebukes the opposition for (allegedly) violating them; so the communicator’s position is vindicated by default. This bait-and-switch is not new as a mode of demagoguery, but it has become all the more pronounced in light of the new media technologies. The ‘dialectical fallacies’ we identify are often simply new variations on old and more familiar failures of argumentation; the variations reflect the novel communicative structures made available by the new technologies.

3:AM: If you think you’ve got the truth on your side but the other side seems to be winning at the moment, how do we decide when to stick to one’s guns and when one should revise beliefs?

SA: The whole point of argument, as a pragmatic phenomenon, is that it’s supposed to be a joint exercise of our rationality to determine the best answer to a question. It’s a shared decision procedure, and so when we engage in it, we tacitly agree to be bound by its results. To enter an argument, lose it, but then not change one’s views at all is, at least pragmatically, like agreeing to have a decision made by a coin flip, but then refusing to be bound by the results when they don’t come up the way you like. And moreover, there is the point about joint rationality – if the argument is well-run, then if your view doesn’t come out on top, then the reasons don’t support it, but one of the oppositions. Too bad for your view, but good for you – you’ve got the opportunity to change your mind and get a better view. That’s an old Socratic aspiration – to follow the argument where it takes you.

Well, that’s the aspiration, but then there’s the reality. First, our beliefs can’t be changed so quickly. And so, even when things have gone badly for your view in an exchange, it doesn’t seem likely you can change your mind about it right on the spot. It takes some time for the critical points to sink in. And as that occurs, you may be able to think of further defenses. Second, there are fiduciary responsibilities we can have to some views – we have allegiances to traditions, clusters of theories, forms of life. You might say that with some views, we’ve cast our lot with them. And so we owe it to a theory, say, to stick it out a bit, to see if it can be salvaged. This is not sheer tenacity or blind loyalty. Rather, we should stick it out with views worth holding, because in doing so, we may develop them in a way, down the road, that they can answer the challenges. I call it holding one’s own. And, again, note that you do it with an eye to improving the view in light of critical exchange. The trouble is, not all views can be helped out so easily, and they need to be junked. And so, when the revisions look ad hoc, when the qualifications start making the view look more like the competitors, it’s time to change one’s mind. But that’s not just the result of an argument, but that’s the result of a number of well-run argumentative exchanges and periods of critical reflection afterwards. That’s why argument must be a consistently well-run cultural phenomenon. Otherwise, even the odd well-run argument won’t change any minds.

3:AM: In your last section you argue for civility in argument. Can you say what you mean by this and why this is important? In modern political discourse there seems little room for any kind of civility and some would argue that its through Punch and Judy knockabout that genuine difference and critique happens. For example, a civil press might not go to the ‘dirty’ places it needs to go to find out the truth.

RT: We’re careful to distinguish between two different sense of civility, and we’re calling for only one of them. In the sense that we do not embrace, argumentation is civil when it is polite, calm, articulate, studied, and so on. That sense of civility is problematic in a number of obvious ways. We think there’s nothing uncivil about loud and impassioned debate, and we think that certain forms of disruption, agitation, and protest are consistent with civility. The civility we call for has to do with what one might call the depth of engagement among the disputants. An uncivil argument is one in which the parties to the dispute don’t really care to understand each other’s views, or one in which one of more of the disputants begins from the view that her opposition is necessarily ignorant, benighted, treasonous, stupid, or worse. That is, the mark of incivility is what we have called the “No Reasonable Opposition” stance – the attitude that no rational, informed, and good-willed person could disagree with your view. When one adopts that stance and encounters someone who disagrees, her only option is to be diagnosing the opponent. To treat those who disagree with you as subjects for diagnosis is to treat them as cognitive inferiors, and that’s the kind of incivility that’s poisonous for democracy. So, we’re not at all opposed to the knock-down and drag-out of political debate. We share the idea that norms of calm conversation often serve to stifle or occlude real points of contention. In fact, we’d say that appeals to norms of orderly politeness serve as argumentative strategies to deliberately stifle disagreement.

3:AM: How USAan are your concerns – do you see yourself addressing international concerns about the future of social and political discourse generally or do they find their resonances really in the USA? I wonder whether China or India or Brazil – or Europe – with their very different social realities would be able to fully respond to your arguments. I guess this is the question: are you asking why do Americans argue, or why do people argue?

RT: We think that the epistemic norms are not bound to a particular political context.
When we believe, we must take ourselves to be aiming at the truth, and we aim at the truth by trying to believe on the basis of the best reasons we can find. Again, we don’t think the argument sketched above from Moore’s Paradox to broader social-epistemic norms is uniquely US-American. We humans argue because when we believe it matters to us that we get things right. To be sure, the particular matters addressed most directly in our new book Why We Argue are keyed especially to contemporary democracies, and most of our examples are drawn from the US. That was more a matter of convenience (and a little bit of strategy too – the book was written to be useable in Critical Thinking courses). From what I know of European and Indian politics, we could have easily found examples of the dialectical fallacies there too.

3:AM: And other than your own books, which five would you recommend to the readership here at 3:AM to help them get further into your philosophical worlds?

Jonathan Adler, Belief’s Own Ethics. MIT Press, 2002.
Gerald Gaus, The Order of Public Reason. Cambridge, 2012
Alvin Goldman, Knowledge in a Social World. Oxford, 1999.
Cheryl Misak, Truth, Politics, Morality. Routledge, 2000.
Douglas Walton, Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach. (2nd ed) Cambridge, 2008.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 25th, 2013.