On Understanding, Discussing, and Arguing

(or on my reservations regarding blog comments)

When I post an essay on the web, my aim and hope is that it may contribute to the understanding of others by suggesting (different than common) perspectives and/or additional analysis and/or conclusions. Likewise, when I read an essay, I hope to learn something (new to me), obtain a novel (to me) understanding via alternative perspectives, analysis and/or conclusions. (Btw, the same holds also for publishing and reading technical papers; in my papers I seek to contribute to the understanding of others, and when reading papers of others I hope to gain understanding.)

Discussions with others may assist understanding. Indeed, an interactive process may help in focusing on the points of misunderstanding and individually-targeted explanations may be more effective than universal explanations (as provided in a static text). This presumes that the goal of the discussion is to gain understanding. Thus, I'm always happy to discuss my ideas with others (or discuss with others their ideas). Such discussions may increase the understanding of both parties.

In contrast to such discussions, I see no point in arguing, which I view as a confrontational interaction aimed at asserting a given understanding (perspective, analysis or conclusions) and/or promote the dominance of a given understanding. Such arguments are not aimed at increasing understanding, but rather at aggressively imposing one understanding on others.

Needless to say, the above considerations only cristalize the claim that arguments are not the way to gain knowledge or understanding. I also claim that arguments are not the way to promote social change and/or political action; in fact, an argument is by itself a political action, but one that (typically) does not affect reality -- an argument is a symbolic fight taking place in an abstract (i.e., non-real) arena that (typically) does not affect the reality. I wish to stress that I do not mean to ignore or diminish the role of ideas and/or understanding in political action, but rather claim that an argument does not promote understanding (it rather assumes it and uses it ineffectively).

Let me offer another perspective on the three aforementioned key notions. An understanding is an individual/internal process; a process in which an individual enriches his/her knowledge. A discussion is (typically) an interaction between two individuals, in which one wishes to help the understanding of the other (while possibly increasing also his/her own understanding). Also in the case that more than two parties are involved in the discussion, its aim is to help each other gain understanding. In contrast, an argument is confrontational, aggressive, and often even hostile, and it typically takes place in the presence of third parties that do not participate in the argument but are viewed as judges. Typically, the aim is to convince these judges to rule (explicitly or implicitly) in favor of one of the arguing parties (rather than increase the understanding of these judges).

My clear impression is that the comments and talk-backs posted on blogs are of an arguing rather than discussing type. Thus, answering these comments yields to the logic and/or practice of arguing, and is not a good way to promote or gain understanding.

Back to Oded's page of essays and opinions or to Oded's homepage.