Pieter Mostert | On the value of debate and disagreement

A talent for speaking differently, rather than arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.

Richard Rorty (1989)

Philosophers say they ‘debate’ issues

Philosophers have a rather particular use of the word ‘debate’. For them it is fairly common language to refer to ‘the free will debate’ or the ‘causality debate’, but if an outsider were to ask whether that debate can be attended, philosophers will answer that their responses to age-old statements and arguments are perceived as contributions to ‘a debate’.

What philosophers mean by a debate is a communicative setting with the following characteristics: there is a well-defined issue, there are two opposing sides and contributions are welcomed which redefine the issue, refine one or more of the previous arguments, or even introduce a new argument, take a clear stance and are aimed at persuading the audience to favour the author’s stance. Philosophers don’t like to call what they’re doing in writing a ‘dialogue’, ‘enquiry’ or ‘discussion’. They prefer ‘debate’.

In P4C very few advocate debates

Debates are not very popular in philosophy with children, I notice. When asked why, facilitators say that debates are the opposite of dialogues: dialogues focus on enquiry, debates don’t; dialogues are collaborative and caring, debates are not; therefore, dialogues should be preferred above debates. Or to put it more boldly, debates teach students the wrong values: polarize positions, advocate one viewpoint, less understanding of the viewpoints of others, false dichotomy, false confidence in solution, arrogance or timidity, instead of respect, courage, patience and empathy (Gardner, 2015; Zuidland 2016). And practically speaking, within the dominant model of dialogues / enquiries there is enough room for disagreement, so what does a debate have to offer as a strength or opportunity that is not available within the model of dialogues / enquiries?

Why students are attracted to debates

Let’s look at it from the students’ perspective. To them, debates do have a definite attraction. In comparison to dialogues there is more room for exaggeration, humour, playfulness and showmanship. Debating competitions, which traditionally were only held at universities, recently gained popularity among high school students and some countries even have national debating competitions for primary school students. When it was organized for primary schools for the first time, I was asked to train the team of a school in Amsterdam. I had met a couple of students at a house of a friend of mine and they asked me how to become the winning team. The team came proudly home as second best, and their debating skills opened an atmosphere of conversation in the classroom, the teacher told me afterwards. Students simply like to test and contest opposing views. They are attracted to debates as the youth around Socrates were attracted to his dialogues. Teachers are as suspicious of dialogues as the jury in Athens was suspicious of Socrates’ dialogues. L’histoire se repète.

Agitation and animosity

My class will take part in the main hall, where the three wings of the school come together. “It’s the only place where we can arrange a wide circle”, the head mistress tells me. The school is new to me and having a philosophical conversation is new to the school. I like the space: light comes in from all sides and the usual teacher-centred wall with a smart board is absent – it’s more cafeteria style. The students (age 10 – 11) enter in small groups, each of them involved in their own conversations. The head mistress asks for silence and introduces me. I’m not quite sure what to say as an introduction from my side. A boy raises his hand and already starts speaking: “Sir, can we talk about who should get the leading role?”. I like such prompt beginnings, but I’m puzzled by the question. What is it about? What does the boy refer to? I decide to ‘buy time’ and confirm: “Sure, we can. Tell me more about it”. In little time it becomes clear that before lunch break the music teacher announced the cast for this year’s school musical. Quite a few students are not happy with the outcome, not at all, especially not with the decision who will play the leading role. Even during these few sentences the boy is interrupted from several sides: “this year’s musical will be a disaster”, “I don’t want the part I got”, “can we go and find the music teacher, so he can explain”, “I’m not interested anymore”. Small groups return to the conversations they had when they entered, some students stretch their legs waiting for what will happen.

In the preparatory conversation with the headmistress I asked whether she or one of the teachers wanted to suggest a topic to me. “No”, she said, “ask the students, but could I please make sure that the conversation will not be about sex”. Back in the circle, avoiding a conversation on sex is not my main concern. Who will get the leading role in this year’s musical – that is what the world turns around!

I ring my table bell and tell the students that one of them can stand up and address the full circle with his or her view on the matter. Of course I know that I can’t restrict it to one, but that’s a concern for later. First I want to recognize the need to air emotions and to voice strong opinions. A girl stands up and states in vivid terms that the student who got the leading part will not be able to memorize all the lines and will speak them in such a way that the audience will fall asleep. She’s frequently interrupted too, with lines like “do you want the leading role?”, “you can’t sing”, “it’s all because she’s not one of your friends”. I closely watch how she handles these interruptions, but she stands firmly in what she wants to say. The boy who spoke at the beginning wants to be next and make his statement: “The one who is the best should get the leading role – and this is not what has been decided, on the contrary!”. Some cheer, but others object: “somebody has to decide”, “the best, the best – it’s always about the best; she should get a chance”.

Is this a dialogue? I don’t think so. Is it an enquiry? Yes, there is a process of clarification going on. Is it collaborative? Yes, I would say so, but first of all I like the atmosphere: the issue is real, the emotions are visible, and there are strongly opposing views.  It’s the atmosphere of a debate: through opposition we want to achieve clarity. At this stage my role as the facilitator is to encourage students to choose sides, stand up and speak. In the meantime, I regulate the interruptions and draw attention to the first signs of repetition. But then one of the students remarks “all seem to think that X is the leading role in the musical, because it has the most lines, but I don’t think that true”. He identifies an uncontested assumption. To illustrate his view, he tells the story of a black night who definitely had the leading role, but did not speak one word, because – evidently – he was the black night. All are captured by his story and impressed by the point he makes. The debate has come to a natural end, the philosophical enquiry (of the identified assumption) is ready to start: we enquire different criteria for determining what is the leading role.

The strengths of a debate as a format for classroom conversation

The example above demonstrates some of the strengths of a debate as a format for classroom conversation. First of all, the stimulus is live and real; it is chosen by the students themselves, not by the teacher. The debate is a direct reflection on a real issue and involves vivid personal experiences and opinions. Secondly, it is clear from the beginning what the issue is, so we can start right away, instead of first going around for questions and then selecting one. The format of a debate makes it possible to start right away, within the first minute – a kick start. Thirdly, the format of a debate offers a safe space for expressing feelings of agitation and even animosity among the students, without endangering the progress or even the survival of the conversation.

In some of Socrates’ dialogues fierce debates take place, mainly when the other participants take the role of opponent. Take for example Callicles in Plato’s dialogue ‘Gorgias’. He offers fierce opposition to what Socrates has presented so far and straightforwardly asks him “are you not ashamed?”. Callicles is really upset and before entering in a more detailed refutation of Socrates’ arguments he wants to make one thing very clear: we’re having a major disagreement about a major theme. Expressing his emotions in a somehow exaggerated manner creates a distance between him and Socrates, but this distance creates room to move, room to introduce new ideas and perspectives. If done well the exaggeration will push the disagreement to such a level that underlying, covered issues and assumptions can be dis-covered and addressed. This is where debate and dialogue meet. It is the facilitator’s job to guide the participants in their – very gradual turn from a debate in which the opposing views and arguments become more explicit to a dialogue in which underlying concepts and assumptions are challenged.

Disagreement presupposes agreement about what we’re talking about

Both in dialogue and in debate disagreeing plays a crucial role: no disagreement – no dialogue nor debate. Students easily learn to express what they want to say in the format of “I disagree with X, (when (s)he says) that …, because …”. But when I read transcripts of classroom conversations I quite often get the impression that what a student says is not in disagreement with what has been said, it is simply something else. When you and I disagree about whether it’s nice weather, I may say it is, because I want to go for a walk and the weather is suitable for that, but you may say it isn’t, because you want to go for a swim and it’s too cold for that. Do we disagree? I wouldn’t say so. I may wholeheartedly agree with you that it’s too cold to go for a swim, but that’s not my point; I want to go for a walk. We’re talking about two different things, so we’re not disagreeing.

For a disagreement it is necessary that we agree on the point we’re talking about: in relation to this specific point we hold opposing views. But how do we find that point? Well, that is exactly what happens in a debate: no point to (dis)agree with – no debate. In the example above it is the question who should get the leading role in this year’s school musical and by what criteria such a decision should be made.

But for disagreement being effective and constructive there is another condition to be met. It is that the participants are familiar with a more refined way of expressing disagreements, one which takes them beyond the binary ‘for or against’. Classical rhetoric offers such a tool.

The art of refutation – lessons from the school of rhetoric

In the rhetorical tradition all possible ‘moves’ in speech and writing have been identified and categorized. ‘Refutation’ is one of these moves; others, for example, are confirmation and explication. The rhetorical handbooks (in Latin) describe these moves and their subtle subdivisions very briefly only, as a kind of inventory for Latin teachers (from the Roman Empire in the 2nd century up to the 19th century), who were familiar with the practice of rhetoric. But this practice has disappeared, the handbooks too. Lausberg (1960), however, makes this inventory accessible for the modern reader. Under ‘refutation’ he lists six different ways in which one can express that one disagrees with what has been stated. I present them here as I introduce them in dialogues and debates: their names English and in Latin, with a short description and a didactic example.

1. Refutation from the uncertain / refutatio ab incerto

You refute a specific point of what has been said and what, according to you, is not quite as sure or definite as has been said. Example: “I see no reason for being so sure, that …”.

2. Refutation from the incredible / refutatio ab incredibili

You refute a specific point of what has been said, because you can’t honestly believe that it is true. Example: “I cannot honestly believe, that …”.

3. Refutation from the impossible / refutatio ab impossibili

You refute a specific point of what has been said, because you simply think this is impossible. Example: “Your proposal to ..., is impossible. There is no law or rule that allows for such a special treatment”.

4. Refutation from what does not follow / refutatio ab inconsequente

You do not refute a specific point, but the logic of a specific reasoning: “if A then B” or “B because of A”. Statements A and B may be true or may make sense, but your point is that B does not follow from A. Example: “I don’t see why we should revoke our new policy regarding, because the problem in the case of X did not arise from the last policy changes”.

5. Refutation from the indecent / refutatio ab indecente

You object to a certain remark / proposal / wording / gesture which you think is unacceptable according to common human standards. It is not about the violation of a particular rule or law, nor about something that is particularly disturbing or inappropriate to you. Your objection addresses a general concern, something that goes against the current of humanity; it’s of the type “How dare you?”. Example: “I strongly object to the proposal that … Such a proposal creates …”.

6. Refutation from the detriment / refutatio ab incommodo

You object to a certain remark / proposal / wording / gesture, because it is causing harm and damage. Example: “The way you have ridiculed the opponents of your proposal causes great harm and damages the future of our …. I strongly urge you to address your concerns with respect and good will”.

This differentiation of disagreement in six different options to choose is a great help in moving forward. As a facilitator I introduce it about half way through a dialogue or debate, when a number of rough, unpolished and unsorted contributions lie in the middle and the need arises for some refinement and focus: what kind of disagreement are we in? That this ‘tool for differentiation’ comes from old educational traditions and carries some nice Latin has a special effect: it makes the participants feel like they’re being promoted to a higher league in conversation, similar to attending a chef workshop where one learns how to differentiate between all the different knives, their names and uses. After all, most philosophical skills are skills in refinement.

The topic of disagreement has puzzled me for many years: how can disagreement contribute to philosophical enquiry? Some answers to this question I presented in a paper at the FAPSA Conference, Wellington [NZ] April 18 – 19, 2016. But afterwards, when visiting the Te Papa Museum, I noticed a teenager dressed in black from cap to shoes. On her T-shirt it said with big letters “SHUT UP!”. There was no reason to take this message personally, but it encouraged me to revise my paper substantially and focus on the interesting stuff.

By Pieter Mostert October 2016 @visitandum


Gardner, S. (1995 / 2015): Inquiry is no Mere Conversation (or Discussion or Dialogue) Facilitation of inquiry is hard work! In: Analytic Teaching, 16(2), pp. 102 – 111. Republished with a new introduction, in: Journal of Philosophy in Schools 2(1), p. 71 – 91; on debate: p. 90.

Lausberg, H. (1960): Refutatio. In: Idem: Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik. Eine Grundlegung der Literaturwissenschaft. Stuttgart, Steiner Verlag, 4th ed. 2008, p. 540 – 541.

Magano M., P. Mostert & G. Van der Westhuizen (2009): Learning Conversations. The value of interactive learning. Johannesburg, Heinemann. Ch. 3.8 and 3.11 are on debate and disagreement.

Rorty, R. (1989): Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 7.

Zuidland, B. [2016]: Dialogue versus Debate: Justifications for the Community of Inquiry. Paper at the VAPS Conference in Melbourne, April 2016.

Posted by Joe Tyler on 10th October 2016 at 12:00am