Conversation, Debate, Argument, Fight: How to tell the difference Pt. 1

Conversation, Debate, Argument, Fight: How to tell the difference Pt. 1

Posted Sep 29, 2010

"God, why are you jumping down my throat! I'm not arguing with you. We're not fighting. Why attack me? I'm just sharing my opinion!"

Different kinds of dialogue call for different kinds of engagement. Guess the kind of dialog incorrectly and you cause all sorts of trouble for yourself and others. And yet guessing right isn't easy. One reason is that the terms we use to describe different kinds of dialogue are subjective. What, for example is an argument? Is it more like a conversation, a debate or a fight? If it's different from those other kinds of engagements, how is it different?

You're conversing with someone and it starts to feel competitive. You say "I'd rather not fight about this," and she says, "This is not a fight. It's just a conversation." How do you know if she means it? Maybe she says that just to clarify and de-escalate, or maybe she's trying competitively to score a point by claiming she's not competing, saying, "fighting is bad and you're turning this into a fight. That means you're to blame."

If our definitions for different kinds of dialog were objective, then saying "this is not a fight, it's a conversation" would be as innocuous as saying, "This is not a Wednesday, it's a Thursday." Since our definitions are subjective her declaration is more like, "This is not good, it's bad." I've written elsewhere about they ways we can use subjective labels as though they are objective ones. The syntax is identical. "It's raining" and "It's stupid," for example.

Terms like argument, conversation and fight are subjective, used as though they are objective, and it can cause confusion and even fights:

She: This is not a fight.
He: Yes it is.
She: No it's not.

There is a way around such fights over subjective terminology, open to those who, in philosophy are called "nominalists." Nominalists recognize that words are promiscuous, meaning different things to different people. Still, nominalists believe that such promiscuity can be corralled through explicit agreement on definitions. "Nomo-" means law, or convention. Nominalists can make up for-the-sake-of-argument conventions, for example saying, "Let's define our terms. In this dialogue can we define a fight as a dialogue in which there's pushing and shoving?"

Two nominalists might have different ideas of the best definition for a subjective term. They might have to negotiate to come to a for-the-sake-of-argument agreement on how to define it. But the stakes aren't high. They don't have to agree on the "real" or "objective" meaning of a term, just a meaning the two of them can stick to in a particular discourse.

There are non-nominalists who really can't go along with this for-the-sake-of-argument game, because they don't consider definitions subjective at all. These folks are called "essentialists." They're the kind who would say, for example "No, a fight is when you start yelling. You should know that!," as though the word "fight" has an objective definition. Definitional stakes are higher for them, because they are not OK with the subjectivity of definitions. They claim to have defined terms objectively. They aren't going to go along with your definition if they think it's "objectively wrong."

I am a nominalist. As conversation gets conflictual, I'm very likely to propose that we define terms. And I'm happy to go with any definition you choose, but then will try to hold us to it. And I'm happy to venture definitions too, for the sake of argument.

The difference between nominalists and essentialists is over how to handle those terms about which there isn't natural definitional consensus. Nominalists believe you have to craft provisional consensus explicitly. Essentialists worry that nominalists grant themselves too much liberty to distort terms. They believe that instead one should find the objective essence that even subjective terms have. For example, an essentialists might, at the extreme say, "good" is not a subjective term. Good is what we call things that are filled with the essence of good that was created at the beginning of the universe. Likewise evil. In the beginning of the universe, two separate essences were created: Good and evil. It should be obvious to all of us which things have these essences in them.

Nominalists like me worry that essentialism grants even more freedom to distort terms than nominalism does, being subjective in interpreting what they call "essences," but claiming the authority of objectivity. No matter what there will be negotiation over the definition of subjective terms, and essentialism can be a form of bullying, a claim to access to absolute authority.

The essentialist concern about nominalism is worth heeding though. After all, what, if anything constrains our definitions? What keeps nominalists from muddling everything by, say, defining a fight as "kissing and hugging."

A nominalist like me would say, "consequences." For example, in the second article in this pair, I'm going to venture some definitions that might help clarify differences between conversation, debate, argument and fight and I'll do it with an eye to consequences. Different kinds of dialog call for different kinds of interaction. Just as you don't want to show up at a gunfight with a knife, you don't want to show up at a conversation with fighting words, and you don't want to show up at a fight with conversational words. On that last point I'd expect some readers to say, "Oh, yes you do. If you converse with someone who is ready to fight, you can turn it into a conversation." But think about it: If you're Republican, remember that you "can't negotiate with a terrorist." If you're liberal remember that these days "you can't negotiate with a Republican." And if you're a fighter remember what gains can be had by saying, "hey, let's not fight, and then sucker punching your opponent. No it really does matter what you bring to the dialog. Fights are real and call for different behavior than arguments do.

I say these definitions of mine might help and I don't mean that as a sign of humility. I mean that we nominalists recognize that our definitions are guesses at how to "carve the universe at its joints," to make the distinctions that yield the right results. It's guess work, open to conversation, debate argument. For example, my definitions here of nominalist and essentialist-even those are open to debate.

Bonus philosophical note about carving the universe at its joints: There are really two different questions addressed by nominalists and essentialists. One is the question addressed in above, which is whether our definitions are objective, capturing the essential nature of reality or whether instead definitions are things we make up.

The other question is whether there is an essential nature to reality in the first place. In other words, does the universe have joints you can carve it at? Does phenomena fall into natural categories or is every phenomenon unique?

This is a debate that goes back to medieval times, a question about "generals" or "universals." Does the universe have categories, types of things, or is it all just in our heads? If Socrates is in Paris and Plato is in London, where is man? Is the category "horse" real, and if so where is "horse?"

On this second question there are nominalists. They say, "nope, there's just one damn thing after another. Every horse is different. All categories are conventions, conveniences that simplify the universe that is without categories. We pretend the universe has joints, because we can't deal otherwise."

On this question there are others who say, "no, there really are categories or types of behavior in nature. There is, in nature, an essence of man and an essence of horse. On this question essentialists are called "realists" meaning that they think there are real categories in the universe.

The first question is an "epistemological" one. It's about how we interpret and claim to know things. The second question is an "ontological" one. It's about what's real in the universe.

Confusing right? I'll summarize:

Epistemological nominalist: We guess subjectively at definitions of the categories.
Epistemological essentialists: We see clearly and objectively the categories.
Ontological nominalists: There are no real categories in the universe. All there is, is our guessing.
Ontological realists: There are real natural categories in the universe.

Me, I'm an ontological realist and an epistemological nominalist. I believe there are real categories and we guess at them.

I once proposed a book called "You and who else: A name-dropper's guide to the philosophers who agree with you." It was full of quick tests for figuring out what category your assumptions fall into. It's kind of disappointing at first to recognize that you fit a category. But at least you get bragging rights. Think of it.

You're talking to a friend over coffee and you casually drop the line, "Yeah, well, me I'm an epistemological essentialist and an ontological realist."

Impressive, eh?! Them's some ten dollar words!

On a logistical note:  I leave Friday for Tahiti where I am joining two friends to sail to Hawaii.  No I am not a sailor.  I think of the ocean as a dark damp place where fish swim about uncooked. Still, we'll have a good time talking, and lots of time for that.  I don't know if I'll get part two out before I leave. If not, see you in about a month!