Sunday, May 11, 2008

The End(s) of Discussion

Life (especially for bloggers) affords limitless opportunities to engage in disputes. Far, far too many to be able to pursue them all. So I guess we just pursue those few discussions which strike us as particularly interesting and enjoyable. Can we say any more than this? Are there distinctive features of a good or worthwhile discussion? Can you identify any rules of thumb you follow in deciding (i) whether to leave a comment, and (ii) whether to continue or quit an ongoing exchange?

No doubt there are many possible ends an online conversation might serve. For example:
(1) Collaborative inquiry, in pursuit of knowledge and understanding.
(2) Asymmetric teaching, or the imparting of knowledge and understanding to others.
(3) Non-epistemic goals, e.g. creating/reinforcing social ties, "winning" an intellectual competition, etc.

Let's just consider epistemic goals. Discussions between epistemic peers (i.e. #1) tend to be the most interesting and rewarding. It's really wonderful to have the opportunity to improve one's understanding, as when others discern potential flaws in one's initial views. But what about the other case? There are plenty of people out there who are not epistemic peers. Arrogant though this may sound, sometimes you can tell that your disputant is in the grip of a certain confusion, or that they don't really understand the issue, so that there's little you can learn from them.*

The main motivation for continuing, then, will be that niggling itch we feel when "someone is wrong on the internet". They're in a bad state, and so we feel some pull to help make this clear to them, to set them right. Moreover, the act of teaching always has some benefit to the teacher's own understanding, as per my footnote below. So it's not a total waste of time. But if this is time that could have been spent engaging with more insightful interlocutors, this opportunity cost may still be sufficient to deter one whose primary goal is to improve their (own) understanding (or even that of the broader community, if the mistake in question is not widespread).

This relates to my old post, 'engaging persons or ideas?' If we're just interested in ideas for their own sake, then many discussions (i.e. with people who lack sufficient understanding of the relevant ideas) will probably not be worth having. If we think the discussions are worthwhile nonetheless, it must be because we value engaging with the other person.

* = But compare R. Porter:
Almost every new way I have to devise to explain a concept (and sometimes these are pretty simple concepts and thick-headed pupils) makes that concept clearer to me. It's not that the students know something useful that I don't; it's that I need to learn a new facet or explore an uncharted avenue in order to teach them.


  1. "that they don't really understand the issue"

    This sounds like a communication issue. But what has not been communicated properly is the problem (or maybe the rules?).

    If the goal is to locate an ideal set of rules to follow it is to a large extent a psychology and self knowledge issue, which may be beyond the scope of this blog.

  2. I assume this is aimed (at least in part) at me? I'm guessing that some of the failure to communicate, which I take to be a charitable interpretation of not understanding the issue, rests on having vastly different philosophical backgrounds and concerns. I think this is a general problem for philosophy and possible an insurmountable one. Whatever.

  3. Oh, if anything I was thinking of recent discussions I've had on other blogs. But in any case, it's not meant to be "aimed" at anyone. I'd rather float the general issue in the abstract.

  4. In my experience the conversations that are the most wearing are not those with people who don't know what they're talking about, but with people whose priorites are so different from yours that what they regard as important you regard as unimportant and vice versa. Both sides go at each other, or at least one side goes at the other, with gusto on a point the other person considers to be a mere distraction from the main issue. After all, you are usually in a position of advantage with those who don't know what they're talking about (an advantage to both of you), but with the other kind you just start feeling harrassed (in some cases the other party is just being absurd or rude, but in others it's not really anybody's fault, just the result of being so different).

    I think you may be onto something in the last part of your fourth paragraph, though; I'm mainly online to improve my understanding of various subjects, and this does affect what disputes I think worth getting into.

  5. I think a lot of our motivation to respond to people who are wrong on the internet comes from desires other than helping them out. Many of us just have a noninstrumental desire to correct people who have said false things. (This desire often gets cultivated in academia.)

    I can remember many discussions, including some in job interviews, when I probably shouldn't have let this desire determine my behavior.

  6. I tend to think that participating in a discussion is costless so long as the comments don't get too long. So, I usually give in to the internet correcting desire, regardless of the status of the other participant(s) unless it would require too much effort, i.e. lengthy argument/explanation and not an epistemic peer.

  7. One of the main reasons I engage is because I've noticed that perceptions of epistemic asymmetry are themselves symmetric. Everyone who argues with me seems to think that I'm their epistemic inferior...

    So I engage in an attempt to find a criteria for breaking this symmetry. Unfortunately the only one I've found so far is the normal one: experiment. Which, naturally, require budgets.


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