Saturday, March 06, 2021

Querying vs Dismissive Objections

It's worth distinguishing two very different ways of presenting an objection, and the two associated dialectical roles that an objection can play.

(1) Constructive* Querying objections serve the role of creating a dialectical opening, posing a challenge to which the target is invited to respond.  Questions like: "How would your view deal with X?" or "How much of a problem do you think Y poses for your view?" are paradigmatically querying objections, as I'm using the term here.  A key feature of querying objections is that they are not presented as presumptively decisive; if anything, the opposite might be the case: the critic may well presume that their target has a good response available, and they're curious to learn what it is.

(2) Dismissive objections, by contrast, aim to shut down the dialectic, demonstrating that the target view is hopeless and that no further time should be wasted discussing it.  They may typically take the form of statements rather than (genuine, non-rhetorical) questions.  By their nature, dismissive objections are presented as presumptively decisive, though of course the critic need not be dogmatic about this: while expecting that the target has no good response, they should still remain open to being surprised.

With this distinction in hand, are there any interesting observations worth making about the two approaches?  Querying objections are obviously friendlier, and more pleasant to be on the receiving end of.  So they seem especially appropriate in collegial contexts, like colloquium talks.  More than that, they seems to communicate a spirit of open-mindedness, respect, and intellectual humility that many may regard as philosophical virtues more generally.

That said, I think there is a legitimate place for dismissive objections in intellectual (and especially public) discourse.  Some positions really are hopelessly misguided, after all, and it really would be better for those facts to be more widely recognized!  One can, of course, raise strategic questions about how best to persuade various possible target audiences, but even so, the underlying goal of refuting misguided views is surely a legitimate one.

So I think that both approaches have their place.  But it may still be helpful to keep the distinction in mind, since it's easy to write in a way that's ambiguous, or that comes off as treating one's objection as presumptively decisive without explicitly intending this. This may be worth being careful about, because while a misguided querying objection is innocuous enough, making misguided dismissive objections is not such a great look.

Any objections?

* UPDATE: In light of helpful facebook comments, two further points:

(1) 'Constructive' was the wrong term to use, since the contribution may still be wholly negative or "destructive" in nature, while being framed in an open and friendly way that invites response.  So I've changed this label to 'Querying'. (Is anyone aware of standard terminology for this distinction?  It must have been discussed before...)

(2) You can believe that an objection is in fact decisive whilst still presenting it in a "querying" rather than "dismissive" way.  E.g., "X strikes me as a decisive objection to your view.  What do you think?"  And in some contexts (e.g. friendly seminar discussions), even a direct statement like, "The following strikes me as a decisive objection..." could be understood to implicitly include an invitation to respond, and so constitute a querying rather than dismissive objection in that context.  So I don't mean to suggest that direct statements of decisive objections are always dismissive.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings Richard, happy to have found your blog.

    It seems dismissive objections are often
    used as a way to escape an inconvenient argument. I call it the "above it all" defense. The challenger wishes to declare victory, without having to go to the trouble of meeting and defeating the assertion they are addressing. They often don't wish to address the claim directly, because they've already realized they won't be able to do so effectively.

    This rhetoric strategy is highly efficient, at the cost of often lacking credibility. It seems particularly common in cases where professionals are engaging the public, though it can appear anywhere.

    Perhaps the best response to the "above it all" defense is to allow the challenger to leave the conversation in peace, and then continue with the argument.


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