Saturday, August 7, 2004


Better to ask or tell? by Burgess Laughlin.

In a conversation that turns to philosophy, which is the better approach to follow?

Should you concentrate on telling the other person what you believe and why you believe it?

Or should you try to identify his position, uncover its foundation, expose the error in his thinking, and then point the way to a better conclusion?

One example situation is a cocktail party sponsored by an academic department. Let's say I am a graduate student, and most of the individuals in the room are professors in my field, History. Some have the power to derail my career or, at the least, make my stay in academia miserable.

Imagine the chairman of the department, now drinking his fifth glass of wine, says, "Bush is going to wreck the country, abandon the poor, and start a world war -- isn't he?

Here I would take a dialectical approach. I would try to understand, first, what he means. For example, I would ask, "The 'country'? Do you mean the economy or are you speaking culturally and socially?"

Then, I would try to find out how he arrived at his conclusion. "So, your idea is that special-interest groups -- such as oil men from Texas -- use the power of government to increase their income?"

I would then follow his answer to wherever it leads. I would hold my own view -- that George Bush and John Kerry are equally corrupt -- in reserve, for just the right moment, if it ever came.

At the end of the conversation, I would know a lot more about the Chairman of the department -- at least his general view of politics, ethics, and -- if only by implication -- his epistemology and metaphysics. That information might be helpful if, years later, he is a member of the committee that reviews my dissertation.

A second example situation is participation in an on-line discussion group that has a moderator, but one who acts only after someone violates guidelines for etiquette.

Here, as a member of the group, I would not engage in "public" conversation with other individual members as individuals. The results of that approach are usually destructive: sliding from disintegrative copy-and-comment posts down to direct personal attacks.

Instead, a better approach -- better for my own learning and for providing ammunition to those who already agree with me but who can't yet articulate their position -- would be to expound my own views rather than question another individual in public.

I would try to essentialize the issue, and then use the communication skills I had learned, particularly from Objectivists I admire, such as Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger, and Peter Schwartz. Their personalities and speaking styles differ, but they have this in common: They are effective in communicating difficult ideas to rational minds who have enough background to understand them.

A third example situation is being a member of a single-issue political action committee. An example would be a group of local people dedicated to preventing the re-introduction of a military draft in the United States. Let's say the steering committee includes Objectivists, Christian pacifists, libertarians, and democratic socialists.

Here I would combine a brief exposition of my own position -- "I oppose a draft because it is an assault on the three basic rights of life, liberty, and property" -- with questioning designed to explicate (not change) the positions of others in the committee. "What do you mean by 'draft'? Are you opposed only to a draft for the current fight against Islamo-fascists or under all conditions? Do you extend the principle to all forms of forced labor? Why?"

These questions would make clear what common ground we have -- if any -- that would allow us to work together on this single-issue campaign while setting aside our fundamental conflicts.

In summary, the question -- To ask or to tell? -- implies a false dichotomy.

I can choose either alternative, neither alternative, or some combination of both alternatives. What should determine my choice? As always, the main determinants are the circumstances -- the facts of where I am, how much time I have, and to whom I am speaking -- and my purpose, both short-term and long-term.

My toolkit of communication should include a wide range of instruments for a variety of circumstances and purposes. Sometimes I need the skills of persuasively and concisely presenting my case to any receptive audience. At other times, I need dialectical skills -- the skills in asking questions that will reveal the other person's position in full form, including its assumptions and consequences, along with its weaknesses.

With a full toolkit for asking and telling, I am ready for any situation involving dialogue.