Arguing on the internet

I spend a fair bit of time in comments defending my articles, explaining my meaning in greater length, and thanking people for sincere and thoughtful contributions.

Actually, I spend a lot of time, but it’s rewarding.  I get to see what people think, challenge them, defend myself, learn from them, and sometimes engage in the most interesting conversations.

One of the lessons I learned early on was that there are plenty of people who appear to be after the truth, but who are in fact just looking for a fight.  They use the language of philosophy and argumentation, but really they are only interested in winning.

Thanks to a recent lecture on Plato’s dialogues, I learned that this approach is called ‘Eristic’.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

eristic, (from Greek eristikos, “fond of wrangling”), argumentation that makes successful disputation an end in itself rather than a means of approaching truth. Such argumentation reduces philosophical inquiry to a rhetorical exercise. Eristic argument is closely associated with the Sophists and was ridiculed by Plato in his dialogue Euthydemus. The term is often used more broadly to characterize arguments that rely on subtle but specious forms of reasoning.

I’ll leave you with an abridged version of my latest comment on my MercatorNet article


You shouldn’t apologise for leading someone to the truth.

The quality of internet debate is generally quite low, so you’ll have to forgive me for not taking you up on these points sooner, and allowing instead a more casual discourse. Personally, I find it embarrassing to be wrong, and so I try to read and reread carefully my own and others’ points before invoking logical fallacies and telling people explicitly that they’re probably wrong.

If I may offer some strategic advice: you’re at a disadvantage in picking an argument over a line made in passing in an article that was not explicitly the subject of the whole article, because the author (me) knows much better than the reader what he actually meant by that statement, and readers must either draw out a great deal more information, or risk making rash assumptions about the intended meaning.

After all, my initial line in the article was so ambiguous that picking it out as worthy of sustained debate suggests to me (as author) that either a) I’ve unwittingly committed some horrendous faux pas, or b) the commenter has an axe to grind, or is simply looking for a fight, such that he is willing to engage on the mere possibility that my line made in passing might uncover a hidden trove of bad thinking and hidden fallacies.

In tandem with this advice, might I suggest more generally that you practice the principle of charity in argumentative discourse? That is, err on the side of giving your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt by interpreting his arguments in their strongest possible light. Not only does this save oneself the embarrassment of being overly rash in error, it also trains oneself to find the strongest arguments in any context, and thereby strengthens one’s own position as well.

Otherwise, one might come across as a proponent of Eristic argument.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s