Socrates is given his hemlock sentence after his trial

How Do You Win A Philosophical Debate?

People have been arguing with each other for as long as they’ve been able to communicate, and the manifestation of the internet and social media has only amplified the opinionated discord. People debate anything from politics to poultry, but the question remains; how does a person know when they’ve won a philosophical debate or political argument? Upon examining the age-old techniques of the brightest minds throughout history, the template seems consistent, as well as simple.

First, we have to understand what philosophy is. Per the Greek translation, philosophy literally means ‘to love wisdom.’ Well, what is wisdom? The DIKW chart may have the clearest breakdown.

Wisdom is the digestion of information, and a precise, as well as timely, application of knowledge. To put it plainly, wisdom is a combination of factual knowledge and experience.

But being wise isn’t enough to win an argument. Without the proper method and approach to a debate, anyone can be overturned and dismissed. There are established techniques practiced by the best that are almost guaranteed to push the argument into a victorious avalanche onto your opposition’s head.

  1. Establish Credibility

In order to participate in a legitimate debate, a person must prove they have the knowledge and understanding of the topic material. If I step into an argument about birthing practices or breastfeeding, I’ll likely be dismissed right out of the gate because I’m not a mother and will only have personal opinions to offer.

Now, if I enter an argument on birthing or breastfeeding, but explain that I’m a doctor who specializes in maternal care, or I’m a father and anatomy professor, I now have the credentials to be heard and recognized within the debate. Establishing credibility is very important in modern debate because many people pretend to be experts, especially when engaging on the internet.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle explored the idea of establishing credibility among those within a debate in his book Rhetoric. Aristotle explains that ethos (authority on a subject) should be the first step during debate, otherwise, why should anyone take that person seriously? Aristotle goes on to concede that the ethos approach is limited and should only be used as a stepping stone to more complex argumentative tactics.

  1. Become Familiar With Fallacies So You Can Avoid Them

Socrates, perhaps the most famous Western philosopher, was a staunch critic of pseudo-philosophers, better known as sophists. These philosophers were clever mainstream thinkers (very comparable to the modern day troll, as well as journalists, speechwriters, and politicians) who sold their cognitive services to nobles. These state officials would employ sophists to explain and defend potentially bad ideas to the public, making them seem beneficial instead of detrimental. Sophists regularly employed fallacies, or unsound arguments, to convince their audiences of whatever the upper class wanted them to believe. Average citizens were none the wiser to these tactics in ancient Greece.

From red herrings to strawman arguments, modern debate is riddled with fallacious ideas that really only stagnate philosophy and freethinking. By learning what fallacies are, a person can effectively avoid them while participating in a debate.

By familiarizing oneself with the pitfalls of fallacy, one will also become familiar with Aristotle’s other lines of thinking; logos and pathos. Logos is the way of logic and factual debate, whereas pathos is a tactic employed by those who seek to appeal to emotion during an argument. Logos is effective because if used correctly, it almost can’t be argued with. Logical deduction based on facts is the surest way to victory in a debate.

  1. Use The Socratic Method

Socrates was also known for his relentless method of questioning, better known as the Socratic method. Socrates was so unimpressed with sophistry and the fallacies used within that he crafted his own approach to arguments that was so effective (and annoying), it actually contributed to his death sentence, handed down to him from the Athenian council.

The Socratic method is a questioning template that seeks to root out underlying predispositions and instead inject critical thinking, as further examined by the University of Chicago. The Socratic method is a way for philosophers to pinpoint the contradictions within their opposition’s argument. Once the contradictions are located in a person’s position, their argument is debased and dismissed a lot easier.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer cited a similar technique in his strategies for debate. Schopenhauer explained that “when your opponent puts forth a proposition, find it inconsistent with the rest of his or her statements, beliefs, actions, or lack of actions.” Many do the work of dismantling their arguments themselves, and the philosophers of old recognize that all one needs to do is locate where a person’s idea is weak and move forward from there.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the endgame of any debate is to convince them of an opposing outlook on a topic. Even if the outlook isn’t yours, making someone concede that there are legitimate arguments outside of their own is a near victory.

By specifically establishing oneself as a credible mind on the argument at hand, a person is taken more seriously by proxy. Credentials are important in philosophical debate, and they make room for less run-around. That is, those participating in the debate understand that each person has a clear understanding of the topic and could even be more knowledgeable.

If a person can effectively avoid fallacies, their argument will be that much stronger in practice. Perhaps more importantly, a person engaging in a philosophical debate should be able to recognize fallacies used by their opposition. This is a component of the Socratic method.

With as long as people have been debating, it’s no surprise that some philosophers have gotten really, really good at it. The fact remains; there is a model and method to winning a philosophical debate or political discussion. It’s on the thinker to develop his or her tools and tactics, so they are not outgunned in an argument.

[Featured Image by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

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