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The Difference between Philosophy and Classical Debate

At its core, philosophy seeks to find and outline the path to truth. Debate in contrast may at times be more concerned with disproving the opposition’s stance. Philosophy does not assume in good faith a complete understanding by exemplifying mere error in a given series of counter-arguments. It must take note the full essence of those very arguments in order to deepen collective understanding. To reach a universal unbroken logic and process. It’s not political, it is principle.

Let me take this opportunity to examine my own critique of debate. To ensure I’m not discounting the possibility that pure philosophical statement is not meant to use invalidation as its primary argument; let me ask the following question. Does disproving my claim that philosophy must not assume conclusive evidence to be found by contrasting the common practice in classical debate to debunk an opposite point of view or procedure in of itself contradict the very point I am attempting clarify?
Is this philosophy or debate?

You’re right to point out that debate and philosophy are quite different. My own limited experiences with formalized debate groups during my undergrad were to train participants to out-argue their opponents rather than to discuss a subject with the intention of arriving closer to the truth. It was a combative experience. The purpose of formalized debates seems to be to ready one for political and legal fields–to take a position and argue in its favor regardless of whether you believe it. Those trained in debate make fierce opponents in a battle over persuasion.

Philosophy, in contrast, is not intended to prepare one to “win” arguments. Over-generalizing, the Ancient Greeks believed the purpose of philosophy was to answer the question “how do I live well?” And from this question arose many others related to the nature of reality, how to discern right from wrong, and what the best forms of governance are. These days, building off the foundation of the Greeks and the scaffolding of the modern Western traditions (like Descartes, Kant, and Hume), philosophy takes great and slow pains to lay an occasional brick of truth onto the vast structure that is human knowledge. The methods of doing so are so varied that it can be difficult to know where philosophy begins and where other fields such as science, politics, law, linguistics, and fine arts end.

I would love to continue exploring this here. Perhaps there are topics or questions that some folks have that we could delve into?

That’s a good idea. I personally think some ethical dilemmas or thought experiments might make for interesting conversation. I wonder how we can apply these thoughts to our writing.

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Here’s one meant to test our intuitions around absolute right and wrong vs utilitarianism (maximizing for the greater good). It comes from the British philosopher Bernard Williams.

Jim is a botanist on an expedition in the Amazon to collect undocumented species for his university. One day as he is hiking through a section of jungle he hears voices and comes into a clearing. There he sees 20 people bound and arranged in front of a firing squad of several men. The captain of the squad notices Jim and orders an armed soldier bring him forward. After some back-and-forth in Jim’s clumsy Portugese, he understands that the 20 captives are Amazonians who have been protesting the recent burning of their jungle for agriculture. The soldiers are there to kill them as a warning to other tribes in the area that the government has control over the area.

But the captain has made Jim an offer: because Jim is a guest from a distant land, he may shoot one of the Amazonians himself. If he does, as a mark of the occasion, the captain will let the other 19 Amazonians go. If Jim refuses, he may leave unharmed, but it is as though he had never arrived onto the scene and the execution goes as planned. The armed soldiers watch Jim carefully.

What would you do in Jim’s shoes?