From Chapter 22 of How to Think About the Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization
by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
Discussion is the method by which adults learn from one another. And as so conceived, it differs quite strikingly from that sort of learning in which an older person teaches a younger person.
Real discussion consists of two or more persons talking to one another, each asking questions, each answering, making remarks and counter-remarks. Such conversation is at its best when the parties to it tend to regard each other as equal. That is the heart of the difference between learning by discussion and learning by instruction. In adult learning by discussion, each party to the discussion is both a teacher and a learner. Just as in the political republic, each citizen is ruler and ruled in turn, so in the adult republic of learning, each adult is both teacher and taught.
With this background, let us consider the nature of adult conversation. And let's consider the rules which should govern it if such conversation is to develop into good, profitable discussion, profitable as a means of learning.
There are three things that are required of conversation for it to become discussion in this good sense.
First of all, the subject matter being discussed must be the sort of subject matter which permits genuine discussion to take place. Not everything is discussable, and not all the things which are discussable are equally discussable. For example, facts are not discussable. If there is a question of fact, the best thing to do is to go to a reference book and look it up. You can't settle a question of fact by discussion. Ideas are discussable, and the more fundamental the ideas, the more controversial they are, the more discussable they are.
The second condition or prerequisite for good discussion is that right motive must prevail. The purpose we have in carrying on our conversation must be to learn, and if persons get engaged in serious discussion of serious themes, then their aim must be to get at the truth, not to win the argument.
The third and perhaps the most important requirement of good discussion is that we should talk to the other person, not just at them. This means that listening is important, an essential part of discussion. In fact, listening is more important, even as it is more difficult, than talking. Because if one person doesn't listen to another, what that person says in the course of the conversation is not going to be very relevant.
I just finished telling you the three basic requirements that conversation must meet if it is going to become discussion, that is profitable for learning. I would like to give you some of the rules that we have to observe to make discussion profitable in this way. These rules fall into two large groups: first, a set of rules governing the use of your mind in discussion; second, a set of rules governing the control of your emotions in discussion.
The five "intellectual" rules:
- Be relevant, which means "find out what the issue is and stick to it." Divide the issue into its parts; every complex issue has parts, and move along from one part to another.
- Don't take things for granted. State your assumptions and see if you can get the other participants to state theirs. Make an effort to find out what the other person's assumptions are.
- Try to avoid arguing fallaciously. Don't cite authority as if they were conclusions. Don't argue ad hominem -- that means, don't argue against the person as opposed to against the point. Don't say to the other person, "Oh, that's the kind of thing Republicans say or Democrats say or Socialists say," as if calling it by that kind of name necessarily proves it wrong. That is a terrible fallacy of guilt by association.
- Don't agree or disagree with the other person until you understand what that person has said. This rule requires you in the course of discussion to say to the other person, "Now let me see if I can say in my own words what you have just said." And then having done that, you turn to them and say, "Is that what you mean?" And if they say, "Yes, it is; that's exactly what I mean," then you are for the first time privileged to say, "I agree with you," or "I disagree with you," and not one moment sooner.
- If, after understanding the other person, you do disagree, state your disagreement specifically and give reasons why. You can tell the other person what is wrong with their argument in four very sharp, specific ways. You can say: 1) "You are uninformed of certain relevant facts and I will show you what they are." 2) "You are misinformed. Some of the things you think are relevant facts aren't facts at all, and I will show you why they are not." 3) "You are mistaken in your reasoning and I will show you the mistakes that you have made." 4) "You don't carry your reasoning far enough. There is more to say than you have said and I will tell you what it is." These are all very polite and much to the point.
The three "emotional" rules:
- Keep your emotions in place. That means, keep them out of the argument, for they have no place in the argument.
- Catch yourself or the other person getting angry. Starting to shout, overemphasizing the point by repeating it again and again, using sarcasm, teasing, getting a laugh on the other person, all these are signs that someone's temper is getting out of hand.
- If you can't control your emotions, at least beware of the results of emotional disorder. Realize that your emotions can lead you either to say things you don't mean, or stubbornly refuse to admit things you really do see.
The hardest thing of all to do in discussion is to know how to ask good questions, the kind of questions that by their very nature generate good discussion. This is the hardest thing because asking good questions is much, much harder than answering them.
We ought to be able to distinguish between questions of fact on the one hand, and questions of interpretation on the other. Such questions as whether something is the case or exists, and on the other hand, what it means, what it implies, what consequences it leads to.
And then we should be able to distinguish between questions of fact and questions of value. Here we ought to know if we are asking about whether something happened, or whether it was good; how someone behaves, or how they should behave; questions of what is the case, as opposed to questions about what should be or what ought to be.
It's very important to distinguish between asking someone what they think, and asking them why they think so. Asking for a statement of belief or opinion is different from asking for the reasons to support that belief or opinion. And above all, we should be able to ask hypothetical ("what if?") questions and recognize them.