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In discussion, we deliberate for the sake of coming to the truth; in argument, we abandon the mutual pursuit of truth because our purpose is to triumph.

Sharing ideas for the sake of truth

platoA discussion is an orderly confrontation based on a mutual willingness to learn from one another. It involves the presentation of evidence by each party and then a good-faith attempt of the participants in the discussion to come to agreement.

Discussion presupposes some degree of rational disagreement between us or at least a lack of consensus. If I agreed with you already, we would have nothing to discuss. In a discussion, I do not primarily want to disagree: I want to know the truth. If I do not think that what you say is true, then I disagree, stating my reasons as clearly as possible and without animosity. The same is true for you: you present me with your reasons. By sharing our ideas freely, we hope to arrive at a deeper truth. In a discussion, disagreement is for the sake of agreement.

Discussions may occur in all sorts of contexts. Scientists come together to discuss the results of their research, hoping to learn from each other. Seminars are designed to encourage discussion among participants, for in such a dialogue new insights and deeper truths may emerge. Among family members, discussions seek mutual understanding of relationships and "responsibilities. Legislative discussions are central to the political ideal of representative government.

"Discussion teaches and exercises
at the same time. If I discuss with a
strong mind and a stiff jouster, he
presses on my flanks, prods me right
and left; his ideas launch mine."

, Bk. 3, ch. 8

Fighting over ideas for personal victory

An argument (emotional, not rational) is a disorderly confrontation based on an unwillingness to learn from one another. Desire for victory takes precedence over love of truth, with the result that agreement becomes impossible.

Although they may have rational grounds for disagreement in the first place, all arguments include an element of bad faith — we are not, with all honesty, pursuing the truth together. Rather, in an argument I simply want my position to be the right one and you to agree with me. I am, indeed, looking for agreement, but on my terms, not in terms of objective truth. Instead of my following reason and leaving passion aside, passion is primary, and reason (if it has a role) works in the service of passion. Quite often, in order to end an argument, we agree to disagree.

Arguments often displace fruitful discussions. Scientists may refuse to share information, accusing each other of stealing ideas. Seminar discussions may degenerate into passionate yelling matches if the participants do not focus on the common work of coming to the truth. Family squabbles may replace open discussions so that power rules in place of reason. Politicians may forget their common purpose in promoting community and turn to character assassination.

"One cool judgment
is worth a thousand
hasty counsels. The thing
to do is to supply light,
not heat."

Woodrow Wilson
Speech in Pittsburgh, 22 January 1916



brownMontague Brown. "Discussion/Argument." In The One-Minute Philosopher (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2001) 32-33.

Reprinted with permission of Montague Brown and Sophia Institute Press.

The Author

brown1brownMontague Brown began a lifelong love affair with philosophy by reading the Dialogues of Plato. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston College and now holds the The Richard L. Bready Chair of Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. The author of The One-Minute Philosopher, Half Truths: What's Right (and What's Wrong) With the Cliché's You and I Live With, Restoration of Reason: The Eclipse And Recovery Of Truth, Goodness And Beauty, The Quest for Moral Foundations, The Romance of Reason: An Adventure in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas.

When he's not in the classroom, the professor spends time writing, skiing on the local cross-country trails, or providing the rock-steady beat of the bass in a faculty jazz quartet. In the summer, this philosopher might be hiking in his home state of Maine or presenting a paper in Rome.

Copyright © 2001 Montague Brown
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