Press "Enter" to skip to content

Classical Disputations: How to Make Conversation Productive

YouTube player

This is William Michael of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. Tonight I’d like to talk about a topic that I believe can radically improve conversation among Christians and non-Christians. It’s a topic that I taught, it was in my last private school teaching job, and it was the result of my teaching on this topic that convinced me that I needed to start the classical liberal arts academy when I did back in 2008. The topic is the classical disputation.

In our society today, we hear a lot about the need for dialogue. We have all of these amazing social media channels available to us. And while billions, literally billions of people make use of the social media channels, we really don’t know how to make good use of them, we don’t make good use of them. Most people spend their time on social media, just reading news and following gossip headlines, posting silly memes and things like that. It’s just silliness. It’s lazy, entertainment, gossip, and so on. We really don’t know how to make effective use of these things. And often when someone raises a serious question, or an interesting topic for discussion, others scoff at the idea of having a serious discussion on social media, as if social media is not the appropriate place for any serious discussion where I believe social media is actually the perfect place for serious discussion. And if we understood the classical disputation, that is if we understood how to discuss controversial topics. We would see that social media is a perfect medium for these discussions. And so in this talk, I’d like to explain the classical disputation and provide some instructions for how Christians can actually discuss controversial subjects and make progress in those discussions. Like I said, it’s it’s common today to hear people talking about the need for dialogue. That sounds nice. You know, obviously, dialogue is better than violence. That’s usually the context of those statements. We don’t want to see violence breakout, we don’t want to see division. We want there to be dialogue. But that dialogue can only be profitable, if both sides in these discussions, know how to go about having dialogue on controversial subjects. So I’d like to talk about the classical disputation, and how it can help direct our dialogue day by day and make it profitable for everyone involved, whether you’re one of the people involved directly in the discussion, or whether you’re simply reading and reflecting on what you see other people discussing.

To begin with, we have to make it clear that there are only certain topics, certain questions that are appropriate for a classical disputation. They have to be controversial questions. For example, we’re not going to discuss whether snow is white or not. That’s a matter of simple observation. We don’t deliberate on or dispute, questions of simple observation. Likewise, we don’t dispute topics that are already known. This is one of the major errors among modern Catholics in in discussions among Catholics, and I talked about this in another talk today about the Liturgy of the Hours. Issues of faith and morals are issues that are some object to authority. And that authority rests with the hierarchy of the church. We don’t dispute questions of faith and morals, we obey in questions of faith and morals. That’s the whole point of authority. And if you deny the authority of the Catholic Church, well, then that reveals that we have other issues to discuss before we discuss many of the controversial issues most controversial issues in religion, are not actually issues that relate to the topics that are argued about they relate to some deeper or some, I should say, some prior issue that has to be resolved first, for example, to see Catholics and Protestants argue about the meaning of a certain passage of scripture ignores the fact that we have to settle whether or not there is an authoritative church before we can get into debates about what any passage of scripture means. Because if there is an authoritative church, and if the authority to interpret Sacred Scripture lies with that authoritative church, then it’s not appropriate for us to dispute the meaning of Bible passages. Those are matters of authority. So the question of authority would come before any controversy or dispute over the meaning of a Bible passage, we have to agree on principles before we can enter into any dispute. If we don’t, then we’re simply wrangling. And those wrangling discussions go on forever, you’ve probably participated in wrangling discussions that just go on and on. The reason why that happens is because there is no common ground established first, to which everyone is accountable, we first have to establish principles on which we agree, things that we know and believe to be true. And then to argue from them, and draw conclusions on other topics if we don’t establish common principles. It’s like trying to have a conversation without first establishing a common language. It’s just a waste of time. Many people like to engage in those discussions and just wrangle forever and pretend like they’re accomplishing something, when they’re only revealing that they don’t understand how reasoning and classical disputation works. So when we have a controversial subject, by controversial, we mean that it’s worth disputing. It’s appropriate for a classical disputation. It’s controversial. There are reasonable respectable arguments that can be made on both sides of the issue.

A great place to start if you’d like to understand what controversial topics look like, is the Summa Theologica. In the Summa Theologica, we’ll see St. Thomas, ask a question. And these aren’t any questions. These are controversial questions. And the way that we can tell that they’re controversial questions is that sometimes, if you read st. Thomas’s answer to the question, and then you read the objections that St. Thomas provides, which represent the other side, you’ll often find that the objections are pretty good. The answers to the questions that come from the so called objectors are often ideas that we hold at the time when we’re studying the Summa and then we learn St. Thomas’s response and see his refutations. To those objections, but the objections are usually pretty good. That’s the proof that these are controversial questions. Both sides are respectable. St. Thomas, his position is obviously respectable, but the objections are not crazy. They’re not ridiculous. They’re real. They’re respectable answers to the question. And we really have to dig down and find the answers by getting after the principles from which those answers can be drawn. The questions of the Summa theologia Juca are controversial questions, questions that are appropriate for classical disputation, for for discussion for dialogue. Sticking with the Summa theologia, GM will also see that the questions that are answered are not open ended questions. They’re questions that have only two possible answers yes or no? will ask a question like whether God is simple or not. These are dialectical questions. These are controversial questions, questions worth deliberating on questions worth disputing? But the questions that are asked are questions that can be addressed through discussion, because they are presented in a way where whoever is going to answer the question has to pick between one of two contraries, either yes or no. And then provide the proof that he believed proves his response to be true. So they have to be controversial questions worth discussing, appropriate for debate. And they also have to be questions that present us with a pair of contraries to choose from. either yes or no. If we ask the right questions, and if we ask the right questions in the right way, we can have profitable discussions, we can have real disputations and make some progress. So that’s the first problem. The first problem is we simply discuss inappropriate topics. And that leads to useless, endless wrangling. You see this all over social media. And like I said, it reveals the fact that the people arguing don’t understand what real discussion is. They just go on forever. We have to ask questions that are appropriate for disputation. We have to ask them in the right way to allow for disputation. And again, a perfect example of this as found in the Summa Theologica. So we don’t have to sit around wondering what this looks like the Summa Theologica shows us what this looks like. Every question that St. Thomas asks is answered with a yes or no. These are true, controversial questions, true questions, worthy of disputation? Now, once we’ve established an appropriate question, the way that a classical disputation works is that one person prepares a response to the question. And again, looking at the Summa Theologica, we see St. Thomas do this in the part where he says, I answer that, that’s his response to the question. So when we have a controversial question that presents us with an appropriate topic, with a yes or no answer choice. Someone has to volunteer to answer the question to be the respondent. It’s called the respondent the person who prepares the response to the question and that person is responsible to present his thesis that is his answer to the question, along with the positive proofs for his answer, demonstrative hopefully, demonstrative proofs that show his answer to be necessary and true. That’s the work of the respondent. What we also see St Thomas do is include objections and then refutations to those objections, but they come later. The first thing that needs to be done is that someone needs to respond to the question, choose an answer and provide proof for that answer. This is a positive response to the question. This can be done through a blog post. This can be done through a Facebook post. Someone needs to answer the question. Now once a person posts an answer or response to the question once someone Volland Here’s to be the respondent. Others should consider the question and then read the response. As they read the response, they should be looking for one of two things that they might object to. First of all, they should look for any assertions that are made any premises that are stated that are not absolutely certain. Because if a premise is not certain, then a conclusion drawn from it cannot be certain. I’m not saying that the assertion must be false. I’m simply saying if the respondent establishes an argument based on a premise, that’s not absolutely certain, that argument is not absolutely certain either. And the conclusion is not certain. And therefore, there is no demonstration. There’s no proof in an argument based on a premise. That’s not true. That’s what demonstration is. So we look at the premises we look at the the assertions that the respondent makes, and we ask the things that he takes for granted the things that he assumed to be true. Are they, in fact, known to be true? And again, I’m not saying we accused them of being false. We don’t need to go that far. We simply need to ask whether the assertions or premises are certain. Because if they’re not, the conclusions are not certain either. demonstration is supposed to argue from true premises. So that’s the first thing we look for the premises from which the respondent argues need to be true, and certain. And if they’re not, we object, we object to a specific premise. And we state that this specific premise is not known to be true. That’s the first thing we look for. The second thing we look for a response is whether or not the argument is actually syllogistic. And you’re going to need to study the art of reasoning to be able to do this because you have to know what a true syllogism is. Many people talk about things being logical, and yet they’ve never studied the art of reasoning. They really can’t explain what it means for something to be logical. They just pretend to everyone knows, but everyone doesn’t know what it means to be logical. For something to be syllogistic what we need to know first off is that a syllogism is an argument and listen carefully because this is this is the real definition of a syllogism syllogism is a is a is a logical argument. A syllogism is a certain speech, we might say where two things being true. A third thing necessarily arises from these two things being true. A third thing necessarily arises from them. And the key there is the word necessarily. What makes something logical is that when we have two premises, these two premises have a certain relationship. And that necessarily leads to a conclusion that is a third assertion is produced necessarily from these two premises. And so when someone makes an argument, the first thing we look at is whether or not the premises are known to be true. And the second thing we look at is whether or not the conclusion that’s drawn actually arises necessarily from the premises that are stated. So when we read a response to a question, that’s what we’re looking for, we’re looking for whether or not the premises are certain, and whether or not the conclusions do in fact, follow necessarily from those premises. That’s all that we’re looking for. In a classical disputation, we’re reading someone’s response to it Question. And if they respond appropriately, we’ll be able to see their arguments, we’ll be able to identify the premises they argue from. And we’ll be able to see how those premises lead to conclusions. And then we’ll evaluate the premises and the conclusions to see whether or not the arguments are acceptable. That’s the purpose of reading a response. If we find that an assertion made is not known to be true, we object we object concerning a specific statement. And we demand a demonstration of that statement. We don’t have to accept anything, the burden of proof is with the person who makes the statement. We don’t have to accept any statement that we have no reason to assume to be true. And the respondent has no right to demand that we accept his assertions to be true, when there is no necessary reason to accept them as known. And like I said, the other thing we’re looking for is to see that his conclusions do actually follow from the premises that he states. And a good response will make this easy. That’s the point to show the demonstration of the thesis. And to do so in a clear way. The ideal response would allow for no objection. And the objections have to come from the response that is, what should never happen is what we see all over social media and discussions that that produce no good, what will happen. And I see this all the time on my own social media pages. I’ll write a post in which I respond to some controversial question. I’ll provide my arguments for it. And someone will see the question that I’ve raised, and they’ll see that I’ve written a response. They won’t even necessarily read the response, they’ll simply post their own response to the question. And that’s not appropriate. The main reason why that’s not appropriate is because it’s my social media page. And it’s not the appropriate place for someone else to post their response to a question. Your response belongs on your page. And so simply posting your opinions or posting your answers on other people’s pages is useless wrangling. If someone posts a response, and they respond appropriately, what you should do is read the response and check the premises and the conclusions. And that’s it. You shouldn’t raise other issues, you shouldn’t raise other arguments. Because anytime we answer a question, we’re not going to address every single possible argument that can be made on a certain subject. When a person responds, those readings simply respond to that response with objections if there are any. They don’t raise new issues. They don’t post their own opinions. They don’t post their own responses. They simply read the response and either raise an objection or leave it alone. Now if a person raises an objection, they question, a certain premise or a conclusion. The original respondent then works to refute the objection by showing that the premise for example, actually is assumed to be true or known to be true. Now, the objection should not be contentious. And what that means is that the objector should not object to something that is actually widely held and known to be true, but he’s just objecting for the sake of being annoying or contentious. That’s not the point of an objection. The point of an objection is to raise a concern that something assumed really can’t be justified. The respondent really doesn’t have support for assuming a certain thing to be true. You know, it’s an idea that’s not popular. It’s an idea that’s not held by wise men that’s contradicted by authoritative sources, things like that. There’s no reason for that assertion to be assumed to be known. And we’ll find people doing this all the time, assuming things that they have no right to assume, aren’t reasonable to assume or take for granted, things that are not granted. So the objections should stick to the content of the response. And if an objection is made, the original respondent should refute the objection, he should show that there is reason to take a certain premise for granted, or show that it’s been demonstrated to be true in some other place. And if a conclusion is objected to, he should show based on the rules of reasoning, that the conclusion does, in fact, necessarily flow from the premises. And this back and forth between objections and refutations should go on until the respondent has refuted all objections. And if an objection is raised, that cannot be refuted, but actually destroys the respondents argument, then the respondent has to acknowledge that his original response failed to prove his thesis or answer to the question. Note that if a person responds to a question and is successfully objected to, it doesn’t prove that his thesis is wrong. It simply proves that he hasn’t proven his thesis yet. And we have to learn not to overreact when respondents fail to prove their point, it doesn’t mean that the question has been settled. It doesn’t mean the respondent is wrong. It simply means the demonstration hasn’t been provided yet. And we all have to agree to respect that. There are often times where an objection will be raised and the person isn’t prepared to refute that objection. At that moment on the spot, the inability to refute the objection doesn’t mean that the objection is valid. It doesn’t mean that the person can’t refute the objection. It simply means that at the moment, the person isn’t able to read to reply or refute. And he needs time to think about it to study into it and prepare a refutation. And we have to realize that these discussions take time. And we have to respect that process and allow it to work itself out. You’ll see many times people act like they, they come up with some kind of “Gotcha!” objection or “Aha!” objection. And they act as if, because the person can’t immediately provide a refutation, he’s somehow lost the disputation, and that’s not true. Sometimes the issues can get quite complicated, and we need time to think and study and prepare a response. That’s normal. If we’re truth seekers will respect the reality of that time requirement. So the classical disputation is a simple back and forth discussion, where, as I said, one person responds positively to the question stating his thesis or answer to the question and providing his proof. Those involved in the discussion, read the response and try to identify a premise or conclusion that is unjustified and if they can find one, they raise an objection. All objections are limited to the content of the response. No other issues are allowed to be raised by the objectors only what’s been included in the response? If an objection is raised, the respondent prepares a refutation if he can, if he cannot refute the objection. Again, that doesn’t mean that his argument is wrong, it simply means that he’s not capable of refuting the objection. That may in fact, be proof that his position is wrong, but it’s not conclusive final proof. Because just because one person can’t come up with a refutation doesn’t mean that someone else can’t do so who’s more skilled. But that’s how a classical disputation works and when discussions are carried out in that way, they can be very helpful and they can allow for real progress in truth seeking in wisdom seeking in settling controversial issues. And anyone can contribute to these discussions. I used to teach a course in a private school that was called Christian rhetoric. And I used to teach the principles of reasoning, and rhetoric and we would hold these disputations in class where students would respond to a controversial question, take a position, provide proofs and then the classmates would listen to their presentation of their response. And try to think of objections to raise. And that course, and those activities were so influential in the lives of the students and in the school community as a whole, that I was encouraged by my colleagues, by my fellow teachers, and by my students, to do something with those classical disputation exercises and activities. And that’s really what gave me the encouragement I needed to break away and start the classical liberal arts academy back in 2008. So if we want discussions, to be profitable, if we want dialogue to be profitable, we all have to commit, we all have to commit to study the art of reasoning. We have to study the art of reasoning, so that we can have productive discussions. And then we have to follow the procedures of classical disputations. So that our discussions can always be productive. They can be productive for a young student who’s just getting started because a young student can take up a controversial question. And he may not have experience with topic, he may not know all the arguments and have all of the reasonings figured out. But his initial effort is good. It’s good for everybody. He can prepare a response to the question, he can provide his proofs, and others can provide objections to things that he states and it’s beneficial for everyone involved. That’s why the classical disputation is so helpful. And if we read a more experienced responder who takes up a question and prepares a response, we’ll find that a more experienced thinker or writer will prepare a response that he already knows, is bullet proof when he posts it, and it will be much more difficult to raise objections to the response of an experienced disputant. And that’s the goal. The goal is to gain experience in the disputation of important controversial questions to learn the positive arguments for each side of the issue for both contrary theses, regardless of whether we take the positive or affirmative response, or the negative response. It’s important for us to learn the arguments for both sides and to be able to weigh them to hear both sides of the case and make a jest judgment as we seek truth ourselves and not only seek to know the right answers to these controversial questions, but to also know the causes the proofs on which they’re based, because we can never say that we truly know something until we know the proofs, or the causes of that thing. So that’s the goal of a classical disputation. And as I said, in order for people to engage in controversial discussions in a profitable way, we all have to agree to study the art of reasoning that holds us all accountable, that establishes a language, as it were, between us, and it allows our discussions to have order and to make progress and to be profitable to be worth our time. Most of what goes on in modern discussions, whether it’s face to face discussions, lectures that are given essays that are written discussions on social media, whatever, they’re just idle wrangling because the people involved have never made the effort to study the art of reasoning. Their discussions are not profitable. They have no order they have they have no means of proceeding. And it just turns into back and forth arguing in nonsense that that just wastes everybody’s time, and usually, everyone’s emotion. So if we want to improve the quality of discussion if we want to actually have meaningful, productive dialogue, we have to agree to study the art of reasoning together. And then we have to agree to be careful to choose questions that are truly controversial and worthy of discussion. We have to be honest, and not take a question that is a matter settled by authority and pretend that it’s worthy of deliberation, when in fact, it’s not. We have to make sure we ask the right questions, we have to make sure we present the questions in such a form that leaves us with a choice between one of two contraries an affirmative answer or a negative answer. Someone has to volunteer to respond to such a question and write a positive proof for one of the possible answers to the question. Others who read that response need to evaluate the assertions that are made in the conclusions that are drawn and ask whether they’re justified. If not raise an objection. Then the respondent needs to consider the objection and prepare a refutation. That’s how classical disputation works. And when we discuss controversial issues in that way, we make great progress. And those discussions are beneficial for everyone involved. So that’s how a classical disputation works. That’s how we can improve discussion on controversial topics. That’s how we can avoid the useless wrangling we find on so many issues today. And just to wrap this up, I’d like to say that a few things we want to avoid in these sorts of discussions. One is we want to avoid really starting with premises that are not absolutely certain. So for example, if we were to begin a dispute on a certain topic, and I was to begin my argument by making all kinds of historical statements. We don’t know the the people involved in this discussion don’t necessarily know that those historical statements are true. And those are not appropriate to be used as premises in an argument. And we have to learn to not accept those statements. Like I said, any statement that isn’t rightly assumed to be true needs to be objected to. And proof has to be demanded, we, we can’t be bullied into accepting premises that have no reason to be assumed to be true, we have the right to say that is not granted. You need to either prove that or get rid of that argument because the premise is not going to be granted to you. To us in a proof. We have to learn that we have the right to demand proof. We have the right to say prove it. Prove that statement is true, not to be contentious. But to be honest and reasonable. When a statement is presented that doesn’t appear to us to be true. So that’s how disputation works. Watch out, especially for historical arguments, watch out for appeals to, I shouldn’t say appeals, I should say quotes, watch out for the use of quotes that are not authoritative. For example, if we have a question of faith and morals, and I say, well, Pope Pius the 10th said or the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, or Sacred Scripture says, I’m quoting an authority and the words of the authority are significant in settling this controversial question. But to pull random quotes to say Mark Twain once said or Jr talking said or GK Chesterton said or this book I read said or this scholar said those quotes. They’re not authoritative, they don’t settle the issue. They’re not necessarily true. And so we have to be careful for historical arguments. We have to be careful of quotes Because quotes are very commonly used, and they don’t prove anything. So those are a couple of tips, just for things to look out for that are that are commonly used by people in discussions today, and are inappropriate. So that’s a good overview, I think, of what a classical disputation is how a disputation works. And if you’d like to have profitable, productive dialogue, we need to we need to agree together to follow the structure of these disputations. Whether you actually are willing to prepare responses to questions, or whether you simply want to read other people’s responses, and raise objections, both are helpful positions to take. But the goal is to be able to prepare a response that goes without objection. And that is persuasive. And that that consists of statements that appear to everyone reading to be true, and have conclusions that appear to follow necessarily, from those assertions. That’s the goal in reasoning and writing. So I hope that’s helpful. If you have any questions about this, or would like to simply begin participating in classical disputations. I invite you to, to follow my account, at least on social media, because I frequently post responses like this to controversial questions, and I welcome objections, from any who are willing to read and stick to my responses, not raise all kinds of other issues, there are millions of issues that can be raised, but they’re irrelevant. Only the response is to be considered and objected to, if necessary, but I invite you to follow my social media accounts and participate in discussions there. And I also encourage you to start your own blog or, or social media channels and, and respond to controversial questions in this way. And you’ll see people will start to respond. And if they respond appropriately, and raise objections, you can then work to refute those objections. And if they respond inappropriately, as I said, by just posting their own opinion, or just contradicting what you’ve said, you can explain to them how they should respond to a response that’s posted. So the other thing that I’d like to close with is that if you’d like to study the art of reasoning, you can do so for free. In my classical liberal arts academy, just go to classical liberal, backslash study, create a free account, enroll yourself in the classical reasoning courses, and work through the lessons and learn the art of reasoning. And you’ll be able to participate in such discussions more effectively and expertly as you work through those courses. And you’ll see that every discussion, every discussion can be profitable. And social media is actually an excellent place for profitable, important discussions on truly controversial subjects. So I hope that’s helpful and encouraging. I look forward to participating with you in these discussions because we have a lot of controversial questions to work through together and we have to understand how to go about that work and participate in these dialogues in a way that’s actually helpful to all of us.

God bless,
Mr. William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

Transcribed by

Not enrolled? Get started today for free!
The Classical Liberal Arts Academy works to research, restore, publish and teach the classical Catholic curriculum that has been enjoyed by wise men and saints through history. We invite you to study in our self-paced online courses and enjoy the benefits of online quizzes, written assignments, progress records and more. Get started for free.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Mission News Theme by Compete Themes.