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November 13, 2006


Gail Renard


Critical questioning is a great freedom; revered not only by philosophers, but also by the Jewish religion through Talmudic Argument; as well as the world of comedy, as anyone who’s ever squirmed whilst watching David Brent through their fingers will know. But since Plato lived in the days before Thomas Edison, the question might be: when does a gadfly cease being an “uncomfortable goad” and become an electric cattle prod? Philosophers may be “armed with the martial arts-like skills of critical thinking” but, like James Bond, should they require a licence to kill? Surely if a gadfly becomes such an irritant that, in the teachings of the other great philosopher Tony Soprano, he gets whacked, then he’s not doing philosophy or the world a great service. On the other hand, nature has taught us that it’s the grit in an oyster which produces the pearl… and the world would definitely be poorer without oysters’, or indeed philosophers’, pearls.

Perhaps Winston Churchill summed it up gloriously, “Personally I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.”

Ophelia Benson

"What Mill didn’t address was the difficulty of engaging in this sort of illuminating debate with those who take every criticism of an argument as a criticism of the person who is its source…"

Yes, but then there is the problem that some criticisms of an argument *are* a criticism of the person who is its source, which creats its own difficulty - as you indicate in the first paragraph.

It could be (and I have a strong suspicion that philosophers are well aware of this, and even that it is a staple of philosophical table talk or gossip) that philosophy in fact attracts people with a strong taste for the art of the putdown (those who don't go into law, politics, or boxing). The bliss of a field where one's favourite sport comes clothed in virtue.

Still; one has only to read a newspaper to realize how desperate the need is for more training in criticism of arguments.

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