REVIEW of REVIEWS

How to Argue Can Be Learned

English Psychologist Gives Few Simple Rules for Routing One’s Opponent.

DR. ROBERT THOULESS January 1 1931
REVIEW of REVIEWS

How to Argue Can Be Learned

English Psychologist Gives Few Simple Rules for Routing One’s Opponent.

DR. ROBERT THOULESS January 1 1931

How to Argue Can Be Learned

English Psychologist Gives Few Simple Rules for Routing One’s Opponent.

REVIEW of REVIEWS

DR. ROBERT THOULESS

A CONTEMPLATIVE person may well wonder if there has ever been a single human being who did not, at one time or another, become engaged in an argument. No matter where we go or whom we meet we are likely to get into one at a moment’s, or even a second’s, notice. Sometimes we win and often we lose—and probably we never stop to think that there is a right way and a wrong way to argue, just as there is a right and a wrong way to play golf, thread a needle, or put a baby to sleep. Dr. Robert M. Thouless has gone into the matter, however, and Public Opinion (London1 reports some of his opinions as follows:

“Emotional thinking is as common as a weed,” he says. “It is to be found in the leading articles of newspapers, in the words of people carrying on discussions on political, religious, or moral questions, and in the speeches made by public men when these deal with controversial matters. In order to understand it, we should collect specimens by putting them down on paper and then we should proceed to dissect them.

“The practical exercise which I recommend is one which I have already performed on some passages in which truth seemed to be obscured by emotional thinking. I suggest that readers should copy out controversial passages from newspapers, books, or speeches which contain emotionally colored words. Then they should underline all the emotional words, afterwards rewriting the passages with the emotional words replaced by neutral ones.

“Examine the passage then in its new form in which it merely states objective facts without indicating the writer’s emotional attitude toward them, and see whether it is still good evidence for the proposition it is trying to prove. If it is, the passage is a piece of straight thinking in which emotionally colored words have been introduced merely as an ornament. If not, it is crooked thinking, because the conclusion depends not on the objective meaning of the passage but on the emotions roused by the words.

“A statement of the form ‘ali A is B’ is very rarely true, and is very easily disproved. It is easily disproved for the obvious reason that a single instance of an A that is not B is sufficient to overthrow it. If, for example, a man maintains that all pacifists are cowards, his opponent need point to only one pacifist who has shown courage by facing death bravely and his opponent’s case is overthrown. If, on the other hand, his opponent had maintained the more moderate proposition that some pacifists are cowards, he could not have been defeated, for he could undoubtedly have brought forward one or more examples of pacifists who were cowards, and his contention would then be established.

“This suggests that, in an argument, a man who maintains an extreme position (such as ‘all A is B’) is in a very Unfavorable position for successful controversy. Many people consciously or unconsciously adopt a trick based on this principle. This is the trick of driving their opponents to defend a more extreme position than is really necessary for their purpose. Against an incautious opponent this can often be done simply by contradicting his more moderate assertions until in the heat of controversy he boldly puts forward more and more extreme ones.”