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Thursday, November 18, 2004

For The Sake Of Argument 

The last time I heard someone start a sentence with: "Just for the sake of argument…" I thought: "What an interesting expression!" What kind of a cause is "The sake of argument"? Why should an appeal to this cause encourage people to consider what we have to say?

Aren't we usually told that arguments are bad? Don't we get the message that we should be supporting each other's ideas rather than sniping at them? Aren't your ideas true and good for you, while mine are true and good for me? Shouldn't we be united rather than divided? Shouldn't we try to agree with received wisdom, all join hands, and sing Kumbaya?

NO!

"For the sake of argument" means "For the sake of exposing ideas to criticism". This isn't bad; it’s essential to improving our theories.

If we want to hold the best theories then we should welcome criticism. Criticism is how we test our theories and determine if they work, conform to experience, and might be true. If we don't want our theories exposed to criticism, then we don't want to improve them or even know if they are wrong. This is a fundamental issue of intellectual integrity.

Of course, there are inappropriate times and ways of arguing, and these should be discouraged. But argument itself should be valued. Respect for "The sake of argument" is a great indication that a culture is healthy, dynamic, and interested in improvement.

I'm very pleased to be living in such a culture.