How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
By Maria Popova / brainpickings.org

“Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Of course, this isn’t what happens most of the time when we argue, both online and off, but especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” — which is really a menace of reacting rather than responding — is worthy of Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.” But it needn’t be this way — there are ways to be critical while remaining charitable, of aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett (b. March 28, 1942), whom artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky has called “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russell,” poses an apt question that probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics of today’s everyone-is-a-critic culture: “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us Dennett on the dignity and art-science of making mistakes — he offers what he calls “the best antidote [for the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a list of rules formulated decades ago by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-of-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments.

But rather than a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

Compare and contrast with Susan Sontag’s three steps to refuting any argument, and treat yourself to Dennett’s wholly excellent Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

Checkout more written gems via Brain Pickings.

4.5 ·
7
What's Next
Trending Today
How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways: Three Complementary Theories
Peter Gray · 9,072 views today · As regular readers of this blog know, I have in previous posts commented on hunter-gatherers' playfulness; their playful religious practices; their playful approach toward...
People and Trees: Intimately Connected Through the Ages
Jocelyn Mercado · 5,411 views today · Trees are considered sacred in many cultures. Tree worship, in one form or another, has been practiced almost universally by ancient peoples in every corner of the globe.
Is This - the Love Journey? Is This the Only One?
Tim Hjersted · 4,384 views today · You meet them, you get to know them, you date them, you learn about them. You have sex with them. Finally, you love them. You live with them. You marry them. You have kids with...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 3,979 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Four Mantras of True Presence
Thich Nhat Hanh · 3,669 views today · These simple mantras can help us overcome suffering
Brené Brown on How to Reckon with Emotion and Change Your Narrative
Brené Brown · 3,529 views today · The most powerful stories may be the ones we tell ourselves, says Brené Brown. But beware—they're usually fiction.
Law Professor's Epic Response to Black Lives Matter Shirt Complaint
Social Design Notes · 3,014 views today · A first year law school student wrote a complaint about her professor having worn a Black Lives Matter T-shirt during class. The professor’s response is priceless. Scans of...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 2,813 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 2,366 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 2,147 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
10 Quotes From an Oglala Lakota Chief That Will Make You Question Everything About Our Society
Wisdom Pills · 1,909 views today · Luther Standing Bear was an Oglala Lakota Sioux Chief who, among a few rare others such as Charles Eastman, Black Elk and Gertrude Bonnin occupied the rift between the way of...
Let's Stop the Wealth Hoarders
Joe Brewer · 1,843 views today · They mindlessly consume wealth — and destroy the planet.
This Painting Captures a Disturbing Truth about the History of Our Education System
2 min · 1,625 views today · The truth is chilling. But it is a history we should never forget. This is a clip from the feature documentary "Schooling the World." Thanks to the generosity of the...
TTIP Has Failed Says German Economic Minister
Nika Knight · 1,500 views today · 'Negotiations with the U.S. have de facto failed, because of course as Europeans we couldn't allow ourselves to submit to American demands'
The Secret to Effective Nonviolent Resistance
9 min · 1,427 views today · We're not going to end violence by telling people that it's morally wrong, says Jamila Raqib, executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution. Instead, we must find...
We've Been Protesting for Decades. What's It Going to Take to End Police Brutality?
Tai Amri Spann-Wilson · 1,116 views today · On #BlackLivesMatter, moral injury and activism
Thich Nhat Hanh: No Enemies
Thich Nhat Hanh · 934 views today · Without communication, no real understanding can be possible. But be sure that you can communicate with yourself first. If you cannot communicate with yourself, how do you...
North Dakota Gov Cuts Water Supply to Native Americans as DAPL Protest Swells in Number and Spirit
Lauren McCauley · 692 views today · Thousands join protest camp as supporters are holding a rally in Washington D.C. on Wednesday outside of Army Corps hearing
Understanding Patriarchy
bell hooks · 671 views today · Patriarchy is the single most life-threatening social disease assaulting the male body and spirit in our nation. Yet most men do not use the word “patriarchy” in everyday life...
Donald and Hobbes Is Genius
Various · 647 views today · Some clever folk have been replacing precocious 6-year-old Calvin, from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, with Donald Trump and the results are, well, take a look...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently