Sometimes we need to sit down and think clearly what it is we think we are doing when we think. Then, as if to make the job harder, we need to think about how we express what it is we have thought. Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole attempted to do just that with The Art of Thinking, the first edition of which was published in 1662. Arnauld and Nicole were part of what has come to be known as the ‘Port Royal’ school, which included Pascal and Racine, and was named after the two religious foundations of that name in and around Paris, and which represented a resistance to the assumptions about education and knowledge prevalent in France in seventeenth-century (Arnauld, in particular, didn’t like the Jesuits, and the near-monopoly they had on education and French intellectual life).
A section in The Art of Thinking (which is sometimes also known as ‘Port-Royal Logic’, or plain old ‘Logic’) deals with the place of argument, disputations and contention. Significantly, Arnauld and Nicole place it within a wider argument about the dangers of “self-love” to clear and truthful thinking. Sometimes, we can be so caught up in proving that we are right that we neglect to see how much we have been seduced by ourselves, proving to ourselves that we are loved, even if it is only loved by ourselves.
I don’t know why I think this wise and pacific teaching about disputations should be so appealing today, of all days:
7. Malicious or envious contradictions may be to some extent distinguished from less objectionable disposition but one which produces similar faults of reasoning. This disposition is the spirit of contention, a disposition no less injurious to the mind than is self-love.
Disputes in general are not to be condemned. On the contrary, debates rightly used contribute more than anything else to our finding the truth and to our convincing others of this truth. An isolated mind examining a subject is often cold and languid; that it may be inspired and that its idea may be awakened, the mind needs a certain warmth. Often by the varied oppositions encountered we discover the obscurities of a position as well as the difficulties in convincing others of that position: and so debate gives an opportunity for both correction and clarification.
Helpful as debates are when rightly used and when not invaded by passion, yet they are dangerous when improperly used by persons who pride themselves on maintaining their own opinions at any cost and on contradicting all other opinions. Nothing can take us further from the truth nor plunge us more readily into error than a contentious disposition. Imperceptibly we become accustomed to find reasons for everything and yet to place ourselves above others’ reasons by never yielding to their force. Little by little we are led to hold nothing as certain and to confound truth with error by regarding both as equally probable. That a question is to be settled by discussion or that two philosophers agree is a rare thing indeed. Replies and rejoinders are always found, since the aim is to avoid not error but silence: To remain always in falsehood is believed less disgraceful than to admit a mistake.
Unless discipline has taught us perfect self-possession, we easily lose sight of the truth in disputes; no other activity so excites our passions. What vices have debates not awakened. says a celebrated author, since they are nearly always governed by anger. We pass first into a hatred of the reason and then of the person. We learn to dispute only to contradict: Because each is busy contradicting and being contradicted, the fruit of the debate is the annihilation of truth. One goes to the east, another to the west; the principle is lost, the argument founders in caviling. After an hour’s storm neither disputant knows what is being disputed. Some hold themselves above the dispute; others are incapable of entering into the dispute; and still others speak only beside the point in dispute. One seizes on a word or an analogy; another neither listens to nor at all understands what his opponent says, being so engaged with his own thoughts that he can follow only his own arguments. Others, conscious of their weakness, fear everything, reject everything, and either obscure the discussion from the start or else become obstinate and silent in the midst of the dispute, affecting a proud contempt or a stupidly modest disdain for contention. Some, provided only that they strike, do not care how they expose themselves; others choose their words and weigh their reasons. Still others rely on voice and lungs alone. Some end up opposing themselves, and others weary and bewilder everyone by their prefaces and useless digressions. Finally, some counter with abuse and trump up a quarrel to end a discussion in which they are suffering defeat. Such are the common vices of debates described ingeniously enough by this celebrated author, who, though he never knew the true grandeur of man, has nicely canvassed man’s defects. From this enumeration of the pitfalls of debate we see that debates could prove harmful to the mind. So, if debate is to be helpful, we must avoid these pitfalls ourselves as well as being careful not to follow others into the depths. We must see others wander without wandering ourselves, never losing sight of the end we ought to seek—the clarification of the truth under discussion.
From Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole, The Art of Thinking; Port-Royal Logic, ed. by James Dickoff and Patricia James, Library of Liberal Arts, 144 (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), pp.274-275