Essays & Opinion

The tricks of the essayist; a sympathetic summary


In his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation – Martine’s Handbook of Etiquette, and a Guide to True Politeness –  Arthur Martine provided the following advice for those who find themselves in “disputes upon moral or scientific points”:

“Let your aim be to come at truth, not conquer your opponent. So you shall never be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

In these heady days of the babbling Twittersphere and online trolls; of half-baked, half-formed comments on the echo chambers of Reddit and Facebook; it is fair to say that such advice is rarely heeded. Indeed, the artillery we deploy when hidden behind computer screens and keyboards is less reasonable argument and more simple menace: it is reaction, rather than response. They are opinion, rather than critique.

Yet it needn’t be this way. Rather than believe the falsehood that we must be right at all costs, it is surely preferable that we all engage in active discussion and conversation – and look to deploy skills that enable us to better understand the world around us, and in turn advance the collective understanding of humankind.

Into this may step the non-fiction essay. The written argument or critique, which unfortunately often shows signs of disintegrating in response to the culture of the online newspaper comments section. Indeed, with a few exceptions – most notably the Guardian’s George Monbiot, perhaps – the opinion or comment pages on most of the UK’s newspapers, from the Guardian and the Independent on the so-called establishment left, through to the corporate propaganda at work in The Times and The Telegraph, are increasingly falling short of the high standards necessary for advancing human thought and consciousness through debate, discussion and reasoning.

What is lacking in so many of our debates and so many of the essays available to us, is the necessary rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the art of countering potential criticism, which takes charge of conceivable counterarguments and thoroughly challenges them, seeking ultimately to debunk or disprove them. This is a problem for thinkers of all philosophical and political persuasions, because they are neither able to refute the arguments of others effectively, nor have their own arguments held up to the necessary scrutiny. How can Owen Jones, for instance, improve his argument when the only charge levied against him from those who disagree is that he is “a loony lefty”? Equally, how can those who challenge him hope to advance their own opinions instead, when Jones can easily dismiss such charges out of hand?

As is often the case, there are countless examples from history that illustrate how we can reinvigorate our arguments.

That’s so Blaise

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the ‘three elements of persuasion’ – attunement, buoyancy and clarity – French physicist, philosopher, mathematician and inventor, Blaise Pascal, intuited these same mechanisms as he arrived at what he saw as the great truth about the secret of persuasion: that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping it in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

In his work Pensees, he examines the best strategy for changing people’s minds, distilling the art of persuasion into its essence:

“When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.”

Long before we invented psychology and learned to apply it in reverse, Pascal adds:

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

On the origin of effective argumentative strategy

Two centuries on from Pascal’s intimations, Charles Darwin – who surely needs no introduction – provided supreme practical proof of the French philosopher’s insight, as he changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth.

Indeed, Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of pre-empting criticism and effectively countering counter arguments before they are levied at our arguments, is explored by New Yorker contributor and essayist, Adam Gopnik, in his book, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterworkOn the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

“The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.”

As the book progresses, Gopnik advances in more detail his thoughts on what lies behind this habit of “sympathetic summary”, and considers the essential principle, which lies at the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical excellence, which in turn illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

“A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.”

The marriage of ideas and argument

What Pascal and Darwin illustrate in abundance, then, is the necessary ability to marry visionary ideas with a mastery of argument. But of these two aspects, it is perhaps the latter that is the vital requisite to convincing others that your argument bears most weight.

Think, for instance, of Alfred Russel Wallace, known for arriving at the same conclusions of Darwin – concerning natural selection and evolution – but failing to take any credit for this discovery for decades after his death.

The idea both men advanced upon is fundamentally the same: but could Wallace have posited his thesis as effectively as Darwin, and brought about the cultural revolution in thinking that Darwin did? He might have written the words and evidence in support of his own idea, but could he have answered the objections Darwin faced? The likelihood is not: because at its heart, the Origin of Species is a book of answers to questions that are expected to be asked, but have not yet been spoken, and it provides examples and evidence and counter arguments to faceless opponents yet to emerge.

An act of charity

Daniel Dennett, described as “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russel”, picks up on some of the elements present in Darwin’s and Pascal’s works, as he probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics necessary within essay writing. Most pertinently, asking the question “just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent?”

In his work, Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking, Dennet offers what he calls “the best antidote for the tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a set of rules, or steps, laid out below as a simple starting guide to all aspiring and established essayists.

“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.”

Such a strategy is ultimately simple in its theory, yet remains cuttingly effective. For it transforms your opponents – faceless or otherwise – into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion, and the argument. Thus avoiding the risk that all philosophical and political debate becomes the sound of a single record stuck on repeat, exposing retried and reconstituted, regurgitated facts, figures and opinions round and round on a ceaseless merry-go-round of nonsense.

At its heart, this strategy is about seeing what people might say, turning it into what they ought to say, and then answering.

If only such a code of conduct could be advised and followed to all critical commentary online – though doing so in 140 characters might be a feat too far.


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