Arguing in Torun

Posted on May 31, 2008

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I finally have an opportunity to catch up on some of the things that have happened over the last few weeks. It is raining in Madrid so that instead of walking around town I get to write something while waiting for my train to Murcia. I won’t be able to up load it though till I get to my hotel tonight.

My last substantive entry concerned the Pragmatism and Naturalism workshop that took place in Tilburg for the seventh to the ninth of May. A week later, I went to the Argumentation as a Cognitive Process conference in Torun, Poland. It was organised by the philosophy departments at Copernicus University and at Rutgers. As such, a number of the Rutgers people were supposed to be there including Alvin Goldman and Ernest LePore. As it was, the only non-Polish speaker to turn up was Keith Stenning from Edinburgh. This was quite disappointing to everyone and led to the awkward situation that the papers given after Keith went home were given in English to a completely Polish audience by people who are also Polish. Perhaps more problematic was that a large number of the talks did not actually concern the stated topic of the workshop. This does not mean that I did not enjoy the meeting, however. In particular, I was very glad to meet Keith Stenning who is working on much the same questions that I am but approaches from a very different direction. The result is that discussions with him helped me to see some things from a different perspective as well as exposing me to very helpful criticism. I was also very glad to meet again a number of the Polish philosophers who were there. It does seem though that at every one of these Polish conferences it is the same group of less than a hundred philosophers that turns up regardless of the topic. This in a country with something close to a thousand people employed teaching philosophy at university level. The remaining nine-tenths are ‘research inactive’ – to put it gently.

The talk I presented in Torun was entitled “Arguing with limited beings (us, that is)” and tried to spell out some of the consequences of recognising the bounded rationality of human interlocutors. In particular, I argued that due to the systematic biases that humans are subject to we have to go beyond a simple list of informal fallacies and other general strategies for avoiding misleading people we are communicating with. Instead, we have to approach examples of communication as cooperative attempts to obtain some shared ends – objective values such as truth playing a powerful role in this respect – and to actively attempt to avoid possible impediments such as systematic biases introduced by the heuristics used by the participants. I get the feeling that most of the people who were at the meeting found it difficult to follow the whole line of argument due to unfamiliarity with the bounded rationality approach. Still, I did get some useful questions. Stenning’s reply was the most interesting to me, I guess, in that he argued that everything I talked about could be achieved with a plurality of logics. We talked over this afterwards and, frankly, due to the liberal way in which he talks about logics, it was hard for me to identify the point of difference between our positions even though I am sure they do diverge. Certainly, the main point of agreement was that a piecemeal patchwork approach is necessary, the hope for a universal treatment being counterproductive. I’ll have to think about writing up this talk and sending it off somewhere for publication. It has been suggested to me that Argumentation might be a good place so that is probably where I will try first. I am not at all sure when that will be, however, given that I do want to finish the superstitions book as soon as possible. If I were a really disciplined researcher I am sure I would not touch the argumentation issue till I finished with the book but my approach has always been somewhat haphazard so I may end up deciding to write up the ideas some time this summer at the cost of finishing the book a touch later. The upside of this approach that I like to focus on is the serendipitous discovery of connections between disparate topics.

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