Argue Like America’s Most Controversial Philosopher

Dan Dennett explained consciousness, skewered religion, and pumped intuition. Now he wants to teach you how to argue.

Argue Like America’s Most Controversial Philosopher

The New York Times has described Daniel Dennett as “perhaps America’s most widely read (and debated) living philosopher”: cognitive scientist, outspoken athiest, and eminently bearded scholar.


But unlike other occupants of the Ivory Tower, Dennett does (at least some of) his philosophizing for the people. His new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, is one such tome–and in a recent and excellent excerpt for the Guardian, he shared several such thought-levers, including a method for criticism as exacting as it is gracious.

“Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent?” the Tufts professor asks. “If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view–and then dump on them.”

This, then, is a marker of argumentative aplomb: To be a masterful conversationalist, you can bring other’s shadowy thinking to light–without leaving your partner feeling flummoxed.

To do that, Dennett recommends the following:

  1. 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. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. 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.

What’s the brilliance in this approach?

First, by summarizing your opponent’s perspective to them, you show that you have some degree of empathy for their point of view and a co-investment in ferreting out the truth–if you didn’t know, it’s a conversational tactic journalists (yours truly included) use during interviews.

Similarly, the second and third steps affirm your opponent and their perspective. Humans have a surfeit of psychologies rattling around inside us from the evolving we’ve done–so these steps signal to the skittish lizard inside your partner that no, you are not coming to eat them.


Then, having demonstrated to your opponent and the room that you are invested in finding the truth–in bringing this deliberative discourse to its conclusion–you can then tactfully, thoughtfully, and forcefully detangle their confusion.

Bottom Line: You don’t need a beard to argue eloquently, but it sure helps.

Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking

[Hat tip: Lifehacker]


[Image: Flickr user Ben Crowe]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.