The Clinical Attitude
Toward Arguments
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

We need a name for the skill and courage to make accurate diagnoses of the strengths and weaknesses of reasoning even when this might mean recognizing that our own arguments are weak and opposing arguments are strong. Let me call it the clinical attitude, by analogy with medicine.

Skill is not enough. A skilled physician will have the ability to diagnose illness accurately, but may not use it in cases where her judgment is affected by strong hopes and fears. A skilled logician will have the ability to diagnose faulty reasoning accurately, but not may not use it in cases where she feels pressure to protect her interests and deeply held beliefs. Academic study can give you the necessary skill. But whether you take advantage of it is not a medical or logical question, but an ethical question. The clinical attitude is both the skill and the courage, the academic learning and the personal strength of character.

Here are the primary elements in the clinical attitude toward arguments.

  1. Be willing to recognize strength in arguments whose conclusions you reject and weakness in arguments whose conclusions you accept.
    • My model here is the physician who can diagnose cancer even in a friend or remission even in an enemy.
    • We learn early in logic that the truth of statements is independent of the validity of reasoning. We learn that a true conclusion can be supported by invalid reasoning and a false conclusion by valid reasoning. As human beings with interests and feelings, we often care very deeply whether a certain conclusion is true or false. But as logicians we know that the reasoning that supports it in an argument might be strong or weak. As logicians, then, we should be able to examine that reasoning and leave the question of the truth of the conclusion temporarily to one side.
    • Note that this is not a matter of intelligence or knowledge. It's about willingness to recognize strength and weakness. If you already have the relevant knowledge, then it's about the willingness to use what you know. It's about will.

  2. Be willing to change your mind in the face of good reasons.
    • Inquiry is not about vindicating our pre-judgments or prejudices. It is about following the force of evidence and reasoning. If you hear a good argument, or if one of your objections is well-answered, then open your mind to the possibility that the conclusion is a truth you didn't know before.
    • This too is about willingness, not intelligence or skill.

  3. Focus on validity and soundness, not on your agreement or disagreement.
    • This is about keeping your attention on the real issue. This is a matter of discipline in which both intelligence and will play a part.
    • The question isn't whether you agree or disagree but whether you ought to agree or disagree.
    • The argument is about the truth of the conclusion, not about you. You may be deeply invested in the truth of the conclusion, but the clinical attitude is about discovering whether this argument is strong or weak, not whether your views are threatened or supported.
    • A sound argument is sound even if you reject its conclusion. An unsound argument is unsound even if you accept its conclusion. First make an accurate diagnosis. Then worry about how to cope with the news.
    • Don't take disagreement personally —or agreement either. An argument for or against one of your cherished beliefs is about the truth or falsity of that belief or the strength of its supporting argument. The importance of the conclusion in your life raises the stakes but does not affect its truth-value. Its importance may give you a motive for refuting a counter-argument, but is not itself a refutation. It may give you a motive for confirming a supporting argument, but it is not itself a confirmation. If you object to the argument, don't make your objection personal. Don't get angry; focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. Even here, be willing to change your mind in the face of good reasons. If you like the argument, make sure you like it because it's strong, not because it supports what you already believe. If you dislike the argument, make sure you dislike it because it's weak, not because it challenges what you already believe.
    • If an argument against your cherished beliefs is strong, then it is the evidence that is against you, not the person who brought this to your attention. This gives you a lot to think about, not a ground for resentment or hostility. Don't kill the messenger, even in a private mental act of dismissal.
    • To examine the validity or soundness of an argument is an attempt to discover the truth, not an attempt to vindicate yourself or your beliefs, to defeat an opponent, or to "win". Even arguments that another person is confused or inconsistent are properly about the evidence for these conclusions, not about personal vindication. People who practice argument as if it were intellectual combat misunderstand the nature of argument. People who are put off argument because they think it combative are drawing lessons from its worst practitioners rather than its best.
    • Presumably you're willing to admit that you might be wrong, that you don't know everything, and that you still have something to learn. If your first reaction to disagreement is defensive, then you're forgetting this basic admission. Take a breath and remember it.
    • It's easier to assess arguments against our views when they are calm and civil than when they are aggressive, sarcastic, or patronizing. But the tone of voice doesn't weaken the argument, only our capacity to judge it fairly.
    • You should be able to diagnose the strength of an argument even if you are undecided about the truth of the conclusion. Indeed, this kind of diagnosis should be an essential step in the process of making up your mind. Whether you agree or disagree with the conclusion is not only unnecessary and irrelevant to this task, it is distracting.

Life might be unbearable if we walked around at every moment in the clinical attitude. But it would be equally unbearable if we were unable to put on the clinical attitude when we need it. When do we need it? Whenever we are confronted by an argument —an attempt to persuade us to spend our money, cast our vote, join, believe, or act.

This file is an electronic hand-out for the course, Real-World Reasoning.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A. Copyright © 1998-2002, Peter Suber.