Debate's Missing Manual

I've been doing some side-research this morning, which means I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing and instead poking around in an early stage of a research project that interests me quite a bit.

I found this terrible article in the Wall Street Journal which unfortunately is a pretty good representation of the "reading public's" view of debate. Allow me to summarize what I think the assumptions are:

1. Debate is not essential, it is trivial.

2. Debate occurs last in the educational process, never first.

3. Debate obfuscates the truth.

4. Debate is only good if the truth is revealed as an effect of it.

5. Debate is emotional, semantic and sportified - it is the opposite of reason, rationality and cooperation.

I think that's a pretty good, narrow list. It seems people, very much like Oppenheimer, believe debate and argumentation do not require any scholarly training or research to understand, that the effects and functions of it are obvious to anyone, and that there is a pure form of debate we have abandoned.

I think Alisdair McIntyre has a good scenario he establishes for morality, but I think the analogy to rhetoric and debate is clear as well. He asks us to imagine a world where a catastrophe leaves science in disarray, and a fascist political party imprisons and kills many scientists. Later, an enlightenment movement rises and tries to recover science:

 "But all they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiement; intruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nontheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology." (from After Virtue).

People talk about debate and argumentation in the present day without much (or any) critical, scholarly or intellectual appreciation for it at all - they talk about it with a minimal amount of support. At the same time they have to talk about it because they recognize we depend on it for so much. Just like science in McIntyre's scenario, it is necessary to have it, but people don't quite understand what they have.

Even worse: Arguing and debating seem so natural that most attempts to intellectuallize them look trival or silly. They are audience oriented events so shouldn't they be atheoretical? Most people wouldn't think twice about an article in a major magazine about debating that didn't cite one argumentation or debate or even rhetoric scholar.

So with this situation at hand I am thinking of trying to write the missing manual for debating. My first steps have been historical in nature and I am having trouble locating resources for scholastic debate practices. Today (more evidence for my point) the term "scholastic" debate is attached to any debate contest that is sanctioned by a school or university. This is not the prior meaning, and I think a recovery of that (from medevil university examination practices) would be a good first step. My suspicion is that philosophy, combined with the rise of manuscript and then print culture made debate appear anachronistic and that these technologies could accomplish what debate could in a more efficient and superior manner. Of course this is not the case, and with the transition to "secondary orality" (Ong; Havelock) debate thinking is required again in a serious way. But people cannot remember how it was done. They have charred papers and equipment without instructions (fallacies would be one example).

In the end I think that some sort of geneology or perhaps tracing of debate practices along side the history of rhetoric and philosophy would shine a bit of light on our communicative anxieties of today - flame wars, trolls, and email scams among them.