Debate process and the koan

It fell out from the back of the book I was flipping through, looking for a quote for a piece I am writing about conceptualizing debate as a spiritual practice.

Upon seeing this paper, in a book on koans, of all things, made me realize that debating, for me, has always invoked a certain rhetoric of connection.

In the Buddhist traditions, statements such as "here is there, there is here" are so frequent to be commonplace. The rhetoric of such utterances is meant to de-center the comfortable position of subject vs. object when relating to the world. Instead of critiquing that position, or offering an alternative, Buddhism's rhetoric attempts to provide a comfort with the dis-comfortable notion that such dichotomies are both constructed and real, both something that we have made and something that exists out there that we must take into our accounting. This reformation of the relationship of things to self is hardly a reformation at all in one sense. The koan acts to disrupt the belief that these relationships are not constructs simply because they are constructs. It's moving around the items on your desk precisely to place them all back where they just were, but you know that they can be arranged.

Debate functions this way, and I've written some about the relationship of the koan to debating. But thinking of the entire process of debating as a pedagogical practice stretches the limits beyond just the act of debating. It stretches them to include the travel, the people, and the milling about as a part of the practice of debating. The people on this list, and me, have been moved around by debating. Are we where we were as subjects? Perhaps so, perhaps we are a little different. But the point is that we have been moved in a way that allows the chance to recognize the potential for the movement of that we consider subject and that we consider object in the world.

Does debate fundamentally change people? This seems to be something that we agree on and share narratives about. But how does it change them? The traditional explanations that it makes people critical thinkers, better lawyers, or the like become less persuasive when we try to identify the elements of debate practice that link up with critical thinking as defined by most CT scholars. When we try to find things analogous to law school or the practice of law, we find more differences and gaps present between debating and practicing law. Perhaps the practice of debate itself, in all of its elements is a koan, designed to dissociate our conception of self vs. others, subject vs. object from reality and into a space of fungibility, a place where we realize most of these relationships are posited and convincing, that they are things we have invented that have the force of the real, in all of that immutable sense we associate with reality.

This receipt tucked into this book about koans serves as a koan for me. Who were these people? Where were we going? Where are we going? Who are we now? Without debate, things would be just as they are - it doesn't have that huge an impact. With debate, things would be as they are - it doesn't have that huge an impact. The practice of debating changes everything in exactly this way.