40 Helping the Discussion to Continue

Having spent some decades leading philosophical discussions among undergraduates, I have come to appreciate the tremendous value in helping the discussion to continue. It’s not simply because a teacher needs to keep students active for the length of the class. Rather, it seems to me that keeping a discussion alive and interesting is an effective way to teach two lessons that are otherwise impossible to teach: (1) that there are other views we had not thought of, and (2) that we can keep talking even though we disagree. These are important lessons for everyone to learn, for it is when we each think we have the only rational perspective and there’s no use in talking about it that civil society breaks down.


It is difficult to help discussions to continue, and it takes a masterful teacher to do it well. I am not a masterful teacher in this regard, and I admire those teachers who can accomplish the task. It requires allowing different views to develop while also keeping the discussion somewhat focused and progressive as it evolves from one question to the next. If it is done well, then a wide array of relevant perspectives are explored, but everyone feels as if the central questions have become clearer and more meaningful. A skillful teacher can work in real time to combine insights from various students and shape the discussion toward (what the teacher suspects will be) a fruitful outcome.


The same discussion-leading attitude can be carried out of the classroom and into all argumentative situations. People involved in arguments, in real life or in comment threads on the internet, are often concerned only to score points and win with bonus points awarded if the opponent is left crying and ashamed. Needless to say, in such a game the rational pursuit of truth is not likely to fare well. The results will only be hurt feelings, resentment, and greater stubbornness. But if the objective is not to score points and win but to help the discussion to continue, then a conversation begins to resemble a small-scale version of Popper’s open society (as discussed in chapter 7). In this small society of discussion, we encourage the expression of a wide range of ideas and subject each idea to critical questions and problems but now with an aim to develop the conversation further and enlarge our understanding. Again, such discussions are not ones in which everyone is right and no one ever says anything that is wrong or false, but the discussion allows for corrections to be made or arguments to develop in such a way as (once again!) to help the discussion to continue.


The skill of helping discussions to continue is hard to gain, and we often will fail at the task. But, like most skills, we get better at it the more we practice. And if we are committed to being good epistemic agents, not to mention good human beings, this is a skill very much worth developing through continued practice.


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