The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

A whole magazine of this, please

Alan Jacobs points to a book review where the (atheist) philosopher Thomas Nagel discusses a book by the (Christian) philosopher Alvin Plantinga and along the way demonstrates the highest level of intellectual engagement—of good faith. As Alan puts it:

Having confessed that he “cannot imagine believing what [Plantinga] believes,” Nagel nevertheless must acknowledge that Plantinga is doing excellent philosophical work and that his arguments cannot be easily dismissed. Moreover, Nagel clearly relishes simply being exposed to ways of thinking so alien to his own — he obviously finds it refreshing.

I’d read a whole magazine of this: people truly grappling with the very best representative of some philosophy, some belief, utterly opposite their own. Or even orthogonal to their own. At any weird angle to their own, really.

It makes me think of the Long Now debate format, which I’ve described before:

Take two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice goes first, presenting her argument. Then Bob stands up, and before he can present his counter-argument, he has to summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction. So it’s basically an exercise in empathy and good faith. If Alice agrees that he’s got it right, then Bob proceeds with his argument—and when he’s done, Alice has to recapitulate it to his satisfaction.

Seriously, imagine this magazine. (And when I say “magazine” I obviously mean “website.”) It would be so different from anything that’s out there today. It wouldn’t be people trying to convince you of things. (This is the usual mode of, say, The New York Review of Books—although props to them for publishing Nagel on Plantinga.) Nor would it be people ironically infiltrating different belief systems. (This is the mode of a lot of narrative journalism today, and it’s super entertaining! You know: “I spent six weeks hanging out with these crazy people and here’s what I saw.”) It would be… brains at work. Call it The Grappler. An engine of empathy. I don’t know. It would probably have a readership of 300 people but maybe that’s okay.


ryan says…

you’re right, that would be incredible! Hopefully someone will kickstart that.

Interesting connection: Ian Bogost recently wrote about politics and that hot new philosophical thing, object oriented ontology. It was fascinating because it critiqued the usual leftist insistence upon “politicize everything” as a way of discovering what you want to find, or simply framing an event as you want it to be framed. It instead suggested we have to return to talking about ‘what is’–but a slightly different definition of what is i.e. one that acknowledges that things we resists (say, like, normative gender roles, or racism) are ‘real’ even though they or may not be ‘objective real’. So, in the example of a shooting that Bogost refers to, everything–from ballistics to hunting to ideological racism–all have to be considered as ‘objects’ worthy of study in understanding how a thing happened.

Who knows if that holds up under scrutiny? But it’s really really really interesting to think that there may be changes afoot in philosophy that are responding to the increasingly difficulty in acknowledging the ‘truth’ of another perspective.

Here’s the link:

“Steelmanning is the opposite of strawmanning. Strawmanning takes a strong opposing argument and converts it into a weaker version to avoid having to engage with the main points. Steelmanning takes a weak opposing argument and converts it into a stronger version to ensure you’re engaging with the underyling ideas as seriously as possible.”

Oh wow—I like this.

When I taught rhet/comp (we called it “Critical Writing,” but really it was rhet/comp) we had an exercise called the “Straw Man,” which was a formalized version of “steelmanning”:

Paragraph 1: Write an introduction, capped with a proposition/thesis statement

Paragraph 2: Explain the negation/opposite/alternate point of view to your position

Paragraph 3: Show why the opposite/alternate point of view is wrong

In my third year, the program chucked the “straw man” name, for a lot of reasons — it got confused with the fallacy, it was gendered, etc. — and replaced it with “iron person,” which made no sense unless you already had “straw man” in mind, and didn’t really seem super affective/compelling, you know? I mean, “straw man,” “slippery slope,” these work as perjorative terms because they have imagery.

So I used to call it “killer robot”! Or sometimes, “the golem.” Like, if you want to really show your skills, you’d better build an opponent that will really come after you, that you have to put down just to save your life, even if it’s ultimately a rhetorical decoy. Your read has to be more charitable and your take more powerful than any living instance of the actual counterargument.

Then, that turned out to be a sneaky-good way to show how powerful the “concession” trick turns out to be. This was a similar exercise with a slightly different paragraph structure, but where you’d say “oh, this side’s got some good points with this, this, and this, but they completely miss out on this.” That’s what actually lets you put your opponent in a box, slap him/her around with backhanded compliments, and take the rhetorical high ground by showing how your point of view transcends the all-too-limited value of X.

The thing of it is, they’re *both* useful skills, rhetorically and intellectually. But you only get to them by accident if you just bull-rush your way through.

All hail that which does not scale! All hail that which does not scale!

Why wouldn’t it scale?

We already publish point and counterpoint essays, or columns where people respond to things other people wrote, or 20,000 word pieces. This would be a different mode of those kinds of things.

I think it could pretty easily gather an audience in the thousands. Beyond that, I don’t think it would Get The Clicks because there would, by design, be very little heat. It would be all nuance, all reasonableness, all slow deliberate thought, which is in fact incandescent and brain-bending when you sit down to read it (!) but hard to package, and hard to tweet. At least that’s what I think.

Underlining and and multi-starring these two lines:

From Robin: “Call it The Grappler. An engine of empathy.”

From Alex: “All hail that which does not scale! All hail that which does not scale!”

Not a magazine, but Richard Saul Wurman’s new project, The WWW Conference (being held at the moment) — or specific pairings within it — has the potential to be what you describe. “Improvised Conversations. Intellectual Jazz.”

Baptiste says…

You may like (and already know) Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Love the idea, and I’d definitely be an active reader if not participant. Would be great if Lapham’s Quarterly did a regular piece like this.

I’m here. Where are the other two-hundred and ninety-nine?

Hubbell says…


Name the site “The Untweetable”

LWP says…

Robin: Alway, always, always push this message. Never, never, never — until the cows come home and political engagement comes home to roost at the grass roots level where it belongs — give up.

Mucho kudos and buckets of kisses.

Next up: Argue against this very position. Seems unimaginable, yes? But oh, what a challenge and potentially what a win.

LWP says…

No, not “argue against” but “engage with” — which is the very point.

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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