Disputation, Dominican Style, and the Jesuit Plus Sign

Disputation, Dominican Style, and the Jesuit Plus Sign

Woodcut carved by Johann von Armssheim (1483). Portays a disputation between Christian and Jewish scholars (Soncino Blaetter, Berlin, 1929. Jerusalem, B. M. Ansbacher Collection) via Wikimedia
Woodcut carved by Johann von Armssheim (1483). Portays a disputation between Christian and Jewish scholars (Soncino Blaetter, Berlin, 1929. Jerusalem, B. M. Ansbacher Collection) via Wikimedia

Two really good pieces came my way this week, both by religious order bloggers attempting to apply the traditions of their respective orders to the wild west of Internet comment boxes. Thinking about how to argue not only with civility but with Christian love is one of my hobby horses. I tend to turn to classical rhetoric but I love seeing how the Catholic tradition has these wonderful guidelines for how to have these intellectual encounters.

The first was from my favorite Dominican, Father Philip Powell,O.P.. I don’t know Fr. Philip personally, but my sister does. He was chaplain at the University of Dallas when she was there and she spent a lot of time hanging out in the Campus Ministry office. So I know him vicariously through her but I’ve also followed his blog for years, love his homilies, and also follow him on Facebook. In this blog post Fr Philip writes about trying to use the ancient tradition of Dominican disputation “to tame my intemperate tongue and fiery typing fingers”.

I’m rather fascinated by his suggestion that by following these rules one might be able to avoid flaming and develop a more reasonable style of discourse.

In the respondeo, the Master would use a peculiarly scholastic technique in arguing his point. Summarized the technique is: “Never deny, rarely affirm, always distinguish.” Thus, the scholastics’ reputation for “multiplying distinctions.”

[. . .]

Break down of the “Never deny, rarely affirm, always distinguish”

Never deny: this principle presupposes charity in requiring the responder to take seriously the objections made to any answer he might give; that is, by never outright denying a conclusion, the Master presumes the good will of the objector and averts any attacks on the person. By disallowing the outright denial of an opponent’s premise or conclusion, the ‘never deny’ pushes us in charity to recognize that even an assertion erroneous on the whole may contain some partial truth. The next two steps in the method assure us of ferreting out whatever truth might be found error. (NB. This technique also tends to kill in its cradle the all-too-often virulent disease we call “flaming”).

Rarely affirm: this principle frees the Master from the traps in the objections that might inexorably lead him to conclude that the objection is correct. It also serves to push the argument beyond merely polite agreement and force the debaters to explore areas of disagreement that could lead to a better answer.

Always distinguish: this principle allows the Master to accomplish the first two principles while still giving him plenty of room to disagree with the objections. By requiring the Master to carefully parse his words, this step in the argument recognizes the limits of language and logic when discussing any truth and acknowledges that there is some hope of finding better and better definitions.

So, in practice, you will hear those who use this method say things like, “If by X, you mean Y, then X” or “I would distinguish between X and Y” or “You are right to say X, but X does not necessarily entail Y” and so on. The goal is to parse proper distinctions with charity until there is some clarity with regard to the use of terms and their place in the argument.

I should add here another good principle of logic: “Where there is no difference, there can be no distinction;” that is, any distinction between X and Y must be based on a real difference between X and Y. For example, all teachers have heard some version of the following: “But I didn’t plagiarize my paper, I just borrowed my roommate’s paper and put my name on it.”

No difference, no distinction.

The second piece, The Plus Sign and a Comments Policy, is at attempt to outline rules for blog comments and comes from the Jesuit perspective, which echoes the Dominican rules quite closely. Probably not a coincidence since St Ignatius was a student at the very university of Paris where these Dominican rules were applied to scholarly disputations. I really like Ignatius’ formulation and the application of it by these Jesuit bloggers.

The simplest comments policy would be just to quote the praesuppositio from St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, where it stands at the beginning of the retreat. It also stands at the beginning of Jesuit formation, drilled into us early in formation as the “plus sign.” If you’ve spent any time around Jesuits, you’ve probably heard one of us refer to “putting the plus sign on it,” or maybe even heard one of us sarcastically calling out another for failure to do so, thus demonstrating that we’re as capable of missing the point as anyone else. Here it is:

To assure better cooperation between the one who is giving the Exercises and the exercitant, and more beneficial results for both, it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false. If an orthodox construction cannot be put on a proposition, the one who made it should be asked how he understands it. If he is in error, he should be corrected with all kindness. If this does not suffice, all appropriate means should be used to bring him to a correct interpretation, and so to defend the proposition from error. (Spiritual Exercises [22])

Calling this standard the “plus sign” helps to drive the home the point that it has to be deliberately added to what we hear — the obligation is on the one hearing another to supply the better interpretation, not on the speaker to preemptively defend the statement. And if that first attempt at positive interpretation fails, the obligation is to seek clarification by inquiring about how the speaker understood what he said. Only after those avenues have been explored is any attempt at correction made, and then “with all kindness.”

Both of these approaches have at their heart a true Christian charity. Both require that I presuppose good will on the part of the person I am speaking with. More, both require me to assume that my interlocutor has some truth on his side that he’s defending and both require me to seek it out. When I follow these rules, the burden is always on me to seek to understand. Can you imagine what the internet would look like if all Christians sought to implement these rules at all times? Truly we would be salt and light and the online world would be a much, much, much more pleasant place.

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