Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Why don’t we argue anymore?

Renee Kohler-Ryan giving her talk after formal dinner

Why don’t we argue anymore? With Dr Renée Köhler Ryan, Dean of Philosophy and Theology at Notre Dame Uni

On Wednesday 8 August 2018, it was the Dean of the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia who came to talk to the young men of Warrane College. Dr Renée Köhler-Ryan, also a professor lecturing on topics such as Philosophy of the Human Person,Political Philosophy, and more, spoke about the importance of disagreement.

“So as you’ve heard, I’m a philosopher. And philosophers really like arguments,” she began. “But what I’m finding increasingly difficult when teaching philosophy is that people don’t like to argue that much anymore… so I thought it might be worthwhile to talk about what it means to have a reasonable disagreement, given that we’re living in an age right now where most people want to get away from disagreements.”
Köhler-Ryan went on: “We have trigger warnings… Before you present any material that anyone in any way might be offended by, you warn them beforehand. And that is becoming increasingly difficult for academics who are really charged with the task of bringing up things that should get a response; a reaction.”
“Being human is actually a fairly difficult thing to be, so if in university you’re not faced with all of the problems and the difficulties of what it means to be human, then it becomes increasingly difficult as you go on in life. So what I’m starting to be more and more concerned about – when I look in the media, when I look in my classrooms, everything else – is that people are so willing to be offended that everyone else is worried about saying anything…that they might really genuinely believe in and want to bring up, because they’re afraid that they’ll offend other people.”
Köhler-Ryan told the boys what Eric Voegelin commented regarding Nietzsche’s work: “People have lost interest. They don’t have any fight in them anymore, they don’t have any gumption in them anymore, so they’re not willing to put themselves on the line and to get into it, to really figure out what life is about. They’re satisfied just to sit back, relax and try to enjoy. To me when I read that, it sounds very, very familiar.”

The rules for disagreement + possible outcomes

Köhler-Ryan went on to explain the rules of disagreement to the boys. “First of all you need to have a starting position… and realise, going into an argument, that you might not be so sure anymore when you come out of it… An attitude of openness going in means that one has to be able to listen, but you should also be able to think through ideas for and against a certain position; and try to have a big picture of what’s going on before going into the nitty gritty details.”

She talked about Thomas Aquinas being someone who truly lived the rules of disagreement well. Köhler-Ryan said that the exciting thing about him was that he could give the opponent’s argument even better than they could! Aquinas was also invested in the idea that it’s very human to ask questions and go deeper even when you know the answer.

Köhler-Ryan explained something she gets her moral philosophy students to do. She asks them to pick a moral issue they have an opinion on, and then explain why their opponent believes what they believe, before presenting their own view. There are three outcomes that can come from this – first, that a person will change their mind in the process. “This is an exciting moment!” said Köhler-Ryan. Others will better understand their own position, because the more they understand their opponent’s position, the deeper they can understand their own. And the third possible outcome would be that the student isn’t so sure of what they think anymore.

Recently, as she told the boys, Köhler-Ryan has been researching disputes between two of the fathers of the Catholic church – St Augustine and St Jerome. “One of the things they were arguing about is whether Christians should just amicably agree about everything, or whether they should discuss and really try and figure out what’s going on…” she said.

“One thing we could think about is why we avoid disagreements, and whether there are some moments where you would want to avoid a disagreement, and whether there are others where you’d want to go right into a disagreement…”

She went on: “We live in a political state which is democracy… rule by the people… Democracy only works if you have an educated populace who are ready to think about what is good for society. So if you’re living in a democracy where everyone is saying ‘I don’t want to offend anyone so I’m not going to tell you what I really think,’ then you’re actually in a very dangerous situation, because no one is able to bring out into an open space what they want to think about and talk about. And so the rules of debate become quite difficult.”

Köhler-Ryan also talked about how important university is as a setting in which to practice the rules of democracy. “You have a range of ideas. You’re actually learning…how to think in university, no matter what it is that you’re studying. In university you always come across ideas that you agree with and ideas that you disagree with, and you’re kind of learning how to navigate and negotiate them.”

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