David Goldman / AP

The New Science of How to Argue—Constructively

Earlier this month, Jesse Singal wrote about the dynamics of today’s online flame wars—and described a new movement to study and learn from disagreement. “Erisology” looks specifically at unsuccessful disagreement.

According to the Swedish blogger John Nerst, who coined the word, an unsuccessful disagreement is“an exchange where people are no closer in understanding at the end than they were at the beginning.” Nerst, Singal explained, “hopes that scholars can learn more about how the divergence in people’s fundamental beliefs and assumptions makes them react to the world in different ways.”

Folks are certainly free to invent their own enclaves of thought and inquiry, but the notion that a new discipline called “erisology” needs to be invented to understand our technologically mediated communication misses the existence of a more than 2,500 year old body of knowledge founded on the very same impulse: rhetoric. Despite its classical roots, rhetoric has proved remarkably persistent and adaptive to new technologies, social dynamics, and different ideologies.

David M. Grant
Cedar Falls, Iowa

Erisologists rejoice! For the reports of the death of the study of disagreement are highly exaggerated. Rhetoricians, like myself, populate college campuses all over the United States and we too are interested in how and why people don’t seem to be very good at disagreement these days.

Some believe it to be a sea change in public discourse; others feel this is more of the same. However you explain it, having more people involved in the discussion is the center of the rhetorical tradition. Rhetoric is about making meaning. Having more voices and more discussion always helps to make more meaning. Erisology makes sense to me because I too have felt among people a real desire to figure out why we are so unwilling to engage with one another. I believe that it is because we never get formal teaching in how to argue and lose to others. Some people get this practice, but it’s rare, and those who have such chances are quite lucky. Erisology to me sounds like the call for more rhetorical, debate, and oratory education, such as the growing oracy movement in the United Kingdom and the rise of nonprofit debating leagues for young people across the United States through organizations such as the Urban Debate Leagues.

Losing an argument is a very important democratic art that we never practice. It’s vital that we learn how to live with our persuasive failures. There’s no great secret to it, just practice. The more time we spend arguing with one another in low-stakes situations, the better we will be when the situation calls for serious consideration.

Stephen Llano, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Rhetoric, Communication & Theater
St. John’s University
Queens, N.Y.

Jesse Singal replies:

I got a fair amount of feedback similar to David M. Grant’s; philosophers and rhetoricians, in particular, suggested that to propose a “new” field called erisology has the effect of ignoring a lot of the work that has already been done in their and other disciplines. As I noted in the piece, though, John Nerst believes “the new field should draw on the insights of more than a dozen disciplines ranging from traditional philosophy, to anthropology, to post-structuralist theory.” In my view, Nerst recognizes all the other fields that have tackled the questions that interest him from myriad angles; he sees himself as someone hoping to borrow freely and to integrate their insights. I’m sympathetic to this view—I believe that it is likely the case that rhetoricians miss some of the insights of social psychologists, social psychologists the insights of political scientists, political scientists of rhetoricians, and so on. I was drawn to Nerst’s story because of his quixotic, prolific approach, as an academic outsider, to reading the work of many different disciplines, and to freely picking and choosing from their most important concepts, in a manner quite characteristic of a style of old-school blogging that is rapidly going extinct.

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