In Defense of Philosophy by Becca Traber

I have seen many cases around the circuit lately that accuse philosophical frameworks of everything from sophistry and disingenuousness, to being culpable for the Columbine school shootings. In contrast, I think philosophical debate is good, I think students should be encouraged to learn and engage in it, and I think it is problematic for educators to preemptively exclude it from the round and the activity.

As a disclaimer, I consider myself first and foremost a teacher in this activity and I know that most people feel the same. I try really hard to always let my paradigmatic disagreements with student be far outweighed by the creation of a welcoming and productive environment for discussion and learning. I recognize that I got a particular set of skills and interests out of debate, but there are other routes to both competitive success and deep meaningful education in this activity. What is, however, unacceptable is educators utterly dismissing whole swathes of students and their interests as unsuitable, uninteresting, and, often, immoral.

At the same time, it is obvious to me that part of my obligation as a teacher is to steer my students in educational directions and I suspect that this shared conviction is at the root of many of my colleagues’ objections to philosophy in debate. I know most of these people are good teachers and great debate minds, and probably, they simply did not have an experience with philosophy and debate that felt beneficial. So, this article is an attempt to explain what I think is necessary and unique about philosophy in debate to someone who may not feel the same way. It is not a defense of any particular strategy, although I suspect there are strategic implications of many of the claims made here, but it is a defense of approaches that are often derided as “strategic nonsense.” Here is why I teach the way I teach and why I don’t think it is nonsense.

As a note, this essay is largely about the best possible versions of “topical debate” and “philosophical debate.” I think what I am arguing holds true throughout the levels, but my basic thesis is that we can consistently do philosophical debate at a much higher level than we can do topical debate.

Is philosophical debate inherently harder than “topical debate”?

First, it is worth mentioning that most of the claims made about philosophical topics are non-unique, at best. It is frequently argued that the ethics debate has been going on for 2000 years and has yet to be resolved. Well, let me attest that I study political science and none of those debates have been resolved either. Thucydides was arguing about political realism 2500 years ago and there is no consensus. Additionally, if any high schoolers can resolve what to do about Iranian proliferation or the material effects of economic sanctions in forty-five minutes, I suggest they apply for a job at the state department. This sounds flip, but I genuinely think it undercuts the importance, complexity, and difficulty of policy problems to say that they are somehow easier than the ethics debate. I say this because I like talking about politics — I may focus on political theory, but I have worked extensively with things that would be classed as “topic specific ground” and it isn’t any easier. To pretend otherwise, particularly when we see how some debaters disproportionately excel and all must be taught, is disingenuous.

Additionally, it is not the case that philosophical literature is more difficult than more straightforward political science or policy studies literature. This is largely because of a turn in political science as a discipline toward more complicated mathematical forms of study. Regression analysis (or, “statistics”) is simply the least of it. In political science, the methods of making “empirical claims” include structural modeling, factor analysis, mathematical approaches to game theory, and more. To read, and more importantly to compare, the best literature on political science involves an advanced understanding of mathematics. This may feel like a digression, but it is not. One of the reasons why policy analysis in LD seems more straightforward is because we are comparatively worse at it. We teach our students to say that their sample size is bigger when the test for statistical significance already accounts for it, and tell them to prefer a higher “R value” when in most cases that value is largely meaningless on its own and in some cases a particularly high one can indicate other problems. If we are worried about coaches not be able to understand meta-ethics, we should be far more worried about them not being able to understand complicated claims about the empirical ramifications of policies.

Math is not only hard, it requires a very rigorous and systematic course of study to grapple with it properly. A world in which we aimed to teach our students how to analyze the effects of actions at the same level we engage in philosophy is one in which we would have to teach introductory courses in statistics, as well as a serious engagements with the problems of constructing a research method, in two short weeks at debate camp. Perversely, in some accounts, the most rigorous and statistically valid way to criticize a study without a detailed mathematical analysis is entirely conceptual. Debaters could criticize the operationalization of a variable, or the way that a concept becomes measurable, but to do so demands a complicated and warranted analysis of a theory of action, subjectivity, and the world. There are many complicated and out of reach methods for doing philosophy, but the level of engagement possible with the literature with the training debaters have is much higher than the comparative engagement with social science literature. In other words, the most valid way to argue about statistical claims is, particularly in a debate round, a philosophical one. I have a lot of thoughts about this and how to engage in this debate in a way that is not pure sophistry, but this is not the place.

One might argue that we could analyze policies and real world analysis in a non-empirical way, without relying on complicated mathematical measures and their corresponding problems. The problem is that to do so would be to functionally commit ourselves to the intellectual engagement of an editorial page. It is certainly not the case that a serious engagement with the academic literature on these issues would be possible without mathematics. I can only speak for my discipline, political science, but I don’t think it is false to say that the quantitative turn in the social sciences has been almost complete and total. When debaters read qualitative evidence, they usually use one of two types. Either they use non-peer reviewed assertions about the state of the world, or they use academic literature making qualitative claims. There is a sense in which the first type — editorials, news articles, etc — is making a warranted claim, but the warrant is very weak. There is no way to verify or test the argument and the debate devolves purely into a series of appeals to authority. If they are using warranted, scientific qualitative evidence, the warrants are in some senses more difficult to evaluate than quantitative. In a manner of speaking, quantitative evidence is the attempt to making the many minute arguments and judgment calls in qualitative analysis more efficient and easily communicated. The issue is that a single paragraph could never contain the depth of warranting that is necessary to support the conclusion; when a social scientist asserts that, for instance, political movements demanding sacrifice in Nicaragua gain membership through citizens feeling moral revulsion against the state, she supports that claim with hundred pages of close analysis of interviews, political records, and other primary sources. It is an argument, supported by evidence, but it is the sort of argument which is impossible to condense into a form that is adequately communicated in a debate round.

In short, a serious commitment to debate as a forum for policy analysis gives us two bad options: either we could debate without engaging each other’s warrants in a serious way, taking anything numerical as unequivocal fact despite any reason to do so, with brief outbursts of more than usual ridiculousness whenever numbers have to be compared. Or, on the other hand, we make assertions about facts in the world with no attempt to verify them or ability to challenge them beyond further assertions. Neither is a particularly rosy picture of debate.

Indeed, I would argue that the learning curve for really comparing empirical evidence is much steeper than the one for philosophy. Philosophy at the level we engage with in debate is challenging, but not impossible, to critique. To answer practical reason does not take an equation, and indeed, while a familiarity with the literature and method is helpful, it is not in the same sense necessary. I am sure I am not the only judge to witness a novice coming, completely on her own and just due to individual thought, to framework criticisms similar to those that more advanced debaters would have in a card. If philosophical debate seems harder, I would argue, it is only because we (as rational creatures) are capable of functioning at a much higher level of philosophy and can tell when arguments are insufficient. To understand when quantitative analysis is wrong takes serious (and may I say, often very boring) study, knowledge that most judges don’t have. Philosophy relies on arguments with claims, warrants, and implications in terms of some determined necessary standard — that is the structure of the beast and it looks familiar. Unlike policy analysis, doing philosophy in debate looks similar (if faster paced), than the way it looks in academia. We know it doesn’t look like policy analysis because there are no equations and there are no powerpoints. Empirical analysis relies on an appeal to authority because we quite credibly find a high schooler suspect when they are waxing poetic about North Korean nuclear policy. We must card an author talking about their regression analysis because it is literally inconceivable that a debater could replicate that warrant in round.

But in philosophy, relating an argument from an author ought not be an appeal to authority. The fact that Hegel post-dates Kant does not make him correct and if a student of mine ended up definitively disproving practical reason, the fact that she is sixteen would not matter. What it means to prove a claim in philosophy true is independent of the credibility of the person making the argument. The same thing is true of policy analysis, but in a un-useful way for debate, given the inscrutability of their warranting strategies. Cards may be strategically useful in frameworks, due to the fact that they are easier to flow or perhaps out of a misconceived trust of an academic over the validity of their argument, but they are in no way necessary. It seems that we are in a situation where to do policy analysis properly demands evidence and yet, with evidence, the problems only increase.

Is philosophical education inherently less useful than “topic specific education”?

I believe the only reason why one might prefer policy analysis despite this is a conviction that even when taught and done, by necessity, in a somewhat mediocre fashion, it is still more educational than philosophy. It is often argued that the metaethical debate is (A) irrelevant to learning to think critically, (B) irrelevant to becoming a better-informed citizen, and (C) impractical and “ivory tower”, thereby having little utility for a student’s future. All of these claims have a similar structure — philosophy is dogma, it isn’t useful, and it has no relevance to a student’s life. This is opposed, of course, to topics which are assumed to have relevance to a high schooler’s day to day life, like nuclear proliferation or economic sanctions. This section aims to demonstrate, in a brief and necessarily inadequate manner, what I think makes philosophy valuable.

I think the most popular and conventional claim is that philosophy is not useful. The first problem with this claim is obvious: many debaters move past debate into studying philosophy. Indeed, some of us end up wanting to make a career of it. So, even if the discussion is purely ivory tower and academic, that academy is where I plan to spend my life and I know many other debaters who feel the same. My suspicion is that many people who make the claim that philosophy has little practical value don’t like it and have no intention of further study, but the point remains that people who disagree exist and find it valuable. It is my contention that we should have an approach to debate that recognizes that there are a variety of different takeaways from debate and introducing a high school student to literature that she wants to spend the rest of her life reading is a valid one. Not the only valid one, but definitely a valid one. Many students who attempt to run this sort of argument are confronted with theory shells that don’t only argue that the strategy is unfair, but also scoff at the idea that there could be any value at all to the type of strategy they prefer. They seem to say to me: “sorry, but what you like isn’t valid. What you want to do doesn’t belong here.” I’m not a fan of any argument that excludes valid forms of intellectual engagement.

More than that, though, I think that philosophy is useful regardless of your specific academic track. A serious study of philosophy teaches you how to think critically about what you are told and to evaluate seriously the truth value of claims against things that you hold dear. In a large way, the skills are more generalizable, academically, than “topic specific education.” Whenever my academic career touched a topic I had either debated or coached, I mostly had to relearn what the literature actually said on the issue. Usually, the way that the topic is frame elides and ignores what is the most pertinent debate for actual academics on the issue, making an entirely different framing necessary. On the other hand, being able to explain and engage with Kant in a serious way is helpful even if you never study Kant at all; it teaches you the structure of argument and how one articulates a complicated idea in a simple and coherent way. I am not saying that debating empirics does not teach you generalizable skills, but philosophical argumentation is unique because it empowers students to make complicated arguments on their own recognizance, without needing to appeal to a better informed authority.

All of this article so far has supposed that we are comparing excellent philosophical debate to excellent empirical debate. The question of more mediocre versions of the same is a big one, but worth touching on. It’s possible that the ritualized form that philosophy debate takes when it becomes reliant on blocks is less valuable than the equivalent rituals of empirics, but I don’t think that’s true. First, all the harms of ritualized philosophical debate are at worst nonunique. One cannot credibly argue that every extinction scenario is nuanced and specifically warranted to an acceptable degree. I’m not going to claim that every practical reason aff is perfect, but at the very least, the problem of ritualized and inadequate argumentation is universal. Second, from an academic perspective, I had to unlearn or substantially alter most of the empirical facts about the world in a much more profound way than the philosophical or ethical theories. A basic and ad hoc understanding of Kant is useful in approaching later study; a basic and ad hoc understanding of the causes of civil war is significantly less so. Third, and most problematically in my mind, an ad hoc and insufficient understanding of facts about the world can be actively damaging. I’m reminded of well-meaning western feminist critiques of hijabi women in the Arab world and articulating the wearing of the veil as innately a patriarchal practice. To say there can be no feminist choice to take up the veil ignores the complexity of the ideologies behind wearing a hijab. It is a damaging misunderstanding born of both ignorance and the assumption that one knows the facts about the situation. That is to say, it seems to me that an inadequate understanding of philosophy teaches you to be more critical and to suspect more of what you believe, whereas an inadequate understanding of the empirical world gives you too much confidence in what you know.

And, here is where I’m about to sound sappy: philosophy in a very real way can teach you what it means to be a better person. I am always stunned when theory shells casually drop statements that “deontology is useless in day to day life.” Kant is talking about day to day life. While this is not true of all philosophy as studied in the academy, the vast majority of the authors that we use in debate and are critiqued for being ivory tower are speaking seriously about choices we face on a day to day basis. I know personally that my time in debate has made me a better person, if only because it has exposed me to ideas that caused me to question my basic assumptions about the world and about ethics. There is a persistent assumption that those of us who teach debaters about authors like Hobbes, Schmitt, or Derrida are doing so because we think they are strategic, not because we think it will help them be a better person. I can only speak for myself, but I think the ability to grapple with complicated and problematic arguments, understand their warrants and defend their claims, is a key step in growing up to a critical, engaged, moral human being. We are rarely going to be in a position to make decisions about nuclear policy or due process claims, but we will make decisions about what is the right thing to do every hour. Morality, despite the fact that we often think of it instrumentally, is not about debate rounds and I can only see good results from having high school students think about it.

Is philosophical education inherently unsuitable for contestation in debate round?

Even if it is the case that philosophy is not useless in and of itself, it is certainly plausible that it doesn’t belong in a debate round. I think mathematical literacy is incredibly important and yet, as discussed, it certainly is not something that belongs as a focus of LD. This section aims to address the claim that philosophy is not suitable for debate or that there are better forums. Debate is different than academic philosophy because (to an extent), academics are concerned with truth and not winning a round. We instrumentalize philosophy, brutalize its history, and often get it extraordinary wrong (none of which, of course, is unique, but whatever), so why should we do it here?

The first and most fundamental reason why debate is an excellent venue for philosophy is the focus on argument and the need to warrant one’s claims. I am sure I am not alone in my experience in the beginning of undergrad, being faced with fellow students who thought that prefacing their statement with “It’s only my opinion, but” was a sufficient warrant. If nothing else, debate teaches students that is not how you do philosophy. It doesn’t matter if you feel that there ought to be an empirical world outside the mind if you cannot warrant why it exists or explain how it works. Debate–if it does nothing else–teaches our students that philosophy is a matter of argument, not of belief. It does so in an unreplicatable way — you lose the round if you cannot warrant what you are claiming. In college, the task is much harder. A professor must figure out how to teach the students how to warrant their argument either in the form of lecture, which is a structure inseparable from authority, or discussion, where it is usually frowned upon for them to press too harshly on an individual student’s attempt to contribute. In debate, though, we demand extraordinary levels of research, thought, and writing — and they do all that work because they want to win! This is amazing and it’s one of my favorite things about debate; a debater’s understanding is checked by opponents who are doing the best to prove her wrong. Students know they are learning in a direct, unmediated way. Debate is a great way to learn anything, for that reason, but it is uniquely suited to philosophy because it is organized around argument.

Second, I think the way we instrumentalize philosophy in debate is very exciting. One of the tendencies of academic philosophy is to taxonomize and categorize, and that’s very important, but I think it is slightly limiting. People are forced to specialize into discipline and sub-discipline, and, if philosophy is anything like political theory, even more particular sub-sub-disciplines that largely limit you to a particular century or very specific topic. This makes sense for the way that academia is structured and the type of work that you have to do, but debate is different. Debate encourages flexibility and a heterodox approach to philosophers, which I think is great. It encourages playfulness — maybe Hobbes and Rancière will work together, maybe Baudrillard and Kant — which, while it occasionally fails miserably–at the very least forces students to make connections and explore. In this, I believe philosophy doesn’t have the same problem with “miscutting” evidence that other types of cards do, as philosophy shouldn’t be dependent on an appeal to authority at all. If an argument that you card is a strawman, but if it sufficiently warrants what it is trying to do, then I think it is fine, for instance. This way of learning philosophy creates a finely tuned sense of how radically different arguments interact with each other and fosters a great, intimate way of dealing with grand and haughty thinkers. We are used to cannibalizing the Great Western canon and taking from it what we like, fostering the proper confidence and assurance for doing philosophy.

This is a completely unique benefit of philosophy in debate. Debate forces you to think this way, in a sense that no other way of reading Foucault or whoever will ever do. In every single round, debaters have to clash with theories with completely different normative, epistemological, or metaphysical frameworks and explain why theirs is preferable. In the very structure of the activity we incentivize students to be creative about how different philosophers interact with each other and then force them to justify their interactions. This creates a student who deals with academic philosophy in a creative and empowered way, but almost more importantly, it is the best way to use philosophy as a guide to living your life. In the sense that philosophy helps you make decisions about your life, you don’t really need to be able to write a paper about a particular philosopher or sort out what the 17th century contractarians thought about religious tolerance. What you need to be able to do is to have a justifiable sense of yourself in the world; who cares if you are influenced by people radically distinct, as long as you can understand them coherently together? In this sense, I would argue, the way we deal with philosophy in debate is more akin to how philosophy should inform an individual’s life than the more academic approach to the discipline. We want you to come up with a coherent, well-supported argument; the particular academic genealogy and taxonomy is irrelevant.

Why do you care?

I wrote this because I care about philosophy, but I also wrote it because I have had several students come to me and say that they wished they could learn more about philosophy, they wish they could read Wittgenstein without immediately losing on an NIBs bad shell. I didn’t write this to say that no one should run or learn about policy analysis or empirical debate; I think that’s valuable, too. I just think that the great virtues of debate are its flexibility and rigor, and a preclusion of vast swathes of argumentation undermines them both. Students should be able to run what they can justify, even if it is “ivory tower philosophy,” and judges should listen to it, particularly when there are so many educational benefits to such study.