Rethinking Phil debate: why it’s declining and why you should care by Animesh Joshi

This article will analyze a recent trend in the debate meta: the decline of “phil” debate. In part 1, we’ll examine what “phil” debate roughly is and why debaters are employing it less often. To conclude the section, I’ll isolate a couple of reasons we should care about this decline, and why debaters ought to consider philosophical debate as both a viable strategy and worthwhile pedagogical endeavor.

Before I get too deep into this article, I feel like it’s a good idea to offer a working definition for what “phil” debate is. I think that “phil” debate can take on a variety of forms, and I hesitate to arbitrarily constrain it to a narrow set of parameters; so, I’m going to be a bit vague here—sorry in advance!

Most philosophy utilizes a system of premises and conclusions, i.e., a series of warranted claims that come to a basic conclusion. You’ll see this everywhere, and it’s a common feature of most phil debate. Philosophy, as a practice, has many different branches, and the distinctions get blurred easily.

Again, my purpose is not to draw rigid lines, but when you hear the words “phil debate”, you probably think about people like Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Thomas Hobbes, etc. There are certainly a lot of other philosophers out there—who aren’t necessarily dead white guys, e.g. Judith Butler and Tommie Shelby—and they are also a part of this traditional conception of phil debate in LD. It is the decline of this type of debate that my article attempts to address; to clarify, this isn’t about any specific authors, branch of philosophy, or arbitrary debate category, but it is rather oriented towards a style of debate[1].    

I think it is an uncontroversial claim that the frequency of the “traditional” variant of philosophical debate has declined, recently. I’m not talking about the last topic, or the last year even, but a larger span of time (let’s say ~ 5-7 years, if not more). Why is that the case?

In my opinion, the meta has changed, and other arguments appear more strategic. Most clearly, phil affirmatives (and negatives) get brute-forced by other strategies. Based on how we deploy phil debate currently, people set themselves up at a disadvantage, and it requires a ton of skill to compensate for the skew. Let’s take a whole resolution, generic Kant aff vs any of these strategies:

  1. LARP 1NCs – this 1NC is filled with many preclusive layers: a PIC that scoops affirmative offense, a disadvantage with an extinction impact, a util framework replete with preclusionary arguments (theoretical justifications, epistemic modesty, extinction first—the works), and sometimes theory.
  2. TKO – this 1NC contains a topicality or theory shell, coupled with a critical position. Both layers are assumed to be higher (both by the current meta and the affirmative debater, who won’t really push back on the negative’s preclusion arguments). Finally, the negative will also read generic case turns—setting up a pretty layered strategy for the 2NR.
  3. Theory + tricks blitzes – this 1NC reads one or two theory shells, skepticism (or arguments of a similar flavor), truth-testing, and a ton of theoretical and substantive tricks. Again, the aff is buried under a litany of arguments, having to wade through everything before being able to leverage their affirmative.

These strategies have been largely successful in diminishing the popularity of phil debate; as a result, there have been changes in argumentation style and content. Traditionally phil debaters have focused on parlaying their skills into other forms of debate, e.g., delving into critical literature bases[2]. Many of these affirmatives are now structured in a familiar syllogistic style, but they present their affs as entirely different—and possessing an entirely new set of strategic implications for the round.

The other main trend in phil debate stems from a drive to maximize the strategic value of arguments. This can be anything from an argument that gives you a positive time tradeoff to a completely new, preclusive layer. However, when pushed towards an extreme, it can lead to debaters egregiously under warranting certain claims. For example[3]:

“Practical reason means we must be able to universally will maxims—our judgements are authoritative and can’t only apply to ourselves any more than 2+2=4 can be true only for me. The only constraint is noncontradiction.”

These uber short arguments are technically a positive time tradeoff, but they often lend themselves to underdeveloped debates. Obviously, some arguments in debate will naturally be blippy—time-crunched speeches aren’t doing anyone favors—but this level of warranting is gaining popularity in constructives (as opposed to later rebuttals).

Strategic concerns also start to blur the line between “phil” and “tricks” debate. It is getting increasingly common to see an argument for indexicals right underneath a dense standard text, or the resolved a priori before a short contention. These affs often have the familiar look of a phil aff—sometimes stock, sometimes more unique—but contain tricks embedded throughout. The proliferation of substantive and theoretical tricks in affirmatives reflects the strategic concerns I isolated above. After all, extending truth-testing and an a priori sounds like a much easier 1AR against the LARP 1NC (in front of the right judge, of course).

On a related note, I do want to distinguish between more tricks-centered strategies and the philosophical debate I isolated at the top of this article. They are not the same, and when someone says “phil/tricks = strike”, I think that is misunderstanding phil debate and underselling its potential. I won’t deny the strategic value of some of these tricks, but I think it is reasonable enough to say that they skirt some of the more educational aspects of philosophical debate, generally. Yes, “clash” and “critical thinking” might be gained from debating more tricky arguments; certainly, topical, nuanced, and well thought-out arguments about the logical implications of the resolution might stimulate a debater’s brain, but I don’t believe that is what the vast majority of these debates consist of. Instead, these debates often produce underwhelming clash and a lack of real, substantive engagement.[4] Assuming the best of tricks debate, I still do believe a more traditional phil debate would offer similar, if not enhanced, benefits.

Regardless of the value in tricks debate, I’d like to conclude this article by answering a simple question: why do we care? What stake do debaters, and the community, have in phil debate?

First, I’d argue phil debate is educationally valuable. Most, if not all, styles of debate are educationally valuable. However, a decent amount of this value comes from clashing with the other modalities of debate. So, it is reasonable to think that the decline of one style of debate can never be particularly good for any other form. Outside of that, learning about philosophy, generally, has a lot to offer debaters in terms of how they approach the world—whether it be learning the intricacies behind public policy justifications or something closer to self-improvement and discovery. Some of the skills drilled by phil debate—analyzing premises and conclusions, argument generation, big-picture comparisons, etc.—are also crucial for future experiences in the real world. Whether it be learning critical perspectives on philosophy, preparing for a college major like Philosophy/Political Science, or gaining rigorous engagement with dense texts, there is a lot we can take from doing phil debate. For the sake of this article’s brevity, I won’t elaborate any further.

Second, phil debate is strategic, especially in the current meta. I will elaborate on this in part two, but there is a lot of strategic value associated with phil debate, especially once you get good at it. Knowing a niche section of philosophy will force your opponent to think on their feet, and they will be unable to read any of their generics. Many conventional policy-type arguments won’t matter under your framework, or they can be easily outweighed. And when it comes to interactions with critical positions, philosophy is a relatively unexplored tool. Yet, still, there is a ton of literature you can find that discusses the intersection of critical theory and normative philosophy. With the right amount of adaption, a phil style of debate can definitely yield dividends, and the next section of this article will walk through that. Stay tuned!  

[1] I’ll also note that although this article is often articulated in context of affirmative strategy, most of it can be just as effectively utilized for the negative.

[2] This approach is still very much philosophical (indeed, the distinction between “Ks” and “philosophy” is relatively arbitrary), and a lot of the strategy tips below should be helpful for this style of debate as well.

[3] The author is not intending to isolate anyone specific with this example. This warrant is relatively common on the circuit, and although the wording is probably different for different debaters/programs, the general observation is one that applies to the circuit, writ large.

[4] The author does not intend for this to be carded and read against “tricks” in debate rounds.

Jayanne Forrest