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.

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  • ipgunn

    Becca, thanks for a great article! While I might have some differing opinions on specific points, on the whole the community needs more posts like this.

    I have heard from a number of educators and coaches over the past few years bemoaning the rise of philosophical debate in LD. Although I agree somewhat with Jake that topical debate often is philosophical debate of some kind with empirical references, I’ve never understood why it upsets so many people that students are learning more about and debating more philosophy. In my opinion this can only be a good thing.

    As an aside to this, perhaps one of the reasons this may be true is that coaches and educators are less familiar with philosophy than their students (perhaps for a variety of legitimate reasons), and therefore either have difficulty judging rounds with dense philosophical arguments or coaching/teaching students how to succeed in rounds involving philosophy. Instead of complaining about the growing relevance of a hugely important and tremendously educational discipline in debate, however, adults in debate should feel obligated to learn more about philosophy themselves to make up for these perceived deficiencies.

  • Jacob Nails

    Regardless of which style of debate you find more educational, excluding arguments on an ad hoc basis (e.g. through AFC) because they aren’t educational enough seems like the worst possible option. In practice, these sorts of debates tend to be devoid of both policy and philosophy education.

    Theory indicting specific arguments, such as a certain type of criterion or method of justifying one, also deters substantive research. Debaters have a finite amount of time to devote to prep, and requiring debaters to have a counter-interpretation defending why each argument that they make is fair and educational means debaters devote more prep to writing theory and less researching substance.

    This isn’t meant as a response to any post in particular. Policy/philosophy discussions often get coupled with AFC and the like. I just want to point out that regardless of which side you fall on, there are good reasons to think that AFC and similar theory interpretations are wrong.

    • Paras Kumar

      ^I’m not sure why this has to be true.

      Your analysis of debates where the 1AC reads AFC is spot on because usually the 1N chooses to engage the theory debate, but there have been rounds I’ve had students debate in and heard of where the 1N conceded AFC and just answered the contention. In those debates, I think a lot of topic education is facilitated. It’s just that we don’t usually see those debates.

      But I do agree that there is a pretty significant harm to philosophy education from AFC. Most good responses to this argument are usually mitigatory–hopefully no one thinks a world with AFC = as good of (if not better) phil ed as a world without AFC.

  • jnebel

    Hey Becca, I’ve posted some thoughts on VB3 (https://vb3.victorybriefs.com/t/on-beccas-in-defense-of-philosophy/310) because it seemed too long for a comment. Would love to hear what you think.

    • So instead of holding the discussion in one place with an adequate commenting system people should flock to a different website because…?

      • jnebel

        My post is 1000 words and was 2.5 pages when I first wrote it out. Figured it should be a separate thread. Posting links to your own blog, or a blog with which you are affiliated, is common practice among bloggers. In case you find it much more convenient, though, I’ve reposted it here, although I don’t think the formatting will carry over.

      • jnebel

        Becca Traber argues that “we can consistently do philosophical debate at a much higher level than we can do topical debate.” I assume by “we” here she means LD debaters.

        I agree with Becca that philosophy is good, good for debaters, and good for debate. That’s the basic message in our Teaching Philosophy article. But I disagree with two main things: her claim that topical debate has less value, and her claim that it is fine for debaters to strawman and bastardize philosophical literature.

        1. Topical debate

        It seems to me that Becca’s objections to topical debate are really just objections to policy arguments. Her objections have to do with things like the complexity of policy analysis and the assumptions of empirical and statistical arguments. Maybe that’s what Becca thinks of as topical debate. But I certainly don’t.

        To me, topical debate is debate about the resolution, which is almost always a topic in applied ethics or political philosophy. The core of the topic literature is not usually some particular plan, study, or impact scenario. It is usually a broader issue – e.g., animal rights, the ethics
        of killing, compulsory voting, or whatever. A good topical debate on, say, the moral permissibility of abortion might center on Judith Thomson’s influential defense of abortion. It might include a discussion of broader philosophical issues as necessary – e.g., Thomson’s conception of rights – and empirical issues as necessary. But it isn’t primarily a question of policy.

        Applied ethics and political philosophy are, of course, areas of philosophy. But it seems to me that they have been neglected in favor of metaethics. My problem with this is not that I think metaethics is bad. (I think metaethics is interesting and important, although poorly understood in LD.) My problem is that metaethics is less directly relevant to the topic than first-order normative philosophy, including applied ethics and political philosophy. In order to make metaethics relevant, debaters often misrepresent the literature, make bad inferences, and ignore the good stuff in the core of the topic literature.

        I feel the same way about some policy-based approaches to debate. For example, on the topic a few years ago about the moral obligation to help people in need, I remember seeing politics disadvantages, where the link has to do with the U.S. government making a law requiring assistance to people in need, or with the government providing aid to some specific country, or something like that. Those policy questions simply do not bear directly on the resolution, so I would not consider them constitutive of topical debate. My objection to them would be the same as my objection to people who just rely on metaethics for their arguments: in order to make those arguments relevant, debaters often misrepresent the literature, make bad inferences, and ignore the good stuff in the core of the topic literature.

        In short, philosophical debate and topical debate are not mutually exclusive. Good topical debate is usually philosophical debate, with some empirical stuff thrown in. But not all philosophical debate is topical debate, and not all of it is good. The same goes for policy arguments.

        Finally, I will just note that policy debaters seem to get at least as much out of their debate experience as LD debaters do. This is at least some reason to think that it is not harder or less valuable for high schoolers to make policy arguments than it is for them to make philosophical arguments. But this has nothing to do with my main objection to Becca on topical debate.

        1. Learning Philosophy

        Becca writes:

        ‘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.’

        I couldn’t disagree more. My objection has to do with the educational value of research, which I think is central to LD. If we want students to learn, or gain knowledge about, some literature, we should expect them not to misrepresent the literature. Debaters often internalize the misrepresentation, rather than the real thing, and that means they aren’t gaining knowledge. For example, many debaters would think that Tom Nagel is a subjectivist, because of the card about eggs and cockroaches; or that Eric Rakowski is a utilitarian, because of what he says about some people giving way for the sake of others; or that deontologists believe that consequences never matter; or that you can’t do first-order normative ethics without having a metaethical theory; the list goes on. The author mixups may not be a big deal – although they may hurt students in college philosophy classes – but I think they are a symptom of bigger problems: accepting bad inferences and internalizing misconceptions of how philosophy works. These problems are discussed in our Teaching Philosophy article.

        Philosophical arguments, in general, should not rest on appeals to authority. It is also worth noting that philosophers are taken as authorities about certain things. Here are some notable examples: philosophical methodology, the meanings of terms commonly used in philosophy, the extent of agreement over a certain judgment, and the possible views about a given question. And it is often vague when some passage contains any implicit judgments about those things and when it doesn’t. So it’s better to have a general norm against misrepresentation than to say, “Don’t misrepresent if your author might reasonably taken as an authority on something in the card.”

        Mixing and matching philosophical arguments is, in principle, fine. But it almost always comes along with equivocation – i.e., using the same term with different senses between premises, or between premise and conclusion. Learning how to communicate clearly and precisely, and how to give valid arguments, are crucial philosophical skills. Both of these skills are impeded when equivocation is incentivized. And a norm that encourages mixing and matching philosophical arguments that really aren’t talking about the same thing incentivizes equivocation.

        That’s all for now.

        • John Scoggin

          I was going to write a response but I think this post raises most of the questions I wanted to. There is a big difference between topic and policy debate and I don’t think that this article really compares philosophy and topic debate.

  • Graham Tierney

    While I agree with your general thesis (that debaters should be allowed to make philosophical arguments), I think that you undersell the value of topical debate. Foremost is that if philosophical debate crowds out topical debate, then LD becomes stagnant and the educational value significantly decreases. Topical debate forces change so the same debates don’t happen over and over.

    In that vein, topical debate also forces switch-sides debate whereas philosophical debate only randomly does. A debater can run deontology on the aff and neg basically every topic. A debater cannot run the Australia plan on the aff and neg. The philosophical debater only occasionally has to engage deontology if an opponent reads it and the debater cannot just make turns. This kind of education is probably the most important kind of education because it promotes the critical thinking and self-reflection that you describe. Specifically, your concern about bad philosophical debate causing a lack of critical assessment of social practices (the hijab example) seems miss-placed. I don’t think there is a significant difference between topical and philosophical debaters here, but if I had to choose, I think philosophical debaters are more likely to become dogmatic than contention debaters. But the difference is almost certainly not statistically significant.

    Secondly, philosophical research, I think, is fundamentally distinct from topical research. Philosophical research is always moderated by the fact that if you don’t find anything answering a position, you can write arguments yourself. The same is not true for topical debate, where authors are necessary. Writing arguments yourself is easier (at least it takes less time) than research. So, if debate is more framework oriented, there will be less academic research. Philosophical frameworks do not need to be updated topic to topic or over time like impact scenarios do, which also decreases the amount of research.

    Finally, is tradeoffs. I think emphasizing philosophical leads to the worst kind of contention debate, but good contention debate leads to good philosophical debate. Philosophical emphasis causes debaters to make vague claims about the nature of the topic which require either broad statistical studies (that parametrics and specific empirical debates do not require) or very superficial analysis. Particularly on the rehab v retribution topic, aims based cases would make incredibly vacuous statements about the nature of rehab and very sweeping claims about the nature of retribution. Culpability questions of is crime, in general, committed voluntarily or because of other determining factors requires dense statistical studies and regressions. Whether providing continuing education classes to prisoners helps
    them get jobs is a much more resolvable question. However, if many debaters are good at contention debate, then the obvious response is to get good at framework debate. A nuanced impact scenario does not mean you need to have a generic util framework. The best plans are probably plans with unique frameworks because those limit the neg’s prep the most. This promotes deeper engagement with both philosophical and empirical literature that is only somewhat captured by emphasizing philosophy.

    I think we probably agree on most issues and the general implications, but I think topical debate is important as well. If the hypothetical debater running Wittgenstein only argues that morality isn’t in some book of facts and that the resolution is therefore false loses on theory a lot, I think that is probably good for debate overall. LD should emphasize both, not one or the other. The converse of your analysis is the debater who wants to talk about implementation and policy but has theory run on them saying that plans are bad or frameworks saying that their impacts don’t matter. That seems to limit a student’s ability to discus what they care about as well.

  • Paras Kumar

    Great article Becca. I agree with what you say, but the only frustration I have with phil debate in LD is that all too often debaters are purposefully not clear about how their philosophically derived value criterion (or standard, whatever you wanna call it) delieneates what counts as offense and what doesn’t count as offense.

    In my experience, it was next to impossible to figure out what “linked” into my opponent’s standard if they weren’t reading a philosophy that I already understood. And even if I understood their philosophy, often times my opponent had a different variation of it where magically my links didn’t actually link come their next speech. This was complicated by the obtuse rhetoric/purposeful lack of clarity on the part of my opponent and the fact that I had 3 minutes of CX to figure this all out (and some of prep).

    Doing things like taking 5 seconds to explain the warrants of cards IN THE CASE itself or taking 10 seconds at the end of the framework to explicitly list what counts as offense or not would go a long way towards promoting understanding WITHIN the debate round itself.

    I realize that my concern can easily be solved for–I just hope that more debaters solve for it and stop being so shady.

  • Jamie Saker

    Becca, this was absolutely wonderful. This summer in Switzerland, I shared with several philosophers at European Graduate School the exciting progressions in the debate community, where young people are thinking and challenging frameworks. Your piece is exceptional and would give many great encouragement.

    I want to comment on a specific section of your comments, because a philosopher you reference is actually aware of this very aspect in the debate community. You state:

    “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.”

    While I’d slightly shudder at the last thought, as might Rancière (especially gauging from his reactions to Agamben’s terrifying lecture this August on Hobbes’ Leviathan and the image that precedes the text), Rancière and I did indeed discuss the debate community and the questioning of disciplinarity and the subsequent policing of these disciplines. The more the debate community engages the heterodox approach — not just in philosophy, but in the very aspect of play and experimentation (we might think of Nietzsche’s Gay Science, as illuminated in Avital Ronell’s The Test Drive) — and we have a radical pedagogy that perhaps has Rancière, Nietzsche and Giroux working together.

    Why does this matter? I strongly suspect that the problems we face today are those of the distribution of the sensible, to reference Rancière’s very important conception. In my professional world of systemic risk management, for instance, we realize increasingly that the catastrophes in our systems often originate in topological regions between defined disciplines. We may construct an organization – e.g. NASA, or a bank, or a government – and define categories and disciplines like human resources, IT, marketing, sales, etc., and then define responsibilities of risk coverage within those territories. But sadly, these defined disciplines are nothing more than limited constructions and by no means constitute a totalizing map when the parts are brought into the sum. These problems are extremely contemporary: do you know why the Affordable Care Act is collapsing right now? Do you know why the sub-prime debt catastrophe occurred? Do you know why the global contagion of the Thai Baht and the implosion of Long-Term Capital Management still lurks as a Specter of Capitalism, as Derrida might smile per the appropriation?

    These are all problems of distributions of the sensible. To the debater, these are issues of how we frame and what we leave outside the frame. The responsible educator or coach in our debate world is one who realizes the debate-within, the debate that assumes a universalizing stasis, an epistemological certainty and stability, is that of a dangerous, irresponsible fraud. To continue to educate human beings into the myth of the certainty and truth of the systems around them should constitute a form of human abuse. We need to be up front with the young people who are in the process of assuming part of the responsibility of figuring out the scandal of these ineptly constructed systems. The experimentation and play of the debate round remains, in my experience, one of the most remarkable environments for the expression of this vitally needed exploration.

    Thank you again for an absolutely remarkable post. I am certain you would make more than several contemporary philosophers proud from the thinking and questioning you demand.

  • James McElwain

    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.

    Institutionalized philosophy is taught like apprenticeship. One of the difficulties I’ve found in applying to graduate school is the need for a clearly defined “research focus,” i.e. the demand to clearly define one’s theoretical orientation in relation to the canon (Hegel or Spinoza? Lacan or Deleuze?). This dogmatic tendency of academic philosophy runs so clearly against what we teach in debate. The specific analytical skills you mention are so valuable precisely because they are not taught in higher education. I’m so glad debaters are starting to think about critical pedagogy because, despite all of the problems that the debate community has, the opportunity to “instrumentalize philosophy” is a kind of philosophical practice that’s hard to find anywhere else. Part of the reason why I firmly believe social justice is relevant to debate is because of the potential debate has as a pedagogical exercise, or for that matter, as a form of radical politics. From a public policy perspective, the incredible achievements of people involved with UDL demonstrate the efficacy of debate as an educational investment. It’s shameful how many programs struggle to get with >10k budgets (AKA the same amount many privileged debaters spend individually on flights, camp, coaching).

  • I’d like to preface this comment with a few things.

    First, shout-out to Becca for posting the BEST article that
    has ever been on nsdupdate, because I don’t even know where to start. I’ll
    congratulate people every now and then, but this has truly motivated me to
    discuss! Becca Traber is and will forever be one of the best role models I’ve
    ever had in debate. As my lab leader last year, she had us engage in not only
    the usual drills, but also (like she does in this article) had us explain and
    justify what makes debate important to us.

    Second, I’m not commenting here to deny the pedagogical
    implications of any arguments in debate, in fact, I’m probably a proponent of a
    more critical and uproaring cases myself (and Becca can attest to that),
    rather, I’m commenting here to get a discussion started. Like Martin, I believe
    this is probably one of the most important articles EVER posted on nsdupdate.
    Sure, there is some importance to debating the normativity of theory, and the
    nature of some argumentation, but BY FAR, this is a uniquely fantastic article
    that we should all discuss because it hits upon every single facet of debate.
    Critical thinking, policymaking, our futures, critical pedagogy, philosophy,
    but it hits something that we’ve rarely talked about and I believe we should
    talk about more: What does debate mean to us?

    To begin, I have nothing against race affs, or counterplans,
    or the social contract. I love a good Kantian debate. Each of these three types
    of argumentation creates a new and outstanding outlook on debate that the
    others overlook. At Big Bronx, there were people who ran only critical
    positions, because they feel passionately about debate. Likewise, there were
    some who went for presumption every round. I personally went for the full
    spectrum—metatheory, kant, derrida, critical pedagogy, and even a Native
    Americans aff in the bubble round. In prelims, we were all living in the great
    community that is debate, in one of the best debate tournaments in the country.

    Unfortunately, while Becca might not notice, she also posted
    the article at a time in which this is THE topic within debate. After some
    unusual clashes in elims at Big Bronx, I think it is time to really take the
    time to discuss what’s wrong, or even what’s right with debate!

    Namely, that some harmful words were exchanged after
    double-octafinal rounds that led to what once was a community of people from
    Cali to Maine, each intellectually engaging the other, to split. Some teams
    walked away angry, and broken because they felt that what they felt
    passionately about was insulted and those who were left in the aftermath were
    left in an even worse place. What once was a loving community was destroyed in the matter
    of minutes.

    It is because this happened that I felt I needed to share
    two things.

    First, I believe that even if all of you disagree with what
    I said, or a decision I make, that is not grounds for exclusion or the amount
    of harmful exchanges that occurred at big Bronx this weekend because of a clash
    of a few paradigms of debate.

    Second, if y’all care, I’d like to share what debate is to
    me. Maybe we can foster some real change by talking about what debate means to
    all of us. Debate to me is a place where I can engage in any type of
    argumentation I want, because I can, and because the community allows me too. I
    can’t really imagine debate without philosophy, policymaking paradigms, or even
    cases examining the underlying assumptions of LD debate. But we certainly
    shouldn’t let these types of argumentation exclude each other. It is because
    they fit so well that we have the fantastical coalition that we call debate
    today.

    So I urge you to share your own ideas about debate, and
    rather than sulking in our prospective corners we can actually discuss what we
    feel, and consequently make debate a more dynamic expression of what we all
    feel today.

  • Jacob Pritt

    Becca, I love this article. Thank you for writing it and sharing it with the community!

  • Martin Sigalow

    Why aren’t more people reading/commenting on this?