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Should the Primary Purpose of Argument be to
Show that You’re Right or to Show How You Think?

The character and history of a man can be related to his ideas in two ways: genetically, as a merely accidental element, as a condition; and by way of an inner relevance by which the historical and the trans-historical spheres are related to one another. To consider the first kind of relationship as the only possible one is the basis of all psychologism [the tendency to interpret events or arguments in subjective terms, or to exaggerate the relevance of psychological factors]. . . Indeed, there is no getting away from the world of personal motives as a conditional cause. Schopenhauer would not have developed a certain set of ideas if his mother had been a different person. This is psychologically interesting but not more; we shall always be aware of its relative significance. And yet to point it out is necessary for the plenitude of insight. Jaspers emphasizes the necessity of knowing one’s entire position, including one’s personal psychological background, to give fullness, as it were, to one’s philosophy. He was particularly wary of the pitfalls of psychologism, and his statement does not imply a simple reduction of philosophical ideas to conscious or unconscious motives, as it had with Nietzsche. It rather implies an added dimension, a rounding-off of insight.

Karl Stern (from The Flight from Woman, 1965)

It may be that twelve hundred men in Tottenham are down with smallpox; but we want to know whether this is stated by some great philosopher who wants to curse the gods, or only by some common clergyman who wants to help the men. . . Granted that he states only facts, it is still essential to know what are his emotions, what is his motive.

G. K. Chesterton

I have learned that arguments, no matter how watertight, often fall on deaf ears. I am myself the author of arguments that I consider rigourous and unanswerable but that are often not so much rebutted or even dismissed as simply ignored.

Daniel Dennett (from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995)

Religious (or simple) fundamentalism is the inability to see that words can’t do what we thought they could do, namely, establish truth with authority and without ambiguity. Philosophical (or sophisticated) fundamentalism is the inability to see that arguments can’t do what we thought they could do, namely, establish truth authoritatively and unambiguously.

If you have a God already whom you believe in, these arguments [such as the cosmological argument] confirm you. If you are atheistic, they fail to set you right. . . The fact is that these arguments do but follow the combined suggestions of the facts and of our feeling. They prove nothing rigourously. They only corroborate our preexistent partialities.

William James

The closest we can get to impartiality is admitting we are partial.

G. K. Chesterton

[The following was inspired by William James’ statement, ‘In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless.’]

The attempt to prove (in the ordinary wide sense), to the satisfaction of every honest, intelligent, well-informed person, the superiority of either the religious or the irreligious view of life is intellectually hopeless. (Or, alternatively, it is not possible to establish by purely intellectual processes the greater plausibility, probability, rationality, etc. of either theism or metaphysical naturalism.)

We must abandon the search for an argument so powerful and so incontrovertible that it will destroy the philosophical opposition once and for all.

No argument can establish the truth of its premises, since if it tried to do so it would be circular; and therefore no argument can establish the truth of its conclusions.

Bryan Magee

Not all houses are equal. Some are palaces and some are hovels: some are elegant and some are charmless: some are well constructed and others are thrown together. But each one has its good and bad points. So also with arguments. Every argument, like every structure, has some good points, some usefulness. And being enlightened involves being open to every argument, however strongly we reject its conclusions. More particularly it means going out of our way to discover its usefulness, never being dismissive, and sometimes being indulgent.

Thoughts about Argument & Belief

Arguments that don’t satisfy us emotionally usually don’t satisfy us intellectually.

If a creed makes a man feel happy, he almost inevitably adopts it. Such a belief ought to be true, he reasons, therefore it is true.

William James

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.

John Stuart Mill

If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own.

Dale Carnegie

I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.

Oscar Wilde

There is a certain amount of trauma involved in changing any long or deeply-held belief.

Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was not reasoned into him, and cannot be reasoned out.

Sydney Smith

Many people like their beliefs, opinions and prejudices more than they like reason.

No useful discussion is possible unless both parties to the discussion start from the same premise.

MediŠval Maxim

It is not necessary to understand things in order to argue about them.

Pierre Beaumarchais

Nobody will admit without a struggle that he is prejudiced against anything. Such an admission is distressing to one’s vanity. One likes to believe that one’s views on all subjects are the product of calm, dispassionate reasoning on the available evidence.

Arnold Lunn

What probably distorts everything in life is that one is convinced that one is speaking the truth because one says what one thinks.

Sacha Guitry

People only see what they are prepared to see.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A man has his beliefs: his arguments are only his excuses for them . . . we only see what we look at: our attention to our temperamental convictions produces complete oversight as to all the facts that tell against us.

George Bernard Shaw

Philosophical argument, strictly speaking, consists mainly of an endeavour to cause the hearer to perceive what has been perceived by the speaker. The argument, in short, is not of the nature of proof, but of exhortation: Look, can’t you see what I see!

Bertrand Russell

Metaphysics is the only thoroughly emotional thing.

G. K. Chesterton

Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence.

G. K. Chesterton

It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.

John Henry Newman

The analogy is a particularly tricky form of rhetoric when it becomes the basis of an argument rather than merely a figure of speech.

Northrop Frye

A drop of water is not immortal; it can be resolved into oxygen and hydrogen. If, therefore, a drop of water were to maintain that it had a quality of aqueousness which would survive its dissolution we should be inclined to be sceptical.

Bertrand Russell (arguing against immortality)

The first condition of right thought is right sensation.

T. S. Eliot

The mind is always the dupe of the heart.

La Rochefoucauld

The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way.

Bertrand Russell

Every man who attacks my belief diminishes in some degree my confidence in it, and therefore makes me uneasy, and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy.

Samuel Johnson

The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained a hearing.


Not everybody can be converted to some viewpoint by reason. But some people can be converted by reason.

Arnold Lunn

There is nothing purely rational which is strong enough to bind the heart of man.

Karl Stern

A man convinced against his will,
Is of the same opinion still.

Very few people listen to argument.

G. K. Chesterton

Time makes more converts than reason.

Tom Paine

We are not won by arguments that we can analyse but by tone and temper, by the manner which is the man himself.

Samuel Butler

Men become susceptible to ideas, not by discussion and argument, but by seeing them personified and by loving the person who so embodies them.

Lewis Mumford

We demand strict proof for opinions we dislike, but are satisfied with mere hints for what we’re inclined to accept.

John Henry Newman

It’s not a controversial proposition that people tend to believe what they want, and that the strength of their conviction is usually proportional to their self-interest.

What ardently we wish, we soon believe.

Edward Young

People believe lies, not because they are plausibly presented, but because they want to believe them. So, their credulity is unshakeable.

Malcolm Muggeridge

You cannot win a man from his belief, political or religious, unless you can see why it attracts him and can almost imagine holding it yourself.

Frank Sheed

The Catholic and the Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot be both honest and intelligent. Each of them tacitly claims that “the truth” has already been revealed, and that the heretic, if he is not simply a fool, is secretly aware of “the truth” and merely resists it out of selfish motives.

George Orwell (from The Prevention of Literature, 1946)

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