Daniel Dennett on how to argue well

This excerpt from neurologist-philosopher Daniel Dennett's new book Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking lays out a set of rhetorical habits that I immediately aspired to attain:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

And if that wasn't enough: "whenever you see a rhetorical question, try – silently, to yourself – to give it an unobvious answer. If you find a good one, surprise your interlocutor by answering the question." And then, "A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form …don't waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone."

Daniel Dennett's seven tools for thinking (via O'Reilly Radar)


  1. I read about a concept called cognitive dissonance a while back.  It’s a built in ego mechanism to clamp down on learning anything new when it conflicts with something you absolutely believe.  So, you need to soften the criticism first so that block wavers before you can make your point stick.  These methods look like a good way to do that.

    1. You sure you’ve read enough on it? People inflicted with cognitive dissonance aren’t just arguing against a topic, they believe the topic infuses every aspect of their core being and would destroy their conception of the world.

      1. Is the condescending question intended to be a good example of how to put the person you’re arguing with on the defensive?

  2. You’ll know you are doing this right when you start sometimes losing arguments, having realized that your “opponent” was right after all.

    1.  1. You’re presenting a clear and cogent argument. Simply: “no.”

      2. Your choice of words is especially nifty.

      3. I’ve learned that you enjoy being emphatic and to-the-point, in a casual and humorous way.

      4. YUH-HUH.

    1. I think this method works for everyone, even if they are very emotionally driven in their arguments and especially if they are just trying to be a jerk or get a rise out of you.  Their position doesn’t have to be logical for your to do your best to understand it.

      1. Their position doesn’t have to be logical for your to do your best to understand it.

        Agreed, but I think you may better understand why they reach an illogical position if you research the kind of person you’re dealing with in the first place. Hence, my link above.

        Pandering to those type of people very often only empowers them.  And, when the end result is war and suffering, that’s unacceptable.

  3. Oooh, love this. Except in the heat of the moment I will never remember to follow these steps. Do you think they’ll wait while I bring up the bookmark on my phone? Or should I practice arguing with my husband until these steps become second nature?

  4. Seems based on/related to one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is “First seek to understand, then to be understood.”  Except that Mr. Dennett’s thinking seems somewhat flawed.

    In his mind, he’s out to win the argument no matter what. Maybe he doesn’t fully understand his “opponent’s” position. What if he’s actually in the wrong? Wouldn’t it be mutually beneficial to find the best outcome? Then both sides win.

    Winning arguments for the sake of winning seems dumb.

    1. I don’t agree.  I think being able to state your opponent’s position and notice where you agree are skills that will sometimes lead you to actually agree, or to otherwise find a mutually agreeable solution.

  5. In real life the only thing that matters is which one can out-shout the other. Good or bad thinking is immaterial when you talk to someone whose only thought is to win every conversation he gets into.

  6. Yes, I can’t wait to apply what I’ve learned here today in my next internet argument.  I’m just positive it will all go swimmingly. :-7 

        1.  Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

          [you’re doing well so far]

  7. The problem is that this process can’t be carried out in 140 characters and a hashtag.

  8.  Going up vs “owners of being right”, point 1 is going to dig a hole you’ll never get out of.

    The list makes sense with someone fundamentally reasonable, but with, say, lawyers, scenes from Poe would be on my mind by the time I’m at number 4.

  9. I’m just reading this book. I thoroughly recommend it. Somewhat reminds me of “How to solve it”, which was also good.

  10. Sometimes when I’m restating someone’s positions I’ll say “I’m afraid it sounds really stupid when I say it, so correct me when I’m wrong….”

  11. the strategy of restating your opponent’s position, highlighting similarities isn’t a new idea. It was Carl Rogers’ thing (look up Rogerian argument), but his approach as another has pointed out, wasn’t for absolutely “winning” an argument or getting your opponent to concede. It was to create the possibility of persuasion by establishing common ground that could then be the basis for cooperation.

    I haven’t read Dennett’s book, but I can heartily recommend one that is all about rhetoric, persuasion, and argumentation (which shouldn’t be confused with ‘fighting’). It’s Jay Heinrich’s book ‘Thank You For Arguing’.  If you’re looking for rhetorical strategy without having to go back and read Aristotle and everyone since, Heinrichs’ book is golden.

  12. “A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to
    criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form …don’t waste your
    time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it


    It’s the first corollary of Sturgeon’s Law.

  13. A very good friend of mine is a social worker. During his training he did a number of classes on negotiation and rethorical techniques. For a while after, everytime we were arguing about something, he used to repeat the point I had just made before adding his own, until I got so fed up with that shit I smacked him upside the head so he stopped it.

  14. With most people I work with, if you start with point 1, they take it as absolute and tacit agreement and approval with everything they have ever said or believe in and then treat everything else you say as tl:dr.

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