Discussion vs. Argument

One of the first things my philosophy 101 professor taught us was the difference between arguing with someone and having a discussion. Many people actually only know how to argue and that can make philosophical debates difficult, if not impossible. I have found that knowing the difference has actually improved my relationships with family and friends, so I thought maybe you readers might like it as well.

An argument is something we have all had. We disagree with someone about something, anything. It can be as mundane as how to load the dishwasher and be as complex as the origin of the universe. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll go with the dishwasher one. It seems everyone has an opinion on how to do it, and their way is the absolute best way. Now imagine a husband and wife. In our scenario, the dishwasher is normally the husband’s job but the wife decided to do it one night to be nice. The next day, when the husband goes to put everything away, he is dismayed at the way she put the silverware in. He tells her she’s doing it wrong. She gets defensive—first of all, she was just being nice. Second of all, everything is clean, right? He gets irritated because that’s not his point, he organizes all the silverware in the bins so that it is easier to put away. Next, the couplebegins yelling at each other. They go from yelling about silverware and dishwashers to how he makes her feel like her opinion is always wrong and how unappreciated he feels. And it started with a dishwasher! That is an example of an argument: it is emotional, it encompasses more than the actual issue at hand, and regardless of whether our couple makes up at the end, there will likely be hurt feelings. Characteristics of arguments include name calling, accusations, and frustration on both sides.

When people have a discussion, on the other hand, they are not simply waiting for their turn to speak. Participants in a discussion do not have to agree, and one side does not have to “win” or persuade the other person to admit wrong or agree with them. The idea behind a discussion requires all parties to come into the conversation viewing the others as equals, with opinions worthy of respect. You may fully believe that they are wrong—and they may very well be—but in a discussion, your job is to let them express their opinion on why they believe what they do. This is especially true in something like philosophy, where a well-thought out argument may be valid on all sides of the discussion. While a discussion may go off on a tangent, it is usually a natural progression of the conversation and tends to expand on the original idea. At the end of a discussion, all parties tend to feel that their voices have been heard, their ideas respected, and they may even have walked away from the table having learned something or gained respect for their ‘opponent’.

Discussions can be hard, especially when the other side really just wants to argue. But they do have more benefits and fewer drawbacks than arguments. I have noticed that students in my classes who are big arguers tend to shut down thoughtful discussion—other students are too intimidated to speak, even when they feel they have a valid idea to contribute. I would imagine that it is very similar in relationships, too.

Philosophy on Life

When people find out that I am a graduate student in philosophy, I get asked two major questions: 1) what can you do with that when you graduate? And 2) what’s your philosophy on life?

For the first one, I can do a lot. Philosophy majors are taught to think critically, communicate ideas effectively, and do extensive research. I could write and publish papers for the rest of my life, or I could become a philosophy teacher. I could work in the ethics department of a company or as a researcher. So I’m not any worse off than someone who majors in art or journalism, honestly. But that is a few years from now.

The second one is a lot harder. I am just a grad student. I don’t know the meaning of life. I’m not all that old, I don’t have a lot of personal experiences. The more I learn about different schools of thought, the more I realize most people didn’t know either. What I think is the better question is this: What gives your life meaning? And that, I can answer. It’s going to be different for everyone, obviously, but that’s what makes it work so well as a concept. I can’t tell you whether you are right or wrong, and you can’t decide for me, either.

If there is something that gets me out of bed in the morning, that I think about all day, that fuels my passion and makes me a better person on a regular basis, then I have found it: what gives my life meaning. And I think that as people grow and change, the things that give their life meaning can change as well. Maybe you get married and have children. And maybe your children feel like the sole purpose in your life. But then they get older, needing less and less from you, and you take uppainting. Then your art gives your life meaning and makes you feel like you are contributing to the world. Or maybe you work on an assembly line as a safety inspector. Saving peoples’ lives might give your life meaning. It may be the reason you stay late at work every day, or why you study safety laws late into the night. You could be an aspiring chef who has dreams at night of all the things you want to cook. Just thinking about putting on that chef’s hat may light you up. It may seem silly to you that being a chef might be the meaning of life, but I would think that the chef agrees with me. So would just about anybody else who does something, whether it is a job or a hobby or something in between, that really feeds their soul and lightens their heart.

The deeper I delve into philosophy as a field, the more confident I am that it is what brings meaning to my life. Writing about it is something that I truly love to do, whether it is a formal paper for school, something I hope to expand on and publish one day, or something as simple as this little blog.

Brain Teasers

I am addicted to puzzles. I like to challenge my brain. I spend my whole weekend sometimes doing Sudoku puzzles or word searches. Most of my friends know this about me and will get me puzzle books for my birthday or for holidays. I bring them with me so I have something to do during down time at school. I also love wooden and metal puzzles, the kind where you have to take something apart or separate it. I also like those peg jumping games they leave on the table at certain restaurants; I never mind if the kitchen is slow or the server is busy.Digital games are also awesome, although I tend to only get the free ones (such is the life of a grad student). I even have a space in my apartment set up so that I can do jigsaw puzzles. It doesn’t matter how many pieces it has or what the picture looks like;I am not picky. I am always working on something. I also like playing things like chess, scrabble, or checkers with friends. It combines two things I enjoy: spending time with people I care about and using my brain. I am not the best chess player; I’ve been told more than once that I lack a certain cut-throat instinct that sometimes draws games out or means I end up losing some of my pieces. But I like it. I like trying to anticipate my opponent’s moves and the difficult dance that the various pieces make across the board. It is always an interesting experience.

I’ve heard that these types of things can prevent Alzheimer’s disease and keep you sharp long into your old age. I don’t know about all that, but it is fun. I find that it keeps me from getting lost in my own head, from worrying about the future or something else equally unproductive. Sometimes I’ll go to sleep and wake up with the answer to something that’s been difficult to come by. It’s fun to think that a part of my brain is still working on it while I am asleep.

I think it’s why I got into philosophy, honestly—because it is one of the few subjects where you are constantly thinking and challenging ideas, working though some of the great questions of the universe. It’s a lot of fun. You can discuss these deep topics and come up with your own conclusions. There are so many bright minds in the field, going back ages and ages—literally—that you will never be without something to read or learn about. There will always be a book or a paper written about what you’re looking for, on any side of an argument you can think of. You can really immerse yours in all kinds of debates and theories. And one of the things that I love most about studying philosophy is that it teaches you to look at every side of a situation to find the best solution or the logical conclusion. If that’s not the most practical and marketable skill out there, I don’t know what is!

Thoughts on Different Kinds of Love

I was talking to a friend the other day and she said that she wished there was more love in the world. Of course I asked her why, and she told me that she believes the world would be a nicer place if people loved more. I disagreed. I think love is actually all around us. However, it isn’t all the warm and fuzzy kind that everyone is always looking for.There is the love that parents have for their children. There is the love that siblings have for each other, and that keeps friends together for years and years. The love that couples have that when we’re sitting at home alone on Valentine’s Day we wish so badly we had. And the list goes on and on. There are all kinds of love out there, and not all of it does us good.

There is the love some people have that blinds them from seeing that the relationship they are in is toxic. They are too scared or afraid to move on, to set themselves free. They stay, thinking that this love is the real thing, that this the best they will ever do, that everyone is like that. The best they can hope for is that the relationship ends. Sometimes it ends really badly. If you ask any of these people, they are going to tell you that they’re in love. They’ll tell you that love hurts, that it means loyalty and caring, and all of these other things that they give but don’t receive for themselves. I don’t think that we need any more of that kind of love in the world, do you?

There are people who love money. I can see the allure, the mistaken belief that having lots of money is sort of like having a genie. Enough money can earn you respect and admiration. You can buy things that you believe will make you happy. Maybe it will even help you meet someone who will love you. But the question will be in the back of your mind the whole time—how much money is enough? Once you get some of the things you want, will you stop to appreciate them, or will you want more? Will your love of money create good any in the world? If not, then I don’t wish for more of that in the world. There are enough greedy people out there.

Then there are people who love substances. This love is so all-consuming that everything in their life is second to their addiction. Family, friends, their jobs. They lie and steal because nothing else matters to them. They bury their real feelings with the thing that they mistakenly believe will make everything better. It never does, at least not in a way that lasts. They damage everyone around them with their selfishness. That’s not something we need any more of, either.

I think there are all kinds of love. Some of them improve people, keep them going, lift them up when they need it, get them through the tough times. Others bind people, hold them down, trap them in situations that create more damage as time goes on. It’s like two sides of a coin—there has to be a counterpoint so that people know what is real and when to hold on to something. Of course, I wish that there are more kindness and happiness in the world but I’d be wary about asking for more love.

Observations from Travel

I was lucky enough to be able to travel last summer. My goal is to make it to every continent and to study the local beliefs in every place I visit. I think that being immersed in a culture, even if it has grown and evolved since some of the great philosophers lived, will help me experience their world—or at least a part of the world that is different than my own.

I had been studying different aspects of Buddhism for a research paper (mostly on how it was both a religion and a philosophy) at school and got very interested in visiting Nanjing. After three years of begging for money in lieu of gifts at every holiday and birthday, in addition to my own scrimping and saving, I finally had enough to take a trip there. It was incredible.

The purpose of going to Nanjing was so that I could explore the QiXia Temple. I had never been somewhere so old in my entire life. I wanted to see the temple and some of the Buddhist artwork so that I could have a better understanding of what the belief system was.I wanted to gain some insight into the people and how they expressed these ideals. I was able to see some amazing carvings and I lit incense in the Temple to pay my respects. It was an amazing experience. I spent a few days there and took about a lifetime’s worth of notes.

After that, I went to The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders. If you ever need an example of man’s inhumanity toward man, you don’t need to go anywhere else. 300,000 unarmed Chinese people—men, women, children, the elderly—all victims of a ruthless invasion. It is a terrible place, brutal but beautiful in its purpose: to honor those who suffered and died under such terrible conditions, and to remind us that there is a darkness within all of us that can be unleashed on a massive scale when conditions allow it. It is sort of a mixed media experience—pictures, objects, sculpture, remains, documents. There is a path of footprints marking the survivors and the skeletal remains of some who did not. I left there brokenhearted yet in awe of the human spirit.It felt disrespectful to take pictures, so I did not take many, and I may never be able to look at the ones I did take. It was hard to end my trip with something like that but it was definitely worth seeing. I would have liked to travel around China some more, but I had to get back here if I wanted to keep my job (the whole purpose of which was to save money so that I could go on more trips). I plan to go back again, sooner rather than later. Maybe I will go toQufunext. I want to study Confucius more in depth before I go. After that, who knows? Maybe a visit to Freud’s birthplace, or perhaps to see the outside ofSatre’s old apartment on St-Germain-des-Pres in Paris. Maybe I’ll see what courses are offered next year and plan a trip in honor of that!

What about you? Do you think being somewhere helps you understand a particular person’s writing or a belief system better? Where would you want to go?