In our conversations with our philosophical adversaries, we should aim, not to destroy them intellectually, but to help them understand more fully, and for themselves, such truths as they have already managed to apprehend. Heresy and error, after all, are defects of good healthy doctrines. Certainly we should not refrain from pointing out their contradictions and absurd results. But our notice of such defects in the convictions of our adversaries should operate in them as prompts to deliberation. We can hardly expect them to undertake such a sober procedure when they see that the whole edifice of their thought is mortally threatened.
No matter what their native predilections, and no matter the vagaries of their intellectual peregrinations as they proceed through life and are by it educated, all thinkers seek the same ultimate, elusive, alluring end: comprehension of the Truth. Arrival at that comprehension must satisfy any thinker. What this satisfaction must mean is that the Truth must somehow agree with their fundamental impression of reality, and with their basic attitude, provided that these are viewed from and corrected by the proper perspective – from, i.e., the perspective of Truth.
Thus it is that when we undergo some great metamorphosis in the paradigm under which all our understandings are ordered – when we learn some new and more comprehensive and more adequate way of looking at things – our prior understandings are not rejected out of hand, but rather reordered and contextualized, trimmed and tidied. From the vantage of the wider world into which a new paradigm has ushered us, our prior understandings are revealed, not as wholly false – after all, it was those understandings that formed the infrastructure of the phase change that transcended and obsolesced them, both indicating and enabling it – but rather partial, or incomplete. They are not repudiated so much as they are perfected.
The Truth, then, must satisfy and settle all the worries of the atheist, the leftist, the nihilist, the skeptic; must indeed engender in them a profound happiness at their resolution, and at the provision of complete fulfillment of their hopes. Discovery of the Truth must come to them, not under the appearance of a personal disaster, but as salvific Good News. Most such men after all endure a constant, nagging, desperate agony of cognitive dissonance, writhing and grasping and hedging and dodging with all their might to maintain a fragile intellectual equilibrium. Most of them also are quite angry at life, which must perforce radically disappoint, and indeed injure, those who expect and think it is, or ought to be, other than it is in fact, and whose dealings are therefore inapposite to reality, unfit thereto, ergo unsuccessful. Then they cannot but be terrified, on the alert for any offense against the fortress of their ideas, and so of the basis for their lives. This is why they so often bridle, and then foam and rage, at our mere appearance at the list; why our mere assumption of the en garde provokes a berserker’s attack.
Any such man must have got to his current horrific condition by way of some series of steps, each of which seemed to him honestly best and most truthful to take. Some of those steps – the early ones, probably – must have been largely correct. It is to them, as the bases of all his subsequent development, that we must appeal, by showing that some later step he has taken contradicts his earlier, deeper, and more beloved convictions.
The way to do this in practice is to listen to your interlocutor’s deepest impulses, give them explicit voice, and then lay before him the problem of reconciling them with his espousal of their contradictions, which he has mistaken for their consequences. Thus may you reinforce the essential goodness of his motivations, and at the same time gently plant in him a seed of doubt, and worry, that may urge him to retrace his steps to his fundamental presuppositions, work his way again forward from them, and so discover where he had got off track. People cannot engage in a dispassionate critique of their own ideas when they are feeling defensive. So, encourage them.
Say then that you are talking to an ardent feminist. Let her go on for a while, and then, when she has worked off the greater part of her ire – not on you, mind, for you will not have revealed that you are her adversary, or anything other than a fellow traveler – give voice to the principle that motivates all her assertions. E.g., say, softly, slowly, and with a falling inflection, “It is wrong to treat women – or men, or children, or anyone – as if they were not human beings.” You can say this with quiet conviction, because you know it is true. It will not be experienced as an attack. Then just wait for a moment while the feminist agrees wholeheartedly. She will feel her expression of agreement as a relief, and an affirmation.
When the time is ripe, continue – still softly, and with a falling inflection – with a corollary: “All sorts of people ought to be treated with respect, and should be given their just desserts.” Again, wait for the agreements to subside, and then continue: “No one should be given special favors, over and above the favor that we show to everyone, just because they are human beings; nor should anyone be specially penalized; unless of course they deserve it by their acts.”
At this point, your interlocutor will begin to feel anxious. She won’t want to disagree with what you’ve said (which was not, after all, voiced as a disagreement); but she will begin to apprehend some danger. But she will see that danger as arising, not from you personally, or from some other evil enemy, but *from her own fundamental presuppositions.*
It is at this point that you must be silent, and give her the opportunity to give voice to her worries. Then, you must respond sympathetically to those worries, with such statements as, “It is indeed hard to see how to reconcile those two concepts.” The conversation could go anywhere from there, so I won’t keep trying to describe it. The main thing is to stand shoulder to shoulder with your adversary, and reiterate her first principles. If you just keep those principles centrally in view, she herself may then do the work of testing her beliefs that contradict them. Let her do that work, and support her as she does. If she refuses it, then you had in the first place no hope of reaching her by any other means.
The world eventually demolishes the errant with their doctrines, so there’s nothing to be gained by your philosophical demolition of an incorrigible adversary, unless it is for the sake of an audience hors de combat, whose own defenses are not directly engaged, and who might therefore find themselves swayed by your arguments, provided you comport yourself with charity, serenity, dignity, and good cheer.