The Adversarial Method: Where’s Moulton?


Dan Hicks


May 28, 2013

Yesterday 3:AM Magazine posted an interview with Rebecca Kukla. Kukla said some things about the adversarial method in philosophy, with which Jenny Saul disagreed. You can find a response by Eric Schliesser here, and from there links to another response or two.

What I find remarkable in all of these discussion threads is the complete absence of references to Janice Moulton, and especially to her paper “Duelism in Philosophy.” Back in 1980, Moulton had already identified the Adversarial Method and made a number of sophisticated points and arguments that are being missed in the recent discussion since yesterday. Here are some highlights.

On the first page, Moulton makes a pluralist concession: “If it were merely one procedure among many for philosophers to employ, there might be nothing to object to. But when it dominates the evaluation, doing, and teaching of philosophy, it restricts and misrepresents what philosophy is.” (419) So her primary criticism isn’t that the Adversarial Method is somehow antithetical to women in philosophy, or that it’s essentially flawed in any way. The problem is with its exclusive (or near-exclusive) use.

Her basic criticism, roughly, is that the Adversarial Method is only appropriate to certain contexts, namely, ones in which we actually have two adversarial positions and one needs to defeat or eliminate the other. This has two harmful downstream effects. First, the method is inappropriate to most actual contexts of practical deliberation, in which we are faced with things like moral dilemmas or the need to act under uncertainty. Thus the stereotypical practical irrelevance of much philosophy: what we do has nothing to do with what people actually need from us in their ordinary activities. As Moulton puts it,

The Adversary Paradigm requires only the kind of reasoning whose goal is to convince an opponent, and ignores reasoning that might be used in other circumstances: to figure something out for oneself, to discuss something with like-minded thinkers, to convince the indifferent or the uncommitted. (427)

Later, discussing the specific emphasis on counterexamples that the Adversarial Method encourages, she points out that

Counterexample reasoning can be used to rule out certain alternatives, or at least to show that the current arguments supporting them are inadequate, but not to construct alternatives or to figure out what principles do apply in certain situations. (429)

Second, the exclusive use of the Adversarial Methods tends to cause us to treat all situations as though they were adversarial situations. For example, we construct arguments designed to defeat adversarial boogeymen that exist pretty much exclusively in our own imaginations — egoists and external-world skeptics — and conceptualize the data of practical deliberation as logically exclusive alternatives — inviolable individual rights vs. utility-maximization.

Note that this critique goes deeper than Saul’s virtue argument (the Adversarial Method tends to make philosophers uncharitable) and circumvents the worries about gender essentialism and critiques of the Adversarial Method from Louise Antony (I think that’s the paper where Antony raises those worries) and Kukla. Moulton also anticipates the historical defense of the Adversary Method, viz., that this method was used by Socrates at the “birth of Western philosophy.” She spends a few pages of her paper (423-6) carefully looking at the Socratic method of elenchus. She concludes that he was “a playful and helpful teacher” rather than “an ironic and insincere debater,” and that his aims were more to nurture reflection than defeat adversaries: “His aim is not to rebut, it is to show people how to think for themselves by examining what they think they know and seeing if it is consistent with the other things they believe.” Thus, she distinguishes a dialogue between friends who disagree and the exchange of arguments and critiques from the Adversarial Method as such. This distinction seems to be missing from the contemporary discussion.