11 January 2009

Never, Rarely, Always: Dominican Disputation (UPDATED)

In what is probably a doomed effort to tame my intemperate tongue and fiery typing-fingers, I have set myself on a course of re-learning and practicing the ancient tradition of Dominican disputation.

So, more for my benefit than your enjoyment, I present the Dominican method of disputation (in breve). . .

Early Dominican disputation was done in public, usually in universities for the benefit of students learning the crafts of philosophy and theology. The Master (professor) would give a lecture on some topic and then take questions from the students and other Masters. Once asked, the question would be answered first with a list of objections to the Master's real answer. So, if the Master's real answer was "Yes," he would begin by stating what all the "No" answers would seem to be. These are presented in the Summa theologiae as the "videtur" or "it would seem that."

After this, the Master would provide a sed contra, or a "to the contrary," a general answer to the objections that served to lay the foundation for his own answer to the original question. The sed contra was usually a quotation from scripture, a well-respected theologian/philosopher, or saint that directly or indirectly touched on the question.

Once the sed contra is announced, the Master would answer with a respondeo, the "I respond that." Here he pulls on the foundational principles taught to his students, employing basic logic, metaphsyics, common sense, and additional authorative sources.

In the respondeo, the Master would use a peculiarly scholastic technique in arguing his point. Summarized the technique is: "Never deny, rarely affirm, always distinguish." Thus, the scholastics' reputation for "multiplying distinctions."

After the respondeo, the Master would then apply his answer to each objection (the videtur) in a reply and show why each was incorrect given the sed contra and the logic of the respondeo.

Break down of the "Never deny, rarely affirm, always distinguish"

Never deny: this prinicple presupposes charity in requiring the responder to take seriously the objections made to any answer he might give; that is, by never outright denying a conclusion, the Master presumes the good will of the objector and averts any attacks on the person. By disallowing the outright denial of an opponent's premise or conclusion, the 'never deny' pushes us in charity to recognize that even an assertion erroneous on the whole may contain some partial truth. The next two steps in the method assure us of ferreting out whatever truth might be found error. (NB. This technique also tends to kill in its cradle the all-too-often virulent disease we call "flaming").

Rarely affirm: this prinicple frees the Master from the traps in the objections that might inexorably lead him to conclude that the objection is correct. It also serves to push the argument beyond merely polite agreement and force the debaters to explore areas of disagreement that could lead to a better answer.

Always distinguish: this prinicple allows the Master to accomplish the first two principles while still giving him plenty of room to disagree with the objections. By requiring the Master to carefully parse his words, this step in the argument recognizes the limits of language and logic when discussing any truth and acknowledges that there is some hope of finding better and better definitions.

So, in practice, you will hear those who use this method say things like, "If by X, you mean Y, then X" or "I would distinguish between X and Y" or "You are right to say X, but X does not necessarily entail Y" and so on. The goal is to parse proper distinctions with charity until there is some clarity with regard to the use of terms and their place in the argument.

I should add here another good principle of logic: "Where there is no difference, there can be no distinction;" that is, any distinction between X and Y must be based on a real difference between X and Y. For example, all teachers have heard some version of the following: "But I didn't plagiarize my paper, I just borrowed my roommate's paper and put my name on it."

No difference, no distinction.


  1. Anonymous5:28 AM

    Yes, yes, Father, very good. Thanks for this. If only more public servants would learn from the scholastics (at least!) this method.

    I wonder whether, ahem, there is some distinction between 'the Dominican method of disputationes' and that practiced by other, lesser (ahem, ha) schoolmen?

    Thanks for your blog!

  2. Doctor, yes there are...but I will refrain in charity from pointing them out.

  3. May I use this post in my newsletter for the Eastern Province, eLumen?

  4. Faith, please do...anything I publish here is distributable so long as the proper attribution is made.

  5. Anonymous1:12 PM

    Words of some wisdom, Father! Thanks again; I read often and appreciate your insight and observations.


    (...The Lombard business was 99% an accident in aide of my poor memory's inability to keep track of log ins and passwords etc.)

    Per sapientiam enim Dei manifestantur divinorum abscondita, producuntur creaturarum opera, nec tantum producuntur, sed etiam restaurantur et perficiuntur...

  6. This is absolutely fantastic. Especially the explanation of "Never deny, rarely affirm, always distinguish."

    Thanks much for this, Fr. Philip!

  7. I heard of a seminarian from American who was taking his classes in Rome in Italian and sometimes had difficulty understanding the questions his professors asked him. His fallback answer was always, "Well, you have to distinguish."

  8. Thanks, Josh...I occasionally do something right.

  9. I thought it was "never reply, rarely answer calls, always push to the next agenda." Live and learn! :)

  10. Anonymous10:32 AM

    Wow, Padre! Great post! This is pretty cool stuff! I'm actually printing this out and giving this out to students here at the univeristy for their reading pleasure.

  11. Dismas,

    That's one version. Another is: "Never communicate, rarely vote no, and always meet."

    Brother, we didn't join the Order of Preachers. We joined the Order of Meeters!

    To escape endless, pointless, and fruitless OP meetings, you must come to Europe where the friars consider meetings to be a necessary, though loathsome evil.

  12. Father Philip,
    Thank you for clarifying something that has been in the back of my mind for years.

    I always thought the maxim was "affirm much, deny little, and always distinguish, never dissociate" and I always thought it came from Aquinas ultimately.

    Just shows you how memory can never be trusted!

  13. Anonymous9:15 PM

    Father, you have suggested that "Never deny" is based on charity as requiring us to take seriously any objections made.

    I suggest it goes further than this.

    Just as the will desires a real good, even if misconceived, the intellect is similarly swayed by some truth, though perhaps wrongly perceived.

    So it's our duty to disentangle the genuine insight from the incorrect perceptions that accompany it.

  14. Felix,

    You say: "So it's our duty to disentangle the genuine insight from the incorrect perceptions that accompany it."

    This is absolutely correct as a description for what we are bound in charity to do. But it doesn't really explain how "never deny" helps us to accomplish this.

    If I had written this post for a textbook, I would have added something like: "By disallowing the outright denial of an opponent's premise or conclusion, the 'never deny' pushes us in charity to recognize that even an assertion erroneous on the whole may contain some partial truth. The next two steps in the method assure us for ferreting out whatever truth might be found error."

    In fact, I think I will add that!

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

  15. John,

    There are different versions. Yours might be considered the more generous version of the one I've posted here; that is, your version would accomplish many of the same things by being more generous to your opponent's argument. The version I have here might be though of as the most restrained version available.

  16. Anonymous11:52 PM

    Strangest coincedence - I was speaking with a OP priest (in Australia) on the same day this piece was posted and he brought up the content of this piece describing it very similarly - either he had read this or it is uncanny interaction of circumstances! :)

  17. so in other words, it take about 2 hours to get an answer to one question!

  18. Mom,

    If by "answer" you mean "affirming grunt" or "negating raspberry," no.

    If you mean "really good response," yes.

    See how that works?

  19. ... the 'never deny' pushes us in charity to recognize that even an assertion erroneous on the whole may contain some partial truth.

    We might go a little further, and say it's deucedly difficult to make an argument that doesn't contain some partial truth, and it's likely that most reasonable arguments will contain quite a lot of truth.

    I haven't seen a systematic study, but St. Thomas seems to have answered an awful lot of objections by saying in effect, "The objection is valid in one context, but here (for reasons given in the respondeo) we're looking at it in a different context."

  20. Anonymous9:25 AM

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  22. Carter3:22 PM

    I hope you don't mind me quoting you at length for my study group on the summa theologica. I came across this post by accident but its perfect for my preface handout before we begin our meetings next saturday. God Bless you Father!


  23. Carter, no problem...that's what it is here for!

  24. The Latin verse says: "Concede parum, nega frequenter, distingue semper."

    It's "nega frequenter": frequently deny.

    Although a distinction is quite more sophisticated than an outright denial, sometimes the outright denial is necessary, especially when what is denied is a universal proposition.

    And the great scholastics can be observed to follow this advice a lot.

  25. Anonymous12:56 PM

    The trouble with the acceptance or
    non denial of the evolutionary process (as opposed to adaptation of DNA already created)is the resurrection which is patently a non evolutionary miracle - Jesus
    came back to eat with the disciples
    after going to the Father plus Thomas put his fingers on his flesh. So why would God need to use evolution eg to create Adam
    from dust. Charles Allan

  26. I heard from one of my teacher but it seems in a different way specially the first two phrases, it goes like this: "nunquam concedas, raro neges, semper distinguas".