15 February 2014

Disputation. . .Dominican Style! (Updated)

NB. A repost that explains the Old School Dominican style of disputation. . . 

UPDATE: If you want to know about this style of argument, here's a link to the Monastic Theological Studies page of the Lufkin OP nuns in TX. Frankly, seeing the energy and determination of these sisters, I'd just stipulate their victory and become a Benedictine! I'll be teaching in the MTS program this summer in Summit, NJ.

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, metaphysics, common sense, and additional authoritative 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 principle 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 principle 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 principle 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.

* And it proved to be a doomed effort. . .a commenter on the original post dragged out the sex abuse scandal to smear the Church and my response was. . .ahem. . .less-than-Dominican. Which goes to show you that knowing-how is not the same as doing.
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  1. I don't know, Father. Sounds difficult. I'm thinking I prefer the Conan approach: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women." :-)

    1. I like that way too!

      P.S. I thought you were referring to Conan O'Brien.

    2. In this house there is only one Conan . . . The Barbarian! (Remember we don't get TV - those new-fangled digital signals don't make it up here and I'm not paying for satellite!)

  2. You can get lessons from the sisters who attended the MTS last year http://lufkintxcontemplativenunsop.blogspot.com/2013_08_01_archive.html

  3. Anonymous5:25 PM

    Can Disputatio be used in preaching? If so, how? Is there a briefer form that would make it suitable in rhetoric?

  4. The link to the Sisters' blog has been removed. Do you have a recomendation for another source to learn this method? As a Lay Dominican it would come in handy often.

    1. Anonymous4:09 PM

      Annette, I don't know of any singular resource on this method. The phrase "never deny, rarely affirm. . ." is just a summary of the scholastic method used in the Middle Ages. No single author -- that I know of -- explains the method in exactly those terms. Aquinas uses the method throughout the Summa. . .as do other scholastics.