Think You’ve Got it? Think Again

disagree

On the Problem With Agreement and Disagreement

A guest post by Peter Rollins (originally posted at peterrollins.net)

One of the things that I often see in discussions concerning some thinker is the use of the phrases “agree” and “disagree.” For instance, in relation to my own work I often see phrases like, “I agree with much of what says,” “I don’t agree with everything” or “I disagree with…”

These terms can initially seem like evidence of critical thinking (i.e. someone is willing to critically affirm or question what they are reading), yet these terms are actually more symptomatic of uncritical thought. The reason lies in the way in which these terms imply that the individual is taking the material and simply comparing it with what they already believe is correct. Insofar as what is heard or read corresponds with the persons own position they affirm it and where it differs they reject it.

Something that one learns quickly in a first year philosophy class is the need to suspend this attitude of agreement and disagreement so that we might enter into the world of the philosopher we are reading and let their vision impact our own.

While reading a thinker the question, “where do I agree or disagree with them,” effectively domesticates them and acts as a defense against the possibility of their work actually vacillating our existing paradigm. By vacillating our existing paradigm I mean the experience where one remains within ones intellectual frame, while experiencing it as a frame.

This is a vital experience in the critical process for we need to be exposed to other thinking in order to gain a vantage point over our own way of seeing the world; all the while avoiding the fantasy of being able to step outside of it.

To understand the process we can compare it to being immersed in watching a movie on an old TV set. Imagine that, half way through the film, the screen shakes. At such a moment we gain a distance from the movie while still watching it. We are then reminded of its status as a movie. In the same way the intellectual process involves allowing another to vacillate our paradigm (something apologetics courses are fundamentally set up to avoid). This process involves entering the others world and asking, “where would this thinker agree and disagree with me?”

By doing this one enters into a properly antagonistic relation with the thinker, a relation that is more likely to lead to a development and deepening of ones own thoughts.


Peter Rollins is a widely sought after writer, lecturer, storyteller and public speaker.  He is the author of the much talked about How (Not) to Speak of God. His most recent work is entitled The Idolatry of God.

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2 thoughts on “Think You’ve Got it? Think Again

  1. I agree with the general sentiment of this post, but I disagree that using language of agreement and disagreement necessarily locks us in to paradigmatic isolation. It all depends on intent. If we’re simply intent on delineating binary oppositions so that we can dig deeper into our own positions, then yes, such an approach is decidedly uncritical and unhelpful. But if we’re trying to clarify the arguments, to better understand where we share common ground and where our differences lie in order to engage in more productive discourse, then such distinctions are enormously helpful. Understanding areas of agreement allows for further conversation based on those agreements; understanding areas of disagreement narrows the focus of the discussion and clarifies the relevant issues. Yes, we should be cautious about summarily dismissing the views of others based upon knee-jerk judgments, but careful, thoughtful and irenic clarification of positions is a crucial part of any meaningful discussion.

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    1. Dan –

      I had a similar reaction when I first read this, and I think you make several good points about the importance of clarifying positions.

      I don’t think, though, that Pete is saying that “using language of agreement and disagreement *necessarily* locks us in to paradigmatic isolation.” I think he’s saying that it can and, thus, that we should be wary of it.

      Also, I think Pete has in mind primarily how we engage with texts (or speeches) when our role is primarily receptive, rather than how we dialogue, interacting with another person. It sounds as if you have in mind the latter when you mention “productive discourse” and “narrow[ing] the focus of the discussion,” for example.

      The primary suggestion I get out of this post is that we should try to allow ourselves to see the world through the author’s framework, to the extent that it’s possible–or at least to try to become more aware of our own assumptions.

      -Chris

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