Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Toward a Culture of Discussion," The Philosophy & Poetry Journal (Summer 2010)

East Asia
Spreading a Culture of Discussion
(Image from Wikipedia)

I learned this week about the publication of my article on the necessity for a culture of discussion in Asian societies (or anywhere, for that matter). It can be read online at the journal itself in my wife's Korean translation or here on Gypsy Scholar in my original English. For anyone interested, here's the journal information, with the link:
Horace Jeffery Hodges (호라스 제프리 하지스), "Toward a Culture of Discussion" ("토론 문화를 위해서"), The Philosophy & Poetry Journal (애지), Vol. 42 (Summer 2010), 25-38.
And here's the first paragraph of the Korean version:
1997년 싱가포르에서 '사고Thinking'를 주제로 한 제7차 국제회의가 열렸다. 여기에서 싱가포르의 철학자이자 외교관인 키쇼어 마흐부바니Kishore Mahbubani는 "아시아인들도 다른 사람들처럼 사고를 잘 할 수 있는가?"라는 상당히 도발적인 질문을 던졌다. 일 년 후에 그는 미국의 '내셔널 인터레스트National Interest'잡지에 "아시아인에게 사고는 가능한가?"라는 더욱 도발적이고, 거의 '모욕적인' 제목의 글을 기고했다. 이 글은 같은 해에 그가 동일한 제목으로 발간한 책의 일부를 차지하게 된다. 하지만 이 글은 저자가 의도했던 만큼 큰 반향을 불러일으키지 않았다. 3년 후에 2판을 찍어내면서 그는 이렇게 썼다: "무엇보다 실망스러웠던 것은 이 글이 발표된 후, 왜 아시아 사회와 문명이 유럽 문명보다 몇 세기 뒤쳐져 있는가 하는 질문이 아시아인들 사이에서 토론의 쟁점이 되지 못했다는 사실입니다."
The Korean translation of my entire article is a bit edited and thereby somewhat abbreviated, but here is the full, slightly longer English original:
Toward a Culture of Discussion

Horace Jeffery Hodges

Ewha Womans University


In June 1997 at the 7th International Conference on Thinking, held in Singapore, the Singaporean philosopher and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani asked a singularly discomfiting question: "Can Asians think as well as others?" A year later in the National Interest, he followed up on this question by publishing an essay with the even more provocative, potentially insulting title, "Can Asians Think?" This essay became part of a book by the identical title that same year, but it failed to have the effect that Mahbubani intended, for as he writes three years later in the second edition, "My main disappointment with this essay is that it has not yet triggered a discussion among Asians on how and why their societies and civilizations fell several centuries behind European civilizations."

Mahbubani might not have triggered the discussion that he desired on the question of why Europeans rather than Asians experienced the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution, but the topic of critical thinking among Asians was being broached by some Asian thinkers. For instance, the Thai philosopher Soraj Hongladarom presented a paper in 1998 on "Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?" that addressed Asia's lag behind Europe and noted several characteristics of Asian cultures that "prevent the full realization of critical thinking skills." Prominent among these are "the beliefs that teachers are superior and [thus] always right" and "that social harmony is to be preferred rather than asking probing questions." In short, discursive hierarchy and social harmony trump genuine discussion and critical thinking. Far from being dismissive about these things, Hongladarom holds that Asian societies perhaps once had valid reasons for deciding that "social harmony should take precedence over critical argumentation and open debates." In today's competitive, globalized world, however, he argues that Asian societies need real discussion and critical thinking.

Perhaps these interconnected issues deserve some discussion, and this discourse will necessarily be discursive, winding its way through such interrelated concepts as discussion itself, communicative action, discursive community, critical discourse, mockery, insults, free expression, critical thinking, self-irony, and various other correlatives of a culture of discussion.

What is Discussion?

But what is real, genuine discussion? In "Visions for Cities: Public Truth and Public Spaces," the Belgian philosopher Bart Verschaffel offers this rather stark answer, arguing that "discussion is a war game fought with questions and arguments to find out if somebody is right or not" based on "evidence or clarification and argument." But his metaphor of "war" is dubious because war is a zero-sum activity in which one side gains at the expense of the other, the object being to defeat the other side. That might better fit as metaphor describing the practice of competitive debate, where each side aims to win by vanquishing the other side, for those two sides are bellicose opponents, enemies. Discussion need not be debate in this sense of pitting mutual antagonists against one another. Since the aim is to attain truth, rather than to destroy an enemy, discussion can be a mutually beneficial 'game.' The metaphor of "game" also appears inadequate for the dialogue that takes place during discussion because "game" implies an artificial situation set off from the more serious business of life. As such, players follow the rules during play but eventually finish the game and walk away from it . . . until the next time to play. But discussion of the sort under consideration here proceeds according to rules that apply to all of life. One ought to have reasons and evidence for one's positions. The 'game' never really ends.

Perhaps the views of Jürgen Habermas on communicative action in his Theory of Communicative Action better express the role of discussion as a social activity that, ideally, pervades an entire culture because rationality in the form of argumentation is a capacity intrinsic to language. Granted, discursive argument is not the only sort of discourse, nor is culture defined solely by discourse, but Verschaffel seems to think of discussion as a more narrowly circumscribed activity of the sort that takes place in seminars. Yet even Verschaffel recognizes that discussion is a "dangerous game" because it, again ideally, poses questions about everything and gives every discussant an equal role. In principle, nothing is sacrosanct, and nobody is the final authority. It therefore transforms individuals and even society, and is thus potentially a destabilizing activity. One can readily understand why some societies have traditionally chosen to favor social harmony over rigorous discussion, as Hongladarom notes.

How Broad the Discursive Community?

Modern societies have decided that discussion is necessary, albeit threatening, but how free should expression be? Should free speech be accorded only statements that follow rigorous rules concerning reason and evidence? An interesting case arises with another theorist writing on a culture of discussion, the sociologist Alvin Gouldner, who described this sort of discourse in The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. He referred to it in rather formal terms as the "culture of critical discourse" and held it to be specific to a new class of intellectuals. This discourse is characterized as "relatively more situation-free," meaning that it "forbids reliance upon the speaker's person, authority, or status in society to justify his claims." The ideal of such discourse is "one word, one meaning" for everyone always.

Gouldner saw this culture of critical discourse as the 'language' of a new intellectual class encompassing the sciences as well as the humanities. One wonders if critical discourse's rigorous ideal of "one word, one meaning" might not make discussion rather stilted if strictly applied to every term uttered in a discursive argument, but Gouldner was largely restricting his culture of critical discourse to the narrowly designated, new intellectual class that he had identified. In a genuine culture of discourse, however, the communicative group would need to be broadened to include, potentially, everybody in a society. But to do so would require loosening Gouldner's criteria a bit and noting the critical discursive actions that intellectuals share with other members of any society characterized by a culture of discussion. Fundamentally, this means the right of everyone to pose questions about anything with the expectation that answers should offer reasons and evidence.

Dealing with Mockery?

One intriguing question that arises, and not merely incidentally, is how one should respond to insulting mockery. The mocker perhaps does not accept the rules for a culture of discussion in a strict sense and offers not reasons and evidence but satirical insults. What ought one do if mocked? Should one follow the example of Gouldner himself? According to the noted essayist Scott McLemee in "Wide-Stance Sociology," Gouldner developed an antagonistic relationship with a doctoral student at Washington University named Laud Humphreys. When a satirical poster appeared in the sociology department depicting Gouldner as a bird of prey that feeds on personalities rather than on ideas, Gouldner suspected Humphreys as its author. The irate scholar sought out Humphreys in his graduate student office, struck him down with a blow to the face, and kicked him as he lay on the floor.

Confronted by insulting mockery, Gouldner seems to have believed that honor stained called for physical violence. In an earlier age, perhaps he would have challenged Humphreys to a duel. Did Gouldner betray his own principles, the rules of his very own culture of critical discourse? Whether or not Gouldner broke with his own theoretical system in attacking Humphreys, insults should in fact be protected speech in a culture of discourse because feeling 'insulted' is a purely subjective reaction. For example, some might feel insulted by the application of critical principles to the study of religion, but that cannot justify any right to physically attack the one applying such principles. Moreover, even calculated insults play a role in literature and the arts and ought to be protected speech.

A Miltonic Excursus

Turn therefore to one of the greatest of literary artists, John Milton. In his famous defense of what we would today call free expression, Milton utters a plea in Areopagitica for what he considers the most basic freedom: "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties." Why allow him that? Because he believes that through untrammeled utterance, truth will win, as he reminds his readers concerning truth only a few lines later in his text: "Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter." What should interest contemporary readers is that Milton apparently meant for this "free and open encounter" in the interest of truth to include polemics and even personal attacks.

One sees this sort of polemical, personal attack in Milton's insults of Anglican bishops in Book 1 of his Reason of Church-Government Urged against Prelaty, for he bluntly accuses them of habitually resorting to malicious slander and sophistry when their weak arguments fail them. Whether Milton be right or wrong in the substance of his accusations, he is being decidedly polemical in leveling personal attacks and even insults. He accuses others of slander. He might well be accused of it himself. Certainly, his opponents could well feel themselves insulted. Consider the polemical tone in his attack upon Anglican bishops with words that slur the Irish and the Catholics. He calls the Irish "murderous," designates them as "the enemies of God and mankind," and refers to them as the "cursed off-spring" of the Anglican bishops' "own connivance." The Anglican hierarchy, claims Milton, "maintains and fosters all papists and idolaters as tolerable Christians," a toleration that Milton deplores. Milton blames the bishops for an indifference to the souls of those under the sway of English rule, an indifference that left the Irish in their Catholic faith, but Milton also clearly has disdain for the Irish themselves, as well as for Catholics generally and (of course) for 'idolaters.' Obviously, Milton is hardly above slander, insults, and polemics generally, and he therefore must have felt himself free and justified to speak in insulting terms.

The Right to Insult?

Should such ad hominem attacks be permitted? As already maintained above, yes. Strictly speaking, personal attacks stand mostly outside a culture of discussion, for they are usually poor arguments for or against a substantive position. But they should be protected speech because the defensive wall constructed to guard free discussion needs to be at least as encompassing as the wall built around the Torah in Rabbinical Judaism. Absent that wall of protection, even a substantive statement could be taken as an insult, so if insults are not protected speech, substantive arguments could be forbidden. In a hierarchical society, for example, the substantive words of an individual lower in the hierarchy could be taken as insulting if such words merely question the views of someone higher in the social structure.

In Korea, Japan, and China, for example, with their strongly hierarchical social structure, precisely this sort of problem arises, such that the substantive disagreement of a 'junior' with a 'senior' can be taken as an insult by the latter. Critical arguments are thereby suppressed, and truth (as Milton would say) often suffers. This has been trenchantly discussed by the scholars Ho-Chul Lee and Mary Patricia McNulty in their article "Korea's Information and Communication Technology Boom, and Cultural Transition After the Crisis." In this article, they note that Confucian hierarchy stifles free expression because debating or criticizing individuals of higher rank is considered impolite. Korean culture therefore teaches people not to raise probing questions or to offer critical opinions, but to express themselves ambiguously rather than with a clear yes or no. This hinders Koreans from developing the culture of discussion fundamental to democracy and also to modern business. They attempt to save face, both their own and that of their interlocutor, thereby stifling free discussion and debate. Confucian values put priority on social etiquette over substance. The younger are supposed to respect and obey the older, just as the lower-ranked must respect and obey the higher-ranked, and this deference acts as a barrier to free expression.

From the research by Lee and McNulty, one sees just how subjective the sense of 'feeling insulted' can be. In East Asian societies shaped by Confucian values of hierarchy, any open expression of a contrary opinion can be taken as an insult by a higher-ranking individual, and the awareness of this by lower-ranking individuals can too often suppress uncomfortable truths. Without the right to insult, a free and critical culture of discussion can therefore not be achieved, and since the latter is necessary to the pursuit of truth, then 'insults' must be accepted as legitimate, legally protected expressions.

Core Critical Thinking

Insults might need to be protected speech, but at the core of a culture of discussion lies the ideal of critical thinking. What, however, is "critical thinking"? The consensus of approximately 200 experts has been summarized in "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts," an article written by the philosopher and educational theorist Peter Facione, who notes the importance not only of skills but also of dispositions.

These experts say that in terms of skills, the ideal critical thinker consciously engages in self-regulated judgments about opinions held and actions needed. This requires several subsidiary skills, among these being the closely interrelated skills of interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference. Interpretation involves comprehending and expressing the meaning of what is being judged. Analysis involves identifying the logical relations among expressions stated. Evaluation involves assessing the credibility of statements made and the logical strength of the relations among these. Inference involves drawing reasonable conclusions and conjectures based on statements and evidence. Another subsidiary skill is explanation, which involves presentation of cogently stated reasons and clarification of the bases upon which a judgment is formed. Clearly, there is a lot 'involved' for rigorous critical thought.

But skills, as already noted, are not sufficient. The experts cited by Facione also identify various dispositions characteristic of the ideal critical thinker. According to them, a critical thinker should as a matter of course be curious, informed, rational, open-minded, flexible, fair, honest, prudent, reflective, clear, organized, searching, reasonable, focused, and persistent. Such a list of dispositions, and also of skills, is open-ended, for one could likely think of others to add, but the list as it stands summarizes the dispositions suggested by the experts and can serve, along with the skills, as a convenient statement of a complex ideal.

Because critical thinking is a powerful resource in personal and civic life, one aim of education in a culture of discussion should be to develop critical thinking skills and nurture the dispositions that can provide valuable insights and serve as the discursive core of a rational, democratic society. Producing critical thinkers would not be an educational system's sole aim, of course, for good thinking involves other things, such as ethical reasoning and creative imagination, but critical thinking is also relevant for these other aspects of thought as a pervasive, self-regulating phenomenon. Education alone cannot reform the discursive culture of an entire society, and perhaps relatively few individuals will develop the skills and dispositions to develop as outstanding critical thinkers, but an ideal of critical thinking can serve as an aim, and particular individuals can come to serve as its potential exemplars.


Facione's skills and dispositions, like Gouldner's culture of critical discourse, are rather technical elaborations of the reasoning intrinsic to a culture of discussion. What their explications generally have in common with those of Verschaffel and with Habermas is an emphasis upon reasons and evidence rather than upon the social position of the speaker. If a society wishes to develop a culture of discussion, then discursive hierarchy will require flattening and social harmony will need to be a possible consequence of discussion rather than a normative condition imposed at the outset. Hongladarom remarks that "Cultures, like humans, often make decisions which later are amended or revoked, with new decisions made, when things are not the same any longer. Decisions to prioritize one set of values over another are not etched in stone." But transforming an entire culture takes time. For example, the decision to construct a Confucian Korea may have been reached early in the Joseon Era, but the actual process took several hundred years and never fully succeeded against the more deeply entrenched Buddhism. A 'decision' to inculcate a culture of discussion will likely have faster results in the contemporary world, given the globalizing pressures that push individuals in this direction and the material rewards that are promised to follow, but the process, even so, will not be easy. Not only will one need skills in critical thinking, one will need the right disposition, and since a culture of discussion implies a right to insult, then that disposition will necessarily include a sense of self-irony. If such skills and dispositions are developed, Mahbubani might yet experience the wide-ranging discussion that he desires.


Facione, Peter A. "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts." Insight Assessment.
Gouldner, Alvin W. The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. New York: Seabury, 1979.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action. Translated by Thomas McCarthy, Cambridge: Polity, 1984-1987.
Hongladarom, Soraj. "Asian Philosophy and Critical Thinking: Divergence or Convergence?" Third APPEND Seminar on Philosophy Education for the Next Millennium, May 6-8, 1998, Chulalongkorn University.
Hughes, Merritt Y., editor. John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Hackett Publishing Co., 2003.
Lee, Ho-Chul and Mary Patricia McNulty. "Korea's Information and Communication Technology Boom, and Cultural Transition After the Crisis." Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), April 18, 2004 .
Mahbubani, Kishore. Can Asians Think? Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2004.
McLemee, Scott. "Wide-Stance Sociology." Inside Higher Ed, September 12, 2007.
Verschaffel, Bart. "Visions for Cities: Public Truth and Public Spaces." Productivity of Culture, ECCM Symposium, October 17-21, 2007.
Well, there it is, my latest effort at 'thinking' things through to the end. At least it got published, so perhaps somebody will read it . . .

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At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I struggled through this blog, one thought spoke to me.
Jeffery believes ad hominem attacks should be permitted.
That explains why he feels free to isolate and destroy my occasional true, honest, and interesting offerings.
Does this limit literary expression?
Perhaps only in my and/or JK's case.


At 9:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I admit astonishment that you read this blog entry in its entirety, Uncle Cran, for you seem to be about the only one . . . even if you did misconstrue my point about insults (which doesn't surprise me).

But we are all still waiting for another literary effort from your store of hillbilly stories.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting article to
read as a Korean.
Worth reading many times
in Korean and in English.
In 1984, I helped my Professor
in Yonsei to publish a book
entitled as <>.
At that times we were under
military dictatorship.
Long military dictatorship is not
irrelevant with the absence of the
skill. Civilizationally,
as you mentioned, Confucian hierarchy culture has been an obstacle to discussion in Korea.
Two iconoclastic impact on
this hierarchical culture
came from Protestantism and Communism. However, they also
mingled each other.

At 5:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The book published in 1984 was:
Dicussion in an Era without Discussion. Actually, the book
was mainly a collection of
students' discussion.
It was a sort of collective witness
of the times, done by various students of the times.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, 'Anonymous'. A comment on this issue from the perspective of a Korean is especially useful.

You're surely right that the fact of long dictatorship in Korea under President Park and his successors left its mark on Koreans and effectively stymied discussion.

The younger generation these days seems to be getting better at expressing views and opinions . . . based on my admittedly limited experience.

But the book that you refer to demonstrates that the will to discuss important matters was not lacking even in the significant year "1984."

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:26 AM, Anonymous Erdal said...

Yes, but remember the junk sail.

At 8:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You mean Zheng He's voyages of discovery?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 12:26 PM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Jeffery,

That was a fascinating essay.

I recall the Confucian social structure's stifling effect on critical discussion across hierarchical level being cited as a possible cause of Asian air disasters.

Did I see that here, or was that someplace else?

At 1:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Malcolm, thanks for the kind words.

I don't think that I've ever blogged on Asian air disasters, but I also remember reading about the same issue as you recall.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 8:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Malcolm's comment - I have never been able to master the process of getting a link to appear here - from an NTSB report on Flight 801 into Guam. Note, this is a CVR communication.

If one is not familiar with the manner American crews communicate during flight-ops this "speech" might not seem remarkable (but I'll bet Jeff knows the 'tone').

From the Captain: "I will give you a short briefing…ILS [instrument landing system10] is one one
zero three…NIMITZ VOR is one one five three, the course zero six three, since
the visibility is six, when we are in the visual approach, as I said before, set the
VOR on number two and maintain the VOR for the TOD..."

Fast forward to Conclusions:

12. The first officer and flight engineer noted the ground proximity warning system
(GPWS) callouts and the first officer properly called for a missed approach, but the
captain’s failure to react properly to the GPWS minimums callout and the direct
challenge from the first officer precluded action that might have prevented the

13. The first officer and flight engineer failed to properly monitor and/or challenge the
captain’s performance, which was causal to the accident.

Jeff? I'll email you a link to the report in it's entirety.


At 8:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I take it that this was the Korean flight and that the first officer and flight engineer did not challenge the captain because he was of higher status.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...the first officer and flight engineer did not challenge the captain because he was of higher status."

Insufficient information on my part to draw that conclusion, although I will go so far as to say, "I think so."

I placed another related link on Malcolm's site where someone more authoritative than poor ignurn't JK is concerned.

Cran? I'll deal with you later.


At 3:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'll visit Malcolm's site.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


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