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  • A Defense of War and Sport Metaphors in Argument
  • Scott Aikin

There is a widely held concern that using war and sport metaphors to describe argument contributes to the breakdown of argumentative processes. The thumbnail version of this worry about such metaphors is that they promote adversarial conceptions of argument that lead interlocutors with those conceptions to behave adversarially in argumentative contexts. These actions are often aggressive, which undermines argument exchange by either excluding many from such exchanges or turning exchanges more into verbal battles. These worries are legitimate as far as they go, and given that well-run argumentation is a good thing, we would be remiss not to consider whether our vocabulary inhibits argument's proper functioning. This said, I argue here that war and sport metaphors, despite their promotion of adversarial conceptions of argument, are not only permissible descriptions of arguments but are uniquely well suited to describe the business of argument exchange. What follows is a defense of war and sport metaphors in argument.

Our metaphors for things are reflective of our conceptions of those things. The worry about war and sport metaphors does not necessarily concern the conceptions themselves but their consequences—namely, belligerent argumentation. That is, the criticism of war and sport metaphors is not necessarily that they, when appealed to, are incorrect about the arguments [End Page 250] they purport to represent but that in influencing the argumentative performances of those who hold them they are all too true. This, on its face, is a counterintuitive challenge to a conception of something: that the conception is true of what it is about. But the point is more refined than that, because argumentative performances are cognitively dependent. A performance is cognitively dependent when the beliefs or thoughts one has about a specific performance token or the general performance type influence the performance token or type in a way that makes those thoughts true (or at least, more likely true than false). William James famously argued that friendship and courtship are cognitively dependent, in that if one believes one will make (and in fact has already made) a friend, it is more likely that one will (1977, 731). Alternately, there are widely recognized cases of "self-fulfilling prophecies," wherein one expects to do badly, and one's low expectations lead one not to try hard, which leads one to perform poorly. Conceptions of argument, too, it is held, lead us to behave accordingly, and that behavior makes those conceptions true of the activity. And like with self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, criticism of those views is not that they are not accurate; rather the claim is that they not only don't have to be that way but that they shouldn't be. As such, the criticism of war and sport metaphors does not concern their accuracy but their heuristic function: they promote an adversarial emphasis in the practice of argument. Consequently, alternative metaphors are offered that would, presumably, have similar functional features of the cognitive dependence of the activities of argument but would have more salutary heuristic consequences.

The three main features of this case against war and sport metaphors, then, are (1) that they encourage a conception of argument as an adversarial activity, (2) that they promote unacceptable argumentative performances, and (3) that adversarial conceptions of argument are optional, that there are other conceptions of and metaphors for argument that are not only be accurate but more acceptable. Though I am not convinced that the cognitive dependence thesis is true, it is not something I can argue in this space. However, I do submit that the unacceptable performance thesis and the optionality thesis are false.

The Case for the Unacceptable Performance Thesis

The unacceptable performance thesis is that holding conceptions of argument as sport or war leads one to make vicious moves in argumentative contexts. The case for this thesis has been made in a variety of ways. [End Page 251] First, a review of the use to which war and sport metaphors are put is in order. In no way do I take the following to be exhaustive, but it is important to make explicit the vocabulary exemplifies what is at issue...


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