Dichotomies and types of debate

Dichotomies are ubiquitous in deliberative thinking, in decision making and in arguing in all spheres of life.[i] Sticking uncompromisingly to a dichotomy may lead to sharp disagreement and paradox, but it can also sharpen the issues at stake and help to find a solution. Dichotomies are particularly in evidence in debates, i.e., in argumentative dialogical exchanges characterized by their agonistic nature. The protagonists in a debate worth its name hold positions that are or that they take to be opposed; they argue against each other’s positions; and they defend their positions from the adversary’s attacks. In some cases, this may lead to a polarization of the debate through treating it as grounded on one or more dichotomies. In others, the contenders may construe the opposition as non-dichotomous and therefore less irreconcilable. Whereas the former attitude, which leads to ‘dichotomization’, is likely to radicalize a debate, rendering it difficult – sometimes impossible – to resolve, the latter, which leads to ‘de-dichotomization’, opens possibilities of solution of the debate other than all out victory of one side and defeat of the other. In addition to its effect on the outcome of a debate, the contenders’ attitude towards dichotomies in the debate’s management has further, important implications. It is intrinsically connected with the typology of debates and their typical argumentative moves. For the appropriateness of one or the other of these attitudes for best capturing the nature of the antagonism that underlies a debate is in fact an indicator of the kind of debate it actually is or is perceived by the contenders to be. Furthermore, such ‘attitudes’ are expressed by the contenders’ preferred choices of argumentative moves; and these, in turn, can be recognized, in a given debate context, as subservient either to a dichotomizing or to a de-dichotomizing strategy vis-à-vis a dichotomy taken to be at the root of the divergence.
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