Where Philosophy Went Awry in Lincoln-Douglas Debate by Stephen Babb

There are countless virtues that LD debaters have thankfully borrowed from its ancestral Policy background. Its increasingly compartmentalized treatment of philosophy is not one of them, however.
LD debaters increasingly treat philosophical arguments like pieces in a board game. If you’ve looked at someone’s “contractualism front lines” lately, then you know exactly what I mean. Of course, it makes sense that we should want to organize these arguments like we would any other. It would be a tad unwieldy to flip through the pages of Genealogy of Morals any time the need arises.

Unfortunately, though, the move toward carded philosophy has seemingly displaced the use of extended literature altogether. Sadly, our philosophical debates have come to resemble presidential debates: Sound bytes and talking points devoid of nearly any meaningful substance. In our race to make debate more efficient, we’ve passed over some important first principles.

First, philosophy is rarely straightforward. The filing systems we now use for philosophical literature are a far better fit for the policy-oriented questions that tend to be addressed in articles, journals or otherwise accessible books. That isn’t to say those issues don’t also require extensive background reading and careful treatment—it’s simply to suggest the bar is higher for philosophy. Philosophers and theorists are masters of jargon and obfuscation. They’re rarely interested in speaking to a broader audience or shaping their arguments in readily condensible terms. Perhaps this speaks to a shortcoming in these circles, but it is nevertheless a challenge for which debaters must be prepared to account.

Second, there is arguably no more incestuous discipline than philosophy. It is constantly building upon itself in a self-referential celebration of whomever a philosopher’s philosophical heros may be. Whereas policy-oriented literature typically requires understanding of little more than the basic principles of politics, economics, international relations or current events, most of the philosophy you find reads like a self-contained advertisement for getting another degree: “If you want to understand any of this, you had better be prepared to take a few classes!” When we detach literature from its historical roots, we’re left with a decontextualized product that may or may not actually resemble its original meaning. It is, as it were, an ontic representation whose ontological roots remain infinitely obscured. [If the last sentence is at all unclear, this is my point exactly.]

Third, few philosophers compartmentalize their arguments into easily carded nuggets of esoteric wisdom. If you’ve ever had the sense that a debater is misappropriating literature, you’re probably correct. There’s a good chance that a point discussed in one chapter makes little to no sense without reading the next two or these subsequent chapters. This should come as news to nobody.

Finally, the debates that emerge in philosophical discourse are rarely as clear-cut and polarized as those typifying LD. As debaters, we’re forced to defend mutually exclusive positions and defend opposing viewpoints on topics that almost always require an application of philosophy (as opposed to contestation between two purely theoretical arguments). Authors adopt nuanced points of view that may not fit squarely into the opposition two debaters find themselves advancing.

Are we to abandon the practice of carding philosophy? Of course not. We are, however, doing ourselves a huge disservice by relying so exclusively on abbreviated representations of literature that requires careful examination.

We’ve seen the evidence of a world without such diligence. Debates about whether to exclusively adopt utilitarian or deontological paradigms ignore the prevailing willingness of so many philosophers to pursue some form of nuanced compromise as the more credible solution. Other premises (from contractarianism to post-structuralism) are treated as absolutist frameworks that preclude the value of impacts that any reasonable person from any philosophical position would in fact acknowledge as important. Frankenstein-like positions are often constructed in piecemeal fashion, borrowing disparate threads from authors who likely had no intention of seeing their work put to such ends.

Socrates is way past rolling in his grave at this point.

These bizarre contortions happen—at least in some part—due to a proliferation of pre-packaged arguments and a consortium of amateur philosopher-coaches stamping their approval on the finished product. Debaters would be well-served by doing their own first-hand research. They should spend as least as much time as spent at debate camps reading every book they can get their hands on, giving themselves the resources to write coherent arguments that remain faithful to the literature’s intent.

  • Anonymous

    This is excellent analysis and summarizes one of my many frustrations with "national circuit" Lincoln-Douglas debate. The rejection of great thinkers like Rawls as "stock" is another. High school and college debate coaches, as well as high school and college students, dismissing writers of such brilliant thought as "no longer cool" makes me want to puke.

    • Rebar Niemi

      wesley craven taught me to love fred robertson, but I prefer Deleuzian "buggery" to Rawlsian "positions"