Program Description

The disputatio is a pattern for framing and engaging wisdom questions, producing well-reasoned responses, and for presenting those responses succinctly in writing and speech.  The aim of our program of studies is to recover this pattern, and to explore its capacity to foster the pursuit of wisdom in the humanities.  Accordingly, our program of study has two main components, one devoted to recovering and understanding the pattern itself (Week One), and one devoted to exploring its potential in the context of humanities courses (Week Two).  The seminar will be centered on group reading and discussion of primary sources, and the shared project of constructing disputed questions to engage the wisdom questions presented by those sources.  The curriculum will also provide ample time for participants to develop (in consultation with the Project Team) an application of the disputatio method tailored to individual curricular needs.  The detailed syllabus presents an outline of readings and topics. The central themes, questions and readings are sketched below.

Week One:

Themes, Questions, and Readings.  The disputatio pattern was the standard form of philosophical writing in the universities of medieval Europe, which, in turn, was a literary distillation of the mode of inquiry first practiced by Socrates on the streets of Athens.  Our efforts to recover the pattern therefore begins with Socrates.  By reading and discussing a selection of Platonic Dialogues—beginning with the EuthyphroApology and Meno—participants will identify the distinguishing marks of Wisdom Questions and sketch the outlines of the form of inquiry Socrates brought to bear on such questions, the Socratic elenchus.  A closer reading of these dialogues, together an examination of the Phaedrus and the Outlines of Pyrrhonism by Epicurus, will allow participants to begin to compare and contrast the Socratic elenchus with alternative approaches to wisdom questions.  The final lesson we will take from our examination of Socrates’ example concerns the obstacles to and limitations of the elenchus.  Socratic elenchus typically involves a small number of voices from within one’s own cultural milieu, ends without achieving even a tentative resolution, and establishes no more than the inadequacy of the initial responses offered by Socrates’ interlocutors.  We will summarize these lessons from Socrates by exploring what John Rawls’ calls the method of wide reflective equilibrium.  

In medieval Europe, this mode of inquiry was transposed from the agora to the libraries and classrooms of universities.  What emerged in this new context addressed many of the limitations built into the Socratic elenchus.  To appreciate this transition, and to study the canonical from of the genre that emerged, our course of study turns next to a master of the disputatio, Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas neither invented the disputed question nor was his use of the genre unique.  He serves as our exemplar simply because of how widely and effectively his employed it.  Through selected readings from his Disputed Questions on the Virtues and corresponding materials in the Summa Theologiae, participants will identify the main features of this form of inquiry:    

  1. The Article:  Each disputed question begins by stating the question, or article, in the title.  The question can usually be stated in the form of a whether-this-is-that or what-is-it question.  Regardless of the exact wording, the article expresses a wisdom question in both form and content.  Each article is, further, contextualized by reference to the larger families of questions that include the article.  For instance, an article about the nature of a particular virtue (like charity) will most immediately be part of a series of, say ten articles about a particular aspect of the virtue (e.g., its typical outward expression); which is itself part of a dozen or more series of articles about the nature of the same virtue; which is in turn part of a larger family of questions about all the virtues; which is part of a still larger set of questions about human flourishing.  A well-formed disputed question, then, begins with a properly framed wisdom question whose relationship to larger questions is clearly indicated. 
  2. The Initial Appearances (or Objections):  Aquinas began every disputed question with the Latin words videtur quod, literally, it seems that.  Under this heading he listed several reasons for the answer he would ultimately reject.  His most famous work, the Summa, was meant to be an introductory text and therefore presents only two or three no-answers.  But in other more philosophical writings, like the Disputed Questions, he collects as many good no-answers as he can find in his library.  He formulates each no-answer as a formally valid argument based on plausible premises, premises that he himself had endorsed elsewhere or that other respected authorities endorsed.  The reasoning against the answer Aquinas endorses is put in the strongest possible light.  
  3. The Contrary Appearance:  Aquinas introduced the next step with the Latin words sed contra, meaning but against this.  At this stage he presents a creditable opinion in support of the answer he will ultimately embrace.  Typically he cites some widely-recognized authority who indicates a strong degree of support for the yes-answer.  He is not concerned at this stage to present a case for the answer he embraces; that will come next.  The purpose of this step is simply to indicate that the other side of the question merits further consideration, and that the answer Aquinas himself defends is not without precedent.   
  4.  The Respondeo:  Respondeo is Latin for “I respond.”  At this stage of the discourse, Aquinas moves past the initial appearances for and against his answer to the question, and takes a stand in the conversation as it has come down to him.  His response often hinges on subtle distinctions in the meaning of the terms used to frame the question, and identifies at least one sense of the terms on which the yes-answer can be defended.  The discussion at this stage is also typically more open-ended and may consider a variety of different considerations in favor of the yes-answer.  
  5. The Reply to Opposed Appearances:  This final stage of the disputed question returns to the initial appearances opposed to Aquinas’ own answer.  On the basis of the reasoning adduced in the Respondeo, he identifies exactly where he opposes the reasoning offered in favor of the no-answer, while showing as much respect as possible for the reasoning in support of the answers he rejects.  Ideally, the reply points to a specific premise in the reasoning for the no-answer, and states why he thinks it is false, despite the considerations offered on its behalf.  

Having extracted this form of inquiry from our study of Aquinas, participants will next explore some of its benefits vis-à-vis the elenchus, giving careful consideration to the intellectual virtues the process relies upon and inculcates.  By conducting this form of inquiry in the company of books, which have been preserved at great cost, Aquinas begins the conversation with creditable opinions—what Aristotle would call endoxa.  He is therefore less preoccupied than Socrates with removing the obstacles his interlocutors bring to the pursuit of wisdom.  Pursuing wisdom in the company of books also allows more than two voices to speak into the conversation, and gives voice to thinkers beyond his own cultural milieu.  Next to the Bible and Augustine, as we will see, Aquinas’ most familiar conversation partners are Islamic, Jewish, and Pagan thinkers of another era—Aristotle, Maimonides and Ibn Sina (Avicenna).  The form of inquiry also presupposes that the question at hand is disputed within one’s own intellectual tradition, and requires opposing approaches to the question to be put in the best possible light.  Disputatio may initially confuse and disorient the wisdom-seeker, since the pattern initially lends credibility to both sides of the question.  But the method does not let the pursuit of wisdom languish in opposed appearances, as many of Socrates’ interlocutors do.  It requires one to respond in one’s own voice, and to identify precisely where one disagrees with those who have addressed the question before and why.  The answer demanded by the form is by no means the final word on the subject; it is rather the best the author can do, at the time, to balance all the competing considerations.  New considerations will, no doubt, come to light.  As they do, answers to wisdom questions may require enlargement and correction.  The disputed question format requires an answer, but the answer it requires is always provisional.  Those who pursue wisdom are always contributing to a conversation that not only began before they arrived on the scene but will also continue after they have made their contribution.  

Week Two:

Themes, Questions, and Readings.  The second stage of our seminar focuses on exploring the disputatio as a tool for pursuing wisdom in humanities courses.  Given the constraints of time and the Project Team’s expertise, we focus on wisdom questions about the nature of justice that arise in the disciplines of literature and philosophy.  The first four days of the second week will be spent primarily engaging readings from these disciplines, as detailed below.  The last part of each day during the second week will be devoted to participants developing their own curricular application of disputatio in consultation with the Project Team, and these projects may range into other humanities disciplines.  We will conclude the seminar on the last day with, among other things, the presentation and discussion of participant projects.    

We begin week two by exploring the prospects of the disputatio for constructing what we will call philosophical (as opposed to rhetorical-poetic) readings of imaginative literature.  Sophocles’ Antigone and Shakespeare’s Hamlet both dramatize the kinds of disagreements about justice that the disputed question genre affords opportunity to address.  Antigone depicts the response of a courageous young woman to what seems the injustice of her political leaders.  Hamlet presents one man’s attempt to get justice in the context of a corrupt political regime.  Both plays dramatize the deliberative arguments that ultimately reveal (beyond what any give character says) what is at stake in how humans respond to public and domestic injustice.  In both texts, there is a central struggle, or agon, against what seems to be unjust.  In each case, however, the play does more than simply lament injustice; rather, each shows the character of different responses to injustice through its performance of contrasting appearances.  Such works of imagination are not, of course, reducible to philosophical ideas and arguments.  As works of literary imagination, in contrast to disputatio, they appeal to ethos and pathos as well as logos in showing readers something about the prospects for addressing injustice.  Nevertheless, these works do raise wisdom questions about how humans should order lives together, and disputatio can be used to productively engage the arguments each text unfolds.  

In considering each text, the first step is to introduce the practice of historically-based rhetorical-poetic reading.  This involves consideration of the dynamic performative interplay between four aspects of each text:  1) its historical conditions of production; 2) its arrangements in terms of genre; 3) its selection of actions and characters to dramatize; 4) the plausible demonstrative effects of the text as a whole.  In light of this understanding of the fictive texts as works of literary imagination, the second step is to consider how the disputed question (and the mode of inquiry it presents) affords insights regarding the nature of the philosophic matters in question in each text.  We will spend one day a piece on each of these texts, working toward a literary-poetic reading of each in morning sessions and using disputatio to construct a philosophical reading of the in the afternoon. 

Continuing with the theme introduced by these literary pieces, we turn next to a selection of recent philosophical texts that adjudicate wisdom questions regarding justice.  Again, we will spend part of our time engaging each text on its own terms, attending carefully to its historical context and internal development. We will also bring the tools of disputatio to bear on the dialectic that unfolds within each text and between opposed texts, and between each text and its readers.  

To engage the dialectic that unfolds within a single text, we turn to “Mr. Truman’s Degree,” a short essay penned by Elizabeth Anscombe in 1956 when Harry Truman was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University.  Anscombe’s short paper is a tour de force of just war reasoning, as critical of pacificism as of the many popular justifications of Truman’s fateful decision to use nuclear weapons against civilian targets in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.  Our task will be first to understand the central ideas and arguments in its context, and then to bring disputatio to bear on the essay to extract and engage the discourse it contains about the wisdom of awarding an honorary degree to Truman, as well as the discourse it invites about the larger wisdom question of justice in wartime.  

We will spend the fourth day of Week Two with the widely anthologized pairing of Peter Singer’s famous essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” and Onora O’Neil’s, “Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems.”  The dialectic concerning the demands of justice that takes place between these texts is a modern classic.  The two essays approach from very different perspectives the responsibility of those in affluent countries to those in great need across the world.  After laying out each author’s ethical principles and reasoning, each participant will use the disputatio to construct a tentative resolution of the debate to share in large group discussion.  Since this exchange in applied ethics thus opens onto deep theoretical issues about the content of moral norms, we will also attempt to follow up this exercise by using disputatio to pursue wisdom in normative ethics at least one step beyond the exchange framed by these essays.  

Individual Projects:

A large portion of each afternoon during Week Two will be reserved for participants to develop (in consultation with the Project Team) a curricular application of disputatio suited to their individual curricular needs.  In this context, the Project Team will present several different models for incorporating disputatio into humanities courses:  a philosophy course syllabus framed as an extended disputatio, an ethics syllabus that features disputatio as the primary written form of student work, a paper assignment for a literature course that challenges students to use the form to construct what we have called a philosophical reading of a text; and in-class group project for use in a variety of contexts.  We do plan to disseminate both these models and the projects produced by seminar participants, along with other resources related to Wisdom Questions and the disputatio.    

NEH - National Endowment for the Humanities