Language

Evolution, reason and rhetoric

Reason has long been considered one of the hallmarks of being human. It’s a tool we have developed – or so the story goes – to help us on our path towards truth, an evolutionary adaptation that allows us the better to evaluate situations and come to correct decisions. Maybe. Hugo Mercer and Dan Sperber, cognitive social scientists advocating what is being called the argumentative theory of reasoning, think otherwise. They have argued that reason developed not as a truth-finding tool, but as a social tool to help us to win arguments. For a concise account of their groundbreaking work, see this NY Times article.

Ever since Socrates heaped scorn on the Sophists, reason and rhetoric have been seen by many as being in perpetual opposition. Rhetoric, it has long been argued, is an obstacle in the way of truth, a means of undermining of reason in the service of short term political ambition. Does the possibility that reason evolved as a mere adjunct to rhetoric change the nature of this long-standing debate? Does this in some way force us to reevaluate the nature and value of truth?

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