Monday, 2 October 2017

Quick seminar activity: Devise a Hierarchy of Agreement

Mark Meynell has a wonderfully rich and thoughtful blog called Quaerentia and some time ago he mentioned Paul Graham's 'disagreement hierarchy'. First published in 2008 on Graham's own blog to illustrate an essay called 'How to Disagree', the hierarchy is a way of classifying arguments on seven levels.
Paul Graham, Hierachy of Disagreement. Source:, accessed 2 October 2017.

At the lowest level is personal abuse (name-calling) and ad hominem arguments, to disagreeing with how they say something (responding to tone), to finally disagreeing with what they say (contradiction, counter argument, refutation, refuting the central point). It's often represented as a pyramid because as Graham says, 'the higher you go [in the hierarchy] the fewer instances you find'.

I showed the hierarchy to my class and we had a good discussion about what these levels of disagreement might look like in practice, in art historical literature and in their own writing. It's a good way of helping students to evaluate their own work.

The point of this post is not to advertise Graham's work but to suggest a good seminar activity, which is to try and devise a hierarchy of agreement. Graham himself says that 'Agreeing tends to motivate people less than disagreeing. And when you agree there's less to say'. I disagree with this. As the book of Proverbs says, 'The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him' (ch.18 v.17). And where alternative cases have been heard, the decision to agree or disagree with the initial proposition requires justification. Ideally, this is what academic work is about: hearing cases and evaluating the evidence in order to make informed decisions that we can develop and defend in our own work. 

In this context a hierarchy of agreement can be fun to devise, and can serve to stimulate thinking about different ways of engaging with other writers, and of helping students develop coherent and thought-out philosophies of their subject; of establishing their allies and allegiances and building their own disciplinary foundations. 

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