Argumentation as Practice (05_2022)

Argumentation as Practice: Interview with Prof Ana María Mora-Márquez

by Guido Alt

In the first issue of Philosophy and the Academy we are delighted to have Ana María Mora-Márquez (University of Gothenburg) joining us. In this interview, she talks about the social and institutional context of ancient and medieval logic and argumentation theory, in connection with her research projects as a Wallenberg Academy Fellow. The projects she leads aim at spotting pragmatic dimensions of Aristotelian dialectics – underpinning the significance of Aristotle’s Topics and its commentary tradition and its repercussions for the understanding of medieval science as a social endeavour. Additionally, she also spoke to us about communicating philosophy to broader audiences – in particular, to science experts who are non-philosophers – and gives advice to early career scholars on the ways of academia.

About Ana María Mora-Márquez

Ana María Mora-Márquez is an Associate Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Gothenburg. Born in Colombia, she undertook studies and research in Paris and Copenhagen before joining Gothenburg. Her research focuses on medieval logic, argumentation theory, and science in the Aristotelian tradition. She has also published on accounts of intellection and abstraction in medieval Aristotelianism, and on medieval theories of signification (e.g. her monograph The Thirteenth Century Notion of Signification: The Discussions and Their Origin and Development, published 2015 on Brill). In the past five years, she has been leading a research project on medieval logic and argumentation theory funded by Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, which will be extended five years and ramify into new directions.

Highlights of the interview

G: Thanks for joining us! Could you explain what moved you to your current project, and generally introduce it to our viewers?

AM: I am working and have been working for the past five years on a project that is centered on Aristotle’s Topics and its medieval reception. The project intends to spot pragmatic aspects of argumentation theory both in Aristotle’s Topics and in its medieval reception, with the aim to introduce or at least strengthen the idea that argumentation in the ancient and medieval periods is thought of as practice-oriented. What is at stake in Aristotle’s Topics and in its medieval reception is not so much an idealistic account of argumentation, but more a method for practice. Given that academic life in the ancient and medieval worlds is a very orally-oriented and discussion-oriented practice, how can we can make it better with a method – which would be the one provided by the Topics –that will allow the respondent and questioner to be more skilled in, for example, finding premises, spotting fallacies, building syllogisms, finding middle terms? All these things come handy when you are trying to make an argumentation or draw a conclusion that has more epistemic force than the one your opponent is holding. This is more or less the aim of the project theoretically.

The tradition of the Topics is an understudied tradition, so part of the project also consists in editing medieval commentaries on the Topics. I am editing the commentary by Radulphus Brito, from the end of the thirteenth century, and one of my colleagues is editing or about to finish the edition of an anonymous commentary from the mid-thirteenth century that has been attributed to Robert Kilwardby – and which might indeed be Kilwardby’s. That is the editorial-philological part of the project. The theoretical part is centered on the idea that argumentation is a practice, and that argumentation theory in that period aims at improving the quality of that practice.

G: Why do you think the medievals sustained an interest in logic and semantics?

AM: I think the first reason why they were very interested in this is institutional. It was part of their training in the medieval tradition, and it was at the very beginning of their training. Historically, this has roots on the importance of communication for the Church. They really needed the people they were training to become very good communicators for different purposes; not only for social purposes outside of the University, but also for purposes internal to the University. For instance, they had to become very skilled at oral disputations, which were later a very important part of their career, particularly as they moved up towards the theological studies. That was the basis of their education, that they get these tools with which they could learn to argue well, and to argue well orally – to be able to sustain a disputation, which was an encoded way of oral debate that they had to do in a very specific way, so that they needed strong training to become good at that.

That is the pragmatic reason why it was very important, and it remained being very important for a long time. I think it is still very important for people who work in debate-oriented disciplines, or debate-oriented segments of society, to learn to argue well. This is still the case today when you have to become a politician, a communicator or a philosopher, and even a scientist has to learn how to present ideas and reply to the questions of an audience. I think this is why logic, argumentation theory, and philosophy of language have been important to philosophers ever since the beginning of Western philosophy.

What I have found in the project, as one of the results we have come to, is that for Aristotle this training in argumentation was important not only for academic purposes; it had also an impact on society at large. It was supposed to make people good at arguing at an assembly, for instance, whereas in the medieval context, it seems to be very focused on University use. Therefore, we have ended up concluding that the logical tradition in the Middle Ages is mainly oriented towards scientific argumentation. When we understand theology as being a science, or as a scientia or discipline, then they needed to learn how to argue in a more scientific way, which is why medieval logic becomes more like a scientific method in comparison to Aristotle’s time, when it was both understood as a scientific method but also as something useful for society as a whole.

And if I may make a link with the second project, the one that starts in the middle of the year, now we are going to focus more on this idea of logic as scientific method, and how logic as scientific method, understood in this pragmatic way, somehow forces us to understand science in a social way. We can’t just stay with the traditional understanding of medieval and ancient science as a form of idealistic account. We have to adjust our understanding of medieval and Aristotelian science to the pragmatic way in which logic was understood, given that logic was supposed to be the method with which science should be done. That is the aim of the project that starts in July and runs for five years. It will be centred on the Posterior Analytics, the relation it has with the Topics, and with the methodological parts of some of the scientific treatises, like De Caelo and the Physics.

G: I was wondering if you could share something from your experiences of communicating philosophy to broader audiences?

AM: Yes sure, that has been quite interesting. I have been to a number of workshops where you have to present your projects. Normally, the people they invite for these workshops are working on the medical sciences, or physics. I have had to do a lot of adjusting to the audience in these workshops where I learn how to write projects for readers that are not experts in my field, even so far away from my field as a medical scientist. It has been very useful to learn how you would say the same thing in lay terms. Because even if a medical scientist is a very smart, well trained, and skilled scientist, the things I say will still be totally out of her domain. I will have to speak to her as a layperson, someone who has no training in my field. That has taught me to avoid using technical language in project applications, for instance. I have to learn to translate, to speak on terms that are more understandable to non-experts.

I don’t think this is very difficult for the kind of things I do: I speak about language, convincing, making a case, and this is something everyone can relate to. It just takes effort because you have to change your “communication gear”. We can become so used to reading in the Latin text, that to a close colleague I could just mention a Disputatio or a Reportatio and they would understand what I am saying. But there, I have to change my communication gear and say, “okay, this person has never had a Latin text in their hands”. Even if for me these are natural things, for them they are not.

This is very important in writing project applications, at least in the introduction where you will make your first case to the reader. Then, there is always the possibility at the end, when a reader has been caught, to develop more in detail and with more technicality what you want to do. Because you also have to show that you know your field and that you are doing something that is new. It is pretty much about striking this balance – of being very clear and coming out as knowledgeable about your field. And it is also about presenting your good idea as a good idea, because people will realize when you are selling them a bad idea. These workshops help, and it helps a to do it a lot. Of course, we have all failed with our projects and have learned how to do it better. It is a matter of practice and training. These workshops can be useful, even though they might seem boring, but the result is rewarding – we have to fail sometimes to learn how to do it. We have to be also more okay with failure; no one will be successful all the time, and failure here is learning.

G: Any other general advice comes to mind for our readers in the early stages of their careers?

AM: If I can speak from my own experience – since there is no solution that fits everyone –, it is different if you come to a continent that is not yours. To inscribe yourself in a completely different context, to learn how to master different languages and so on, that will make it a different experience than for someone who is making a career in the area where they were born, and each case follows different paths and strategies.

But I would say that, in general, and from the point of view of a reader of applications for jobs, what counts is that you can show independence in your academic life. That you focus on becoming an independent researcher as soon as possible, on producing your own stuff, coming up with your own ideas, and showing that you can get your own money for the places where that is important (it is not like that everywhere but in Sweden it definitely is).

It is also very important to gain teaching experience, even though it might be difficult in the beginning, because there are postdoc positions where teaching is not necessary. You should try to explain to the institution where you are why your teaching portfolio will become very important in the future for getting a permanent position. Teaching is an opportunity that should be given to early researchers, specifically the ones that have research postdoc grants.

I think that focusing also on clean publications, good publications, is important. It is becoming amazingly competitive, people are publishing like crazy, and I am not sure that the amount of publications is really going to make a big difference when you contrast that with a portfolio that is more varied and where the publications are good, well thought and well placed. That would be an advice that I think is generally useful. Also, as I was just saying, failure is part of this career, and there are a lot of factors that we can’t control; for example, the preferences of the people who are deciding, their interests, the strategic plans of the department where you apply, and so on. There are many things out of our control when we apply for positions, and we should not be too worried about it, since we can’t control the whole thing. That is more or less my experience from my own career, and from my job as member of recruiting groups.

G: Thanks so much!