Agree to Disagree? Let’s not

Recently a colleague offered in conversation that we should agree to disagree.  This led me to some observations about the role of agreement and disagreement in dialogue.  Some conversations involve a sort of perpetual agreement or mutual affirmation.  These are instances where we’re really just ‘shooting the breeze’, and there’s nothing much at issue between us.  We exchange the gnomes of accepted wisdom and nod.  Other exchanges are characterised pretty much by disagreement.  These are the situations where we talk at cross purposes, or talk past each other – we can’t even seem to get started on the way in which the matter at hand needs to be interrogated. 

In other dialogues there is more of an interplay of agreement and disagreement.  There is a sense in which we must agree to disagree – that is, we must agree in order to disagree.  We need to converge sufficiently in our understanding of some matter of importance for an interesting sort of disagreement to emerge, and we each need to have some interest or motivation to get to the truth of things.  On the other hand, we each need to disagree in order for the dialogue to continue.  If we no longer have an interestingly different perspective on the matter, the dialogue has run its course.  It might come to a satisfying conclusion, or we might drift on to other matters.

These kinds of dialogues are characterised by an openness of each interlocutor to the claims of the other.  Each risks being transformed by the other’s perspective on the truth of the matter.  In other words, each entertains the possibility of learning something from the other.  In these kinds of conversations, what would it mean to agree to disagree?  It is possible that we each might have exhausted our justifications for our differing perspectives. There are a couple of different ways of looking at this situation.  On one hand, it might mean a temporary cessation in dialogue. We pause, move on to other matters, but return to the dialogue once we have marshalled our arguments or had a chance to think more deeply about a particular question that has emerged.

Another way of looking at this is to think of our differing views as incommensurable perspectives.  In this case, agreeing to disagree marks the arrival at some sort of bedrock beyond which our dialogue cannot continue.  This has a finality: the conversation is over.  I agree with the hermeneutic thinker Hans-Georg Gadamer here.  There are no ‘undiscussable’ assumptions (1991: 40).  In Gadamer’s view, agreeing to disagree here ends the dialogue at precisely the point where what is really at issue is beginning to emerge.  The assumptions revealed at this point are often deeply held beliefs that are central to our identity.  Things become raw and exposed.  But this is precisely why dialogue must continue.  We do our interlocutor no favours by avoiding conversation because we have begun to talk about the very things that we care deeply about.  At this point, Gadamer argues, to suggest that we agree to disagree ‘excludes the other person in his positive function’ (ibid).  It is to assert that we are no longer prepared to be transformed by our interlocutor’s differing view on the truth, and that we are no longer therefore prepared to learn from their difference.  We should think very carefully about what might motivate a move to be the first interlocutor in a dialogue to offer, or even impose, the possibility of agreeing to disagree.

Gadamer, H-G (1991) Plato’s Dialectical Ethics, trans Wallace, R M, Yale University Press [original German publication 1931]

I originally posted this on Oxford University’s Practical Ethics blog