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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 June 2022

Nathan Ballantyne*
Philosophy, Cognition, and Culture, Arizona State University, USA


The fog of war—poor intelligence about the enemy—can frustrate even a well-prepared military force. Something similar can happen in intellectual debate. What I call the fog of debate is a useful metaphor for grappling with failures and dysfunctions of argumentative persuasion that stem from poor information about our opponents. It is distressingly easy to make mistakes about our opponents’ thinking, as well as to fail to comprehend their understanding of and reactions to our arguments. After describing the fog of debate and outlining its sources in cognition and communication, I consider a few policies we might adopt upon learning we are in this fog.

Research Article
© 2022 Social Philosophy & Policy Foundation. Printed in the USA

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School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies, Arizona State University. Competing Interests: The author declares none. For helpful conversations and comments, I am grateful to Ian Axel Anderson, Andrew Bailey, Jared Celniker, David Christensen, Carlo DaVia, Peter Ditto, Xingming Hu, Madeline Jalbert, Samuel Kampa, Charlie Lassiter, William Lycan, Tom Noah, Andrew Rotondo, Peter Seipel, Eric Schwitzgebel, Claudia Vanney, Joseph Vukov, Peter Andrey Smith, Shane Wilkins, Benjamin Wilson, and an anonymous referee. I am especially grateful to E. J. Coffman, Peter Ditto, Brett Mercier, and Norbert Schwarz for insightful conversations and written comments. I want to thank audiences at Universidad Austral in October 2020 and Nanjing University in May 2021 for discussions of earlier versions of this essay. Finally, I acknowledge the John Templeton Foundation for its generous support of my research (grant 61014).


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3 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Metaphors We Live By [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980]) discuss the metaphor “argument is war,” which they point out is reflected in all sorts of language: “Your claims are indefensible,” “I demolished their argument,” “He attacked every weak point in my argument,” “She shot down all of my arguments,” “My objection will blow up your claim,” and so on. Lakoff and Johnson contend in general that metaphor shapes how people think and act. Although I reject the idea that we should literally treat debate as a war, I have certainly ended up thinking that the “fog of debate” concept illuminates some facets of argumentative persuasion for the reason that the argument-is-war metaphor is entrenched deeply in language and culture—just as Lakoff and Johnson say.

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5 The possibility of marginal cases is worth a note. Suppose, for example, that Standpoint does not hold but the other clarity conditions do. Then it may be plausible to say that someone is not in a fog. To see why, suppose I don’t know how to accurately estimate where others stand on an issue before I share my argument. But I can potentially overcome that obstacle to effective debate if Comprehension, Force, and Feedback hold. As a further example, someone may be in a fog even if all of the clarity conditions hold except for Feedback. If all the information you receive about your audience’s reaction to your argument is systematically biased, you seem to be in a fog.

6 Thanks to Madeline Jalbert, Norbert Schwarz, and an anonymous referee for questions here.

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18 Ibid.

19 Thinking about how Comprehension fails reminded me of some advice I picked up years ago from a philosophy teacher. There is a useful rule for reconstructing arguments called the charity principle: “When clarifying an argument, make the argument as sensible as you possibly can, given what its author said when presenting it” (E. J. Coffman, “Finding, Clarifying, and Evaluating Arguments,” no date, Philosophy Department, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, [at 5]). That principle is not the advice I got from my teacher; he shared what I call the anti-charity principle. When preparing a draft manuscript for submission to a professional journal, invite some friends to interpret your arguments anti-charitably, thereby helping you forestall bad objections from unsympathetic referees. (I am grateful to Klaas Kraay for his help and advice over the years.)

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28 While traveling on airplanes, I learned the value of sharing false feedback. Seated and buckled in next to talkative cranks or extroverted ideologues, honesty is not necessarily the best policy. (“Well, thanks—I’ve always wanted to know how the Egyptian pyramids were built. I should get a bit of work wrapped up before we land in Chicago, but I’ll definitely check out that book you recommended.”)

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44 Ibid., vii.

45 Do I think anyone should follow the Lichtenbergian policy? Maybe occasionally, though only cautiously. Here is one type of situation that may justify the policy. Sometimes our adversaries do not care one whit about the truth; we know this because they tell us so. They fling mud, not arguments. Intellectuals are naturally uncomfortable with the sophists’ dirty tricks. But we who care deeply about reason and evidence can use rhetoric and passion to inoculate other people against the sophists. We could be called upon to safeguard the pursuit of truth in our community using every rhetorical weapon available. (Thanks to Shane Wilkins for discussion.)

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48 E. J. Coffman shared Thomas Senor’s remarks (Thomas D. Senor, “Still More Advice to Christians in Philosophy,” Logoi [Spring 2015]: 6–8. on the theme of “censorious listening” at academic philosophy conferences:

We go to philosophy talks to poke holes in the speaker’s main argument, or to show that something important was overlooked. We are there as much to instruct as we are to learn—and this is so even if we don’t take ourselves to know as much about the subject of the talk than the speaker does. Our hands shoot up when the Q&A starts because we want to get in our own clever objection before someone beats us to it. (7)

49 Sherman, Nelson, and Ross, “Naïve Realism and Affirmative Action,” 276.

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52 Thanks to Fritz Warfield for email correspondence (September 2020) about Jaegwon Kim’s visits to South Bend, Indiana.

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55 Ibid., 68, n. 11.

56 Some of the material in this paragraph is adapted from Nathan Ballantyne, “Review of William G. Lycan’s On Evidence in Philosophy,” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, January 4, 2020,

57 Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “New England Reformers,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Modern Library Paperback Edition (New York: Random House, 2000 [1844]), 402420 Google Scholar, at 416.