Quotations about   debate

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Anger blows out the lamp of the mind. In the examination of a great and important question, every one should be serene, slow-pulsed and calm.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) American lawyer, agnostic, orator
“The Christian Religion,” Article 3, The North American Review (1881)
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Added on 31-May-19 | Last updated 31-May-19
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Our disputants put me in mind of the scuttle-fish, that when he is unable to extricate himself, blackens all the water about him, till he becomes invisible.

Joseph Addison (1672-1719) English essayist, poet, statesman
The Spectator, #476 (5 Sep 1712)
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The intoxication of anger, like that of the grape, shows us to others, but hides us from ourselves; and we injure our own cause, in the opinion of the world, when we too passionately and eagerly defend it.

Charles Caleb "C. C." Colton (1780-1832) English cleric, writer
Lacon, Vol. 1, #240 (1820)
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Added on 18-Jan-19 | Last updated 18-Jan-19
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To have a discussion coolly waived when you feel that justice is all on your side is even more exasperating in marriage than in philosophy.

George Eliot (1819-1880) English novelist [pseud. of Mary Ann Evans]
Middlemarch, Book 3, ch. 24 (1871)
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Added on 3-Nov-17 | Last updated 3-Nov-17
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Philosophy had supplied Socrates with convictions in which he had been able to have rational, as opposed to hysterical, confidence when faced with disapproval.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Consolations of Philosophy, ch. 1 “Consolations for Unpopularity” (2000)
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Added on 24-Aug-17 | Last updated 24-Aug-17
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One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
Added on 17-May-17 | Last updated 17-May-17
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When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.

Socrates (c.470-399 BC) Greek philosopher
(Spurious)

Of recent coinage. See here for more discussion.
Added on 16-Aug-16 | Last updated 16-Aug-16
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The world today is ruled by harassed politicians absorbed in getting into office or turning out the other man so that not much room is left for determining great issues on their merits.

Churchill - harassed politicians - wist_info quote

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) British statesman and author
Speech, New York (25 Jan 1932)
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Anger is the common substitute for logic among those who have no evidence for what they desperately want to believe.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
“The Tyrannosaurus Prescription”
Added on 29-Mar-16 | Last updated 29-Mar-16
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Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) English writer and churchman
“Letter to a Young Clergyman” (9 Jan 1720)
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Added on 20-Aug-15 | Last updated 20-Aug-15
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Arguments only confirm people in their own opinions.

Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) American novelist and dramatist
Looking Forward to the Great Adventure (1926)
Added on 17-Oct-14 | Last updated 17-Oct-14
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In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent: so you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.

James Burgh (1714-1775) British politician and writer
The Dignity of Human Nature, Sec. 5 “Miscellaneous Thoughts on Prudence in Conversation” (1754)
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Added on 2-Oct-14 | Last updated 2-Oct-14
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Without debate, without criticism, no Administration and no country can succeed — and no republic can survive. That is why the Athenian lawmaker Solon decreed it a crime for any citizen to shrink from controversy. And that is why our press was protected by the First Amendment — the only business in America specifically protected by the Constitution — not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasize the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply “give the public what it wants” — but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mold, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) US President (1961-63)
Speech, American Newspaper Publishers Association (27 Apr 1961)
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Added on 1-Sep-14 | Last updated 1-Sep-14
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An eagerness and zeal for dispute on every subject, and with every one, shows great self-sufficiency, that never-failing sign of great self-ignorance.

William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778) British statesman, orator [1st Earl of Chatham]
Correspondence of William Pitt, vol 4 (1840) [ed. Taylor and Pringle]
Added on 22-Aug-14 | Last updated 22-Aug-14
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If you mean to make your side of the argument appear plausible, do not prejudice the people against what you think truth by your passionate manner of defending it.

James Burgh (1714-1775) British politician and writer
The Dignity of Human Nature, Sec. 5 “Miscellaneous Thoughts on Prudence in Conversation” (1754)
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Added on 21-Aug-14 | Last updated 21-Aug-14
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The very man who has argued you down, will sometimes be found, years later, to have been influenced by what you said.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
Reflections on the Psalms (1964)
Added on 15-Aug-14 | Last updated 15-Aug-14
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Prejudice, not being founded on reason, cannot be removed by argument.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English writer, lexicographer, critic
(Spurious)
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Frequently attributed without citation, and not found in Johnson's works.  However, the phrase can be found in other contexts:

  • "This objection on the score of color is founded upon prejudice, and hence cannot be removed by argument, for prejudice is blind and listens not to reason." -- Rep. Godlove S. Orth of Indiana, speech before the House of Representatives (5 Apr 1869) on the question of admitting the Dominican Republic as a US territory.
  • "This persuasion of the power of the priest is, as we have said, a traditional prejudice; it is not founded on any reasons or proofs addressed to the understanding, and therefore it cannot be removed by argument." -- John Eliot Howard, The Island of the Saints (1855), quoting from the Achill Herald (Jun 1855).

Added on 8-Aug-14 | Last updated 8-Aug-14
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In stating prudential rules for our government in society, I must not omit the important one of never entering into dispute or argument with another. I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument. I have seen many, on their getting warm, becoming rude, and shooting one another. Conviction is the effect of our own dispassionate reasoning, either in solitude, or weighing within ourselves, dispassionately, what we hear from others, standing uncommitted in argument ourselves.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Thomas Jefferson Randolph (24 Nov 1808)
Added on 11-Jul-14 | Last updated 11-Jul-14
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When a subject is highly controversial — and any question about sex is that — one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) English modernist writer [b. Adeline Virginia Stephen]
A Room of One’s Own, ch. 1 (1929)
Added on 7-Jul-14 | Last updated 7-Jul-14
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Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
(Spurious)

Frequently attributed to Twain and also to Immanuel Kant (but never, in either case, with any citation). The phrase first makes recognizable (if anonymous) appearance in the late 19th Century; attributions to Twain begin in the late 1990s. See also Proverbs 26:4. For more discussion (and a shout-out to WIST) see here.
Added on 5-Jun-14 | Last updated 25-Mar-19
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I never make the mistake of arguing with people for whose opinions I have no respect.

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) English historian
(Attributed)

Quoted in The Fra (May 1913) and Elbert Hubbard's Scrap Book (1923).
Added on 30-May-14 | Last updated 30-May-14
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In a debate, rather pull to pieces the argument of thy antagonists than offer him any of thy own; for thus thou wilt fight him in his own country.

Thomas Fuller (1654-1734) English writer, physician
Introductio ad Prudentiam (1731)
Added on 9-May-14 | Last updated 9-May-14
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It is only when they cannot answer your reasons that they wish to knock you down.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“The Assault upon Mr. Sumner,” speech, Concord (26 May 1856)
Added on 2-May-14 | Last updated 2-May-14
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Men in authority will always think that criticism of their policies is dangerous. They will always equate their policies with patriotism, and find critics subversive.

Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998) American historian, writer, activist
Freedom and Order (1966)
Added on 15-Apr-14 | Last updated 15-Apr-14
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I am bound to furnish my antagonists with arguments, but not with comprehension.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) English politician and author
(Attributed)

An frequently used saying of his. Quoted in Wilfrid Meynell, Benjamin Disraeli: An Unconventional Biography (1903). Also attributed to Samuel Johnson.
Added on 4-Apr-14 | Last updated 4-Apr-14
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Everybody is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) British statesman and author
Speech, House of Commons (13 Oct 1943)
Added on 28-Mar-14 | Last updated 28-Mar-14
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I love to see two truths at the same time. Every good comparison gives the mind this advantage.

Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [ed. Auster (1983)]
Added on 20-May-13 | Last updated 13-May-16
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Opinions are made to be changed — or how is truth to be got at?

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) English poet
Letter to John Murray (9 May 1818)
Added on 28-May-09 | Last updated 15-Jun-17
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He that hath the worst Cause makes the most Noise

Thomas Fuller (1654-1734) English writer, physician
Gnomologia, #4203 (1732)
Added on 29-Dec-08 | Last updated 9-Feb-16
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Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [tr. Collins (1928)]

Alt. trans.: "The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress." [tr. Paul Auster (1983)]
Added on 9-Dec-08 | Last updated 24-Jan-17
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So then, I am simply in favor of intellectual hospitality — that is all. You come to me with a new idea. I invite you into the house. Let us see what you have. Let us talk it over. If I do not like your thought, I will bid it a polite “good day.” If I do like it, I will say: “Sit down; stay with me, and become a part of the intellectual wealth of my world.” That is all.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) American lawyer, agnostic, orator
“The Limits of Toleration,” debate at the Nineteenth Century Club, New York (8 May 1888)
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Great virtues may draw attention from defects, they cannot sanctify them. A pebble surrounded by diamonds remains a common stone, and a diamond surrounded by pebbles is still a gem. No one should attempt to refute an argument by pronouncing the name of some man, unless he is willing to adopt all the ideas and beliefs of that man. It is better to give reasons and facts than names. An argument should not depend for its force upon the name of its author. Facts need no pedigree, logic has no heraldry, and the living should not awed by the mistakes of the dead.

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) American lawyer, agnostic, orator
“The Great Infidels” (1881)
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Added on 26-Jun-08 | Last updated 2-Feb-16
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The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.)

Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) Indian novelist
“Do we have to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again?” The Independent (22 Jan 2005)
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Added on 11-Feb-05 | Last updated 7-Mar-18
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At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalise, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) Indian novelist
“Do we have to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again?” The Independent (22 Jan 2005)
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It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.

Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [ed. Auster (1983)]
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Full and free expression of the right by the citizen is ordinarily also his duty; for its exercise is more important to the Nation than it is to himself. Like the course of the heavenly bodies, harmony in national life is a resultant of the struggle between contending forces. In the frank expression of conflicting opinions lies the greatest promise of wisdom in governmental action.

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) American lawyer, activist, Supreme Court Justice (1916-39)
Gilbert v. Minnesota, 254 US 325 (1920) [Dissent]
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The time for action is past! Now is the time for senseless bickering!

Ashleigh Brilliant (b. 1933) Anglo-American writer, epigramist, cartoonist
Pot-Shots #1019
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We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) US President (1961-63)
“Remarks on the 20th Anniversary of the Voice of America” (speech), Washington, DC (26 Feb 1962)
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Anyone who in discussion relies upon authority uses, not his understanding, but his memory.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Italian artist, engineer, scientist
Notebooks (c. 1500) [tr. Richter]

Alt. trans.: "The one who relies on authority during a discussion does not use his mind but his memory."
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When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) American jurist, Supreme Court Justice
Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) [Dissent]
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Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.

Colin Powell (b. 1937) American military leader, Secretary of State
My American Journey (1995)
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I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offense against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If [this] book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God’s sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Nicholas G. Dufief (19 Apr 1814)

Dufief was a Philadelphia bookseller who had been prosecuted for selling the book Sur la Création du Monde, un Systême d'Organisation Primitive by M. de Becourt. Jefferson had purchased a copy as well.
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There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) French essayist
(Attributed)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 20-Jan-16
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