Archive Nota Bene W. Bradford Littlejohn

The Anticipation of Persuasion

One of the things that we talk about a lot here at TCI is building a culture of persuasion, and one of our favorite bogeymen is the retreat to commitment.  These things are of course connected: against the retreat to commitment, we insist that it is in the nature of truth claims to be public truth claims; but neither do we think that one ought to bludgeon the public over the head with one’s truth claims, as those amongst us who are committed but dispositionally disinclined to retreat tend to do.  We continue to insist, however passé it may seem, that truth has a persuasive power, that we enter into discussion with the aim, and the not altogether vain hope, of achieving or discovering agreement.  We are grateful to find the illustrious Oliver O’Donovan articulating this conviction with his typical verve and clarity:

“. . . Individual moral thinking is social not only in its beginnings but in its ends.  Our most secret deliberations, our most independent conclusions, are directed towards a community of understanding.  We think as though trying to win the approval of a judicious audience hidden in the darkness of the stalls, ready to applaud our point of view when the lights go up.  It is not simply that without a community of inquiry our thought cannot begin.  If we cannot envisage a community of agreement our thought cannot have any end in view, either.

“When parties to a discussion punctuate it with decisive stands expressed in the first-person singular (‘I passionately oppose . . . !’) that is neither the beginning nor the end of moral thought.  It is a moment in-between, a moment at which the common inquiry has broken down and the common agreement at which thought is aimed has disappeared from view.  The affirmation of the ‘I’-position is a strategy for regrouping and relaunching the discussion, as when a standard is thrust into the ground and the scattered soldiers gather to it.  Rhetorical inebriation may make the standard-bearer forget that he is part of an army, but that is the logic of it.  In the moment of affirmation the ‘I’ takes responsibility for the whole, making a decision on what must be held in common by all.  And so together with the right of a distinctive point of approach must be granted also an anticipation of persuasion.  Serious discussion is entered expectantly, with a view to finding a common perspective which makes sense of an object of hope, still to be looked for; yet it is something to be discovered, not devised.  It is not a negotiated add-on to the prior private convictions of the discussants; it is the realization of those convictions, which, though they may have been held privately, were intended socially.”
Self, World, and Time, pp. 46-47


By W. Bradford Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh, 2013), is President of the Davenant Trust and an independent scholar, writer, and editor. He is researching the political theology of the Reformation, especially Richard Hooker (the subject of his dissertation), and other areas in Christian ethics, especially pertaining to economic questions.