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Persuasion and the Truth

PHIL 20251 / University of Notre Dame
Professor: Dr. Graham Clay

History is riddled with leaders—from Adolf Hitler and Robert Mugabe to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln—who have used skilled oratory and rhetoric to convince. Yet, as these very examples show, the ability to persuade is distinct from the ability to convey the truth. Indeed, in the battle for public opinion, the truth wins only incidentally—it defeats falsehood only if the truth-tellers happen to be the most persuasive.

In the age of social media, cable news, and reality shows, snake oil is selling better than ever. As a consequence, knowing how to discern the unvarnished truth from a heaping mound of you-know-what is extremely valuable. By pairing the study of the abstract philosophical science of truth with the art of engaging and lively persuasion, this course will be part of your lifelong quest to acquire and hone this skill. This course will help you learn how to represent the truth in “favourable colours” of your own. You will practice arguing for your philosophical views through activities, projects, debates, and papers. You will work closely with your peers, relying on their insight and feedback to sharpen your argumentation skills and helping them refine theirs. Along the way, you will learn to cut quickly and easily through the drivel, hogwash, baloney, and poppycock of politicians to the substance of their arguments—if there is any. Topics covered will range from immigration to theism, affirmative action, and abortion. Figures studied will range from Sojourner Truth to Cicero, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Judith Jarvis Thomson.

- David Hume -