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One friend said:

If I can't see what is substantial and noble in a viewpoint I oppose - whether ethical, political, or religious - there's a good chance I haven't understood it, and/or that my own view is grounded in passion more than reason.

So I responded:

When you invoke this principle of 'empathetic authenticity in reasoning' does it have a working title in academia? Did someone invent it before you?

And he said:

I always assumed it was common sense.

Another friend said

Yes I agree with Plato's view on rhetoric.

I'm hunting through Plato quotes and I can't find this one. (But it sounds plausible.)

My question is: Did Plato say "In order to argue, you must express your opponents argument better than they could?"

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    Great question. The argument also reminds me greatly of Chesterton's Fence, though obviously G. K. Chesterton's phrasing is a bit more modern than the Plato era quote you seek! – Cort Ammon Aug 28 '17 at 20:11
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    What you are describing is what has been called the principle of charity. Whether the principle of charity has antecedents in Plato, or in any other ancient sources, is a good question. – Ram Tobolski Aug 29 '17 at 4:37
  • Thanks @CortAmmon and @ RamTobolski - please add those as an answer and I'll mark it correct. I'll add my own answer based on the research I've done. – hawkeye Aug 29 '17 at 10:40
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    The quote doesn't ring a bell. It doesn't sound Platonic. In any case it's surely not true. In order to argue isn't it sufficient to be able to refute one's opponent's argument ? Why should one be able to state a bad argument better in order to refute it ? What would be wrong is to take advantage of an accidental weakness in the statement of an opponent's argument. One should always refute, or challenge, an argument in its strongest form. – Geoffrey Thomas Nov 25 '17 at 19:39
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    A further thought is this. Suppose an opponent's argument cannot be expressed better by the opponent or oneself since it has been framed in the strongest possible form. One can still argue against it and refute it if is wrong. – Geoffrey Thomas Nov 25 '17 at 20:51
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So I came to the internet searching for this quote, found this post and then finally found the actual quote in the Philosophy section of my own bookshelf.

"True dialogue requires us to see our opposite at his best." "The best thing, if it were possible, would be to make our adversaries better: but if this is impossible, let us try in our conversation to make them seem to have improved, by proceeding on the assumption that they are willing to answer in more orderly fashion and more to the point than is now the case."

Plato and Augustine From The Great Philosophers, Vol 1 Karl Jaspers

I'm not exactly sure who Jaspers is quoting here, or if he is quoting himself, but I love this statement and I think it comes pretty close to addressing the original question of this post or at least the spirit behind it. It also seems to work well with the aforementioned principle of charity.

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I'm not sure about Plato, but the interpretive principle that is described in the question has been discussed in modern analytic philosophy, and has been nicknamed the principle of charity.

In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity requires interpreting a speaker's statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.

The philosopher that has been mostly associated with the principle of charity is Donald Davidson. That is because the principle of charity plays a central role in Davidson's philosophical system.

What your friend said expresses well why the principle of charity is important for everyone.

If I can't see what is substantial and noble in a viewpoint I oppose - whether ethical, political, or religious - there's a good chance I haven't understood it, and/or that my own view is grounded in passion more than reason.

To stress the point a bit: the principle of charity in interpretation, despite its nickname, is not a matter of charity. It is not a matter of generosity, or of good will. It is not, that is, optional, but necessary. If you are not invoking it, towards opinions that you hear, and towards texts that you read, you are practically guaranteed to misunderstand what you hear and read.

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Sort of. In Plato's Apology, he states that the form of argument was used by Socrates to defend against his detractors. This way of arguing is largely seen as the favored method of argument in popular cultures courtroom dramas as well as in real life courtrooms. Max

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  • This answer would be more useful if it gave a specific cite to the Apology, and even better if it included a quote. – Mark Andrews Dec 21 '17 at 2:44
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Plato's rejection of the Sophists is reasoned by their rhetoric lacking justice (khairos) - and he says they need to move to 'Maintenance and Restoration'. http://people.uwplatt.edu/~ciesield/platovsoph.htm

The broader point in this reference was that Plato was the originator of arguing with empathy by better understanding the opponents position first, rather than saying something appropriate to the situation.

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    Well we need evidence to support the claim that "Plato was the originator of arguing with empathy by better understanding the opponents position first, rather than saying something appropriate to the situation" – Ram Tobolski Aug 29 '17 at 22:43
  • @RamTobolski you're not satisfied that this link provides it? Anyway - feel free to expand your comment into an answer and I'll mark it as correct. I'm just putting this as an answer based on what my friend gave me. – hawkeye Aug 30 '17 at 8:10
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    I will write an answer soon, fate permitting. But I don't have a relevant information regarding Plato. I don't see that the said link contains relevant information either. – Ram Tobolski Aug 30 '17 at 10:45
  • The word empathy does not appear in the link. Not sure why you think Plato practiced it... – virmaior Sep 1 '17 at 1:57
  • Hi @virmaior - the empathy is demonstrated in his reasoning - the actual word doesn't have to appear. – hawkeye Sep 2 '17 at 11:36
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As with other answers, I'm not sure if it came from Plato, but a similar idea is stated in a couple other places. Notably by Charlie Munger when he said

I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”

(Extensively quoted online but I couldn't find the original source)

And with some more detail by Anatol Rapoport as summarized by Daniel Dennett in Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way."
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
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