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Conviction and Humility in Responsible Debate

By 22nd December 2021 No Comments

John O’Connor

Regent of Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University

Philosophical and theological debate rarely hits the newspapers. But it did in 1987, when The Times and The Sunday Times ran stories on an academic dispute between Michael Dummett, Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, and Nicholas Lash, Norris–Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge.[1]

It started with an article by Dummett in which he criticised what he considered to be the decline in doctrinal orthodoxy among theologians and in seminary teaching.[2] A brief quotation from Lash’s first response to Dummett gives an indication of the tone that would characterise much of the debate: “As a theologian I look to the philosopher to educate me in the art of moving properly from ‘if’ to ‘then’… his [Dummett’s] article presents us with a catalogue of inferences so leaky as to constitute a kind of theological colander.” Lash then proceeded to list a sequence of what he took to be non-sequiturs committed by the distinguished Professor of Logic.[3]

After numerous similarly fractious articles, the Editor declared the debate closed. This was marked by a short article by Timothy Radcliffe designed to make peace. Radcliffe summarised the final state of play thus: “Michael Dummett is rightly indignant of any betrayal of the truths so secured [by the Church]. But Nicholas Lash is also surely right to insist that making sense of these truths … is a painful and tentative business.”[4]

That Radcliffe could express the main concerns of both principal protagonists so briefly and in a way highly suggestive of possible common ground (since the concerns of Dummett and Lash as stated above need not be incompatible), indicates that something went badly wrong with the debate.

The topic of ‘epistemic humility’ often comes up when debates go wrong. Epistemic humility is a kind of intellectual humility and can be understood as an active appreciation of our limited ability to know things. What lessons relevant to epistemic humility can we glean from reflection on the Dummett-Lash debate?

I suggest four:

First, epistemic humility is regularly presented as a virtue. This is significant because virtues are often understood as involving our affective side: not just the head but also the heart, as it were. Both Dummett and Lash were exceptionally qualified to grasp intellectually the principles of epistemic humility: Dummett wrote celebrated articles on the surprising complexities of claiming that something is true and Lash’s writings emphasised the radical inadequacy of human understanding regarding the divine. Yet, their intellectual grasp of epistemic humility was insufficient to temper the tone of this particular debate.

Second, it is possible for someone to possess the virtue of epistemic humility and yet, perhaps due to triggers and the heat of debate, fail to manifest it in a particular circumstance. It would, I think, be unfair to jump to conclusions about Dummett and Lash themselves on the basis of one episode – epistemic humility should also be exercised in our judgements of people: the complexities of persons and circumstances should not be overlooked. In any case, there is much evidence that Dummett and Lash were both highly impressive and virtuous people. Dummett was, for example, knighted not only for services to philosophy but also for his work for racial justice; and Lash was known as an exceptionally supportive academic colleague.[5]

Third, epistemic humility creates a space for empathetic imagination, due to the way it gets us to reflect on the sources of our deepest commitments. So much of what we are passionate about derives not only from the issues themselves, but also from our subjective perspectives and personal histories.[6] Notice that in his summing up, quoted above, Radcliffe expressed matters not in terms of disputed points, but in terms of the concerns of Dummett and Lash that reflected their different personal perspectives. An attitude of empathy with another’s perspective fosters charitable readings of opposing views because the concerns underlying them are considered; and whilst protagonists in debate might differ in conclusions reached, they might turn out to share similar concerns.

Fourth, a mediator can play a positive role, even when the main protagonists remain at loggerheads. Indeed, Radcliffe opened his summing up thus: “Professor Michael Dummett and Professor Nicholas Lash are both still very angry with each other.”[7] Yet Radcliffe’s conciliation nevertheless gave them an extra opportunity to move beyond differences. Even if they did not avail of this themselves, it might still have given readers who were confused, or who had taken sides, a further opportunity to reflect on common concerns, engage empathetic imagination, and even arrive at some degree of personal resolution.

Epistemic humility is highly relevant to all of the principles in the Charter for Responsible Public Debate. Principle Four, for example, states that we should listen carefully, open-mindedly and with empathy, which I have discussed in this article.

The fact that two people, both expert in reading texts and in clear analytical academic writing, claimed that they were frequently misunderstood by the other, suggests that the sort of empathetic stance that can be a fruit of epistemic humility was not present in this particular case.[8] But treating epistemic humility as a virtue also reminds us of lessons that apply to all the virtues: growth in the virtues can take time and practice, and we can all learn from mistakes, whether our own or those of others.


[1] Longley, Clifford. 1987. A Question of Theological Discipline. The Times, 21 December 1987; Oulton, Charles. 1987. Dons sets [sic] for clash over role of Jesus. The Sunday Times, 27 December 1987. Both retrieved 28 December 2020.

[2] Dummett, Michael. 1987. A Remarkable Consensus. New Blackfriars 68(809), 424–31.

[3] Lash, Nicholas.  1987. A Leaky Sort of Thing? The divisiveness of Michael Dummett. New Blackfriars 68(811), 555–56.

[4] Radcliffe, Timothy. 1989. The Dummett–Lash Debate: positively the last appearance. New Blackfriars 70(826), 200–01.

[5] See e.g. Moore, A. W. 2011. Sir Michael Dummett obituary. The Guardian, first published 28 December 2011; Williams, Rowan. 2020. Nicholas was a joy to know. The Tablet, published 15 July 2020. Both retrieved 29 December 2020.

[6] See e.g. Teti, Stowe Locke. 2018. Epistemic humility and empathetic imagination. Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics 8(3), 213–16.

[7] Radcliffe 1989 ibid,  200.

[8] E.g. Dummett, Michael. 1987. Unsafe Premises: a reply to Nicholas Lash. New Blackfriars 68(811), 558; Lash, Nicholas. 1989. The Difficulty of Making Sense. New Blackfriars 70(824), 82.

Charter for Responsible Debate report cover

This article is part of a series of reflective blog posts on our Charter for Responsible Debate.  It was originally published in our Responsible Debate project report, which also includes the full text of the Charter, an overview of how we created it, and an exercise pack for using the Charter in our everyday lives.

Our Charter for Responsible Debate proposes nine general principles for responsible public debate. They are based on our belief that joint decision-making should be informed, respectful and inclusive.

We hope that the Charter will kick-start some wider conversations about how we can listen well to each other, even when we disagree, and how we can work together to find common ground and a sense of shared purpose. This is key to improving the culture of debate in all areas of our lives: in person and on social media, locally, nationally and internationally.

We hope you will join our growing movement by signing our charter pledge and trying out the principles of Responsible Debate in your everyday life!

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download the Responsible Debate report