Gained in Translation
A Colby-led team works to introduce a new branch of philosophical thought to China
What makes an argument a good one? It’s the arguer, if you ask Professor of Philosophy Daniel Cohen ’75, one of the founding figures of the field called virtue argumentation theory. To Cohen, having an arguer possess traits, or virtues, such as being open-minded or attentive is the key.
Now, Cohen’s work, along with papers by numerous international scholars, is going to reach a completely new audience.
Initiated by one of Cohen’s students, Qifan “Frank” Hu ’23, a Colby-led team made up of prominent scholars of virtue argumentation theory and students has been translating already-published papers from English to Chinese to carry this work over to China. The team hopes to place these works in Chinese journals, with the overarching goal of collecting them in an anthology.
“There’s actually a niche for this,” said Cohen, explaining how China has a robust argumentation theory community and how virtue permeates Chinese philosophy because of the Confucian tradition. “Yet for some strange reason, there’s no virtue argumentation theory in China.”
That’s about to change because of this project, prompted by the pandemic and Hu’s resourcefulness.
A Ningbo native and an aspiring philosophy major, Hu couldn’t return home last spring due to the pandemic. As he prepared to spend the summer in Waterville, he sought a philosophical project to keep him busy. He approached Cohen with the idea of translating a book from English to Chinese. But Cohen, realizing the scope of that undertaking, proposed a more feasible alternative: translating one of his own articles in virtue argumentation theory into Chinese.
Coming in cold to this theory, Hu read all the articles he could on virtue argumentation theory before taking on translation tasks. And once he started the translation process, his academic and translation skills—as well as his skills as an arguer—began to advance. “I think I started to practice what the [theory itself] tells or preaches,” he said. “During the argument, I would try to be more virtuous because I’ve read [and translated] these articles.”
Thus far, Hu has finished translating three articles and is about to complete the fourth as he works on what he calls “a big deal.”
“I’m actually quite excited,” said Hu about the project. “This is, to me, a significant undertaking.”
Cohen, who had Hu in several of his classes, saw that Hu was tenacious and also proactive about studying philosophy and about driving his own education. “He’s a student who didn’t choose philosophy,” Cohen said. “Philosophy chose him because it grabbed him and it hasn’t let him go.”
This project is a case in point.
As the summer progressed, the two-person project driven by Hu’s persistence and Cohen’s body of work blossomed into an international collaboration.
Cohen first tapped Andrew Aberdein, professor of philosophy at Florida Institute of Technology, who Cohen said is “really the founder of this branch of thought” and who coined the term virtue argumentation theory. Aberdein gave a one-word response: “Splendid!” Aberdein has been helping the team choose which articles to translate. “He knows this literature better than anyone else,” Cohen said. “Period.”
Looking to have a Chinese scholar on board, Cohen solicited recommendations, leading him to recruit Minghui Xiong, professor of logic at Sun Yat-sen University, who has published about virtue argumentation theory.
In the meantime, more translators joined Hu, including Anran Zhang ’20, Rongshu “Lucy” Wang ’23, and, most recently, Zhengzhou “Steve” Li ’22.
This is the process: First, Colby students are assigned an article to translate. Once done, the other students proof and revise the piece. Then, they send the copy to Xiong’s team in China—nine graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and visiting scholars—for another edit.
“It’s pretty interesting to participate in such a program in which you have constant contact with professors and discuss with them as well as your friends in college,” said Zhang from her home in Leshan, China. Besides working closely with Cohen, Aberdein, and Xiong, the Colby students have the opportunity to connect with the papers’ original authors after completing the translation.
A philosophy and government double major, Zhang volunteered to join the project after graduation and continues with it as she virtually pursues a master’s degree in social science at the University of Chicago. To her, this project is a way to stay in touch with Colby students and faculty, learn about virtue augmentation theory, and gain translation experience.
Worried about consistency, Zhang created a living document to guide the translators with terminology. It’s a long list, containing words such as arguer (论辩者), informal logic (非形式逻辑), civic cowardice (公民懦弱), cogency (说服力), and even proper nouns like Andrew Aberdein (阿伯丁). A perfectionist, Cohen said Zhang’s “one of the hardest working students we’ve ever had.”
So far, the Colby team has translated five articles. The first pool of authors is distinctly international, working in the U.S., Spain, Italy, and New Zealand. And once this body of knowledge starts to flow into Chinese literature, it might have a long-lasting impact.
With virtue one of the core concepts of Chinese philosophy, Xiong said, “It is reasonable to believe that this project may lead to a shift of perspective in the study of Chinese philosophy toward the reconstruction of some Chinese virtue argumentation theory.”
What’s Virtue Argumentation Theory?
Virtue argumentation theory grew from a commentary by Andrew Aberdein on a paper that Daniel Cohen presented at a conference in 2005. The subsequent exchange between the two scholars led to the expansion of the field. But what exactly is this theory? Different scholars would give different answers, said Cohen. Here’s how he approaches it.
Instead of thinking about arguments along the lines of mathematical proofs as sequences of propositions, Cohen sees them as insights or engagements between people for cognitive ends. To him, arguments are a way for people to understand the world or work things out. When perceived as engagements, then the personal traits—or virtues—of those arguing gain much more importance.
Cohen and this theory focus on the virtues of the arguer and apply virtue epistemology to argumentation theory, which evaluates how arguments are carried out. The theory takes arguers’ character into account when judging the quality of their engagement. And the virtues—or the goodness—of an arguer are judged within the framework of virtue ethics, going back to Aristotle.
“We argue virtuously when we exhibit those acquired habits of mind that are conducive to one of argumentation’s characteristic cognitive achievements,” writes Cohen in an earlier paper, highlighting tenacity, cleverness, passionate engagement, open-mindedness, and attentiveness as argumentative virtues. And those cognitive achievements could be things like gaining a better understanding of your or your opponent’s position or giving up your standpoint for a better one. Cohen’s TEDx talk on the subject, recorded at Colby in 2013, has been watched by more than 1.6 million people.
The bottom line for Cohen’s argument in this theory: “If you want good arguments, get good arguers. If you have good arguers, you’ll get good arguments. It goes both ways.”
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