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Lincoln Douglas debate is mostly about philosophy, and philosophy is hard. Really hard. So hard that most people struggle to understand it, let alone do it well. The most important thing you can do when making a philosophical argument in an LD round is to make it clearly.

So, how do you communicate abstract ideas clearly? There’s more than one answer to this question, but here’s a pretty good one: make the ideas less abstract. How do you make ideas less abstract? By offering concrete illustrations. There are two kinds of concrete illustrations: examples and analogies. I’ll explain the difference between these and give you some tips for how to use them.


An example of something is, roughly speaking, a specific case of that thing. The freedom to vote in presidential elections is an example of political liberty, because it’s a specific political liberty; my miniature schnauzer, Hercules, is an example of a puppy, because he’s a specific puppy; Purdue University is an example of a university, because it’s a specific university, and so on and so forth.

Let’s say you’re in the NCFCA, and you’re trying to explain to a judge what innate knowledge is. There are two (not necessarily incompatible) ways to go about this. First, you could offer a definition of innate knowledge. This might help a little, but the definition is likely to be hard to grasp. Second, you could offer an example – that is, a specific case of innate knowledge.
Here’s one: famously, honeybees communicate with each other about the location of food by performing a “waggle dance.” The angle at which the messenger bee dances, and the frequency with which it waggles, tells the spectator bees the precise bearing and distance of the food relative to the hive. The waggle dance is, in essence, a language. Moreover, it’s an innately specified language. We know this because honeybees raised in isolation from expert waggle-dancers start waggling once they reach an appropriate age, even though they’ve never observed other bees waggling.

With this example on the table, you can reframe the resolution “Rationalism should be valued above empiricism” in the following way: some human knowledge (language, morality, mathematics – you take your pick) is like the honeybee’s waggle dance. We don’t need to be taught it, and we don’t learn it through observation. We just know it.

Now, the judge needn’t wrap their head around all the abstract terminology in the resolution or in your definitions. They just need to ask, when confronted with an example of purportedly innate knowledge, “Is this like the honeybee’s waggle dance?” The example “stands in” for the abstract definition.


An analogy for something is another thing that resembles it in an illuminating way (I’m here using “analogy” in a way that subsumes similes and metaphors, for those of you who are sensitive to the differences). If you’ve taken a chemistry course, your teacher probably explained the structure of an atom by comparing it to the solar system: electrons orbit around nuclei in the same way that planets orbit around the Sun.

Note that analogies aren’t examples. An electron isn’t an example of a planet, because it isn’t a specific planet. Rather, an electron is sort of like a planet, since you can think of it as “orbiting” the nucleus the way a planet orbits a star. If you can get your head around the way planets orbit stars, then you can get your head around the way electrons orbit nuclei.

In debate, analogies help judges grasp new, abstract concepts by relating them to less abstract, more familiar ones. Suppose, as in the last example, that you’ve defined rationalism as the view that human beings have innate knowledge, and you’re trying to help the judge understand what the disagreement between rationalists and empiricists is about. You could say something like this:

“When you take a new cell phone out of the box, it already has some software on it. It has an operating system, as well as a few native apps. You can install many more apps on the cell phone, and by doing so, you’ll expand the phone’s capabilities. But you couldn’t install any new apps on the phone, or do anything at all with it, unless it came with an operating system and at least a few apps pre-installed.

“Rationalism says that the human mind is like an out-of-the-box cell phone. It comes with an ‘operating system’ and a handful of ‘apps’ pre-installed. We can and do acquire a vast array of new knowledge and skills throughout our lives, but we could never learn anything unless some of our knowledge was innate – that is, unlearned, or built-in. This debate is about whether the mind has innate knowledge or derives all of its knowledge from experience – whether it is like an out-of-the-box cell phone, or more like a blank hard drive.”

Like the honeybee example, this analogy can stand in for abstract definitions of “rationalism” and “empiricism” if necessary. Even if the judge isn’t familiar with all the philosophical terminology in the resolution, they can easily ask themselves the question, “Is the mind more like a cell phone or a hard drive?”

Noah McKay is an NCFCA alumnus and a PhD student in philosophy at Purdue University. He has coached LD debate for seven years.

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