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This is a Guest Post by Dr. James Tallmon, Director of Debate at Patrick Henry College where he is also the Professor of Rhetoric. Dr. Tallmon has been an active contributor to homeschool debate, coaching several club meetings at Vector, VA, providing judging at many tournaments, and contributing intellectual capital to debaters and debate coaches like myself. Dr. Tallmon has a collaborative relationship with Ethos, supported by PHC.

Dr. Tallmon has been a mentor to me and I especially respect his classically grounded perspective on debate, from a philosophical and practical standpoint. We have discussed the following issue a number of times as Dr. Tallmon and I worked with the PHC debate team in many leagues and formats, including NFA LD-Policy, NEDA Team Policy/Value, NPDA Parliamentary, and most recently British Parliamentary debate. Following a recent tournament, at the PHC team debriefing we discussed some of the junk that passes for “debate theory” and how to challenge it. Dr. Tallmon’s reflections below will help you mature in your understand of debate and should be taken to heart by any serious debater.

– Isaiah McPeak

I propose that PHC Debaters no longer refer to strategies, techniques, and technical argument strategies used in ways that blur rather than sharpen lines of argument, as “debate theory.”  This is a misnomer if one considers what does and does not legitimately constitute theory, properly understood.

In academic parlance, a theory is a philosophical attempt at explaining, in as comprehensive and rigorous a fashion as one can, either phenomena or some activity.  So, rhetorical theory, for example, provides the grammar of the art of persuasive discourse (establishing constituent parts of the art and defining each, showing how they work together and what constitutes the excellence of each).  Developing that theory into a comprehensive treatment of rhetorical arts entails a good bit of psychology, metaphysics, poetics, and, ultimately, theology (insofar as man is created in God’s image and insofar as rhetoric is about moving the soul toward the good.)  So, one can see that a “full blown” theory of rhetoric is very complex, rigorous, and so on.

Ethical theories, political theory, the Theory of Relativity, indeed, anything to which the term “theory” can be rightly applied, are expected to demonstrate unity, internal consistency, generalizability, comprehensiveness, and are able  to withstand intellectual scrutiny.  “Debate theory” so-called is not even in this ballpark.

A contrast would no doubt help:

What Constitutes Debate Theory, proper?

  • Prima Fasciality
  • Burden’s and prerogatives/presumptions (debate dynamics)
  • Substance of debate
  • Stock issues theory
  • Rhetorical dimensions
  • Argumentation and Persuasion
  • Dialectic

What is not, strictly speaking, “theory”

  • ­Fundamentals of Debate
  • Strategies (like speed and spread)
  • Technique
  • Buzz words related to rules, strategies, etc. Used as “code” for larger concepts but which in practice, strip those concepts of their inherent substance, speed up the round, in order to evade substantive clash by narrowing grounds of debate and through sheer want of time – through “spreading” (Critique–>Kritik–>K) (Topicality–>T) (“Fiat is illusory”)
  • Almost any form of blocked (canned) arguments


Why are we going to cease this practice?  Because doing so is consistent with the new paradigm we are adopting (which will help us think about debate in new ways; cultivate a new mindset,) because it upholds a proper understanding of the word “theory” (and, without theory, there can be no art,) and because using terms with precision and accuracy is a good in itself.

Words mean things. Those who defend “the Permanent Things” should honor the status and importance of theory in the realm of scholarly achievement.  Granting theoretical status to strategies and technique devalues the very notion of theory (and makes the one who uses the term indiscriminately look a little silly!)

Dr. Tallmon

Dr. Tallmon has graciously provided his contact information for those who are interested in serious dialogue on this subject or the PHC Forensics Program. jmtallmon@phc.edu

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