Kantian Dinner Party Hopes to Bring Civility Back to Debates

Oct 1, 2016

If you watched this election season's first presidential debate, or any of the debates over the course of the campaign season, you may agree these events do not represent the ideal of measured, respectful political discourse. This election cycle is not unique in the direction that political debate has taken. But a Milwaukee initiative is trying to change the tone, one dinner party at a time.

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The Kantian Dinner Party Initiative is a set of six events in the coming weeks which seek to bring people of diverse opinions together under the guidelines first assembled by philosopher Immanuel Kant. Ryan Hanley is the organizer, as well as the Mellon Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Marquette University.

Around five pages of Kant's book, Anthropology from a Pragmatic View, are dedicated to his list of dinner party rules. Hanley says they range from the funny and unusual, to rules that are pretty logical. "They're all set up to... create a space where people can have a sustained and engaged conversation," he says. 

Kant stipulates that parties should be limited to nine people (and no fewer than three), to avoid side conversations. There should be no background music, and there should be a code of secrecy, so no one discusses the conversations with anyone outside of the dinner party. Kant also describes the arc of a proper dinner conversation. 

"He tells us that there's three stages beginning with "narration" or news of the day. Then proceeding to... argumentation, perhaps we would say, but sort of reasoned discussion and debate. And then ending with jesting, and light-hearted plays of wit," says Hanley. 

In the end, Hanley hopes that participants will hear each other - and feel as though they've been heard, which isn't always the case.  "Especially when we have strong opinions," he says, "and we really have the convictions that we're right - it's difficult to listen.  It's difficult to be silent.  It's difficult to wait our turn.

"And it's really difficult - not just to rebut an opinion, but to listen to someone's argument and to work through it systematically." 

The first dinner party will be October 11, and the deadline to apply to attend one of the events is Monday, October 3.