Rethinking Phil Debate: How to reinvent 2011 arguments and make them strategic in 2021

Animesh Joshi

March 18, 2021

In the last section of my two-part article, I discussed the decline of the “phil” style of debate in the LD meta. The previous article also explained some of the best parts of phil debate and why I think it’s valuable. That raises the question:

What exactly can be done to make traditional phil style debate more successful?  One of the easiest solutions is better case construction. There are a couple of notes to keep in mind. First, I think it’s important to touch on the research process. This is probably one of the largest educational benefits one can get from a phil-oriented approach to debate. Many of the benefits people isolate from critical debate are very similar to benefits derived from philosophy as well (which makes sense, since a lot of critical theory probably falls underneath an umbrella of philosophy). Researching, doing reading, and finding applications to debate from academia are all crucial to good case construction. Personally, I’d recommend delving into new literature bases, as unique and nuanced ethical theories are less likely to encounter swathes of backfiles. Reading a recycled Kant aff, using a framework from the wiki, and rewording a couple of sentences is not always strategic, nor is it particularly educational [1]. It is comparatively cooler to get into literature that you are passionate about or find fascinating, and it will make the activity more enjoyable for you, as well.

Either way, getting familiar with your position will make it infinitely easier to articulate it in round, and, as you might expect, recycling the same generic framework probably has diminishing returns (especially if you didn’t write the initial framework either). However, you can still take a framework as simple and time-tested as Kant and do something interesting with it. You can read into Charles Mills’ Black Radical Kantianism, check out Korsgaard’s explanation of the noumenal world, or dive into Kantian political theory. Each of these represents a completely new set of ideas, arguments, and applications; and each can offer its unique set of advantages. Research matters.

Second, focus on strategic case structure! Good phil cases should have a diverse array of arguments. First, and foremost, there ought to be a syllogism that walks through a set of premises and conclusions. Often, you can start with a meta-ethical question [2], i.e., a question on what philosophy’s role is, generally. They often answer fundamental questions and are the starting premise for any framework. Meta-ethics are strategic because they are, functionally, a preclusive layer on the framework debate. For example, an affirmative that (implicitly or explicitly) relies on an internalist meta-ethic can use that to exclude externalist positions reliant on the state forcing individuals to act. There are a lot of different meta-ethical questions, and you should think about these as you are researching, cutting, and structuring your framework.

Next, your framework should have independent reasons to prefer it. You should try to make independent justifications unique, interactive, and preclusive. They can appeal to general philosophical areas—epistemology, ontology, etc.—and give you leverage against a variety of positions. Examples include: how your framework understands/explains material violence (and maybe even resolves it), what your theory thinks of our individual subjectivities, how your theory is crucial towards knowledge/truth formation, and why your framing is necessary for debate, specifically. Obviously, there are a ton more arguments you can make, but these are a just a couple of useful ones. Crucially, you need to explain why each of these independent arguments matters, i.e., why should anyone care who has the right understanding of knowledge formation or violence or subjectivity? Coupling independent justifications with the right preclusionary claims makes the 1AR much easier, allowing you to interact your position with your opponents and offering counterarguments on a similar playing field. Instead of the aff remaining at the bottom layer of the debate after the 1NC, a well-constructed case can often transform into the highest layer by the 1AR.  Besides general structure, you can also have a couple of moves planned for your later speeches that are strategically advantageous. First, you should definitely figure out how your ethical theory might interact with different styles of debate. I’ve touched on this earlier, but you should focus on doing research and reading—not just analytic argument generation. Often, there are academics who analyze the implications of your ethical theory, so doing some extra work will go a long way. This research can form the basis of different case modules or specific justifications that you can script sections of your rebuttals on [3].

Second, on a related note, you should spend time figuring out different possible strategic maneuvers. For example, think about what framing a 1AR can use to systematically indict all util calculi, consider how you can use your framework to impact turn theory, ponder what your framework defines as “truth”, and imagine why counter advocacies wouldn’t be competitive with your affirmative. This big picture thinking will foster good round vision and make you think about which questions matter for the round (and, conversely, which ones do not).

Finally, drill argument generation! A lot of great framework debaters end up becoming exceptionally good at line-by-line work because of their ability to analyze premises and conclusions. Being able to think on the spot, and figure out responses to your opponent’s specific arguments, will give you a massive in-round advantage. Make sure to respond to individual warrants and also do some comparative work, contrasting your framework with your opponent’s. You can also practice hijacks; that is, think of ways your framework might agree with a premise of your opponent’s framework but come to an entirely different, and better, conclusion. To get better at this, I’d recommend giving yourself a couple of minutes to generate as many arguments against a framework (or K or theory shell) taken from the wiki. A shorter version of this drill involves doing the same drill against individual cards, digging into specific lines and picking apart the warrants (or lack thereof) in one piece of evidence. Technical efficiency and proficiency will be a tremendous benefit for you and a scary sight for your opponent when coupled with your content knowledge.

In conclusion, there are a lot of opportunities in traditional philosophical debate—both structural and strategic—to give yourself the upper hand in any given round. Although the style is currently in decline, I hope that this set of articles has convinced you to at least give phil debate a shot!


[1] Obviously, I am not claiming all Kant affs are not educational. Rather, writ large, it appears everyone is reading the same Kant aff, and nothing else. Diversifying the argument portfolio of phil debate is good for everyone in the community.

[2] Common meta-ethics include, but are not limited to, internalism, constitutivism, naturalism, constructivism, etc.

[3] When it comes to modules, I’d also like to emphasize the importance of adaptation—like with any other form of debate, you should tailor what you read to your judge. Don’t read something super dense if the round’s circumstances don’t call for it. This applies to both judges and opponents.