William Hawley Davis’s “Is Debate Primarily A Game?” (1916) represents an early, prominent effort to justify academic, intercollegiate debate and also, indirectly, societal debate. Davis sharply rebukes those who would conceptualize and/or practice academic debate as if it were a game, arguing instead for a version of debate that more closely approximates real democratic deliberation and thus cultivates the training necessary for meaningful public participation on serious issues. This essay explores other possible justifications for debate, including those that might re-claim play, game, and/or sport. Such alternatives suggest the importance of conceiving debate beyond tragic frames and Platonic Truth claims, in ways that might better envision the possibilities of debate and therefore provide strong public justifications for debate as academic activity and as democratic practice.



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