What is steelmanning?

Aristotle once said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

To me, this is what intellectual honesty primarily consists of. Too often, people get stuck in their own beliefs and are totally incapable of even articulating an opponent’s point of view. Of course, this can be challenging to do, but I believe the end result is worth the effort.

Before explaining what steelmanning is, I’d like to explain what its opposite is. Straw manning is an example of a logical fallacy, which is a type of reasoning that is fundamentally flawed. When you straw man someone’s argument, you’re simply taking its weakest interpretation and attacking that, instead of dealing with the argument as such. This is typically seen in mainstream media, particularly in the short interviews/debates in which the goal seems to be to “score points” rather than genuinely get to the truth.

So then, if our goal when having conversations is to apprehend the truth, it seems hard to deny that one should actively avoid straw manning. In fact, one should do the opposite: by steel manning someone’s argument, you’re making your opponent’s argument as strong as you can make it. Then, you will have the opportunity to refine your own argument, but the underlying goal is to use the principle of charity and contend with the best, strongest interpretation of your opponent’s argument. This is identical to Rapoport’s first rule, named after game theorist Anatol Rapoport and popularized by Daniel Dennett, which states that “you should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, ‘Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’

Steelmanning is regularly used by public intellectuals, academics, and philosophers. For instance, William Lane Craig was asked by Ben Shapiro in this podcast to steelman the atheist counterargument to Craig’s strongest argument for the existence of God. Likewise, Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris used this technique a few times in their live events from 2018. In a similar vein, Jonathan Haidt frequently articulated Sam Harris’ thoughts and arguments in this conversation, which I thought was really impressive. Although this isn’t technically steelmanning, I’d say it’s pretty close and does show that he listens and genuinely understands Harris’ arguments. Finally, I believe steelmanning is a fantastic indicator of good faith and intellectual honesty.

Anyway, next time you find yourself in a disagreement with someone, consider taking a step back and trying to steelman their argument, and vice-versa. Again, this can definitely be hard to do, especially if you’re not used to it, but it does lead to more productive conversations and I do believe it does lead everyone closer to the truth…



Updated on November 15th, 2021 to include a great example of a philosopher steelmanning that I discovered after publishing this post.

3 responses to “What is steelmanning?”

  1. This explanation was really clear and helpful, thank you! Look forward to reading the next blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Bethan! Currently working hard to launch my podcast, then I’ll get back to writing. Cheers!


  2. […] humble opinion, Jenkins’ is the strongest of these definitions, so, in the interest of steelmanning, we’ll use her womanB as “the novel […]


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