Rhetoric, argument, and persuasion come together in the study of argumentation. According to a handbook definition, argumentation is a verbal, social, and rational activity aimed at convincing a reasonable critic of the acceptability of a standpoint by advancing a constellation of propositions justifying or (in case the standpoint is negative) refuting the proposition expressed in the standpoint (van Eemeren et al. 1996). This definition does justice to the “process–product ambiguity” of the term “argumentation” because it captures not only the activity of advancing reasons but also the discourse or text resulting from it.
The Study Of Argumentation
Argumentation always pertains to a specific point of view regarding a certain issue. The speaker or writer who advances argumentation defends this standpoint to listeners or readers who (are assumed to) doubt the acceptability of the standpoint or have a different standpoint. Argumentation is aimed at convincing them of the acceptability of the standpoint. The person who advances it makes an appeal to their reasonableness by assuming that they will act as reasonable critics when evaluating the argumentation – otherwise advancing argumentation would not make sense.
The study of argumentation includes not only philosophical and theoretical investigations of the concepts of rationality and reasonableness inspiring the conceptual frameworks that shape the various models of argumentation, but also empirical and analytic research aimed at explaining argumentative reality and reconstructing it from the perspective of these models, and practical research aimed at a critical appreciation of the various kinds of argumentative practices and systematic improvement when this is due. In all components of this research program, the effort is concentrated on three problem areas: the analysis, evaluation, and production of argumentative discourse and texts.
So far the study of argumentation has not resulted in a universally accepted theory. The state of the art is characterized by the coexistence of a variety of approaches that differ considerably in conceptualization, scope, and theoretical refinement. Some argumentation theorists, especially those having a background in discourse analysis and rhetoric, have a primarily (and sometimes exclusively) descriptive goal. They are interested in finding out how speakers and writers use argumentation to convince or persuade others. Other argumentation theorists, inspired by logic and philosophy, study argumentation for normative purposes. They are interested in developing soundness criteria that must be satisfied for the argumentation to be reasonable. Many argumentation theorists take a middle position and assume that the study of argumentation has a normative as well as a descriptive dimension.
In spite of the differences, argumentation theorists are jointly concerned with certain research problems. The first one is the identification of standpoints, argumentation, and other argumentative moves. Another common problem is the identification of elements that remain unexpressed in the discourse, which are often the pivotal points of an argument, in particular unexpressed premises. In some cases, the identification of these implicit elements causes considerable problems – usually because there are several possibilities.
Arguers who put forward an argument are not automatically involved in an attempt to logically derive the conclusion from the premises, but they must be aiming for a transfer of acceptance from the explicit premise to the standpoint. In this endeavor they rely on more or less ready-made argument schemes – conventionalized ways of relating a premise to a standpoint. Because an argument scheme typifies the justification or refutation the premise provides for the standpoint, examining argument schemes is required for getting to the principles, standards, criteria, and assumptions involved in argument evaluation.
A further problem is the analysis of the argumentation structure, which is determined by the way in which the arguments advanced in defense of a standpoint hang together. When it consists of one premise and an unexpressed premise, argumentation is “single,” but in practice its structure can be more complex, depending on how the defense has been organized to respond to (anticipated) doubt or criticism. In more complexly structured argumentation the reasons put forward to support a standpoint can be alternative defenses of the standpoint that are unrelated, but they can also be interdependent because the arguments strengthen or complement each other or the one argument supports the other.
Hamblin (1970) demonstrated that a great number of the generally recognized fallacies are not covered by the “logical standard definition” of fallacies as arguments that seem valid but are not, because they are not arguments, not invalid, or fallacious for another reason. Most argumentation theorists therefore dropped the standard definition and view fallacies as discussion moves that harm the quality of argumentative discourse. The theorists’ problem is to explain when and why this is the case.
These and other problems pertinent to the analysis, evaluation, and production of argumentation are treated differently in the various theoretical approaches to argumentation. Although this is not always acknowledged, most of these approaches are strongly affected by either the dialectical perspective or the rhetorical perspective on argumentation developed in antiquity. Rhetorically oriented approaches put an emphasis on factors influencing the effectiveness of argumentation, viewing effectiveness as a matter of “right” rather than fact. If the factual effectiveness of argumentation, in the sense of its actual persuasiveness, is the primary interest, empirical persuasion research is required that amounts to empirical testing of attitude change. Dialectically oriented approaches focus primarily on the quality of argumentation in regulated critical dialogues. They put an emphasis on finding ways of guarding the reasonableness of argumentation. A brief overview of prominent approaches, starting with the “neo-classical” approaches developed by Toulmin and Perelman, will highlight their main points and make clear that they are all indebted to classical rhetoric and dialectic.
Overview Of Prominent Approaches
Reacting against the then dominant logical approach to argumentation, Toulmin (1958) presented a model of the “procedural form” of argumentation: the steps that can be distinguished in the defense of a standpoint. It is noteworthy that Toulmin’s model is conceptually equivalent to the Roman-Hellenistic epicheirema (extended syllogism). According to Toulmin, the soundness of argumentation is primarily determined by the degree to which the warrant, which connects the data adduced in the argumentation with the claim that is defended, is made acceptable by a backing. This procedural form of argumentation is “field-independent”: the steps that are taken – as represented in the model – are always the same, irrespective of the subject of the argumentation. What kind of backing is required, however, depends on the field to which the standpoint at issue belongs. An ethical justification, for instance, requires a different kind of backing than a legal justification. This means that the evaluation criteria for determining the soundness of argumentation are “field-dependent.”
In line with classical rhetoric, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1958) regard argumentation as sound if it adduces (more) assent with the standpoint among the audience. Thus the soundness of argumentation is in the new rhetoric measured against its effect on the target group, which may be a “particular audience,” but can also be the “universal audience” that embodies reasonableness for the speaker or writer. Apart from an overview of elements that can serve as points of departure of argumentation, such as facts and values, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca provide an overview of argument schemes that could convince or persuade the audience. The argument schemes that are distinguished remain for the most part close to the classical topical tradition. There are arguments with a quasi-logical argument scheme, but also arguments with a scheme that structures reality and arguments with a scheme based on the structure of reality.
Out of dissatisfaction with how argumentation was treated in logical textbooks, inspired by Toulmin and to a lesser extent Perelman, since the 1970s an approach to argumentation has been propagated in Canada and the United States that is known as informal logic. The label covers a collection of normative approaches to argumentation that remain closer to the practice of argumentation in ordinary language than formal logic. Informal logicians develop norms for interpreting, assessing, and construing argumentation, such as premise acceptability, relevance, and sufficiency. Among informal logicians, Johnson (2000) takes a predominantly logical approach but complements it with a “dialectical tier,” whereas Tindale (1999) turns to rhetoric.
To modern dialecticians argumentation is part of a procedure for resolving differences about the tenability of standpoints by means of a regulated discussion. According to Barth and Krabbe (1982), the dialectical rules that are to be followed must not only be “problemvalid” in the sense of optimally serving the purpose for which they are designed, but also “conventionally valid” in the sense of being intersubjectively acceptable. Building on dialogue logic, they present argumentation in their formal dialectics – a term coined by Hamblin – as a regimented dialogue game between a proponent and an opponent of a thesis. Together the parties try to establish whether the thesis can be defended against critical attacks.
Van Eemeren and Grootendorst’s (2004) pragma-dialectical theory of argumentation connects with formal dialectics. The replacement of “formal” by “pragma” (for “pragmatic”) points to the differences, which are inspired by speech act theory, Grice’s logic of conversation, and discourse analysis. In the pragma-dialectical model of a critical discussion four stages are analytically distinguished, an overview is provided of the speech acts that can play a constructive role in the various stages, and the discussion rules are formulated that must be followed to test the acceptability of a standpoint in a reasonable way. As shown in van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1992), each rule violation, in whatever stage of the discussion, obstructs the resolution and is therefore a fallacy.
In the past decades a powerful revaluation of rhetoric has taken place. The irrational image of rhetoric that had come into being has been revised and the sharp division between rhetoric and dialectic appears to require weakening. Several argumentation theorists have become aware that rhetoric as the study of ways of gaining assent is not incompatible with maintaining a critical ideal of reasonableness. Van Eemeren and Houtlosser (2002), for instance, aim to bring about an integration of insight from rhetoric into the pragmadialectical theory. In their view, there is a rhetorical goal corresponding to each of the dialectical stages of the resolution process. They think that the reconstruction of argumentative discourse and texts can become more precise, and more fully accounted for, if allowance is made for the arguers’ strategic maneuvering to keep their dialectical and rhetorical pursuits in balance.
In a number of (French) publications, Ducrot and Anscombre have developed a purely descriptive linguistic approach to argumentative language use that is in many respects rhetorical. Because they are of the opinion that verbal utterances that – often implicitly – lead the listener or reader to a certain conclusion always involve an argumentative relation, they refer to their theoretical position as radical argumentativism (Anscombre & Ducrot 1983). Their approach is characterized by a great interest in words such as “only,” “but,” “even,” and “because” that give the utterances a certain argumentative force and argumentative direction.
It is remarkable that the rehabilitation of rhetoric in the study of argumentation started at about the same time in various countries. In the 1980s, in the United States several argumentation scholars defended the rational qualities of rhetoric. Wenzel, for one, wanted to give rhetoric full credit, but then emphatically in relation to logic and more in particular dialectics. In Germany, Kopperschmidt claimed that rhetoric is the central concern of argumentation theorists. North American theorists such as Leff, Schiappa, and Zarefsky took up the same position (see van Eemeren et al. 1996). In persuasion research, O’Keefe gave an impetus to the empirical study of argumentation. He tested experimentally the recognition of argumentative moves and, more recently, used “meta-analysis” to check on theoretical claims.
- Anscombre, J.-C., & Ducrot, O. (1983). L’argumentation dans la langue. Liège: Mardaga.
- Barth, E. M., & Krabbe, E. C. W. (1982). From axiom to dialogue: A philosophical study of logics and argumentation. Berlin: De Gruyter.
- Eemeren, F. H. van, & Grootendorst, R. (1992). Argumentation, communication and fallacies: A pragma-dialectical perspective. Hillside, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Eemeren, F. H. van, & Grootendorst, R. (2004). A systematic theory of argumentation: The pragmadialectical approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Eemeren, F. H. van, & Houtlosser, P. (2002). Strategic maneuvering: Maintaining a delicate balance. In F. H. van Eemeren & P. Houtlosser (eds.), Dialectic and rhetoric: The warp and woof of argumentation analysis. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 131–159.
- Eemeren, F. H. van, Grootendorst, R., Snoeck Henkemans, A. F., et al. (1996). Fundamentals of argumentation theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Hamblin, C. L. (1970). Fallacies. London: Methuen.
- Johnson, R. H. (2000). Manifest rationality: A pragmatic theory of argument. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Perelman, C., & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1958). Traité de l’argumentation: La nouvelle rhétorique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
- Tindale, C. W. (1999). Acts of arguing: A rhetorical model of argument. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
- Toulmin, S. E. (1958). The uses of argument. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.