Authors: Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst
Title: A Systematic Theory of Argumentation – The pragma-dialectical approach;
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
„Pragmatic” is something of a screamer these days isn’t it? And it’s not just the tolerably odd distinction between pragmatism and pragmatics (you might want to have a chit-chat with Wiki on that), but I think it’s also the weighty impression that something is a bit overrated. I don’t want to get into the subject in this review but a good line-drawing might come in handy when considering pragmatic outcomes. Anyway, the reason I mentioned all this is because I want to take a look at the pragma-dialectical approach (which is precisely the subtitle of the book we are going to briefly exposit here), namely A Systematic Theory of Argumentation (2004)
The pragma-dialectical approach was founded by the two authors of this book, Frans H. van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst, both professors at University of Amsterdam and it arose from the desiderata of rethinking argumentation:
- as a dialectical process – and by that reorienting studies towards the two sides of the argumentative process (both the rhetor and his public, or more correctly, not just a protagonist but also an antagonist);
- descriptively as well as normatively – which means that the analysis will start from real, objective examples but nonetheless from ideal, abstract norms of rule-governed critical discussions;
- by inserting in the theoretical framework recent pragmatic works such as speech act theory or Gricean conversational implicature (yet to be discussed here);
- by means of an audience-free, environment-free and field-independent – as Stephen Toulmin would probably describe it – definition of reasonableness;
- as way of resolving conflicts – as opposed to settling them out – and not just gaining adherence or winning support (which makes it clearly distinctive from Perelman’s rhetorical view)
It might be useful in order to get the first grip on the subject to heed on the two authors’ definition of argumentation as it appears on the first page of their work. I will put the fundamentals in italic type:
Argumentation is a verbal¸ social and rational activity aimed at convincing a reasonable critic of the acceptability of a standpoint by putting forward a constellation of propositions justifying or refuting the proposition expressed in the standpoint.
Now, except from the „verbal, social and rational” part, which is quite unambiguous, there is more to this definition than meets the eye (or else why it would be so famous, right?). As the externalized, two-headed, intellectual activity begins, certain stages can be (ideally) identified, and along with those, certain conditions and rules that specify the way in which a speech act is to be correctly interpreted by the discussants. Moreover, even the concept of difference of opinion has its own hidden ramifications which are used in pragma-dialectical analysis – we might have disagreement about a single proposition, or about more than one, we might have discussants taking opposing standpoints or we could just as well consider the situation in which one of them is just fulfilling the role of an shady, blur antagonist who merely casts doubt upon the standpoint previously advanced. We could make just as well the case of “underlying analytic treasures” with respect to concepts such as argumentation structure, or argumentation schemes. And if you think the rules for critical discussion are something to be passed by without deeper insight, you might have missed the whole pragma-dialectical “psychology”. (for a quick view on these rules, have another chit-chat with Wiki)
I am obviously not going to discuss them here, since it would take 4 or 5 pages just to sketchily give a description of the whole theoretical apparatus. Still, it’s not that I am scorning their work; it’s more like a postponement. I will treat the main parts of the pragma-dialectical approach separately with the thought that the segregation of concepts will come in handy when savvying. So I am not doing it for you, I am doing it for myself. Besides, at first sight (or at least at the one provided in this 2004 schematic account) the pragma-dialectical approach might come as an omnium-gatherum. While posing as something of a prodigy, this ultimate theory might be nothing more than a mashup of many theoretical approaches to argumentation. One should not be misled by my belittling tone, because none of those descriptions has a pejorative sense. “Nothing more” than a “mashup” might just as well be the new outperforming gear in Argumentation Theory.
This intimidating hodgepodge (of which only the tip of the iceberg has been revealed) might surprise us by its good functioning when considered as a whole. After a few merry-go-round sessions, the mashup may seem quite convenient. After this outline, some of the concepts will be explained in a series of small 20-30 lines reviews at the end of which a broad pragma-dialectical analysis will be made upon a surprise and a somewhat famous lab rat – Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
 rational means here “based on reasoning, making use of the faculty of reasoning”, as opposed to reasonable which is understood as “making sound use of the faculty of reasoning”; it is clear from the two definitions that rationality is a necessary condition of reasonableness, but not automatically a sufficient one; we will use this distinction throughout our reviews from now on. Nevertheless, these definitions have their polemic core, since reasonableness is quite a tricky thing to pin down. The differences between “anthropological/rhetorical” view of reasonableness and “geometrical/logical”, “epistemic/cvasi-sociological” and “critical/pragmatic” approaches are hardly solvable. The YTBD label still being attached, in this area there might be room for theoretical improvement.