Title: Studies in Pragma-Dialectics
Editors: Frans H. van Eemeren & Rob Grootendorst
Publisher: Sic Sat, Amsterdam
This book is a compilation of articles written within – that is to say, with and by making use of the concepts from – the pragma-dialectical approach to argumentation. If we zoom-out a bit, we’ll notice that 1994 is exactly one year after Reconstructing Argumentative Discourse (Eemeren et al., 1993, see review here), two years after Argumentation, Communication and Fallacies (Eemeren & Grootendorst, 1992, see review here), and ten years after Speech Acts in Argumentative Discussions (Eemeren & Grootendorst, 1984, see review here).
To be honest, the 22 articles are rather unequal as regards complexity, novelty and “weight”. I will give each other a more or less equal review-space even though I suppose this is quite unfair. The studies are divided into what pragma-dialecticians call “the five estates” (i.e. the five types of research within “normative pragmatics” – see Eemeren, 1991): the philosophical, theoretical, analytical, empirical and practical. I will follow this division. The overall picture of pragma-dialectics, as it would have been seen in 1994, is that of a well thought-out academic program, with theories, methods and problems of its own, in which orthodoxy is very well-defined and little space for heresy left possible. This can be a good thing – it’s practical and coherent –, yet one is, I think quite easily, able to point to at least two possible dangers: rigidity and dogmatism. These are not just “pragma-dialectical” vulnerabilities, but general perils of any academic self-consistent movement.
1. Frans H. van Eemeren – The study of argumentation as normative pragmatics
This article summarizes the previously mentioned five sections of argumentation study in general. I think each dimension could be viewed as ‘that part which tries to answer the following questions’. On the philosophical level, scholars try to “reflect upon the fundamentals” and find adequate answers for questions such as “What does reasonable mean?” “How should we view the rationality of discourse?” From this point of view, the pragma-dialecticians share a critical-rationalist view of (well, knowledge in general, but especially) argumentation. This means landing somewhere in between the formal /geometrical approach to argumentation (reasonableness = logical validity) and the rhetorical/anthropological approach to argumentation (reasonableness = effectiveness). Nowadays, this threefold division is hardly possible as such – since positions have more or less blended in one another, but it’s not that far away from truth either. On the theoretical level, scholars try to answer the question “How do people (ideally) achieve reasonableness?” In other words, at this level, the philosophy comes up with a model – an ideal frame which gives shape to what acting reasonably is by specifying “which modes of arguing are acceptable to a rational judge” (p. 4). It is at this level that they call the theory “pragma-dialectical” (and oppose it to epistemo-rhetorical), since argumentation is seen as a discussion (hence, “-dialectical”) in which parties exchange speech acts (hence, “pragma-“). On the analytical level, the scholars – now rigged with a goal and a model – ask: “How do we handle the real-life thing?” or, more scholarly put, “a calculated merger of the ideal and the real” (p. 5). On the empirical level, oh the fun!, pragma-dialecticians simulate trying to falsify the ideal model – can’t wait to review that part. And finally, on the practical level, scholars in pragma-dialectics try to find ways of developing the reflection-minded subject which makes use of insights from all the other four elements. The article ends with a programmatic view of a argumentative theory get-together in which scholars harmonize and theories concur.
2. Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst – Rationale for a pragma-dialectical perspective
This articles tackles the central question of any argumentation theory (this is not to mean that every argumentation theory or theorist formulates it in these words): “What does reasonableness mean?” Before answering this, however, one must make the idea that “reasonablenesss is a feature of discourse” slightly more concrete by explaining the term discourse. In this respect, pragma-dialecticians adopt the all-encompassing view of Albert (1985), according to which any topic can be critically judged. Although, as a purely analytical instrument, one can distinguish cognitive, desiderative and practical reasonableness, the criteria of reasonableness must be viewed as universal – the sole hedge being “any topic on which a regulated discussion can be carried out.” (p. 14)
The authors then argue that both Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969) and Toulmin (1958) ended up in anthropological relativism: the former, more than the latter, because of the “universal audience” (see here and here), the latter because of “field-dependency” (see here). On a side note, the ‘dependency’ per se is not Toulmin’s biggest problem, but the fact that the inclusion of this “substantial” (as opposed to “analytical”) criterion leads to the age-old confusion between logical inference rules and premises. This is quite icy, if we think that it was Toulmin himself who revealed the same blurriness in Aristotle syllogism.
In opposition to these conceptions, pragma-dialecticians adopt the critical-rationalist view according to which all human thought is potentially mere brain-poop which must be critically tested by means of – you guessed it, critical discussion. While logical approaches get their rationale from formal validity and anthropological ones from practical utility, the critical approach derives its reasonableness from a two-part criterion: problem-solving validity and conventional validity. This is to say that the model (theoretical level) must be adequate for the goal (philosophical level) which is to solve dispute, but also accepted by the participants (empirical level) who wish to resolve the dispute.
The ten-rule version of the dispute resolution conduct (my mnemonic is: freedom, burden of proof, attack, defend, unexpressed premise, starting points, scheme, validity, closure, usage) is then restated and its Popperian “cannot justify but surely can refute” background is explained. The problem-solving validity (the “here’s how rules protect from obstacles in resolving the dispute” story) is also explained in much detail – and it seems to me that little can be said in addition. The conventional validity is hardly mentioned. It is my gut feeling that the “third-“ and “second-order” conditions function as a stipulation for when conventional validity is not obtained. It allows the analyst to say: “Oops! Actual discussants reject the standards of the model? Then it must be because thirders and seconders didn’t obtain.” Imagine then what challenging the conventional validity must mean: finding two members from Popper’s Open society (third), who are discussion-oriented, resolution-oriented and critical (second) and who, in the process of resolving a difference of opinion, breach one of the rules from the pragma-dialectical standard. In lack of (as simply as this) another, different theory within normative pragmatics, I believe this is impossible.
3. Eveline T. Feteris – Rationality in legal discussion
The article starts with this sentence: “A legal process can be considered a specific form of a discussion aimed at the resolution of a dispute about the acceptability of a claim” (p. 27) Quite naturally, the questions to be asked how: In what does it [the legal process] differ? How is reasonableness handled under the specific institutional constrains? The author readily points at the two most important differences between the ‘regular’ dispute and the ‘legal’ one: in everyday discussion is neither possible nor necessary to always end with a resolution; also, in regular situations, the disputants try to resolve things among themselves, whereas the parties in a legal dispute appeal to a “neutral” party, the judge.
As one goes along and – almost – reconstructs a legal process according to the pragma-dialectical model (stages + allowed speech acts), more differences could be revealed. First, there is no possibility that the higher-conditions fail to apply. If this is the case, for example in one party tries to drag out the proceedings by delaying response or presence, the judge can act to see “that the discussion complies with the requirements of a rational and efficient discussion”. Almost the same thing happens in the opening stage, where each important dimension is institutionalized and made predictable: attribution of roles & apportion of burden of proof are institutionalized by the legal code of procedure, while casting doubt – which, officially, is the role of the judge – is standardized for reasons of legal certainty. We can see how, in the author’s words, “the judge fulfills the role which the participants to a critical discussion fulfill jointly when they make arrangements” in the opening stage.
In the argumentation stage, the judge tests: (1) the acceptability of the grounds – i.e. the propositional content of the argumentation – and (2) the inferential weight of the grounds – i.e. the justificatory potential. When acceptability is at stake, material starting points are checked; when justification – formal starting points. Obviously enough, in the concluding stage the judge is again the main character: he must show that the grounds and the attached legal consequence are justified and thus, as far as that court is concerned, legal.
Why is all this so? Because “The parties to a legal process cannot be expected to be cooperative. Therefore a neutral third participants, the judge, guarantees that the procedure required for a resolution are passed through.” (p. 37) Thus, legal acceptability conforms – in its own way – to the pragma-dialectical model. Yaay!
Susanne Gerritsen - A defence of deductivism in reconstructing unexpressed premisses
I wish I’d have more space left to dwell on this article and the approach it announces to defend, deductivism. I believe there are arguments on both sides, but my thoughts are not yet ripe so I’ll just lay here a short, fairly uncritical, review.
The pragma-dialectical approach to the “problem of enthymemes” is, as the author promptly avers, “clearly deductivist” (p. 41) But what does this problem consist of and why are there sides to it? The problem could be, rather bluntly, put thus: taken literally, “Communism is bad, because it kills people” is a logically invalid argument. What do we do with it? Do we try to fill the gap, making it valid (“All people-killing is bad”)? But what if it’s not intended to be deductively valid? Aren’t we then guilty of over-reading the speaker’s commitments? And another thing: why do we even do it in the first place? Doesn’t that make all the enthymemes valid? How would we then be able to recognize invalid arguments in practice if we’re “validating” every incomplete premise-conclusion sequence we encounter?
These questions, together with the objections they imply, could be summed up as the two anti-deductivist criticisms: (1) Validating means (sometimes) applying inappropriate deductive standards to arguments which are not intended as deductions (i.e. analogies), (2) Validating (sometimes) means being charitable to invalid arguments.
Gerritsen’s responses are these: (1) Validity applies to qualified inferences also (this is, in fact Groake’s argument – see Groake, 1992), (2) [and here we have a splendid view of how a theory of language works when it lacks relevant data from the context, I’ll quote in full] “It is unclear on which grounds such a decision must be made. With a single-premiss argument there is seldom a clear indication of the argument’s validity nor its invalidity, be it deductively valid or invalid, or otherwise.” (p. 46) OK, you might say, but showing that the attack is not suitable is not very helpful. What do we do? Stipulate: “In pragma-dialectics every invalid single-premiss argument is treated as if it were deductively valid in the absence of evidence to the contrary.” (p. 46) Well, hold on tight, because the stipulation rests on a stipulation: pragma-dialecticians do that because “If there is no evidence that the speaker is committed to a (deductively) invalid argument, [if lack of context] it would be unreasonable and theoretically unwarranted to hold him accountable for an invalid argument [then stipulation]” (p. 46) I’m not finished! This rests on another stipulation – the Communication Principle (i.e. a unification of Grice’s Cooperation Principle and Searle’s speech-act conditions).
Accidentally, besides all this, I agree with Gerritsen. I do believe however that the stipulation-explaining defense is the worst possible sort for deductivism, and that the reconstruction of a logical minimum could be defended on different grounds.