Towards a More Dynamic Conception of Argument

Part of the Argumentation Library book series (ARGA, volume 2)


Why define ‘argument’ at all? After all, the word is a familiar one, and does not seem to give us any trouble in everyday use. So, if theoreticians and teachers of argumentation who define the word do something that doesn’t seem to need doing, then we can expect problems, not only with the definition but also with identifying what is being defined.


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  1. 1.
    O’Keefe’s comments accompany a critique of the six features of argument that Brockreide (1975) identifies: an inferential leap from existing beliefs to the adoption of new ones or to the reinforcement of an old one; a supposed rationale for that leap; a choice between competing claims; the attempt to control uncertainty; a willingness to risk confrontation; and the assumption of an overlapping frame of reference.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    An argument is not necessarily a fight. People who are arguing for or against positions, for example, on what the athletic eligibility policy should be at Texas AM University, Commerce (Fulkerson 1996), are not necessarily fighting. It all depends on how they argue, and, perhaps, on what progress they make and whether the discussion leaves them closer or further away from a consensus.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Gilbert (1995) would object to the negativity he reads into this reference to a ‘critical’ evaluation (as he objects to calling the subject many of us teach, ‘Critical Reasoning’ or ‘Critical Thinking’). He prefers calling it a ‘constructive’ reading, because he thinks our focus should be on “understanding arguments as a means of finding agreement,” rather than on “analyzing arguments as a means of finding fault” (p. 136) That criticism is a negative force seems to rely on the metaphor of argument as war: if criticism is like a military attack then its function is destructive, not constructive. However, even though, as authors, we would prefer constructive criticism, it is sometimes desirable for the critic to leave it up to us to think of how to change things, unless we are more concerned with our self esteem than with the work being criticized.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Walton (1989) does supply a classification of what he calls “argumentative dialogue”: personal quarrel; formal debate; critical discussion (where each side tries to persuade the other of a certain thesis from concessions made by that side); inquiry; and negotiation. But, in doing so he ignores the distinctions between the different locutions involved the word ‘argument’ that we have been discussing.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Logical techniques are designed, as Ayim (1991) indicates, “to help others learn to construct, recognize, and appraise argument.” She makes a good point when she argues that when argument is viewed as competitive, and the goal of the instruction is to teach students how to win that competition, then these techniques have the purpose of “controlling domineering behavior” (p. 85). However, it is by no means clear that the idea that argument is competitive is assumed by most lessons in logic or critical thinking.Google Scholar
  6. Fulkerson (1996) agrees with Ayim on the need for what she calls an “affiliative cooperative paradigm” rather than a competitive one. As he sees it, the goal of effective argumentation should be rational decision making, not winning; progress in achieving that goal should depend on acquiring a better understanding of the underlying issues and of the options available in dealing with those issues; the participants should be able to disagree without being disagreeable; and that in the process of dialectical exchange, the arguments should become more sophisticated. Fulkerson’s paradigm is illustrated by reference to to the deliberations of a campus committee, to which it applies very well. But it also seems to apply to many other forms of argumentation. See Gilbert (1997) and the works of Eemeren and Grootendorst for attempts at developing a model of argument that emphasizes “coalescence” (agreement) or consensus and conflict-resolution as the goal of argumentation.Google Scholar
  7. 6.
    Govier (1987) is very much concerned with developing a more generous set of terms for the evaluation of arguments, even though she thinks of reconstruction in terms of a sequence of premises and conclusion. Other works, such as Fisher (1988) and Johnson and Blair (1993), which also are concerned with helping the analyst with the critical reading of an argument, also operate with this same model of reconstruction. However, Eemeren, Grootendorst, Jackson and Jacobs (1993), because of their emphasis on argumentation as a “special sort of disagreement-regulating mechanism” (p. 25), and because they are sensitive to what the rhetor is doing, de-emphasizes reconstruction in favor of an analysis that reveals how what the arguer is doing is connected to the goals of argumentation.Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    Many philosophers and rhetoricians have attacked the conception of an argument as a series of statements that are related as premises to a conclusion. Most notable among them is Hamblin (1970), who introduced the dialogical approach. For the ‘pragma-dialectical’ approach see Ecmeren and Grootendorst (1995); for the ‘logical pragmatics’ approach see Walton (1995).Google Scholar
  9. Either approach is troubling to the extent that it assumes that argumentation has clearly defined goals governed by norms or standards. These troubles will not be explored in this essay. Instead, although their views will not be discussed explicitly, the essay will be concentrating on an issue which they seem to think of as relatively unproblematic, namely, the identification of something as a specimen of ‘argument’ simpliciter. See Tindale (1997) for a helpful critical comparison of the two approaches.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    This criticism was given by an anonymous referee for Argumentation of this essay, and is only one of several comments by referees for this journal which proved helpful in rewriting it. I am also very much indebted to Henry Alexander for his suggestions and criticisms.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OregonEugeneUSA

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