Arguing about Argument

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Why we argue coverOne fascinating thing about logic is that it is common property. We all reason from what we already believe to new conclusions. Sometimes logic helps us to make up our minds; by thinking through the implications of an idea, we can weigh its merits against others. To think at all is to employ logic; as Aristotle noted, even to question logic is to deploy it. Logic is inescapable.

Logic's inescapability explains its grip on us. Exposing a logical error is always a winning argumentative strategy. And that's because no matter how deeply people might otherwise disagree about other important matters, we all embrace the strictures of logic and the standards of good reasoning that they supply. Oddly, the universality of logic also explains why logic is so often misapplied. As Charles Peirce observed, few actually study logic because everyone thinks himself an expert. Consequently we all strive to be rational; yet there is a lot of poor reasoning around.

A complicating feature is that our powers of logic are frequently exercised within interpersonal contexts of disagreement with others. In these contexts, extra-rational factors — social standing, good manners, pressures to conform, and so on — can infiltrate our logical activities and lead us astray. And yet it is undeniable that reasoning is a collective endeavor. In order to reason well, we must reason with others. But reasoning with others forces us to confront disagreement. Accordingly, the study of logic leads us to the study of argumentation, the processes of interpersonal reasoning within contexts of disagreement.

There are at least two tracks upon which argumentation theory travels. One is explored in our forthcoming book Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement (Routledge 2013). An alternative is suggested by the pseudonymous author (“Protagoras”) of the first installment in a series at The Guardian about “How to Argue.” (Interestingly, Protagoras's opening column is titled “Why We Argue— And How To Do It Properly“– further evidence that the subject matter is common property). The historical Protagoras held that “man is the measure of all things,” and we suspect that this is the inspiration for the current Protagoras's proposal that we argue because we find ourselves needing to convince others to agree with us. Note that the need here is practical; disagreement obstructs plans for action. Successful argument, then, removes or dissolves such obstacles by convincing others to share one's view. Protagoras hence associates proper argument with the “art of rhetoric,” the skill of bringing others in line with one's own thoughts. It should be mentioned that this art is not as manipulative as it might appear, for the aim is not simply to compel agreement, but to actually convince others of one's view. As it turns out, the artful rhetorician must take careful account of the reasons and commitments of his or her audience; the rhetorician must attempt not only to reason with the audience, but reason from the audience's own premises to the rhetorician's preferred conclusion.

The virtues of this rhetorical conception of argument are many. Perhaps the chief among them is that it appears to appreciate the fact that in argument one is confronting another reasoning creature, a mind with commitments and ideas of its own. The rhetorical view hence counsels arguers to seek to begin from the other's point of view, and hence calls arguers to actually speak to each other by addressing each other's reasons, such as they may be. In this way, the rhetorical conception embraces a certain version of the view that arguers must respect each other. Argumentative respect consists in a willingness to occupy and reason from the position of the other.

This is all to the good. But note that the rhetorical conception is fixated on our attempts to move others. Argument is the other-directed activity of persuasion. Accordingly, argumentation begins only once we know our own minds, have settled on a view, and encounter others who may get in the way. Argumentation is not a process by which we turn a critical eye on ourselves and attempt to rationally assess the views we hold. Nor is it a process by which we attempt to find things out, or discern what views to adopt in the first place. In short, the rhetorical conception sees argument as the marketing of one's beliefs to others by means of rational persuasion.

The alternative developed in Why We Argue (And How We Should) is the epistemic conception of argument. On this view, we argue in order to find out what's best supported by the evidence and reasons. In short, we argue in pursuit of truth. The epistemic conception is concerned with rationally engaging others. It is, after all, through such engagement that we come to see more fully what reasons and evidence there are, and thus we come to occupy a better vantage point from which to evaluate our options, including the beliefs we already hold. In this way, the epistemic conception sees argument as a critical activity aimed at the evaluation of views. But note that argument then is equally a self-critical activity, a process by which we can criticize our own views. The thought is that by engaging together in pursuit of truth, we can help each other to refine our ideas, even in the face of persistent disagreement.

The epistemic view accordingly proposes its own conception of respect. The rhetorical theory takes respect to consist in the willingness to reason from another's premises. The epistemic conception locates respect in seeing others as partners in the common pursuit of believing what's right by believing what the best available reasons and evidence favor. The rhetorical view has it that I respect you when I take you as you are — with the beliefs you already have — and attempt to rationally compel you to move in my direction. The epistemic view holds that I respect you when I regard you as a companion in a common struggle for truth, and thus a fellow source of reasons, ideas, evidence, and objections.

From this contrast, several others come into view. First, on the rhetorical conception, an argument fails whenever it fails to move one's audience; there could be no argumentative success that is not also a move towards greater consensus. The epistemic view rejects this; we hold that the success of an argument has to do with the relation of the conclusion and the best reasons and evidence. A good argument might not convince one's audience; indeed, a good argument could result in greater disagreement than there was before. Second, the rhetorical view charges arguers with a “take whatever you get” approach to their audiences. The rhetorical arguer treats the views already popular among the audience as his or her raw material, ingredients out of which to cook up consensus. The rhetorical arguer does not evaluate these popular views but simply works with them, employing whatever means they allow reasoned persuasion. As epistemic arguers are concerned with truth, they are concerned with the quality of the premises from which their audience begins. Accordingly the epistemic arguer shows a concern not only with the rationality of an audience's move from existing beliefs to the arguer's favored conclusion, but with the audience's overall rationality as well. Finally, the rhetorical conception sees argument as a one-way street. Again, we argue on this view as a way of overcoming practical obstacles to achieving our plans. Pushback from the audience functions on this view as new information about how the rhetorical arguer should frame his or her case; but there is nothing in the activities of argument that could require a rhetorical arguer to relinquish his view. The epistemic view is dialogical. It seems argument as the give-and-take of reasons, and it understands that in the course of this process, both arguers and their audiences could discover new reasons to change their views. That is, pushback from the audience can constitute a refutation of the epistemic arguer's view. In this way, on the epistemic view, argumentation is a collective activity involving mutual risk — in undertaking to convince you of one of my beliefs, I expose myself to your rational scrutiny and thus recognize the possibility that my beliefs might be incorrect.

All of this point to a final critical difference. Protagoras has failed to convince us of the rhetorical conception of argument. Accordingly, this renders Protagoras's argument a failure. Yet Protagoras cannot see this failure as a reason to rethink the rhetorical conception of argument. On that view, argument is, after all, exclusively other-directed. We do not expect here to have convinced Protagoras of the epistemic theory of argument; but this does not mean that our argument has failed. In fact, our exchange is with Protagoras is an old one, as old as the encounters between philosophy and rhetoric. Protagoras plays the sophist, and we side with Plato. The consequence is that we must press our case further and continue arguing, all the while recognizing that it is possible for critics to say something that should cause us to change our minds.