Argumentation 2: Key Features and Issues

The explosion in theoretical questioning of the notion of argumentation at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries (van Eemeren & al. 1996; 2014), and the multiplicity of disciplines interested in the topic encourage the characterization of the domain according to an underlying system of key features, issues and orientations.

1. Key issues about the role of language

The following table proposes a possible organization of the field according to the role of language and the kind of speech situation which is given theoretical prominence. This hypothesis makes it possible to represent the various concepts of argument as a tree structure, where the nodal points correspond to research questions, or crossroad questions, which articulate the field. Such a representation illustrates that what could at first sight seem to be an arbitrary dispersion of options, in fact reflects the necessity of taking the complex range of argumentative situations into account. A vision of argumentation might be characterized as a structured choice between the various options opened by the following questions (other possible points of departure are suggested in §2).

Table : Key features and issues
about the role of language in argumentation

(1) Argumentation

             Study of reasoning as a psycho-cognitive process



(5) Extended                                              

(7)  Form of language:       “ARGUMENTATION WITHIN LANGUAGE” 

(8) General form of discourse:       “NATURAL LOGIC”

(6) Situated

(9) monologue 

non polyphonic:       LOGIC AS AN ART OF THINKING   

polyphonic:       « BENE DICENDI” RHETORIC


(10) dialogue

without  turn-taking:       RHETORIC OF PERSUASION

 with turn-taking:       DIALOGUE LOGIC

(2) vs. (3) vs. (4): The cognitive, linguistic and multimodal dimensions of argument

Various general questions might be taken as points of departure, and each question would produce a different mapping of the field. This map is born of the general question: is argumentation basically a language activity or a cognitive activity — or both?

If argumentation were defined as a pure activity of thought, expressed in a perfectly transparent language, argumentation studies would correspond to a psychology of reasoning without language.

But, in the same way as everyday argumentation, mathematical thinking and scientific reasoning require a language. Language-based approaches to argumentation deal with the cognitive component within the linguistic component. Such approaches are compatible with various positions on the question of thinking and reasoning. Classical logic, Natural Logic, Informal Logic and cog-nitive approaches stress the articulation of thought and language in the argumentative activity.

Argumentation is unanimously considered to be a discursive practice. The consideration of still and moving images raises questions about how argumentative meanings are able to invest nonverbal semiotic supports. Research on argumentation in working situations also demands that we take the signifying intention steering both the action and the argument into account. In both cases, it is necessary to reconsider what exactly constitutes a well-built corpus within the field of argumentation.


(5) vs. (6) — Argumentation as a linguistic-cognitive activity: Extended or situated?

Should argumentation, as a linguistic-based cognitive process, be considered a local or a generalized phenomenon?


(7) vs. (8) — Extended argumentation: Saussurian langue or discourse?

Two different theories have extended the concept of argumentation to all linguistic activities, the theory of Argumentation within Language (Anscombre, Ducrot 1983) and the theory of argumentation as a Natural Logic (Grize 1982).

The former generalizes the concept of argumentation at the level of language (of Saussurian langue), whereas the latter enacts the same generalization at the level of speech (parole).

(7) Argumentation, as a condition on well-formed linguistic chain {E1, E2}:
S. Orientation

(8) Argumentation as a schematization of the situation


(9) vs. (10) — Situated argumentation: Monologue or dialogue?

If argumentation is limited to some characteristic forms of discourse, then in which kind of discourse is it best exemplified, in monological discourse, or in dialogue?


(11) vs. (12) — Monologue: Logic or rhetoric?

(11) Logic

(12) Bene dicendi rhetoric, S. Rhetoric


(13) vs. (14) — Dialogue: With or without turn-taking?

According to the externalization principle (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992, p. 10), dialogic theories consider either that dialogue is the basic form of argumentative activity, or that it is in the form of a dialogue that argumentative mechanisms of argument, can be most clearly seen.

Within this set of dialogic approaches, there are distinctions. Has the dialogue an exchange structure or not? Does the dialogue admit turns of speech? Do all the participants have equal possibility of taking the floor in the same conditions?

(13) Argumentation, a dialog without exchange structure: The rhetorical address

The rhetorical address is a special kind of dialogue, having a polyphonic structure; the voices of the others, especially the voice of the opponent, are re-built into the discourse of the speaker who holds the floor. The audience will give its answer only later and indirectly, as a judgment on the case or a decision on the policy.

(15) vs. (16) — A turn-taking dialogue: Dialogue logic or natural interaction?

In the case of a dialog in which there is a possibility of exchange, one of the two following poles will provide the appropriate baseline, 1) a logical approach to formal dialogues, or 2) an empirical approach to natural interactions.

(15) Argumentation, a formalized critical dialogue

Since the 1970s the Informal Logic and the Pragma-Dialectic theories have re-orientated argumentation studies by giving the priority to the study of argumentation as a kind of dialogue.

Dialectical critical theories of argumentation strengthen the constraints on the dialogue either by means of a system of rules designed to embody a rational standard, as in Pragma-Dialectic, or by means of a system of critical questions, as in Informal Logic. S. Norms.

 (16) Argumentation, a kind of ordinary interaction

Proto-argumentative activity is triggered by a lack of ratification by the addressee. Depending on the reaction of the interaction partners, conversational disorder might pass quickly, being absorbed into the flow of the on-going task they are engaged in. Otherwise, the interaction might develop into a fully-fledged argumentative situation. In all cases, the argumentative situation is basically ruled by interactional principles.

This vision is compatible with the ancient theory of “argumentative questions” (or stasis, or point to adjudicate).

For each of these points, the question is not which to adopt and which to exorcise, but to clearly articulate the contrast between the approaches they define.

2. Other points of departure

The above table develops from the question of language. Other questions might give rise to alternative maps of the field.

2.1 Kind of rationality?

Truth and rationality can be considered:

  • As an attribute of a well-thought monological discourse, best exemplified in logic, as an art of thinking;
  • As the consensus of the properly defined universal audience, within the prospect of a rhetoric of persuasion;
  • As a social production, the result of a well organized critical dialog to reach the best possible true and rational answer in the course of a dialectical process;
  • A a progressive construct, through a closer contact with scientific results, thought and method.

In complete opposition to these guidelines, generalized theories of argumentation maintain an agnostic perspective on rationality, and question the very possibility of reaching it through ordinary discourse.

2.2 Form or function?

Is argumentation (first, better) defined by its function or by its form? This question opposes two theoretical families, one focusing on persuasion, and the other focusing on the structural description and formal representation of argumentative episodes. These two starting points themselves give rise to symmetrical questioning: how to deal with functional aspects in the latter case? What are the structural criteria that ensure the descriptive adequacy of the in the former case?

2.3 Argumentativity, a binary or gradual concept?

For extended theories of argumentation, language (Ducrot) or discourse (Grize) are basically argumentative, S. Orientation; Schematization.

In the case of restricted theories of argumentation, however, some discursive genres (deliberative, epideictic, judicial) or, more broadly, certain kinds of discursive sequences are argumentative and opposed to other non-argumentative genres or other types of sequences. These definitions tend to consider that argumentativity is a binary concept: a sequence is or is not argumentative.

In reference to the language exchanged between partners defending contrasting positions, the argumentativity of a situation is not an all or nothing concept; various forms and degrees of argumentativity can be distinguished.

— A given linguistic situation begins to become argumentative when opposition emerges between two lines of speech, quite possibly without reference to each other, as in an argumentative diptych. This is most probably the basic argumentative structure, each partner repeats and restates his position. S. Disagreement. We can thus go beyond the opposition between narrative, descriptive or argumentative sequences. When a description or a narration is developed in support of an answer to an argumentative question, this narration or description should be considered as fully argumentative and evaluated as such.

— Communication is fully argumentative when the difference is problematized as an argumentative question, with the participants taking roles as proponent, opponent, or third party, S. Roles.

2.4 Central objects?

The various approaches to argumentation are characterized by the nature of their internal assumptions and external assumptions. The former correspond to the organization of the concepts postulated in the system, and the latter, to the kinds of objects taken into consideration. Both types of hypotheses are bound.

The extremities of the branches in any of the preceding “decision trees” represent a pole articulating theoretical views with specific “preferred” objects. To satisfy the requirement of descriptive adequacy each theory must combine its central objects with what it posits as peripheral objects. Decisions as to what is to be considered as central and as peripheral (derived or secondary) data, fall within the domain of external assumptions. Such choices are never self-evident and require justification. So, for example, the decision to give priority to dialogue or to take as reference monologal syllogistic discourse, correspond to two distinct external assumptions regarding the structure of the argumentation field, and clearly put to the fore quite different kinds of data.

This does not imply that second level (often annoying) facts and data are excluded, rather that all phenomena cannot be put on the same level; data must be ordered, and prioritized. In practice, the problem is to determine how the results established on the basis of central facts can be expanded to peripheral data.

Some major types of coupling of internal and external assumptions:

— Rhetorical argumentation, and planned monological speech.
— Dialectical argumentation, and conventionalized dialogues.
— Argumentation as orientation, and pairs of statements.
— Argumentation as schematization, and texts, etc.