Argumentation Studies: Contemporary Developments

The long history of argumentation studies cuts across the history of rhetoric, dialectic and logic. Argumentation studies appeared as autonomous field only after the Second World War; it is nevertheless possible to note inflections during this short history.

1. The long history: dialectics, logic, rhetoric

Greek and Latin Antiquity ­— From the perspective of classical disciplines, argumentation studies are related to logic, “art of thinking correctly”; to rhetoric, “art of speaking well and addressing a group”; and to dialectics, “art of interacting well, articulating one’s intervention and thought with those of others”. This triad is the basis of the system in which argumentation was conceptualized, from the time of Aristotle until the late nineteenth century. Argumentation is seen as a theory of convincing reasoning in ordinary language. The central issues are argument scheme theory, and validity and soundness theory, depending on the quality of the premises and the reliability of the principles used to derive conclusions from these premises. S. Dialectic; Logic; Rhetoric.

Modern Times — Walter Ong has commented upon the decline of dialectical practices (1958) since the Renaissance, the reduction of rhetoric to figures of speech and considerations of literary style, and the critique and rejection of the Aristotelian logic as an exclusive or essential instrument of scientific thought. New scientific methods based on observation and experimentation, making increasing use mathematics, are looked for.

Late nineteenth, early twentieth century — At the end of the nineteenth century rhetorical argument is delegitimized as a source of knowledge. Logic is formalized and becomes a branch of mathematics. The tradition of argumentation studies remains active in law and theology.

2. A symptom: the titles

In French, until the publication of Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca’s Treatise on Argumentation, the books entitled Argumentation were pamphlets containing arguments about specific topics, not theoretical books about argumentation in general, as shown by their complete titles:

1857 – Discussion About Etherization Considered from the Standpoint of Medical responsibility — Argumentation. By Marie Guillaume Alphonse Devergie.
1860 – Arguments on Administrative Law of the Municipal Administration. By Adolphe Chauveau.
1882 – The Issue of Water Before the Medical Society of Lyon. Argumentation in Response to Mr. Ferrand. By Mr Chassagny. P.-M. Perrellon.
1922 – Argumentation of the Polish Proposal About the Border in the Industrial Section of High-Silesia.

The substance and field of the argument is specified by an additional subtitle: argumentation on, about … The title Argumentation corresponds to modern titles such as “An Essay on —” or “Thesis”; it refers to a textual genre. Thus, it seems that the emergence of the genre “[Theoretical work on] Argumentation” came with the disappearance of the genre « Argumentation [on —]« .

In English – Toulmin’s book “The Uses of Argument” (1958) comes apparently in a traditional line of books titled “Argument”. Some of these books offer “an argumentation” in support of a position, such as the following:

Yale C., Some Rules for the Investigation of Religious Truth; and Some Specimens of Argumentation in its Support, 1826.

Others are textbooks for composition and debate teaching:

Brewer E. C., A Guide to English Composition: And the Writings of Celebrated An- cient and Modern Authors, to Teach the Art of Argumentation and the Development of Thought, 1852
Foster, W. T., Argumentation and Debating, 1917.
Baird A. C., Argumentation, Discussion and Debate, 1950.
Lever R., The Arte of Reason, Rightly Termed Witcraft; Teaching a Perfect Way to Argue and Dispute, 1573.

The best known may be:

Whately R., Elements of Rhetoric Comprising an Analysis of the Laws of Moral Evidence and of Persuasion, with Rules for Argumentative Composition and Elocution, 1828.

In the first half of the twentieth century, many such books are published, where didactic purposes mingle with more theoretical considerations. But the work of Toulmin does not fit at all in this tradition, linked to the practices of the Speech Communication Departments or of the English Departments in the United States. No book of that kind is listed in his bibliography, and he quotes no work coming from the field of rhetoric.

Actually, Toulmin and Perelman both break with a modern tradition and establish a new foundation in the treatment of the concept of argument.

3. 1958 and after: Constitution of the field of argumentation studies

3.1 A key date, 1958 

Chaïm Perelman, Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1958, Traité de l’Argumentation. La Nouvelle Rhétorique = 1969, The New Rhetoric — A Treatise on Argumentation.
Stephen E. Toulmin, 1958, The Uses of Argument.

These two titles are the best known in an impressive constellation of works that all help define, positively or negatively, the new field of argumentation studies.

— On “Public Relations”: a non rhetorical and non argumentative perspective on persuasion:

Vance Packard, 1957, The Hidden Persuaders.

— On the language of propaganda:

Sergei Chakhotine, 1939, Le Viol des foules par la Propagande Politique.
= 1940, The Rape of the Masses – The Psychology of Totalitarian Political Propaganda.
Jean-Marie Domenach 1950. La Propagande Politique [Political Propaganda]

— In law:

Theodor Viehweg, 1953, Topik und Jurisprudenz. Ein Beitrag zur rechtswissenschaftlichen Grundlagenforschung = 1993, Topics and Law. A Contribution to Basic Research in Law.

— On the rhetorical foundations of literature and Western culture:

Ernst Robert Curtius, 1948, Europäische Litteratur und Lateinisches. Mittelalter.
= 1953, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.

— An historical and systematic reconstruction of the field of rhetoric

Heinrich Lausberg, 1960, Handbuch der literarischen Rhetorik.
= 1998, Handbook of Literary Rhetorik. Foundation for Literary Study.

— A history of the adventures of dialectic and rhetoric at the time of the Renaissance

Walter J. Ong, 1958, Ramus. Method and the Decay of Dialogue.

3.2 Extended theories of argumentation

These theories have been developed since the 1970s, mainly in French:

— In a linguistic perspective:

Oswald Ducrot, 1972, Dire et ne pas Dire [To Say and Not To Say] — 1973, La Preuve et le Dire [Proving and Saying] — & al. 1980, Les Mots du Discours [The Words of Discourse] Jean-Claude Anscombre et Oswald Ducrot, 1983, L’Argumentation dans la Langue [Argumentation within Language]

— In a discursive and cognitive perspective:

Jean-Blaise Grize, 1982, De la Logique à l’Argumentation [From Logic to Argumentation]

3.3 The dialectical and critical approaches

Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca work is considered to be a revival of rhetorical argumentation, originating in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Along the same line, Hamblin’s foundational work revived argumentation as a dialectical and critical thinking, based on concept of fallacies, and originating in Aristotle’s On Sophistical Refutations:

Charles L. Hamblin, 1970, Fallacies

3.4. The Pragma-Dialectical trend

From the 1980s on, Frans van Eemeren and Rob Grootendorst have developed the “Pragma-dialectical” approach. They recast the study of argumentation in terms of speech acts, linguistic pragmatics and a new conception of dialectic. They elaborated a powerful system of guidelines for the evaluation of arguments as a system of rules for the rational resolution of differences of opinion, S. Norms; Rules; Evaluation.

Frans H. van Eemeren & Rob Grootendorst, 1984, Speech Acts in Argumentative Discussions A Theoretical Model for the Analysis of Discussions Directed Towards Solving Conflicts of Opinion.
Frans H. van Eemeren & Rob Grootendorst, 1992, Argumentation, Communication, and Fallacies.
Frans H. van Eemeren & Rob Grootendorst, 2004, A Systematic Theory of Argumentation – The Pragma-Dialectical Approach.

Since 1986, every four years, a reference conference on argumentation is organized in Amsterdam. The series of Proceedings propose an up to date vision of the discipline (van Eemeren & al. (1987, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2010).

3.5 The Informal Logic trend

The “Informal Logic” of Anthony Blair, Ralph Johnson, Douglas Walton and John Woods connects argumentation studies to a logic and to a philosophy which take into account the ordinary dimensions of speech and reasoning. The focus is on the evaluation of the arguments and their educational applications in the development of critical thinking. The concept of argument scheme has been defined so as to integrate their corresponding counter-arguments, and developed on this basis a new approach to argument criticism.

Howard Kahane, 1971, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric The Use of Reason in Everyday Life.
Ralph H. Johnson & J. Anthony Blair, 1977, Logical Self Defense.
Ralph H. Johnson, 1996, The Rise of Informal Logic.
Anthony Blair & Ralph H. Johnson, 1980, Informal Logic – The First International Symposium.
John Woods & Douglas Walton, 1989, Fallacies. Selected Papers 1972-1982.
Douglas Walton, Chris Reed & Fabrizio Macagno, 2008, Argumentation Schemes.
Anthony Blair, 2012, Groundwork in the Theory of Argumentation.

3.6 Argumentation and ordinary interactions

The Pragma-Dialectic and the Informal Logic schools of argumentation give special importance to dialog. The first papers integrating the perspective of conversation and interaction analysis are found in:

Robert Cox & Charles A. Willard (eds), 1982, Advances in Argumentation Theory and Research.
Jacques Moeschler (1985). Argumentation et Conversation. [Argumentation and Conversation] Frans H. van Eemeren & al. (eds), 1987, Proceedings of the [ISSA] Conference on Argumentation 1986.

4. Relations with other disciplines

The leading research programs maintain different relationships with the rhetorical, dialectical and logical heritage, as well as with language studies philosophy and education. The table below tries to give an idea of these links.

0: no significant link

+: the number of stars indicates the importance of the link


New Rhetoric Arg. within Language Natural
dialectics Informal Logic
Rhetoric +++ + + 0 ++ +
Dialectic + 0 0 +++ +++ +++
Classical Logic 0 0 +++ +++ ++ +++


0 +++ ++ 0 ++ +
Philosophy +++ + + ++ + +++


++ 0 0 0 + +++

5. Dialogues between main trend theories

The arrows represent commonalities, solidarities or affiliations between different schools

6. Argumentation studies, argumentation scholars:
How to name the field and its specialists?

The talk about of the “revival of the field of argumentation” in the fifties should be taken with precaution. Firstly, the expression is ambiguous: the talk is not about the field of argumentative practices; but about the theory of argumentation, the meta-language used to study this practice. Secondly, it is also slightly simplistic: although discontinuous, reflections on argumentation have been underway for more than two millennia, not half a century. The point is that, since the fifties, a learning community has formed around a vast and differentiated corpus of studies taking for object a set of practices directly characterized as argumentative.

How to designate a field of study, its object and its specialists? The situation is clear when each of these distinct realities is designated by a specific term. This is the case for example with the economists, specialists of economics, whose object is the study of economy (production and consumption of goods and services). But the term argumentation refers to both the object of study, as in “everyday argumentation”, and to the study itself, when, especially in the titles of books where “argumentation” shortens “theory of argumentation”.

The spectacular appearance of papers and books entitled “… Argumentation …” hides a deeper reality, the change in the disciplinary status of logic. All ancient books entitled Logic, dealing with the logic of terms, quantifiers, connectors, analyzed and non-analyzed propositions, etc., are actually theories, logic-based treatises on argumentation, as, for example the Port-Royal Logic, or The Art of Thinking ([1662]). Basically, we now use the word argumentation to refer to a field of study or to a theoretical book because, since the mathematization of logic in the late nineteenth century, the title Logic can only be used in the domain of formal logic, and is no longer available as referring to natural language argument. Exceptions are rare. In French, one can think of works such as the Elements of classical logic (François Chenique 1975, vol. I: The art of thinking and judging; t II. The art of reasoning), or especially Jacques Maritain’s Introduction to Logic ([1923]), which is perhaps one of the last books providing under the heading Logic a traditional “art of thinking”, inspired by neo-Thomist philosophy. This logic is, in this respect, the first in the series of “non formal”, “substantial”, “natural” logics… that flourished at the end of the last century; it is a treatise of argumentation as a theory of logical reasoning within natural language.

So we are left with the problem of naming the field by a single unambiguous term. Following the example of polemology, that is war studies, it might be argumentology. Along the same line, the corresponding professionals would be called argumentologists, a figure clearly distinct from that of the arguers. But these words sound jargon-ridden and slightly ridiculous. Anyway, usage will have the last say, and presently nobody seems to feel an urgent need for such words. Argumentology does not appear in the monumental and fundamental Proceedings on the Fourth International Conference of the International Society for the Study of Argumentation of 1999; one case in 2003, one in 2007; and no occurrence of argumentologist or any derivative name of that kind (van Eemeren & al. (eds.), 1999, 2003, 2007).