Question: Argumentative Question

The concept of argumentative question originates in the notion of stasis, developed primarily by the rhetorical theory of judicial interaction.

The concepts of an argumentative question and an argumentative situation are interdependent. An argumentative situation emerges when two speeches concerning the same topic begin to diverge to some extent. The contact can be made during a remote or face-to-face, oral or written, interaction. Such potentially argumentative situation may evolve into an actual argumentative situation when the divergence is topicalized and ratified by a participant. All these necessary developments delimit an argumentative space, defining what is argumentation, before the appearance of arguments strictly speaking (discursive segments supporting a conclusion).

The existence of a question is at the origin of the paradoxes of argumentation.

1. Proposition, opposition, doubt: A question

The following example, constructed around the recurring question “Should we legalize drugs?” shows how the question assigns argumentative roles, on the basis of the three fundamental argumentative speech acts, to propose, to oppose and to doubt.

  • The current state of the law

In Syldavia 2022, drug production, importation, exportation, trade, possession, and consumption are forbidden.

This statement corresponds to the state of Syldavian legislation, generally backed by “dominant opinion”, perceived as a matter of course, so needing no argument.

  • A proposition

Another discourse is oriented towards a proposition opposed to this prohibition:

P: — The consumption of soft drugs should be legalized, or at least tolerated.

Speaker P steps into the argumentative role of proponent, and opens the debate. All speakers aligned with this proposal serve as allies.

  • An opposition

Other speakers oppose the proposal:

O: — That’s staggering!

The speaker O plays the argumentative role of opponent. Speakers willing to hold this type of rejection discourse with respect to the proposition are allies.

  • Doubt and question: emergence of the argumentative question

Some participants refuse to align with either position. They are in the position of third parties, synthetizing the proposition vs. opposition relation into an argumentative question, and transforming the discourse confrontation into a full argumentative situation:

TP: — All this is quite perplexing. Should the prohibition of all these drugs they call soft be maintained or not?

The argumentative question is thus generated by the contradiction “discourse / counter-discourse”, hence the schema:

Proposition vs. Opposition Argumentative Question (AQ)

2. The conclusion as an answer to the argumentative question

When discourse develops into a confrontation, good reasons are needed and quickly provided. The proponent bears the burden of proof and, in order to meet this requirement, must put forward arguments, for example by re-categorizing soft drugs in the same category as alcohol or anxiolytics:

P — Soft drugs are not more dangerous than alcohol or anxiolytics; alcohol is not subject to any general prohibition, and anxiolytics are subject to medical prescription.

This argument supports the slogan:

Yes! We should have at least a more tolerant approach to soft drugs!

Produced under the general scope of the argumentative question, this conclusion gives an answer to this question.

The opponent must show that the proponent’s speech is untenable. First, he rejects the arguments of the proponent:

O: — No! Alcohol has nothing to do with drugs. We know how to drink in this country; alcohol is part of our culture, drugs are not. And if you legalize soft drugs next you’ll have to tolerate hard drugs!

O: — In Syldavia, they tried to legalize drugs, and the experience failed. Enough with social experimentation detrimental to young people!


— Let us reject this crazy new proposal of legalization!

Secondly, O presents a counter-argument in favor of another position. This may correspond to maintaining the status quo:

— Honest citizens live peacefully thanks to the prohibition; the situation is under control as it is

Under the standard regime, the doxa “goes without saying”; but once the argumentative situation has been opened, it requires justification.

Argumentative questions are distinct from informative questions. The latter permits direct, unequivocal relevant answers:

S0: — When did you arrive? In which hotel are you staying?
S1: — Yesterday, and I stay in Grand Brand Hotel.
S0_2: — Oh, that’s wonderful! And what are you doing tonight?

Whereas the answer to the former necessitates an argument:

S0 — Does the fight against terrorism authorize restrictions upon freedom of expression?
S1 — Yes.
S0_2 — Oh, that’s wonderful. Now, let’s turn to the next question.

3. Argumentative situation: form and structuring rules

3.1 Representation

In a stabilized argumentative situation, proponents and opponents are also called upon to make positive arguments and to refute the antagonistic position. This situation can be roughly represented as follows:

Argument is seen as a mode of constructing answers to a question for which incompatible answers have been given.

Under the coherence assumption, all the semiotic acts produced in this situation are oriented towards the consolidation of the Answer-Conclusion.

The argumentative question is essentially open; the legitimacy (interest, respectability…) of the pro and contra interventions is acknowledged, at least factually. Sometimes the participants agree on a mutually satisfactory answer – conclusion, other times they don’t.

In many cases, an element of doubt remains attached to the surviving, ratified, answer, and the question may re-emerge. In other words, the answer is provisional; it cannot be completely separated from the question and the set of pro and counter-arguments that generated it. The answer is therefore an answer by default; an unstable answer, which may be subject to revision.

Centrality of Third parties

Considering that third parties play decisional roles, it follows that:
1) The development of the exchange will generally alter the original positions as expressed in the opening sequence. The final conclusion will not be identical with one of the positions as expressed at the opening sequence of the interaction.

2) A well-executed, successful argumentative exchange may conclude without a winner and a loser.

3) The loser is not compelled to relinquish their doubts.

Question and relevance
The question sets the relevance principle
for argumentative contributions: relevance of the arguments for the conclusion, relevance of the conclusions as answers to the question.

The question, and consequently the relevance of interventions, may themselves  be challenged during the debate. It may be rejected on the basis of being flawed, poorly formulated, or irrelevant in consideration with “deeper” issues. S. Relevance; Refutation.

Burden of proof
The preceding graphic sought to represent the asymmetry between discourse and counter-discourse, established by the burden of proof resting on the proponent. This allocation may change with the participants and the kind of forum where the discussion takes place.

3.2 A Double constraint

Arguments are built under a double constraint; on the one hand, they are oriented by a question, and, on the other hand they are under the pressure of the counter-discourse. This situation is characterized by macro-discursive phenomena, such as the following ones:

 Bipolarization of discourse
Followers are attracted by the question; they identify themselves with the speakers involved; they adjust their language to reflect the words and practices of the lead speakers; in contrast, they exclude speakers and supporters of the opposing discourse (we vs. them).

Crystallization of discourse
Emergence of fixed lexical collocation, of antonymic pairs, tendency to stereotype the positions, especially stabilization of ready-made argument scripts.

Resistance to refutation
Appearance of mechanisms of resistance to refutation. Presentation of arguments in the form of self-argued claims, mimicking analyticity.

3.3 Changing mind, language and roles

Not only at the end of the discussion, but also during the exchange, participants can be persuaded to change their mind, alter their opinion and language, shifting from one role to another.

4. Monologization of the “Question — AnswerS” game

The vision of argumentation as a discussion between incompatible points of views about the same object is operative in both monologue and dialogs.

4.1 Dialogs can be monologized in two different ways

4.1.1 Monologal, non polyphonic interventions

An argumentative intervention developing a series of co-oriented arguments towards a conclusion, the arguer voices just one position, and assumes a demonstrative “no alternative” rhetoric. The monologue is monophonic.

Monophonic interventions ignore the speeches and positions of the opponents. This means that their practical study will necessitate the construction of a corpus bringing together the various interventions supporting the different answers. The plea for P is best understood when referred to some contestation, or neglect of P.

4.1.1 Monologal, polyphonic intervention

In another kind of monologue, the arguer adopts different positions, ands put forward several hypotheses about the same argumentative issue, without advocating any of them in particular. The discourse stages several voices, especially the main competing voice that of the oppoonent. Such a monologue is polyphonic, S. Interaction, Dialogue, Polyphony.

Polyphonic interventions contain a representation of the speech of the other participants. They take over, under various polyphonic modalities, the set of situational discursive data, the question and the opponent’s speech and position, which are re-framed under different discursive regimes, corresponding to different images allocated to the interlocutor and different self-allocated ethos. As a result, the assertion is introduced under an interrogative veil.

These strategies of polyphonic monologization of the question have been clearly identified in ancient rhetoric, where they are considered to be figures of speech, interrogation (interrogatio), subjection (subjection) and dubitation (dubitatio) (Lausberg, [1960], § 766-779).

(i) The question is framed as having one self-evident answer (interrogatio)

This is the case of the interrogatio, or “rhetorical question” defined classically as a question having an obvious answer.

Now, can such a person make a better president than our candidate? Certainly not.

The speaker takes possession of the argumentative question and gives an answer presented as the only possible, self-evident answer. This operation “disambiguates” the question, by imposing one sole response, S. Ambiguity.

The speaker takes the position of “the one who knows” and embeds the answer in the question. Third parties are framed in the position of allies who also know and applaud; opponents are challenged by a form of reasoning through ignorance. The purpose of the interrogatio strategy is to suggest that “there is no problem with this issue”.

(ii) The question is framed as having one justified answer (subjectio)

Lat. subjectio, “put before, under the eyes”; here “submit to” the audience)

The question is presented as requiring clarification rather than argumentation, as explanatory rather than argumentative, S. Explanation. The speaker takes the place of the investigator or the teacher who asks the right question and resolves it objectively. The interlocutor is framed as the pupil or the judge, sharing the direct question and admitting the proposed answers according to the logic of pedagogical co-construction.

Here is the situation, here is the question, and here are the data. One can think of three different answers, solutions, possibilities… Solution (a) is a variant of solution (b), as we will show. For such and such a good reason, solution (c) must be preferred to solution (b). So, the correct answer is (c).

Doctoral dissertations might approximate this strategy. During the defense, a member of the jury will possibly re-dialectize the monologue, expressing differently solution (a), and reversing the evaluation of (c) over (b)

(iii) The Question is framed as an open question, and the speech builds the answer in real time (dubitatio)

The speaker now takes the place of the third party, the ignorant party who has his or her doubts. In a kind of reversal of roles, the interlocutor is put in the high position of an assistant or counselor. The construction of the solution is now attributed to the interlocutor-counselor, not to the speaker-investigator.

In the three cases, the monologization of the argumentative situation plays heavily upon the preference for agreement. It does not leave the floor to other participants, and can channel their voices towards the speaker’s conclusion.