Keynote Address



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M. Finocchiaro’s “Dialectics, Evaluation, and Argument”

Keynote Address

Title: Dialectics, Evaluation, and Argument

Author: Maurice A. Finocchiaro
2003  Maurice A. Finocchiaro



1. Introduction: Critique of the Dialogue Model

For several years I have been exploring the nature of the dialectical approach to argument, its relationship to other approaches, its methodological fruitfulness, and its limitations. Although the precise meaning of the dialectical approach is part of the problem, I can say immediately that I mean it in the sense in which it is distinguished from monological or monolectical approaches, and not in the sense it is distinguished from logical and rhetorical approaches; for these two distinctions criss-cross each other, as is obvious from the work of many scholars that is both dialectical and logical (Barth and Krabbe 1982; Blair and Johnson 1987; Woods and Walton 1989). My main motivation stems from the fact that the dialectical approach has become the dominant one in argumentation theory.1 Now, whenever any approach in any field becomes dominant, there is always the danger that it will lead to the neglect or loss of insights which are easily discernible from other orientations; this in turn may even prevent the dominant approach from being developed to its fullest as a result of the competition with other approaches.

Let us begin with a review of some background results from the relevant literature. One of the best examples of the dialectical approach is a work entitled From Axiom to Dialogue by Else Barth and Erik Krabbe (1982; cf. Barth and Martens 1982). A critical examination of this work reveals that their achievement is not really to demonstrate the necessity to move from the axiomatic to the dialectical approach, by reducing the former to the latter; instead the structure of their proof is to demonstrate the equivalence of the methods of axiomatics, natural deduction, and formal semantics to the method of formal dialectics. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Finocchiaro 1995), the proof works both ways, so that the former methods acquire the merits of the latter, and the latter the limitations of the former; and the unintended consequence is that there is no logical difference between the axiomatic and the formal-dialectical method, and their difference will have to be located in some other domain.2

Another extremely important result is due to James Freeman’s (1991) work on Dialectics and the Macrostructure of Arguments and Francisca Snoeck Henkemans’s (1992) work on Analysing Complex Argumentation. They have independently provided a dialectical analysis of complex argumentation, namely arguments where a conclusion is supported by more than just a single reason, either in the sense that two or more distinct reasons are given to support the conclusion, or in the sense that the reason which directly supports the conclusion is itself in turn supported by another reason. Their main accomplishment is to interpret arguments as the result of a hypothetical dialogue between a proponent or respondent and an opponent or challenger, a process during which the opponent asks various kinds of questions. However, as I have also argued previously (Finocchiaro 1995, 193-94; 1999, 195-96), the questions asked are by and large evaluative questions, and so besides explicitly providing an illustration of the power of what might be called the informal-dialogical method, these authors have also implicitly suggested the evaluative dimension of complex argumentation. They may also be seen as having stressed the importance of complex argumentation and suggested that the usual emphasis on simple arguments is an undesirable oversimplification.3

A move in this direction (toward evaluation and complexity) has also been independently made by J. Anthony Blair. In a paper entitled “The Limits of the Dialogue Model of Argument” (Blair 1998), he has distinguished thirteen levels of complexity of dialogues depending on the complexity of the argument allowed at each turn of the dialogue; the thirteenth level is the one which is the norm in a scholarly paper or commentary. Blair also distinguishes between what he labels “solo” arguments and “duet” arguments: in solo arguments the respondent and audience are physically absent; their identity may not be known or fixed; and the norms of the discussion are not settled but open to dispute. Then he argues plausibly that to speak of dialogues for complex or solo arguments is metaphorical at best and probably distorting. Blair concludes with some theses that embody both a non-dialogical conception of the dialectical approach and of solo arguments. His words are worth quoting at length:

“It would be nice if the term ‘dialectical’ were reserved to denote the properties of all arguments related to their involving doubts or disagreements with at least two sides, and the term ‘dialogue’ were reserved to denote turn-taking verbal exchanges between pairs of interlocutors. Then I could use this terminology to express the points that (1) all argumentation is dialectical, but by no means is all argumentation dialogical, and (2) the dialectical properties of dialogues, and the norms derived from the dialogue model, do not apply to non-dialogical argument exchanges, even though the latter are dialectical too. In other words, both duet arguments and solo arguments are dialectical, but only duet arguments are dialogues” (Blair 1998, 10).4

One final explicitly critical contribution deserves mention. Chris Reed and Derek Long have stressed the importance and pervasiveness of what they call “persuasive monologue.” A persuasive monologue is not merely a soliloquy, which is “a record of a chain of reasoning” (Reed and Long 1998, 2); nor an internal dialogue, “in which the speaker plays both roles” (ibid.); nor a “turn in dialogue” (ibid.). Instead persuasive monologue has two main characteristics: “firstly, the intuitive ‘case building’ of presenting arguments in support of the thesis” (Reed and Long 1998, 3); and “secondly, there is the more complex technique of presenting counterarguments to the thesis propounded, and then offering arguments which defeat those counterarguments” (ibid.) Although these authors’ main interest seems to be the formal analysis and the computerized modeling of persuasive monologues, the point I would want to stress is that the second clause of their definition refers to replying to objections, and such criticism of counterarguments is a feature which many would not hesitate to call dialectical, in a sense of this word distinct from dialogical.

The upshot of these preliminary remarks is as follows. Proponents of the dialectical approach tend to presuppose a particular concept of dialectics, pertaining to dialogue or turn-taking; and they have produced results implicitly suggesting that dialogue may be dispensable (in favor of either deductive axiomatization or argument complexity and evaluation). Critics of the dialectical approach tend to stress monological argumentation, but in so doing they are quite sensitive to an aspect of argument which is dialectical in a sense other than the dialogical one (a sense pertaining to doubting with two sides and defeating counterarguments). With this literature and these reflections in the background, I now want to examine a particular problem, to try to understand the difference (if any) between a dialectical and a nondialectical approach to this problem, and the implications (if any) of the respective solutions to the question of the relative merits of the two approaches. The problem is that of how argument is to be conceived.

2. Concepts of Argument
Let us begin with what may be called the traditional conception of argument, or to be more precise, a version of the standard textbook definition. As many authors have done (Walton 1990, 408-9; Johnson 2000a, 146; Hansen 2002, 264), I too find it useful to quote Copi’s definition: “An argument, in the logician’s sense, is any group of propositions of which one is claimed to follow from the others, which are regarded as providing support or grounds for the truth of that one” (Copi and Cohen 1994, 5).5

However, although many of the same authors (e.g., Johnson 2000a, 148) take this to be a structural definition, I find it improper and misleading to speak of structure here because the structure involved is too insignificant to merit the name. The traditional concept does indeed define an argument as an ordered set of propositions, but the order introduced is simply that of designating one of the propositions as the conclusion; in other words, a distinction is made among all the propositions in the set, a distinction between the conclusion and the premises. However, such a single partition does not really yield a genuine structure, which for my sensibility would have to have at least two partitions; that is, the minimal order I would want before calling it a structure is three propositions interrelated in such a way that one is supported by the second, which is in turn supported by the third. Instead of calling it structural, one might call this aspect of the traditional definition relational.

A second important feature of Copi’s definition is the reference to the intention or purpose of the arguer. Again, although many commentators (e.g., Johnson 2000a, 148) have denied such a teleological character, it seems obvious to me that when Copi says that the conclusion is claimed to follow from the premises, he is saying that the arguer claims this. And when he says that the premises are regarded as providing support or grounds for the conclusion, he is saying that the premises are so regarded by the arguer; that is, the arguer intends to use the premises to support the conclusion. In short, the purpose of the argument is to justify the conclusion by means of supporting reasons.

I am stressing that according to Copi’s version of the traditional definition, an argument has function but no structure.6 I believe there is a term that conveys both features, namely the term illative, which I adopt from Ralph Johnson (2000a, 150), who adopted it from Blair (1995). This traditional definition may thus be called the illative conception of argument. Illation is the special relationship that holds between premises or reasons and conclusion or thesis; it is not a purely abstract relation, but one that subsists in the mind of the arguer and of anyone trying to understand or evaluate the argument.

Two other versions of the traditional definition are worth mentioning, one more and one less abstract than the illative conception. The more abstract one avoids any reference to purpose and defines an argument simply as an ordered set of propositions partitioned into two subsets. For example, in Choice and Chance, Brian Skyrms stipulates that “an argument is a list of sentences, one of which is designated as the conclusion, and the rest of which are designated as premises” (Skyrms 1966, 1-2).7 Those scholars who deny the teleological character of the traditional definition are probably thinking of this version, although of course it should not be equated with other versions such as Copi’s.

The less abstract (or more concrete) version of the traditional definition adds a rhetorical condition to the illative conception, namely an element of persuasion. This conceives an argument as an attempt to persuade others that a conclusion is true by giving reasons in support of it. An example of such a definition comes from Michael Scriven’s book Reasoning: “The simplest possible argument consists of a single premise, which is asserted as true, and a single conclusion, which is asserted as following from the premises, and hence also to be true. The function of the argument is to persuade you that since the premise is true, you must also accept the conclusion” (Scriven 1976, 55-56).8

These three versions of the traditional conception are importantly different, and constitute a sequence of increasingly more complex and narrow9 definitions (as one moves from the purely abstract one through the illative one to the rhetorical). But they also share some very important features. All three lack any reference to a complex structure, or structure worthy of the name, as I have already mentioned. And all three lack any reference to dialectical matters, which will be our focus. Thus, let us now turn to what we may call the dialectical conception of argument.

The most natural version of the dialectical conception simply adds an element of criticism of objections to what I have called the rhetorical definition. We thus get that an argument is defined as an attempt to persuade someone that a conclusion is acceptable by giving reasons in support of it and defending it from objections. The best known example of this is the definition found in Johnson’s book Manifest Rationality: “An argument is a type of discourse or text—the distillate of the practice of argumentation—in which the arguer seeks to persuade the Other(s) of the truth of a thesis by producing the reasons that support it. In addition to this illative core, an argument possesses a dialectical tier in which the arguer discharges his dialectical obligations” (Johnson 2000a, 168).

There is no time here for me to repeat or summarize the various clarifications that have been made to Johnson’s definition by Johnson (2002a; forthcoming) himself as well as by Trudy Govier (1998; 1999b; 2000), David Hitchcock (2002a), Hans Hansen (2002), and others (Groarke 2002; Leff 2000; Tindale 2002; Rees 2001; Wyatt 2001), although I will say a little more later in the context of my analysis of Johnson’s argument (section 6, below). However, I have already implicitly incorporated many of these clarifications when I gave my own formulation, before exemplifying it with Johnson’s definition. In any case, a few remarks are in order and may be relatively novel.

One thing I would want to point out is that by calling illative core the complex of conclusion and supporting reasons, Johnson suggests that the illative core is more fundamental than the dialectical tier. Now, this may very well be true; but it may not be. I would regard it as open question. Of this more presently. However, in order not to beg this question, I shall speak of the illative tier or component rather than core.

Another question I would want to ask is, why call dialectical tier or discharge of dialectical obligations such things as examination of alternative positions and reply to objections? What is the concept of dialectics inherent in such a terminological decision, and how is such a conception to be justified? Is it enough to do some hand waving in the direction of Plato’s dialogues? Johnson’s concept of dialectics is the one inherent in the following explicit statement: “that argumentation is dialectical means that the arguer agrees to let the feedback from the other affect her product. The arguer consents to take criticism and to take it seriously. Indeed, she not only agrees to take it when it comes, as it typically does; she may actually solicit it. In this sense argumentation is a (perhaps even the) dialectical process par excellence” (Johnson 1996, 107; cf. Johnson 2000a, 161; cf. Finocchiaro 1999, 195).

Third, besides Johnson’s references to written text, argumentative practice, purpose, persuasion, and truth, it is important to note the reference to both the illative and dialectical components or tiers. This implies that a text with an illative tier but without a dialectical one is not strictly speaking an argument (as some of Johnson’s critics have pointed out, thus yielding an alleged reductio ad absurdum of his definition); but Johnson himself prefers to say that such a text “does not fit the paradigm case of argument” (Johnson 2002a, 316).

In the present context, however, the point I want to stress is that there is a natural way to moderate Johnson’s double requirement by disjoining the two conditions, in the sense inclusive disjunction. We thus get the following conception: an argument is an attempt to persuade someone that a conclusion is true by giving reasons in support of it or defending it from objections. This is a weaker dialectical conception than Johnson’s definition, but it still is importantly dialectical because it does call attention to the potential need to discharge one’s own dialectical obligations, and because the inclusive disjunction obviously allows for cases where the argument contains both illative and dialectical tiers.

Such a more moderate dialectical conception has in fact been advanced by some scholars.10 If I understand him correctly, I believe Alvin Goldman does this in his book Knowledge in a Social World. He explicitly allows for what he labels monological argumentation besides dialogical argumentation, as can be seen from this passage: “If a speaker presents an argument to an audience in which he asserts and defends the conclusion by appeal to the premises, I call this activity argumentation. More specifically, this counts as monological argumentation, a stretch of argumentation with a single speaker. … I shall also discuss dialogical argumentation in which two or more speakers discourse with one another, taking opposite sides of the issue over the truth of the conclusion” (Goldman 1999, 131). And for Goldman, a crucial principle governing dialogical argumentation is this: “when there are existing or foreseeable criticisms of one’s main argument, a speaker should embed that argument in an extended argumentative discourse that contains replies to as many of these (important) criticisms as is feasible” (Goldman 1999, 144).

We thus have two versions of the dialectical conception of argument, a stronger one exemplified by Johnson that regards the dialectical or critical tier as necessary for any argument, and a moderate one exemplified by Goldman that makes the dialectical or critical tier essential for one type of argument but not for all. Although these two versions of the dialectical conception are the most common and natural ones, there is actually a third version that deserves discussion and may be regarded as more strongly dialectical than Johnson’s conjunctive version. This hyper dialectical conception would define an argument as an attempt to justify a conclusion by defending it from objections. According to this conception, replying to objections is both a sufficient and a necessary condition to have an argument; whereas for Johnson’s strong dialectical conception, replying to objections is necessary but not sufficient; and for Goldman’s moderate dialectical definition, replying to objections is sufficient but not necessary.

Unintuitive as it may sound, the hyper dialectical conception has been advanced by some scholars. In a 1980 book by the present author, entitled Galileo and the Art of Reasoning, in the context of a number of theoretical considerations, we find the following theoretical definition: “We may then say that an argument is a defense of its conclusion from actual or potential objections” (Finocchiaro 1980, 419). More recently, in her review of Johnson’s Manifest Rationality, Agnès van Rees has criticized his definition of argument for being insufficiently dialectical. Here are her revealing words: “According to this definition, producing reasons and discharging one’s dialectical obligations are two different things. But in actual fact, if the notion of argument is indeed to be rooted in the dialectical practice of argumentation, the two should coincide. In a truly dialectical account, argument per se would be defined as an attempt to meet the critical reactions of an antagonist, that is, to take away anticipated objections and doubt” (Rees 2002, 233).11 And besides these two explicit formulations, the hyper dialectical definition has a memorable, emblematic, and brilliant illustration; that is, an argument by Alan M. Turing published in 1950 in the journal Mind, advocating that machines can think based primarily on a critique of nine objections to this conclusion.12

Once again, however, despite the differences among these three versions of the dialectical conception, my focus will be on what they have in common. Their common element is an emphasis on replying to objections or to criticism. It is such a dialectical component that provides an instructive contrast to the illative conception. And it is this dialectical tier that I want to understand better and evaluate. With such an aim, the next step will be to examine various arguments that have been advanced in favor of the dialectical conception of argument.

3. Arguments for the Dialectical Definition


What we are faced with now is an exercise in informal logic and critical thinking, for what we want to do is to identify, interpret, reconstruct, analyze, evaluate, and criticize the arguments for the dialectical conception of argument. I shall focus explicitly on arguments advanced by Johnson and by Goldman, but implicitly underlying my examination will be arguments suggested by the present speaker in the above mentioned 1980 book, and by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty. There will be no time or space for me to elaborate my 1980 arguments for the hyper dialectical conception, or to search for Rees’s argument for the same conception, or to examine Mill’s arguments, which will have to be done on some other occasion. However, one additional remark on Mill is worth making.

Mill has already been injected into this discussion by an insightful interpretive hunch of Hansen (2002, 271), when he spoke of Mill’s “dialectical method” and quoted a crucial passage from Mill’s essay On Liberty. This reference led me to read Mill, and I discovered that the second chapter of his essay contains some of the strongest and most instructive arguments. Mill is ostensibly arguing for the thesis that freedom of expression of opinion is essential in the quest for knowledge and search for truth, but the connection with our topic becomes evident when we see that a key part of freedom of expression involves the freedom to express dissenting opinions, which in turn involves the toleration (and indeed the encouragement) of counterarguments; thus truth and knowledge require the understanding and criticism of counterarguments. We can get a glimpse and flavor of the relevance and importance of Mill’s considerations from the following striking assertion: “When we turn to subjects [such as] morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life, three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favor some opinion different from it” (Mill, On Liberty, ch. ii, par. 23; 1965, 286-87).

For now, let me focus on an argument that has been advanced by Goldman, or at least which I extract from Goldman; it deserves discussion because of its novelty. What he intends to justify is “a general thesis about critical argumentation and the probability of acquiring truth … that lively and vigorous debate is a desirable thing”( Goldman 1999, 144), desirable in the sense that it “has positive veritistic properties” (Goldman 1999, 146). In other words, critical argumentation is likely to lead to the truth. The connection between this conclusion and the dialectical conception of argument may be elaborated as follows. Goldman (1999, 132) says that “critical argumentation is an attempt to defeat or undercut the proffered argument,” and he contrasts it to “proponent argumentation [which] is a defense of the asserted conclusion by appeal to the cited premises” (Goldman 1999, 132). To this I add that if critical argumentation is a veritistically good thing, then it will also be desirable for the special case when the proffered argument is a critical argument, and so a reply to the critical argument is called for. Such a reply is precisely what the dialectical conception of argument stipulates.




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