Pragma-Dialectics and Wrenches

While in the midst of boning up on argumentation theory, I recently read Fallacies and Judgments of Reasonableness: Empirical Research Concerning the Pragma-Dialectical Discussion Rules by van Eemeren, Garssen, and Meuffels, a welcome emperical investigation of pragma-dialectical theory that contains, among other things, a restatement of the commandments of the pragma-dialectical method.

In short, P-D theory is a set of rules, or, rather, a machine or heuristic, for detecting fallacies, which are defined as errors or mistakes in argumentation under P-D. The theory could also be viewed as a form of ideal argument or dialectic to be aspired to. It has all the obvious connections to speech-act theory. But it has its problems, andĀ  I was reminded of them while reading.

I have always been struck by how Commandment 4, “Standpoints may not be defended by non-argumentation or argumentation that is not relevant to the standpoint,” is hopelessly, hopelessly idealistic, even by the ideal standards of pragma-dialectic, and furthermore betrays an unnecessarily narrow and non-epistemic conception of rhetoric.

Behind a lot of P-D’s commandments is the questionable assumption that anything resembling a wrench in the gears of an argument is bad. I have found rhetoricians in general to be rather comfortable with the idea of such wrenches, as well as their continuing and often random presence, as they are understood to be necessary accidents in the long, messy process of making knowledge; rhetoric is epistemic. And this is a good thing, because without it we would be hidebound to syllogistic logic and unable to decide or accomplish almost anything. It would be impossible to do even the simplest of tasks – say, brushing my teeth – without the option of arbitrarily choosing from competing options for my time that have no obvious answer. A scene from Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising comes to mind, where the anti-missile system on a carrier fails to fire at two incoming missiles because it cannot decide which one to target first; the carrier is hit by both missiles.

This is why I enjoy walking through the P-D rules with such minor, yet non-trivial, questions as “Is this the best time for Mike to brush his teeth?” or “Should Mike walk his dog in the next 15 minutes?” or “Should we buy the 12 oz or 18 oz box of Cheerios?” It’s very hard not to break, say, Commandment 2, “Discussants who advance a standpoint may not refuse to defend this standpoint when requested to do so,” almost immediately, because the standard defense to most reasonable positions on these pressing issues is, “Well, I think this is about right, so…” C4 falls, also; C7 follows quickly, as does C8, C9, and C10 like dominoes. The qualitative guesswork of daily life just doesn’t cut it in this system.

That said, I’m a big fan of C1: “Discussants may not prevent each other from advancing standpoints or from calling standpoints into question.” It’s not like anyone actually follows this rule with any consistency, but it’s pretty to think so.

Then again, I don’t like C2: “Discussants who advance a standpoint may not refuse to defend this standpoint when requested to do so,” because it is impractical to assume the burden of proof for all statements or arguments one might make; this leads directly to one of the more diabolical debating maneuvers, that of demanding that your opponent explain every single claim they make and calling them out when they fail to do so. Unless immediately pointed out and countered, the result is usually a waste of time for all involved. In other words, C2 can be a nasty weapon that avoids, rather than promotes, productive dialogue, one of the key points of P-D.

However, let me reserve my deepest concerns for C10: “Inconclusive defenses of standpoints may not lead to maintaining these standpoints and conclusive defense of standpoints may not lead to maintaining expressions of doubt concerning these standpoints.” Well, the second part is ok, I suppose, but that first clause is a doozy. I can’t hold a position that I can’t conclusively defend? That throws out every religion in existence. It also keeps me from brushing my teeth at midnight. The authors do allow a “zero standpoint” of “pure skepticism” (194 – why am I suddenly citing pages? I never cite pages here) but only after a long set of chapters where it escaped mention. My agnostic brain likes that concept, but why can’t I lean in one direction or the other without some sort of syllogistic reasoning? It would seem to me that most important questions are under debate because the answers are non-obvious, and thisĀ  situation is brought into being via a lack of applicable evidence; the natural result of any debate, then, is very small shifts of opinion after the initial judgment, far too small to be described by merely three positions, “Yes,” “No,” and “Zero.” P-D’s empirical measurements of its rules on real people allow for a very fine range of opinions of the rules themselves, but once you start using the rules, they seem far more rigid on actual content and arguers.

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