ISSA Proceedings 2014 – Argumentation As A Rational Choice

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Abstract: The paper focuses on the thesis that argumentation essentially involves a choice. I wish to show how argumentation theory might reflect this essential feature. In the 2013 OSSA conference, I argued that practices of argumentation reflect choices made on moral and political grounds. My purpose in this paper is to develop this thesis, such that it deals with the problem of rationality in argumentation in a like manner.

Keywords: Argumentation, theory, choice, epistemology, philosophy, rationality, pragmatic, Wittgenstein, Grice.

My main thesis is that argumentation is a practice and essentially involves a choice. The practice of argumentation is historically and culturally situated. In my paper for the last 2013 OSSA conference I focused on two propositions (Schwed, 2013): The first one is that the historical and philosophical roots of argumentation are in ethics and politics and not in any formal ideal, be it mathematical, scientific or other. Furthermore, argumentation is a human invention and practice, deeply tied up with the emergence of democracy in ancient Greece. The second proposition is that argumentation presupposes and advances Humanistic values, especially the autonomy of the individual to think, decide and choose in a free and uncoerced manner, and the choice to prefer the way of reason. I named it the humanistic stance, which provides for philosophical skepticism, whence argumentation is one choice among other ethical and political choices to resolve differences of opinions. My purpose in this paper is to further develop this thesis, such that it deals with the problem of rationality in argumentation in a like manner. The general idea is that the demand for rationality is a basic choice, derived from the moral and political ones, which are essential to it.

The preoccupation with the concept of rationality in the modern time starts with the philosophy of the Enlightenment:

Enlightenment was a desire for human affairs to be guided by rationality rather than by faith, superstition, or revelation; a belief in the power of human reason to change society and liberate the individual from the restraints of custom or arbitrary authority; all backed up by a world view increasingly validated by science rather than by religion or tradition. (Outram, 1995, p. 3)

However, despite the fact that this modernist paradigm was challenged beginning with the 19th century, it has survived. The inheritance of the Enlightenment survived not only within philosophy, but more importantly in and through science. One of the ideas that survived is the idea that rationality is a choice made for dealing with controversies and other problematic situations in John Dewy terms (Dewey, 1981-1990). The claim made in this paper is that this idea of rationality as a choice should be used also to characterized rationality in argumentation.

The first step in this direction is to propose to redefine the debate regarding the place rationality has in argumentation and its nature in terms of two basic approaches: the approach of Externalism in epistemology (Brueckner, 2012; Lau & Deutsch, 2014) versus the approach of Cultural-Pragmatic akin to the late Wittgensteinian philosophy. The first approach of Externalism in epistemology argues that rationality is inherent in the practices of argumentation and that arguments manifest rational adequacy as a necessary part of their essence. I terms the first approach as ‘externalist’ since rationality is given as an epistemic norm or value, external to the argumentation practices. It is external, since arguments are evaluated according to how good they fulfil their epistemic function. This approach is held by many in argumentation to some degree or other (Biro J. I., 1977; Biro J. I., 1984; Blair, 2004; Johnson, 2000; Siegel, 1989; Biro & Siegel, 2006). The second approach argues that rationality should be understood pragmatically and is nothing more than a norm or value that arguers choose to employ. I term the second approach the Cultural-Pragmatic approach since this approach finds its foundation in Paul Grice (1989) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958) and their cultural-pragmatist philosophy.

The externalist approach assumes that the capacity to hold beliefs, make judgments, give reasons for actions, and hold something for true and false is due to a given epistemological norms of rationality. Argumentation, under this view, is a manifestation of rationality through language as an instrument of communication. Hence, without rationality there is no reasonable communication and hence no argumentation. What is crucial for this approach is that rationality will transcendent those actual usages of argumentation and function as a regulative ideal that will enable criticism of activities and institutions. This approach, therefore, tends to favor the allegedly non cultural essence of rationality (Habermas, 1994, p. 139; Putnam, 1982, p. 8). Obviously, adherents of the externalist approach recognize the immanence of rationality and its being always relative to context and institution. This approach do not fail in the philosophical fantasy of rationality being abstract beyond history, culture and the complexity of social life but acknowledge its being situated in actual history and the complexities of social practices. The externalist approach, however, strives to maintain a balance between the context-dependency or immanence of rationality and its transcendence as a regulative ideal at the same time.

The cultural-pragmatic approach, on the other hand, rejects the urge to maintain this balance by rejecting the universal side and argues for the resulting adoption of cultural relativism. Wittgenstein is known for his criticism of the idealistic concepts of reason and rationality. He argues that the primacy of the universal over the particular is the dominant view in Western intellectual tradition and the continental European philosophical tradition. However, he describes this dominant view as “the craving for the generality” and “the contemptuous attitude towards the particular case (Wittgenstein, 1969, p. 18).

Obviously, this Wittgensteinian approach fully integrates contextual, historical and cultural considerations as part of the complexities of social life. However, what is more crucial to the point made here is that this approach takes rationality as a manifestation of a choice rather than of a good argument. This choice is a part of a historical and cultural context that contains ideas which give rise to certain way of dealing with controversies and other problematic situations. The choice in rationality as part of argumentation practices is part of a given culture, influenced and dominated by rational ideas (Habermas, 1984). Rationality, according to this approach, is not universal or objective or even just a regulative ideal. Thus, communication in general and persuasion in particular do not have any intrinsic ties with rationality. For rationality to be a constitutive element of persuasion, a choice has to be made for adopting rationality as the constitutive element of arguments.

This debate concerning the place rationality has in argumentation theory naturally presupposes different conceptions of philosophical approaches for confronting epistemological questions. This paper is a criticism of externalist approaches in epistemology on the one hand, and on the other an attempt to reconceive the epistemological approach of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (Wittgenstein, 1958). The question regarding the proper philosophical approach to rationality in argumentation pertains to the forms of account given in analyzing argumentative practices. Any philosophical approach often implicitly shapes the specific claims concerning the nature of rationality in argumentation theory. In the following sections, I discuss the philosophical approach of the Externalism in epistemology and argue that this approach is prone to end up in aporia by attempting to authorize a conception of rationality in general. Furthermore, I argue that another, pragmatic, conception of rationality deserve consideration as a better approach to argumentation theory.

The externalist approach to rationality suggests that this notion precedes that of argumentation. I propose to invert the anteriority of rationality. The shift in emphasis is an attempt to move away from the question concerning the proper conception of rationality that has occupied philosophy in general and argumentation theory in particular since its inception. Instead, the focus should be on the practices of rationality that stand behind accounts, which claim to capture the proper meaning of this notion. This shift in focus is relevant to many debates about both argumentation theory and rationality. These debates center on two related sets of questions that have occupy the philosophy of argumentation and which can be summarized as follows:

1.  The problem of Demarcation: What is the proper ontological or epistemological demarcation between argumentation and other related fields such as rhetoric? Consequently, what is the proper methodological attitude for studying argumentation in light of the character of its possible objects? For instance, does some visual objects can be considered as proper arguments?
2. The problem of Rationality: What are the correct criteria of rationality for evaluating arguments? Are these criteria fixed, variable or set by the context of research, as supposedly the criteria of scientific rationality? Are they emergent in the specific context of the community that uses them? Consequently, does rationality is the key concept for answering the previous problem of Demarcation between rhetoric and argumentation?

The first question concerning demarcation had been premised on the affirmation or denial of the thesis that rationality is the key to the problem of demarcation between argumentation and rhetoric (Eemeren & Houtlosser, 2002; Johnson, 2000). The question is also whether it is a strict demarcation or continuity between argumentation and rhetoric. The second question begins with the failure of the conception of rationality as an abstract, objective, universal and unitary concept. One of the reasons for this failure is the apparent social dependency of rationality itself. Although these reasons are still much debated, they should lead to a less abstract and unitary conception of rationality. More specifically, the idea of a unitary concept of rationality applied to any argument in general has to be generally given up: different argument assume different modes or concepts of rationality and, thus, leads the way for a more relaxed naturalism and epistemological pluralism.

The externalist approach to the above questions of demarcation and rationality may be committed to a wrong philosophy of meaning. The traditional approaches to these debates, objectivist and hermeneutic alike, base the rational of their approaches on a conception of meaning as a sui generis concept which was rejected by many. This concept is more than questionable given the skepticism of Quine’s (1951), Kripke’s (1982) and Davidson’s (1974) among others. Quine and others undermine the conception of meaning as based on the notion of language as independent of their uses and practices. Consequently, it weakens the possibility of theories of meaning that will be able to ground rationality or argument as categorically different from the actual practices in which they are involved. In other words, it weakens the possibility of non-naturalized theories of meaning in this context and, thus, a non-naturalized conception of rationality.

Indeed, the focus should not be on whether but how the concepts of meaning, normativity, and rationality as hallmark concepts of argumentation practices are to be naturalized. The important question in the philosophy of argumentation is how meaning, normativity, rationality, and the like can be placed in a naturalistic framework.

The suggestion of how the naturalization of the concept of rationality in argumentation should be done is a paraphrase to one of Wittgenstein’s known remarks regarding ‘meaning as use” (PI, 43): For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘rationality’ it can be defined thus: the rationality of an argument is its use in the language. What it means is that the use of rationality in arguments is part of a language activity of a language game, such as describing an object, giving or obeying an order, telling a joke, or convincing in a rational way. The suggestion of ‘rationality as use’ illustrates a more general aspect of use and Wittgenstein sometimes speaks of it as kinds of use (PI, 23). It is the use of rationality in argumentation that matters: “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life? – In use it is alive. Is life breathed into it there? – Or is the use its life?” (PI, 432).

One way to fully understand the importance of the overemphasis of ‘use’ is to begin with the simple complaint that rational behavior is not as prevalent in communication as the tradition of philosophy makes it seems. This complaint expresses at least two different approaches: either rationality is universal and objective, although in practice there are more instances that do not conform to it than admitted. Or rationality is not universal and objective to begin with. The two approaches disagree on whether to see rationality as a backdrop, which has important consequences for the understanding of argumentation.

One such important consequent to the cultural-pragmatic approach is the importance of socialized motives in communication in general and in argumentation in particular. Its view of rationality posits that rationality is just one among a number of possible socialized motives. This approach is the answer to the criticism that accuses the externalist approach of being oblivious to the fact of socio-cultural variation. For instance, the linguistics and pragmatics Jacob Mey argues that:

[This criticism of universal rationality] can be extended to other domains of human behavior; in particular, I want to apply it to the rationality of language and its use. Negatively … [a] rationality of language use, if such a concept indeed has validity, must relate itself to the structure of the particular society which is the carrier of that language. Positively, it entails that we must carry out a close investigation of the society we’re dealing with… before making any statement about language and its use in that society… My only claim is that language functions in a particular society. Its use as a tool of societal activity depends on the way society itself functions. (Mey, 1985, p. 178)

It does not make much sense to postulate a theory of argumentation which only consider abstract norms of efficiency and reasonableness as constitutive properties of argumentative practices. According to the cultural-pragmatic approach, many other socio-cultural factors must be taken into consideration in theorizing about argumentation, such as the role of stereotyping, prejudice, preconceptions, affections, and so on. The conception of rationality is reconstructed as a set of norms, which constitutes one possible practice in persuasion, along with many other different practices. Thus, rationality becomes a non-universal, inter-subjective and socialized concept and hence opens up for socio-cultural variation and factors (Sarangi & Slembrouck, 1992).

This characterization brings to mind Habermas known concept of communicative rationality (Habermas, 1984, p. 10). Being rational in Habermas’ terms means striving for consensus by argumentative speech, and the process is embedded in language, culture and social practices. It emphasis motivation by inter-subjective common interest in achieving consensus from a rational perspective (Habermas, 1984, p. 19). Habermas’ approach emphasizes the normative essence of that consensus seeking motivation: a rational community encourages rational behavior in terms of consensus seeking by valuing it as morally good and by valuing communication as the best means to that end.

This norm or value of rational communication is just another example of socialized norm, which will be manifested in societies where rationality is a dominate norm. However, no society is so rational that its norms are never violated, rationality and consensus seeking among others (Briggs, 1997). The fact of constant disappointment in such norms and ideals is one of Habermas’ concerns in his theory of communicative action. However, one of the weakness in Habermas’ approach is that he does not fully apprehend how crucial the elements of choice in this normative characterization of rationality are. One of the reasons for this was mentioned above. Habermas as well as Putnam strive to keep some allegedly non cultural essence of rationality, which in their view is necessary for its function as a communicative norm. However, if rationality is conceived as a choice which is not necessarily taken nor obeyed, then there is plenty of room to study the complexity of communication and argumentation giving this social fact. Acknowledging this social and cultural fact is one important step towards the naturalization of the concept of rationality.

Such a naturalization in a Wittgensteinian way must begin with Grice. He was one of the first philosophers to emphasize the cultural, social and intersubjective aspects of language in his principles and maxims of conversation. In the Retrospective Epilogue to his Studies in the way of words (1989), he re-emphasizes these aspects regarding the place rationality has in conversation maxims, and re-labelling his maxims principles of conversational rationality:

Perhaps some refinement in our apparatus is called for. First, it is only certain aspects of our conversational practice which are candidates for evaluation, namely those which are crucial to its rationality rather than to whatever other merits or demerits it may possess; so, nothing which I say should be regarded as bearing upon the suitability or unsuitability of particular issues for conversational exploration; it is the rationality or irrationality of conversational conduct which I have been concerned to track down rather than any more general characterization of conversational adequacy. So we may expect principles of conversational rationality to abstract from the special character of conversational interests. Second, I have taken it as a working assumption that whether a particular enterprise aims at a specifically conversational result or outcome and so perhaps is a specifically conversational enterprise, or whether its central character is more generously conceived as having no special connection with communication, the same principles will determine the rationality of its conduct. It is irrational to bite off more than you can chew whether the object of your pursuit is hamburgers or the Truth. (Grice, 1989, p. 369)

Grice’s philosophical spirit lies in the cultural, social and pragmatic nature of rationality and its inherent ties to conversation (Kasher, 1976). Grice’s Cooperation Principle is part of a theory of meaning built around the notion of rationality within Grice’s social pragmatics framework. Rationality signifies the adoption of the common aim of negotiating for some solution such as a consensus. However, even if communication is viewed as driven by a common interest, rationality will still be just one choice among several other possible choices. Rationality, according to this approach, does not account for the traditional epistemological requirements, but will conform to how rationality is used in argumentation practices.

The importance of understanding ‘rationality as use’ is the outcome of bonding the concept of rationality with Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. That means understanding rationality in terms of “language games” as a social practice, “form of life”, and cultural institutions. However, Wittgenstein’s conception in this paper is extended to forms of not only language usages and actions, but also any form of cultural choice, which is surely hinted in his concept of “form of life”. Wittgenstein’s approach of the pragmatic and social practice of language games and life forms may also be used philosophically on different level to grasp and to constitute a cultural choice. A choice in a language game plays a pragmatic role in Wittgenstein’s approach. However, not only socially based speech forms and actions as well as “life forms” are dependent on active pragmatic choice, but also a choice as a cultural action and even institutionalized one. Not only do language games rely on choice but, philosophically speaking, they are special case of a wider meaning of ‘choice’. Thus, constituting a parallelism between “language games” and life forms in the Wittgensteinian sense and political and cultural choice in the cultural relativism sense, similar to that of Franz Boas.

Cultural relativism is the refusal of Western philosophical claims to universality on epistemological grounds (Marcus & Fischer, 1986, p. 1), much in Wittgenstein’s sense of philosophizing (PI, 124, 217, and 654). This is most obvious in the case of language, which is not only a means of communication but also a means of categorizing experiences and different world views. In this sense, judgments and preferences are obviously based on experience, but these experiences are interpreted by each individual or community in terms of their language games, form of life and eventually by their enculturation. It is not just a philosophical and anthropological stance, but a critical stance in response to Western ethnocentrism. The general idea is that rationality according to the approach of externalism in epistemology is just one example to this Western ethnocentrism.

Furthermore, cultural relativism is based on specific epistemological approach that was also transformed into methodological pragmatics and qualitative research methods. This epistemological approach has its origin in skepticism regarding the possibility of direct and unmediated knowledge of reality. It is the skeptical argument regarding the epistemological impossibility to distinguish reality from illusion. Thus, experiences of reality according to this approach are mediated through language and culture and not just dependent on the cognitive structure of the human mind. In other words, human experience is mediated not only by the cognitive structure, but by particular language game, form of life and particular cultural structure as well. This is somewhat a more radical reading of Davidson’s “conceptual scheme” but still well positioned in the boundaries of this concept (Davidson, On the very idea of a conceptual scheme, 1974). The notions of rationality and reasonable belief are very flexible (Davidson, 2005, p. 121) as he indicated in the following:

The issue is not whether we all agree on exactly what the norms of rationality are; the point is rather that we all have such norms and we cannot recognize as thought phenomena that are too far out of line. Better say: what is too far out of line is not thought. It is only when we can see a creature (or ‘object’) as largely rational by our own lights that we can intelligibly ascribe thoughts to it at all, or explain its behavior by reference to its ends and convictions. (Davidson, 2004, pp. 97-8)

The most obvious implication is the case of language as a means for reconstructing experiences. In anthropology this hypothesis is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Different cultural communities, using different languages, will have different conceptual schemes that might be non-compatible or non-commensurable to some degree, and nor more or less in accord with reality or the external world (Gumperz & Levinson, 1996; Leavitt, 2011). These ideas are known in philosophy through the works of Wittgenstein, Quine and Searle. They all argue that conceptualization and categorization are learned and that they are basically arbitrary. Thus, reality can be conceived in multiple ways, giving rise to different ways of understanding and theorizing of the same phenomena. In this respect, Wittgensteinian philosophical attitude is of fundamental methodological importance, because it calls attention to the importance of the understanding the rules of a language game in understanding the meaning of particular form of life and social and cultural practice. This understanding of the rules can be acquired only by learning the language game from within and by partially enculturated into that form of life.

But this cultural relativism should not be confused with moral relativism or even ethnocentrism. More specifically, it does not follow that if there are many forms of life and cultures, than they are all equally accepted and however different they are, they are all equally valid. Rather, the acceptability of any form of life must be evaluated with regard to the fact that there is a choice at the bottom of each form of life. And although one’s choices, be it moral, political or other, are rooted in one’s culture or form of life, the fact is that people could have choose otherwise. The ability to choose might be considered as a universal moral standard. Or whether this ability to choose makes sense only in terms of specific form of life or culture? What if the emphasize of choice expresses a value that far from being universally human, is really Western?

One sensible solution to this problem would be the following formulation of cultural relativism: “there are or can be no value judgments that are true, that is, objectively justifiable, independent of specific cultures” (Schmidt, 2009, p. 170). The methodological function of this formulation is that it requires anyone trying to understand a language game to reflect on how their own enculturation has shaped their point of view and realize also that the emphasis of choice might be a form of cultural imperialism. Making a choice for some moral or epistemological value or norm is neither self-evident universal, nor entirely personal and thus idiosyncratic, but rather an act in relation to one’s own culture or form of life. Within this relativistic approach, the thesis is that people do have moral and epistemological choices and these choices have consequences. One of these moral and epistemological choices is to choose to be rational in the argumentative sense. Here is where the element of choice becomes crucial. One’s experiences is not limited by one’s culture and one’s culture is not the center of everything (Antweiler, 2012, pp. 130-138).

So how rationality becomes a choice in argumentation? A pragmatic answer to this question was already given by Grice. When he discusses speaker-meaning and speaker-intention, he makes a decisive connection between rationality and choice via the notion of value:

… my own position, which I am not going to state or defend in any detail at the moment, is that the notion of value is absolutely crucial to the idea of rationality, or of a rational being… I have strong suspicions that the most fruitful idea is the idea that a rational creature is a creature which evaluates… Value is in there from the beginning, and one cannot get it out. (Grice, 1982, p. 238)

Value is connected then to the idea of ‘what is preferable to do’ and ‘what one should choose’ (Grice, 1982, p. 239). This idea is rooted in the Cooperation Principle as the concept of rationality is used by Grice in characterizing this principle: “… one of my avowed aims is to see talking as a special case of variety of purposive, indeed rational behavior” (Grice, 1975, p. 47). It is hard to figure out precisely what is Grice’s notion of rationality since he never addressed the subject separately, but always as a mean to explain other concepts. In some places, Grice understands the idea of rationality in terms of purposiveness, assuming that this understanding is self-explanatory. Thus, Grice sees cooperation as the necessary outcome from the application of reason to the process of conversation and as the realization of rationality (Grice, Reply to Richards, 1986, pp. 65, 87). Yet, in other places, Grice makes clear that to be rational in context of conversation is a choice that should be made:

A dull but, no doubt at a certain level, adequate answer is that it is just a well-recognized empirical fact the people do behave in these ways … I am, however, enough of a rationalist to want to find a basis that underlies these facts, undeniable though they may be; I would like to be able to think of the standard type of conversational practice not merely as something that all or most do in fact follow but as something that it is reasonable for us to follow, that we should not abandon. (Grice, 1975, p. 48)

This ambiguity in the writings of Grice made others to try and solve it. Kasher (1976), for instance, seeks to replace the Cooperation Principle by some form of Rationality Principle, where participants seek to minimize effort. However, this line of reasoning leads Kasher to characterize rationality in means-end terms, where the minimization of effort is the consequent of rationality. Thus, redefining rationality in utilitarian terms of efficiency. The question whether this is the right interpretation to Grice’s approach, given his rejection of utilitarianism, will not be addressed here. Rather, it should be pointed out that the deficiency in Kasher’s approach is that it ignores the place value and choice have in Grice’s notion of being rational.

The participants in communication chose to be rational on the assumption that rationality is the backbone of cooperativity and thus that of argumentation as the mean for solving controversies. It is a choice since rationality is not intrinsic to human nature, but rather only one choice among a number of possible choices. This is visible more in Grice’s later work (Grice, 1986; 1989) as he comes to favor the notions of ‘value’ and ‘evaluating’. Principles and maxims of conversation has their technical meaning in Grice’s work and in pragmatic in general. However, these have also a more general and philosophical meaning, which transcend linguistics into philosophy. Only then, the place of rationality in argumentation can be characterized as a choice. Argumentative practices that display rationality are bounded by certain rules, which are necessary only from within the language game point of view. But the rules were adopted in light of achieving the ends for which the language game is used. Thus understanding rationality or being rational in terms of a choice in specific language game and form of life.

To conclude this paper, I have presented what I see as an important shift in the discussion of the nature of rationality in argumentation. I have argued against the tendency to exclude the notion of rationality from its uses in argumentation practices. It is suggested that rationality is a constituent of specific language games, which are examples of human rational behavior and action, and thus to be accounted for through the study of argumentation. My aim was to stress the need for a cultural-pragmatic approach, which can account for the uses of rationality. This approach seek to study the manifestations of rational behavior and action while rejecting the traditional Western tendency to exclude rationality from its uses.

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