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Minimal Argumentation: a research program

Michel Dufour


Minimal Argumentation: a research program The goal of this paper is less to support a claim, despite its presumptions about the nature and use of arguments, than to present an emerging project that already gathers several colleagues and invites others to collaborate. A first goal is to publish a book on this topic for which a diversity of contributions are expected and welcome. A first motive of this project is an empirical fact, namely that it is difficult for many students to identify arguments in an ordinary text, i.e a text that is not written or modified to suit an argumentation class, for instance, an article or a few paragraphs from a newspaper or a book. Over many years of teaching argumentation theory and practice, I noticed two tendencies that seem far from rare and are not specific to an education system, a language, or even to the personality of the teacher, if I rely on the opinion of colleagues from different countries. The first of these tendencies is to find arguments almost “everywhere and anywhere”. The second one, on the contrary, is to miss part or the totality of arguments that were expected to be easily identified, for instance, because of the presence of connecting words. But students, at least my students, have often a rather loose knowledge of the meaning/use of connectors. At least two circumstantial explanations come to mind: some students have a loose involvement in the course and this may justify that they “overfind” or miss some arguments. On the contrary, others are seriously involved in the class and, at least at the beginning, their goodwill seems to lead them to try to discover bold arguments where common sense would hesitate to see a single one. This common kind of situation is certainly interesting from a psychological and pedagogical point of view and these two explanations are plausible. Yet, beyond some blatant extreme cases, the identification of arguments and the understanding of their role in a text remains a difficult task for most students. Moreover, I presume that this problem is not limited to students for I suspect that a high dispersion in the results of identification of arguments would easily occur with more mature citizens and even with people more expert in argumentation theory. Therefore, I will invite the people participating in the talk who have some teaching experience to give their opinion about this crucial observation point. An interesting aspect of this common situation which can almost be said to be a daily one is that the practical management of arguments seems far from the traditional normative requirements of argumentation. According to me, the paradigmatic view is still the face-to-face oral dialectical model of arguers putting forward reasons to support a view, typically against an opponent, a skeptic, or someone who simply does not know. Pragma-dialectics is perhaps the most typical contemporary expression of this ideal situation where arguers and their positions are clearly identified, where the procedure is clearly set, where arguments are well identified and lead to an explicit conclusion about which the participants are supposed to agree. This situation can be seen as a norm or, from a more empirical point of view, as the prototypical situation that I call the judicial or Court model. Metaphorically speaking, if this model is the center, the Minimal Argumentation project aims at investigating the periphery, the fringes, or other hybrid cases of the use of reasons to support a view. This project should not be interpreted as a shift towards Rhetoric in the sense of “persuasion by other means than reasons”. Nowadays, “Rhetoric” has also become an equivocal term. But if we stick to the Aristotelian trio, ethos – logos – pathos, in the Minimal Argumentation project priority is given to logos, understood as the use of verbal reasons, although it is open to neighboring pragmatic aspects since it aims at exploring limits. Thus, it favors difficult and border cases that are as far as possible from the paradigmatic dialectical model, so that you may rightly wonder whether or not you are in the field of argumentation. So, if this model is seen as a conjunction of conditions, the global attitude of the Minimal Argumentation project is to foster situations where as many as possible of these conditions are missing. In a soritic way, you could say that the leading question of the project is what is the grain (or the set of grains) that makes or can make of a speech, a discourse, a text, or any verbal exchange an argumentation? On the other way, when do we leave the field of argument? Here are some examples of possible paths to explore or parameters that may matter or not. Most of them can be investigated in several different ways. •No manifest argument appears. (For various reasons, including a lack of expertise or one of the many faces of misunderstanding) •The pragmatic conditions of the production of an argument are unknown •An argument is grasped by an audience but was not intended by the utterer. •The topic is not identified as controversial. •Consequences of the oral/written distinction. •An argument has been identified, but its connection (relevance?) with the whole speech is unclear. •The verbal expression is unclear. •The interlocutors are not in tune with what is at stake. •Has a story always an argument? (French allows a positive answer…) •… For instance, it may seem that a minimal necessary condition to speak of a situation of argumentation (not to say “argument” since the term is equivocal in English and presupposes some quasi normative dialectical conditions) is the presence of at least one argument understood as a premise-conclusion system. A short but equivocal and loaded formulation of this is “At least one argument is necessary to have an argument”. This seems reasonable, but in practice is far from obvious. For instance, the whole presumed argument (premise-conclusion system) may not be relevant to the general direction of the speech and will then be interpreted as a digression. But when you admit the possibility of missing premises and/or missing conclusions you may easily find arguments where you can have other good reasons to doubt there is one. Here is an example. Political debates, especially political campaigns, are often held as places or moments where arguments are put forward. I have often heard journalists confirming this by saying something like: “Well, thank you, we have heard your arguments”. I wonder whether I am the only one who did not hear (so many) arguments but rather unsupported claims or assertions like “I will do this” or “What you did is very bad”. My mistake is probably to expect reasons justifying (or explaining) why “this” should be done. Perhaps, I should be satisfied by Aristotle’s advice that it is not necessary to repeat obvious conclusions. In this particular case, one is lurking around: “You should vote for me”. No doubt, “You should vote for me because I will do this” is a prototypical political argument. The problem is that the presumption of an overhanging general conclusion like this could (and often does) make any political statement an argument, unless you clarify when the implicit conclusion can pragmatically be said “on”. This kind of situation is typically what the Minimal Argumentation project aims at clarifying. Finally, you could say that since almost any empirical situation is more or less deviant when compared to the paradigmatic dialectical model, the Minimal Argumentation project is ready to welcome everything and anything. This is unfair. It is not a XVII’s century “cabinet of curiosities”, but a scientific program that intends to draw theoretical conclusions that go beyond the standard dialectical model.
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hal-03942081 , version 1 (16-01-2023)


  • HAL Id : hal-03942081 , version 1


Michel Dufour. Minimal Argumentation: a research program. The cognitive dimension of social argumentation: 3th European Conference on Argumentation (ECA). 28-30 Sept 2022., Universita di Roma Tre, Sep 2022, Rome, Italy. ⟨hal-03942081⟩


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