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Review of  A Systematic Theory of Argumentation

Reviewer: Eileen Smith
Book Title: A Systematic Theory of Argumentation
Book Author: Frans H. van Eemeren Rob Grootendorst
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 16.2239

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Date: Fri, 22 Jul 2005 09:07:44 -0700 (PDT)
From: Eileen Smith
Subject: A Systematic Theory of Argumentation: The pragma-dialectical

AUTHORS: Grootendorst, Rob; van Eemeren, Frans
TITLE: A Systematic Theory of Argumentation
SUBTITLE: The pragma-dialectical approach
YEAR: 2004
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press

Eileen Smith, Language Arts Division, Shasta College


The pragma-dialectical approach to argumentative discourse provides a
model for a regulated exchange of ideas in which the participants
critically and systematically analyze the acceptability of positions on an
issue with the shared goal of arriving at a resolution. The pragmatic
aspect manifests itself in the performance in argumentative discourse of a
complex speech act which is as an interactive speech event that takes
place within a specific context and situation. The dialectical dimension
to evaluating argumentative discourse concentrates on ways in which
standpoints can be critically evaluated. The model combines applied
research in empirically-based linguistic descriptions, especially work in
discourse analysis, with philosophical and theoretical work from formal
logic. In this approach, argumentative discussion, both as communicative
process and product, is part of normative pragmatics or ordinary language
use as viewed from a critical perspective. In the 196 page-book, the
authors delineate a complete approach to argumentation studies that
provides tools for the production, analysis, and critical evaluation of
argumentative discourse. In the course of eight chapters, the authors
first provide their definition of argumentation, survey the background and
history of theory underlying their approach, and identify four problem
areas within argumentative discourse that provide the framework for the
model; then, they provide an explicit description of the model with all
its theoretical and practical ramifications.


Chapter 1. Introduction (pp.1-8)
Chapter 1 defines argumentation and gives an overview of the scope of the
book. The chapter begins with a stipulative definition of argumentation
that emphasizes its two key aspects, process and product. As process,
argumentation is a goal-oriented activity that functions on verbal,
social, and rational levels: verbal because it involves language use;
social because it is directed at another person; rational because it is an
intellectual activity. The goal of the activity of argumentation is to
convince a critic of the acceptability of a position or stance. The critic
to be convinced is assumed to be reasonable. The product is the argument
itself, expressed in the form of propositions. One strives to convince the
critic by putting forth propositions that justify or refute the position
or stance. The distinction draws on speech act theory, specifically
Searle's distinction between communicative force and propositional content
(Searle 1969: 29-33). Overall, argumentation theory research focuses on
the production of argumentative discourse, both written and oral, along
with its analysis and critical evaluation. Four problem areas surface in
this research: unexpressed elements in argumentative discourse,
argumentation structures, argument schemes, and fallacies. Only the pragma-
dialectical approach has succeeded in providing solutions in all four of
these problem areas. Finally, the content of chapters 2-8 is briefly

Chapter 2. The realm of argumentation studies (pp.9-41)
In this chapter, the authors justify the linking of pragmatics and
dialectics and define the domain of argumentation studies. They argue that
the two areas in the pragma-dialectical theory, normative idealizations
and empirically-based descriptions of speech acts, complement one another.
In linguistic analysis, the moral and practical challenges that surface
from empirical descriptions of real life argumentative practice provide
the motivation for theorizing about argumentation. Conversely, while the
normative rules and procedures of argumentation function in reflective,
idealized situations, they must also stand the test of discursive reality.
Systematic linking of the pragmatic and dialectical aspects of the
argumentative process produces a model that avoids the limitations imposed
by one area of research or the other. Examination ensues of the five
estates or areas of research that contribute to argumentation theory and
constitute a complete program of argumentation study: the philosophical
estate, the theoretical estate, the analytical estate, the empirical
estate, the practical estate. The pragma-dialectical approach integrates
the five estates as follows: a critical-rationalist philosophical position
combines with a pragma-dialectical theoretical position; an analytical
position centers around the resolution of differences of opinion; an
empirical position orients toward the process of convincing; and a
practical position aims at stimulating reflection.

Chapter 3. A model of critical discussion (pp.42-68)
The authors trace argumentation studies from the classical roots of the
theoretical work that ground their theory to the present day. Since
antiquity, dialectical approaches have concentrated on ways to critically
evaluate positions or stances in argumentative discourse. Greek writings
on syllogistic logic (analytica), dialectic (dialectica), and rhetoric
(rhetorica) remain relevant today. Aristotle's Topica (1928b), De
sophisticis elenchis (1928a), and Rhetorica (1991) are essential reading
for students of argumentation theory. During the first century B.C.E. the
Roman, Cicero (1954, 1949, 1942), also made significant contributions. In
the early 19th century the U.S. experienced a revival in interest in
rhetoric, loosely defined as the use of the most suitable means to
convince a particular audience. A demand for practical, success-oriented
applications followed, and U.S. interest in rhetoric has continued to
grow. In the 1950's, the work of Toulmin (1958) and that of Perelman and
Olbrechts-Tyteca (1958) garnered much attention, but neither provides a
sufficient framework to supply a justified evaluation of the ways the
argument schemes serve as warrant. Arne Naess (1953, 1966) and Rupert
Crawshay-Williams (1957) made significant contributions in the area of
formal dialectics. The major theorists whose work underlies the pragma-
dialectic approach fall into two areas, pragmatics and dialectics. In
pragmatics, they include the theory of speech acts as expounded by Austin
(1962) and Searle (1969); and Grice (1975, 1989) for his work in verbal
exchanges. In dialectics, the theorists include the formal dialectics of
Barth and Krabbe (1982) along with the critical rationalism of Popper
(1972, 1974) and Albert (1975). Four meta-theoretical principles of pragma-
dialectics derived from underlying theory serve as essential
methodological guidelines in the pragma-dialectical approach:
functionalizing (every language act is purposeful), externalizing (public
commitments entailed by language acts), socializing (interaction), and
dialectifying (resolving differences according to norms of
reasonableness). Finally, in constructing a model of critical discussion,
the authors identify four dialectical stages in the process of resolving a
difference: confrontation, opening, argumentation, concluding. Four types
of speech acts of Searle's typology of five (1979) that can contribute
constructively to critical discussion are discussed: assertives,
commissives, directives, and declaratives. The chapter concludes with an
extended model of a critical discussion, showing the four dialectical
stages with a distribution of speech acts.

Chapter 4. Relevance (pp.69-94)
Scholars in different disciplines approach the issue of relevance from
varying perspectives; however, some unifying principles exist that link
these different views of relevance and irrelevance. Foremost is the notion
of coherence, including both discourse and textual coherence. Secondly,
relevance and irrelevance pertain to a particular stage in the discourse.
Thirdly, relevance and irrelevance stem from relations between parts of
discourse or text that are functionally connected with the aim of
realizing a goal. Different approaches to relevance exist as well between
analysts, depending on their particular purpose and the way in which they
perceive functionality. Analysts with a linguistic perspective use the
interpretive (descriptive) approach; analysts who prefer formal or
informal logic use the evaluative (normative) approach. These two
approaches interconnect. For instance, anyone performing a speech act
making a request wants not only that it be understood, but also granted.
Every interpretation of an individual speech act presumes that an
evaluation or judgment follows; every evaluation presupposes an
interpretation. Therefore, any analysis of discourse must make meaningful
connections between the interpretive and evaluative aspects. The pragma-
dialectical model integrates these two aspects.

Utilizing an analytical a priori approach, the pragma-dialectical approach
integrates the work of Searle (1969) and Grice (1989) into relevance
criteria. It does not draw upon a posteriori descriptions of the
interpretative procedures used by speakers from an internal perspective,
what Pike (1967) termed 'emic' approaches. Instead, a systematic
analytical or etic (Taylor and Cameron 1987) approach is adopted, one
based on externalized textual features. No knowledge of the cognitive
processes involved in the interpretation process is needed. The model
adopts Searlean emphasis on the communicative function of speech acts, as
determined by the intentions of the speaker or writer and the conventions
for language use in the performance of speech acts, and Grician
interactional aspects, such as the notion of reasonableness. The model
adopts and adapts Grice's Cooperation Principle, specifically the notions
of clarity, honesty, efficiency, and relevance, in a broader Communication
Principle composed of five rules of speech acts for argumentative
discourse. Three dimensions of relevance are defined: contextual domain,
or relevance as linked to a particular stage of the discussion; the verbal
component, or relevance of a specific element within a speech act; the
relational aspect, or relevance of one speech act to another. The authors
then illustrate how a relevance issue can be identified in the pragma-
dialectical approach by analysis of a fragment of an argument exchange.

Chapter 5. Analysis as reconstruction (pp.95-122)
Reconstruction of argumentative discourse entails systematic analysis of
all components (speech acts) of the argument that contribute to and are
relevant to the resolution of the disagreement. The relevance of each
speech act relates to the purpose of each of the four stages of a critical
discussion in the process of resolution of differences. Such an analytic
overview provides the "deep structure" of a discourse or text. The pragma-
dialectical model specifies what kinds of speech acts can productively
contribute to each step of the process. However, certain complications can
arise in the analysis process. As per the ideal model, an antagonist in a
discussion must unequivocally express doubt about a position. In practice,
this does not always occur. Typically, much of the purpose of
interactional or communicative discourse remains implicit. Also, most
often no formal recognition is given to identify movement from one stage
in the discussion to another. Actual targets of the argumentative
discourse, those whom the participant wishes to convince, may also be
veiled. For instance, in a political debate, while two parties engage in
argumentative discourse, both parties may actually direct their comments
to a larger viewing audience. With an awareness of these possible pitfalls
to reconstruction of an argumentative discourse, the model can serve well
as a useful guide to reconstruct an analytic overview.

A sample of a critical discussion ensues, followed by a model of a pragma-
dialectical reconstruction. The process proceeds in two phases:
reconstruct the critical discussion and make an analytic overview. Phase
one has two operations. First the pragmatic aspect of discourse analysis
comes into play with the reconstruction of the relevant parts of the
speech acts of a critical discussion. Four transformations apply: deletion
(elimination of items irrelevant to the argumentation); addition (making
implicit features explicit); substitution (replace ambiguous or vague
formulations); permutation (rearrange parts as needed to make the process
of resolution apparent). Then the analytical aspect serves in the sorting
of the reconstructed parts of the speech acts into the four stages of a
critical discussion: confrontation, opening, argumentation, concluding. In
phase two, an analytic overview that summarizes the critical discussion
around six principles is constructed. It states the standpoints held by
participants, the roles (protagonist -antagonist) assumed by each, the
point of departure of the discussion, the various arguments offered in
support of each position, the structure of argumentation (simple or
complex), and the argument schemes that connect the different arguments.

Chapter 6. Rules for critical discussion (pp.123-157)
The term "reasonable" plays a crucial role in the pragma-dialectical
approach that holds to a critical-rationalistic view of reasonableness.
First, it must be differentiated from the term "rational." The definition
of "reasonable" adopted in the model shares all the properties of the
definition of "rational," with the addition of the aspect of critical
judgments that are sound. Opposing schools of thought exist as to the
notion of soundness in argumentation: formal logic applies a formal
criterion for validity and emphasizes relevance of the argumentation to
the point in question; the anthropological approach applies a validity
criterion based on purely empirical grounds and equates soundness with its
effectiveness on judges in particular cases who represent community
consensus. The authors follow the critical view of reasonableness, one
attributed to certain logicians, that values both the shared knowledge
that is necessary to achieve consensus and the formal properties of
arguments. A critical rationalist systematically scrutinizes all aspects
of human thought and activity towards the resolution of differences. The
underlying assumption is that all human thought is fundamentally fallible.
The point of departure for reasonableness is critical discussion using the
dialectical approach, to which critical insights from dialectics,
geometrical insights from logic, and anthropological insights from
rhetoric contribute. This approach satisfies problem-solving needs and
intersubjective acceptability.

The pragma-dialectical discussion procedure is rule governed, consisting
of a system of regulations that cover all speech acts required to carry
out a critical discussion. Fifteen rules apply to all four stages of the
discussion: confrontation, opening, argumentation, and concluding. The
rules constitute a necessary condition for the successful resolution of
opinions, but not necessarily a sufficient condition. The rules fall
generally into two categories, when one is entitled or obliged to perform
a particular speech act. Participants are entitled to challenge, calling
into question the propositional content and the force of justification or
refutation of every complex speech act. Participants are obliged to defend
their assertions against a challenge, maintain their pro and con roles
throughout the discussion, agree upon the rules of procedure, and retract
the initial position when one participant has proven a standpoint

Chapter 7. Fallacies (pp.158-186)
As a result of objections to the traditional definition of a fallacy that
involved notions of subjectivity and validity, revision has occurred. The
historical precedents underlying and leading up the current theory include
work by Aristotle (1928a, 1928b), Locke (1961), Whately (1848), Hamblin
(1970), Barth and Krabbe (1982). The current preference is to regard
fallacies as deficient moves in argumentative discourse. Accordingly,
fallacies are defined by negation as argumentative moves that the rules of
argumentative discourse *cannot* generate. Fallacies violate the rules of
argumentative discourse as laid out in Chapter 6, thereby obstructing or
complicating the resolution of differences between participants in a
critical discussion. The pragma-dialectic concept of fallacy facilitates
the analysis of informal fallacies that have created problems for analysis
in traditional approaches to fallacies as invalid arguments. Violations
can take various forms on the pragmatic level, centering on the speech act
itself, the performer of a speech act, or the performance of the speech
act at the right stage in the critical discussion. A systematic survey of
the kinds of violations that can obstruct critical discussion during each
the four stages of a critical discussion -- confrontation, opening,
argumentation, and concluding -- follows. Analysis of two well known
fallacies, petitio principii (begging the question) and argumentum ad
hominem, illustrates how each violates particular discussion rules. The
analysis of the begging-the-question fallacy illustrates the advantages of
the pragma-dialectical approach. Since the fallacy is logically valid, it
cannot be analyzed using the traditional method as an invalid argument.
However, the fallacy violates rule 3 of the discussion procedure,
identifying it as obstructive to argumentative discourse, hence a fallacy.
The model allows for the analysis of the whole range of classical

Chapter 8. A code of conduct for reasonable discussants (pp.187-196)
This chapter discusses the internal conditions that are desirable on the
part of a participant for a reasonable discussion attitude. It describes
the characteristics of reasonable discussants and provides ten
commandments for reasonable discussants. While participants share the goal
of resolving differences, the primary aim of the activity is not total
agreement but rather critical questioning and testing of positions for
their acceptability. In order for the rules to work, participants must
meet certain criteria. They must be prepared to play by the rules. They
must express their intentions as clearly as possible and try to not
misinterpret the opposing view. Participants respect each other's right to
propose a standpoint and to challenge an opposing view, as well as respect
the obligation to defend a standpoint when called upon to do so. Attacks
must relate directly to the standpoint put forth with no distortions of an
opponent's standpoint. No rhetorical devices such as pathos or ethos for
the original standpoint (logos) will be tolerated. Exaggeration must be
avoided. No ambiguous language can be used, or deliberate
misinterpretations of another's standpoint made. Both sides must agree on
where the starting point of the discussion lies. Reasoning presented as
formally conclusive must be proved valid in the logical sense. For
instance, a reconstruction may be required to incorporate an unexpressed
premise. In the opening stage, participants must agree on argument schemes
and abide by the choices. To conclude, both parties must agree on the
success or lack of success of the defense of an argument.


Anyone engaged in studies of argumentation theory or in analysis of
argumentative discourse would be well served to carefully read and reflect
upon the pragma-dialectical model for its practical approach to resolving
differences with civility. In argumentative discourse, which aims to
convince a reasonable but doubtful critic of a particular standpoint,
differences naturally arise. With its focus on resolution through
acceptability criteria and mutual cooperation, the pragma-dialectical
approach succeeds in providing the means to overcome doubt regarding the
acceptability of a position and ultimately resolve a difference of

As the title suggests, the book emphasizes the interface in argumentation
studies of the work of philosophers and logicians with the expertise of
linguists and empirically-oriented social sciences, especially those
engaged in discourse analysis and communication studies. Linguists may
find the pragmatic aspect of the model interesting since methodical
discussion moves are described in Searlean (1969) terms as the performance
of speech acts in a specific cultural historical context. Implicit within
the model is a code of conduct, the Communication Principle for reasonable
discussants, derived from the Cooperation Principle outlined by Grice
(1989). At the core of the pragma-dialectical model lies the concept of
personal responsibility as an underlying principle that unifies the model.
The well-defined system of stages, participant roles, parameters of the
performance of speech acts, and rules of conduct with the view of
resolving differences of opinion only function if the participants in a
critical discussion intersubjectively accept the rules of engagement. Once
the participants agree to abide by the rules, all of the components of the
model function as intended. The explicitly formulated discussion procedure
provides a normative model for discussion moves that build towards
constructive resolution of a difference of position on an issue.
Conversely, obstacles or destructive moves such as fallacies that the
block constructive resolution can be identified simply as violations of
the rules. The latter in particular is useful in that it eliminates lofty
notions in logic of "absolute" mistakes.

The book presents the culmination and an impressive distillation of thirty
years of research by two widely-recognized argumentation scholars in
critical theory and praxis in the pragma-dialectal approach to
argumentative discourse. The model itself is simple and accessible, with
practical uses. While I found the book to have both positive and negative
qualities, the positive far outweigh the negative. The only negative
aspect of the book, in my opinion, lay in a tendency towards repetition,
especially in the beginning. This made for tedious, somewhat laborious
reading at the onset. However, as I read on, I found that I appreciated
the repetition of key concepts as my understanding of them grew
exponentially with each new application. Positive qualities abounded. I
found it to have outstanding organization. The research goals, background
information, and the step-by-step explanation of the model were very easy
to follow. Explanations of theory and its history were authoritative. For
example, the discussion about the notion of reasonableness proved to be
both informed and informative, beginning with coverage of three views of
reasonableness according to Toulmin's Acting and Knowing (1976): the
geometrical attempts to show what is (incontrovertible certainty -- step
by step); the anthropological view which holds that reasonableness is
culturally-bound and relative; and the critical view that maintains
skepticism and systematic analysis of opposing views. The authors offered
some keen insights into weaknesses in Toulmin's position while they also
distinguished between the anthropologico-relativistic position (in which
what is considered reasonable is a function of the group and the time
concerned) and the critical perspective. Throughout the book, clear
examples served to illustrate various points. Ample use of analogy was
notable, such as in discussion of the various estates in Chapter 2, in
which the polder region as well as extended application of the rabbi
anecdote served as examples to illustrate, and in Chapter 4, the X-ray.

Today, manuals of informal logic used in "critical thinking" courses in
U.S. universities still bear traces of classical logic and dialectic.
Almost all have sections devoted to the practical applications. The pragma-
dialectical model offers a clear distinction between the persuasive or the
epistemo-rhetorical approach to argumentation that is accompanied by
combative, success-driven attitude toward practical applications, and
argumentative approaches that strive for resolution of conflict through
understanding by appeal to the intellect. Those of us engaged in teaching
argumentative discourse know that our aim is to provide students with
skills to help them learn how to think, not what to think. In the culture
of success-driven argumentative schemes so prevalent in so many parts of
the world today, the pragma-dialectic approach brings fresh insight into
ways to accomplish this goal.


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Eileen Smith has a Ph.D. in linguistics and currently teaches a variety of
courses involving critical reasoning and writing at Shasta College, in
Redding, California. Eileen's research interests center on critical
discourse analysis as applied to literature, focusing on strategic
language use in the interplay of language and power.

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