Critical Thinking and Argument Analysis: Rhetoric and Human Science

SUBJECT: Phenomenological Study

L. Kurt Engelhart


This paper is an interpretation and rendering of James Crosswhite's The Rhetoric of Reason. The purpose of the paper is to exemplify a position on the role of rhetoric in inquiry in the human sciences. This is the first of two papers on The Rhetoric of Reason, the second of which will address the content of a graduate school curriculum which might replace the more conventional "critical thinking" curriculum.

Introduction Rhetoric and the End of Philosophy The Role of Rhetoric
The Problem of Solipsism The Claimant Emmanuel Levinas
Stanley Cavell Questioning Argument as Conflict
Audiences Ideology Choice and Power
Argument as Inquiry Reference Email


The referenced text is "an affirmation of reason by way of a reconstruction of the theory of argumentation" (Crosswhite, 1996, p.3). The purposes of this affirmation are:

1) To rearticulate the role of teaching written reasoning in higher education. It is necessary, after accepting the criticism of postmodern detractors, to defend the role of rational argument from a philosophical position. However, the reconstruction will not be metaphysical but based on pragmatic rhetorical theory as a social/ethical ideal. Written reasoning is indeed worth teaching.

2) To present the argument to teachers of composition and written research that writing is not a remedial skills course. Instead writing should address the function of collective reasoning and how it is involved in creative discovery and clarification of ideas.

3) To emphasize that communication is essential to accomplishing purposes and realizing potential for both individuals and society and since teaching writing is developmental, the focus should be on actualization and intellectual transformation rather than skill mastery.

4) To evaluate the postmodern critique of argument with its aversion to reasoning and argument leading to feelings that vision is futile and ideology is ubiquitous.

5) To respond to the postmodern critique to deny its position of avoidance and hopelessness, to address pragmatic purposes and results, and to stress cultural and ethical ends. In other words, to go beyond the postmodern criticism of argument.

Rhetoric and the End of Philosophy

Does a rhetorical concept of reason produce a useful theory of argumentation? Heideggerian and Nietzschean philosophy reveals a relationship in which rhetorical theory is a metaphilosophy that implies a role for teaching argumentation as part of higher education. The specific relationship cited between theory and teaching implies that theory and research themselves are a matter of composition. Advanced research in the humanities has become separated in practice from education. However, this separation does not correspond to rhetorical theory where the relationship between theory and teaching as metaphilosophy indicates rhetoric is interdisciplinary and applicable to both research and education. Theory of rhetoric addresses the various disciplines of the human sciences as specialized discourses as well as the sources of their authority in a way that is prior to the individual disciplines.

Rhetoric has priority, not because it is philosophy, but because it is common to all inquiry. Rhetoric is not a privileged, a priori perspective but is just more abstract; it does not itself have higher epistemological status, but can be shown to be the source of all epistemological status. The process of collective reasoning is universal to both education and society. Where philosophy has become fragmented, rhetoric is the universal means of reconciling differences, because the vision of rhetoric is that differences can be reconciled. This is a revised understanding of rhetoric that emerges from a new philosophy that has been affected by new theories of knowledge and language.

The current epistemological problem is a problematic relationship between a subject and an objective world. The associated ontological problem is how a subject constituted entirely of ideas can achieve independence from those ideas by comprehending a world of things in themselves. Language is the medium by which we achieve this comprehension and independence. These ontological and epistemological understandings are the targets of radical skeptical challenges: 1) There is uncertainty that ideas can ever portray independent external entities. 2) There is uncertainty of the ontological status of these independent external entities. 3) There is an assessment that where pure subjectivity is impossible to avoid, pure skepticism is inevitable.

The Cartesian solution to these problems is to determine what knowledge about the world is absolutely certain. The logic is that while real entities are universal, absolute and prior to knowledge, beliefs are founded on those entities but are infinitely corrigible. Therefore, necessary truths are derived by intellectual intuition, i.e., math, and always corrupted by subjectivity. The efficacy of intellectual intuition is insured by method, where methodology finds means of purifying method of subjectivity. Heidegger's criticism of the Cartesian solution is that these independent entities are assumed and that both subject and object are given to us by ordinary experience. Questioning these ontological assumptions yields an understanding of Dasein, or being-in-the-world, which unites subject and object in a systemic relationship of purposes, entities, and relationships.

Skeptics deny the possibility of contact with independent entities, things-in-themselves. Realists prove that contact exists through consistency of our individual and collective experiences with them. However, rhetoricians use this conflict as the basis for metaphilosophy. In the rhetorical view, the effect this conflict has on language is that propositions can no longer be simply true or false. In this view, the world is given to us in the form of revealed entities and their derivatives in constructed relationships to each other. Language contributes to this construction. Truth becomes a preferred interpretation and language is the medium by which it is communicated. Reasoning and argument are seen as the means by which the preferred interpretation is shared with others. Heidegger's Dasein is a dynamic experience of these interpretations changing over time.

In Derrida's deconstructionism, the signifier (subject) is not ontologically separate from the signified (object), therefore theory is not ontologically distinct from communication. Since signifier and signified have meanings that constantly evolve, and intentionality is not independent of the communication process, the subject and its ideas do not have fixed identities and they each evolve during reasoning. However, deconstructionism is a negative hermeneutic, endlessly interpretive, where written text has a mechanical function, independent of its author. To the rhetorician, communication is not transmission of ideas, but action intended to affect the world surrounding the actor. Therefore, writing is a form of human agency, where context is important, not epistemologically, but practically. Action can occur only in some context that is relative to the actor.

For Gadamer, writing enables a "fusion of horizons." For Derrida, "Any experience of language is communicative, and that communication is action" (p.27). Therefore, every action changes context and every interpretation of past action is transformative. Philosophy takes the ordinary for granted as much as any other perspective and is due no special privilege. The rhetoric of reason in addressing these ordinary phenomena seeks a highly pragmatic goal: to strengthen confidence in nonviolent resolution of conflict. To deny the ordinary is "a failure to acknowledge [or be acknowledged by] the other people with whom we share our lives" (p.31). Honesty and trust have deteriorated into manipulation and skepticism where skepticism represents a dissolving of loyalties. Deconstruction assumes that, if truth is undecidable, we can choose not to act. This is absurd. In the face of this opposition, rhetoric demonstrates respect for loyalties and confidence in our ability to cooperatively construct a rational world.

The Role of Rhetoric

An independent reality offers the means to settle disputes by mediating between differences of opinion and ultimately arbitrating to resolve conflicts. Without an independent reality, there must be a means of peacefully closing debate on the nature of reality in order to act unequivocally. If this means is based on authority, what will be the basis of that authority? Rhetorical theory seeks to define the authority that naturally emerges from argument. By this means provisional absolutes are formed by collective process and the authority behind these absolutes is founded on social solidarity. "Thus, a rhetoric of reason calls for a reception theory of rationality" (p.35). The economics of truth are demand-side, not supply-side. Action demands progressively more rational, more univocal, models of reality. The collective nature of these models determines that authority is ultimately ethical. The ethical basis for argument establishes a normative principle renouncing the ad baculum pretense of arguing. The force and authority that result from argument may no longer be based on the threat of violence but must be based on the satisfaction of social needs.

The current state of philosophy accepts "the fragmentation of reason as a basic fact" (p.37). If all absolutes are provisional, which ones do we teach? We teach the rational development of ideas, i.e., rhetoric, which seeks increasingly universal logical bases to unite diverse and divergent content. Theory of rhetoric seeks to harness conflicts in realities to transform societies goals. This theory comprises: 1) theory of rationality, 2) the foundations for teaching reasoning, and 3) rearticulation of the relationships between disciplinary discourses, higher education, and social criticism.

Many educational administrators and many educators are unaware not only of the philosophical events that have put the teaching of written reasoning in a new light, but also of the growing amount of research into interdisciplinary communication that shows how quite ordinary writing tasks are "committed" in one way or another to the special purposes of different disciplines. (p.38)

Teachers are trapped between the social demand to recognize and accept diversity in voice and the demand for writers who can win arguments. Validity of argument is commonly taken to be a mechanical form inherent to dialog itself and eminently teachable. The objective of argument has been to eliminate prejudice and the ambiguity of language. The idea of objectivity, independence of purpose, has been the most effective ploy in argument to gain acceptance of claims. However, with the demise of objectivity, there is no longer any compelling reason to agree. Objectivity has been dismissed along with the ideas of "explicitness and univocality" (p.41). Now, ideas can never be made ideally explicit because the necessary content for this would be infinite, and claims are all equivocal in promoting parochial rather than universal interests. Competencies are now dangerous assumptions about individual human ability rather than technical relationships between subject and object.

Arguments covertly promote specific ways of being and seeing. When an absolute independent present was assumed, authority was the only means one seen present won over another. Authority, therefore, ultimately resided with the more powerful threat of violence. All the spoils went to those whose vision of reality succeeded over others. The disillusionment which has accompanied conscious collective awareness of the temporality of this perspective that had been considered divine has turned many against all argument. Now the problem is to define sources of authority that are not ad baculum. Otherwise, social conflict and criticism will always revert to a contest over a winner who takes all the spoils. The conditions indicate the necessity to reconstruct the logic of criticism. Currently all energy going into criticism rather than the reconstruction of criticism serves only conservative interests. Those interests are directed at improving the obsolete rather than social transformation. Fundamentally, the relationship between power and argument needs to be made explicit.

The Problem of Solipsism

In current understanding, distinct realities are alien to each other, mutually exclusive. Theory of argument should explain human conflict in terms of conflicts in realities and demonstrate means by which differences can be ameliorated rather than eliminated. Traditional "understanding of formal argumentative reasoning is a monological, monovocal movement from proposition to proposition [assuming] a mind which grasps propositions univocally, intuits the natural force of logical relations, and is motivated solely by a pure interest in working through these formal relations" (p.51). This account of argument is revealed as incomplete by Heideggerian historicity and Derridean transcontextual instability.

A more complete account understands argument as only intelligible within an internalized context and as a dialogical communication between dualistic perspectives. Argument is recursive cycles of claim/question/justification where systemic analysis requires us to ask what the purpose is of this process. One description of purpose might be the survival and development (actualization) of the significant entities involved. This purpose would be achieved by those entities that shared a reality and used their energy in the most effective way to produce it. Argumentative conversation has both genetic and somatic roots. Discourse builds dialogs that are distinct from the dialogs that, for example, produce perception in the individual. Genetically, complex perceptions are founded on the results of simpler perceptions. Somatically, social agreements on the context of dialog form the basis for subsequent dialog. To successfully show that one can comply with the requirements of these internalized foundations is to demonstrate competence in a discipline. A challenge to these foundational agreements will be interpreted as incompetence.

Analysis of the roles involved in argumentation yields: 1) the claimant, who makes a claim and offers reasons in support of it, 2) the respondent, who questions or challenges a claim, and 3) the audience, which judges the persuasiveness of the argument.

The Claimant

Claims are normative, i.e., they assert a specific configuration of reality. The acceptability of a claim depends on a preexisting relationship between the claimant, the audience, and potential respondents. The claimant must have something to offer the audience for which a claim is made. Argumentation is a process of social control over the constitution of reality. "A claim is an assertion which contains an implicit plan of its own criticism" (p.59). The necessary relationship between the formal claim and its audience is not only a social one. It may also be cultural, paradigmatic, or even secret. These are all controls a specific audience may place on changes to its reality. Therefore, claims cannot be evaluated based on "logical" standards or on some formal structure. A claim is an attempt to influence generalized or idealized others and does not fail based on a formal logic or structure. To expect otherwise is to confuse natural effects with social effects. A possible criterion for judging the rationality of a society itself judging claims might be "whether it has a contracted or an expansive domain for reasoning" (62).

A claim is an invitation to share a particular reality. Sharing explicit and specific realities is a means of achieving social solidarity and is an unremarkable feature of everyday life. However, the question of "how often claims can be made, who may make claims and to whom and about what" (p.63) is problematic and specific to individual societies. Because claim making is a social act, it is an ethical act. It is an act "in which we take responsibility for one another [and] in which we take responsibility for ourselves, and so become what we are" (p.64). What is the purpose for collective discursive reasoning? "Reason can be a substitute for force" (p.65). Social criticism has philosophical standing.

Emmanuel Levinas

"The origins of reason and knowledge lie in our ethical lives with one another. Taking on . . . responsibility for one another is not something we do on the basis of reasoning; it is already something we are, and something that enables reasoning" (p.67). This entity for which we are responsible is the [collective] self. Our responsibility as such is a preontological condition which, by virtue of being collective, becomes ethical. Justice dominates the field of reason. In this context, the normative standard for logical can be translated as ethical.

The project of discourse, of saying [claiming], is to take responsibility . . . both for oneself and for those others who are undifferentiated from oneself [and] to achieve justice in sorting out the ways in which we affect (and effect) one another. Indifference is a kind of skepticism, a refusal to take up the project of a rationality of peace, a disclaiming of our responsibility for one another. (p.70)

Skepticism is a refusal to accept the other as an equal or, at least, on their own terms.

Stanley Cavell

Knowledge is a state of owning a reality. Skepticism is an unwillingness to own any reality and a refusal to argue. Closure is impossible for the skeptic. Argument produces closure, no matter how provisional or temporary. Skepticism refuses to accept provisional closure, seeking transcendence of the human condition in absolute truths. Subjectivism, for example, denies the possibility of, and therefore the responsibility for, knowledge and reason. Argument is a continuous process of dying and being reborn that is ended by skepticism. In this context, the educator becomes the "philosophical friend . . . a bridge for us to our next self" (p.76). The problem of meaning in reality becomes one of moral intelligibility. Education becomes a transformational process.

It is "the totalizing reified universality of the fascist classroom" (p.76) that produces the reaction of skepticism. It is the exemplar [as also described by Kuhn] that elicits the fascist perspective, as the enemy of the present, or common self. It is the exemplar that responds to claims. However, this exemplar can also challenge the "totalizing reified universality" from the perspective of a dynamic, transformational ideal that explicitly rejects once-and-for-all mentality. Here, the process rather than the content becomes once-and-for-all. The process here is argumentation.

Claims are an invitation for an audience to share a particular version of reality. The version of reality claimed is problematic; it is different from that reality the audience already shares. Reasoning is the means by which the audience judges such claims, and out of reasoning a respondent emerges. "The worth of an argument is a function of the quality of the audience which would assent to it" (p.79). That certain parts of an argument are only implied does not detract from its being a complete argument. The implied parts are an incontrovertible quality of the audience to whom the argument must be meaningful. The audience, not the respondent, is the ultimate judge of an argument's rationality.

The traditional theory of propositions fails to grasp [the] rhetorical conditions for the advent of claims. Logical theories presuppose both the background conditions for the intelligibility of argumentative propositions, and the interlocutors and audience which both grasp the propositions as claims and recognize their argumentative status. However, logical theories presuppose these things "unconsciously," without recognizing the way explicit acknowledgment of them would radically transform the theory of argumentation. (p.81)

Specifically neglected are ethical, social, and philosophical contexts; these the traditional theory of argumentation perceives as irrelevant. A rhetorical approach preserves these elements by giving expanded meaning to education and social criticism. The new meaning includes expanded understanding of selfhood, revealing the transformative power of reason and offering new and more peaceful strategies for addressing conflict. Expanded understanding of self promotes the use of reason rather than violence in resolving conflict.


Making a claim does not itself produce a respondent. The sharing of context that enables argument may be absent to certain participants, while others do recognize a context. When significant players in a conflict are unable or unwilling to recognize shared context, there is no argument, and potential conflicts are precluded. "To question a claim is no longer simply to defer or ignore or resist but to pay attention, and to regard either one's interlocutor or one's audience (as well as oneself) with a measure of respect. One does not argue with just anyone" (p.96). Entering into argument (even discussion) signals a willingness to change. Refusal to argue represents a commitment to particular reified universals.

Responses (questions) can be calls for reasons or clarifications, or they can be counterclaims. It is the essential incompatibility of particular counterclaims and arguments that makes new perspectives and transformational positions both possible and necessary. "It is when one is faced with a choice, when conflict of disclosures, interests, plans must be resolved nonviolently, in language, that argumentation finds its proper place . . ." (p.99). In this process, the role of the respondent has traditionally been to correct the claimant. In theory of rhetoric, the role of the respondent is to engage the claimant, and the audience is under ethical pressures to produce such a respondent, regardless of the resulting conflict. "Experiencing this conflict is sometimes unpleasant. But . . . it may do us some good; stranger things have happened" (p.101).

Argument as Conflict

A rhetorical theory of reasoning must provide a way to resolve conflicts peacefully, must provide an authority to resolve conflicts beyond force and violence, and must be teachable as part of higher education. Therefore, theory of argument must encompass more than ad baculum domination. Although argument is social conflict, the conflict is ordered to produce explicit agreement on a claim.

To mistake [the] close connection between argumentation and violence as somehow implicating argumentation in a social project based on a deep structure of aggression and domination is to miss the critical ethical difference between violence and reason. Argumentation is not only nonviolent action, but in principle the renunciation of violence. (p.103)

Argument is essentially the only alternative to violence in producing the resolution of conflict. It is the only means of eliciting cooperation and "deep ethical commonality" (p.103) that does not require eliminating participants to resolve conflict. While the ad baculum approach to argument does not physically exterminate the losing adversary, it does violently proscribe the losing adversary's reality. An ethical theory of argument will not allow this form of violence any more than physical violence. Resolution of conflict through argumentation "is never final, never complete. It always settles on a particular use of language, a particular way of showing something" (p.104). It always settles on some provisional version of reality.

The intent to enter into such an agreement is a necessary precursor to argument. There must be, between adversaries in a conflict, an intent to share a common social identity before they will engage in argument. "One way societies preserve this possibility is to cultivate incompatible values and ways of understanding" (p.106, my emphasis). The freedom and confidence created in a community, by simply encouraging expression of diverse positions on reality, is the source of strong, although implicit, solidarity. By this means affirmation is given priority to challenge in argument. Likewise, conflict is prior to argumentation. When articulations of diverse values are affirmed, the existence of conflict is inevitable. When conflict is always implicit, processes by which conflict may be peacefully resolved must be institutionalized.

Institutionalized resolution of conflict calls first for bringing the conflict into language. Parties to emerging explicit conflict need to be identified as to role: claimant, respondent, or audience. "[C]onflict is between the assertor and the challenger; they are in overt disagreement about a claim. They will settle this dispute by argumentation which will be judged by the influence it has on an audience, which sits as judge of the dispute. The worth of an argument is dependent on the quality of the audience which would assent to it" (p.111). The existence of an argument depends on having a point at issue. Making this point explicit may itself be subject to argumentation. "A theory of argumentation, a rhetoric of reason, must acknowledge and help to identify multiple levels and kinds of conflict in argumentation. If one believes that there should or could be a form of discourse which is completely transparent, and that reason requires such a discourse, one will find here a fatal flaw in argumentation" (p113-114). The problematic nature of everything said is part of the human condition.

Inconsistencies between belief systems are revealed in argumentation because consistency is a major component of reason. When internalized systems of belief are raised to a conscious level, these inconsistencies are exposed, raising the level of conflict. "High intensity conflicts force such incompatibilites out into the open, cause them to appear as intolerable contradictions, and lead arguers to drop their allegiances to some beliefs in order to defend a single claim" (p.115). When violent conflict is involved, the identity producing results of such conflict would be ethically questionable; however, when conflict is peaceful, the integrating aspects of discursive conflict may be highly desirable. While devaluation of principles associated with engaging in violent conflict leads to nihilism and degeneration, engaging in discursive conflict is a means of achieving clarity in values, and of taking responsibility for beliefs. Relativism, where anyone can ostensibly hold any values, denies the possibility of mutually recognized integrity and respect. Clarity and integrity are associated with loyalty, and support the possibility of trust and confidence.

Conflicts are decided by particular audiences. "Argumentation at a higher level of conflict tends to make appeals to broader audiences. More general principles are usually judged by more general audiences" (p.118). Describing the audience for which an argument is effective is problematic because those audiences do not always declare themselves, and those that do may not be taken entirely at face value. Therefore the description of an audience can never be more than hypothetical. Conflict is contained within a particular medium. Constrained to symbolic form, argument may be expressed only in discourse, further constraints on the form demand that force be contained by reason, and that all parties have equal opportunity to consideration by the audience. These are the ideals that set the goal for argumentation and are intended to produce reason.

Conflict is intended to influence an audience, but ultimately the participants expect to gain something. The results of violent argument have traditionally been winner-take-all. However, absolute commitment to parochial goals is not possible in discursive argument, where agreement requires sharing goals and results with one's adversary. The precise specifications of what is to be gained cannot be determined in advance because the identities of the participants and what they desire are subject to transformation. Therefore, parochial purposes can never be secured. In discursive argument, it is the understanding that all participants share this risk equally that makes the risk acceptable to all.

The difference between argument and war is in the ways they effect a singular reality from divergent ones. In war, one reality succeeds by dominating or otherwise extinguishing other realities. Argument succeeds by synthesizing or syncretizing a single reality approved by all from multiple realities. The difference is in the existence of permeable boundaries between realities. In war, boundaries are absolute; in argument boundaries are interpenetrable. War is winner-take-all where in argument all can be winners. The difference is in an ethical basis for conflict, one that does not radically separate mutually exclusive selves from the respectively defined alien others. Such an ethical basis can only accrue to a foundation of mutual trust and respect for the process of reason as a preferable means of resolving conflict. Theory of argument is therefore based on the priority of reason. Reason is given this priority as a function of historical experience, direct experience of human behavior over time that demonstrates the efficacy of reason versus force in conflict.

If experience does, indeed, teach us as human beings the efficacy of reason in conflict, and the process by which reason produces desirable results, then this theory can be articulated, the process can be codified, and the paradigm can be taught throughout society as part of higher education. What the theory itself teaches us is that this theory has evolved, is evolving, and will evolve, and that attempts to totalize and absolutize theory of argumentation for all time must fail. Consequently, teaching theory of argumentation involves teaching the conditions of the theory's evolution. The theory teaches us that teaching methods to reach agreement takes priority over teaching methods to win arguments. It teaches us that argument is a social process unachievable by a single reasoner in isolation, and that argument's social aspect permeates it with ethical demands. Finally, it teaches us, and we must teach, that argument is the voice through which we individually and collectively establish our identities as significant actors in the world.


Reasoning is a public process, not a private one. This process is described by theory of rhetoric, and shows, based on our historical experience of the phenomenon, how reasoning is accomplished and explains its efficacy, i.e., why people would prefer public reasoning to other means of resolving conflicts. What theory of rhetoric does not do is set absolute standards for evaluating particular arguments. Such criteria are determined dynamically and pragmatically by audiences. "Audience plays a role at every instant and in every feature of any argument" (p.136, author's emphasis). The conflict that occurs in argumentation is between a claimant and an audience. A claim is made on an audience that is seen by the claimant as needing change. The audience must also recognize need for change, and will accept only claims made in a specific way. Audiences produce respondents to the claim, and influence those respondents concerning their response. To argue effectively, a claimant must address a particular audience and its respondents. This is not to say an argument must address a single audience. Different readings of an argument may address diverse audiences. "Ultimately any argument must affect one or more audiences, resulting in new ways of understanding and experiencing" (p.139). The claimant attempts to "orchestrate and conduct" this process, the affect of which is intuited rather than precisely defined because "influences run in all directions" (p.140). Therefore, audiences cannot be conceived as "groups of people with particular characteristics" (p.140). Audiences must be theoretical constructs based on the claimant's ideas about a particular society.

We can, however, define categories of audiences and their respective roles in evaluating arguments. Most important is the best, paragon, or universal audience, as distinguished from as particular audience. Here, the difference is respectively between broad and specific appeal. This distinction is valuable in differentiating a "merely effective" from a "genuinely valid" argument, where persuasion in the former is contrasted with conviction in the latter. "The problem is to develop a criterion for validity that avoids [the] dilemma of being either universal but empty or concrete but particular" (p.141). To universalize an audience is to ignore, for the purposes of argument, the special characteristics or propensities of its members, and to focus on their similarities.

Habermas recognized the problem of distinguishing a "rational" consensus from mere agreement. To be rational, agreement must occur under the specific conditions that there are no structural constraints on argument and that everyone cooperate to produce agreement. "Everyone's argument must be taken seriously" (p.143). Since this ideal is never completely in effect in argumentation, agreements can never be completely rational per these conditions. However, just because rational audiences do not exist does not mean we cannot argue to them. How we characterize a universal audience depends on selecting a specific definition of universality that we can defend. We must ignore particular characteristics and focus on those the audience considers universal. Experimentation may be the only means to construct what these characteristics are. One needs, as a rule of thumb, to avoid mixing audiences that are divided along lines of power or that hold different theories of justice. "In the construction of a universal audience, we disqualify some people and we empower others" (p.146). We will be called upon to defend this action.

The idea of universal audience also distinguishes between fact and value. When everyone agrees about something it is construed to be a fact. By contrast, when there is disagreement we construe it to be the result of holding different values. The domain of the real holds fast, while the domain of the preferred changes with perspective. If people disagree on something, it is a value; if they agree, it is on a fact. Unfortunately, the universal agreement of all people on any fact is hypothetical, where universal disagreement on any fact is to be expected. Still, how it constitutes fact versus value is an important characteristic of any audience.

A universal audience will be persuaded only by arguments that adequately address all points of view within that audience. This multiplicity of perspective is always evolving. The paradoxical identity of the universal particular, also the concrete generality, is represented in an audience by sensus communis, comprising every individual in that audience. Where each claimant may see a universal audience, an external viewer would in each case see a particular one, supporting the idea of universal audience as a hypothetical construct tailored to a particular audience. Regardless, every audience can be appealed to on the basis of some concrete set of values on which they would all agree. We need to argue to them on this basis for a specific reason: new agreements are always based on existing ones.

In a sense, the universal audience is always defined as being undefined. We may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it. In a sense, the universal audience is always defining itself. This "instability in rhetoric is a philosophical one, a matter not simply of what is true, but of the measure of the truth yielded by argumentation" (p.153, author's emphasis). This means there is no higher authority for evaluation of truth than an audience, and argumentation. Argument balances particular traditions against universalizing social rationality. Appealing to this universalized hypothetical entity in argument "represents an aspiration for agreement" (p.154).

Attempts to ground rationality in fundamental communication fail because this paradigm gives primacy to absolute truth and rational motivations. The concept of universality expressed here provides "a way out of rhetoric from within rhetoric itself . . . motivated by hope rather than intellection with purely cognitive motivations" (p.155), where truth is worked out by real people rather than dictated by abstract authorities. In the words of Merleau-Ponty,

"It is a question of constructing a general system of reference in which the point of view of the native, the point of view of the civilized man, and the mistaken views each has of the other can find a place that is, of constituting a more comprehensive experience which becomes in principle accessible to men of a different time and country." (p.157)

Universality keeps argument open to criticism by implying an inclusiveness that is infinitely challengeable.

Why then is not formal logic adequate to rhetoric and argument? After all, formal logic defines a universal audience that is infinite, unlimited by "memory, attention, or time" (p.161). Doesn't that audience imply the same infinitely challengeable inclusiveness? The problem with formal logic's definition of a universal audience is that it is absolute and unchanging. It assumes the possibility of language and speech into logical form, and does not allow inherent contradiction. In construing the structure of argument in this way, formal logic limits the audience to which it can apply to an unacceptably small subset of human discourse. Hardly anyone will, or does, accept the audience of formal logic as universal. Formal logic is not inclusive but exclusive, "superhuman" (p.161). Although the particular audience addressed by formal logic is useful in some contexts, the population of superhuman minds does not constitute a universal audience for the purposes of most human argument.

Any link between formal logic and the normal concerns of human beings has been broken by the insistence of scientists that rhetoric is a "less reasonable domain of discourse" (pp. 167, 235). Normal reasoning does not proceed by the formal construction of proofs and is not invalidated by technical deficiencies of formal logic, and nothing is to be gained by wishing it otherwise. Reason cannot be absolutely grounded in logic and argument cannot be conceived as constructed in formal logical models. To insist it can is to commit the most irresponsible form of reductionism. The discursive techniques that enable us to increase adherence to a particular claim are not bivalent; they are not just valid or invalid. "Arguments can be better or worse, stronger or weaker, even more or less valid. It's all a matter of degree" (p.169). The measure of strength in an argument is not assessed by the existence of simple mechanical relationships between propositions, but by the values held by audiences affected by a particular argument. This measure is not absolute but varies according to that audience. The audience to which formal logic appeals is not a universal one but a culturally privileged one, and contemporary questioning of this privilege "points the way to a renewal of philosophy" (p.170) as the final arbiter of the universal features of reasoning.

Formal logic is not adequate to the task of explaining how "a logical breach is not really a fault in reasoning" (p.171). Logic cannot explain why weaknesses in argument are not merely technical, but social. There are no formal rules that determine whether an argument will be successful or unsuccessful. One can identify fallacies in rhetorical reasoning, but understanding these fallacies is a matter more of philosophy than logic. In rhetorical terms, "a valid argument is one which wins the assent of a universal audience. A merely effective argument succeeds only with a particular audience" (p.172). A fallacious argument will convince a particular audience, but not a universal one. Fallacies in rhetorical reasoning comprise a classification of audiences and the characteristics of arguments that will fail to convince them.

Arguments can be applied wrongly in three general ways: 1) the essential conditions allowing argument may not exist, 2) the argument's premises may not be acceptable, and 3) the structure of a particular argument may not be acceptable. What seems to be an argument may not really be one. As in ad baculum conflict, when a particular audience takes itself, or is taken by a claimant, for a universal one, mistaking the nature of irresistible forces supporting nonnegotiable particular positions. Or when equivocation is mistaken for univocality because of ignorance or lack of imagination. Contexts for argument are frequently intentionally ambiguous, drawing the naive into impossible arguments and undesirable agreements. From within the particular audiences involved in these cases, this reasoning is not fallacious; only when a broader audience inspects the reasoning does a fallacy emerge. What is true for the part is not necessarily true for the whole, and vice versa. There is no rhetorical way for determining which positions are right. Questions about universality and rationality have no absolute answers, yet if we ask "what groups are persuaded by what kinds of reasoning and why?" (p.186), we may be able to discover common grounds for evaluating arguments. Effective citizenship "depends on deep common sense" (p.187). To attempt to reduce this highly complex, systemically social product to mathematics or logic is to "squander [one's] birthright for some dubious philosophical pottage" (p.186).


Not all that we believe or affirm can be made explicit in claims. This is especially true of those aspects of our individual or shared identities that are internalized. Internalization removes parts of the structure of our being from the realm of what is problematic. Relative to the conscious parts of our existence, the internalized parts operate unconsciously. These parts constitute the preagreement foundation on which rational discourse, or argument, is built. "[W]hat can and can't be shaped into a claim is understood in light of the concept of audience. Thus, argumentation affirms without argument the appropriateness of particular competences, particular ways of disclosing the world" (p. 190). Therefore, all reasoning is local to a specific audience and a particular perspective. Moving outside this perspective reveals every reasoning system as an ideology. However, the perspective that reveals a reasoning system as ideological is not itself necessarily universal.

Questioning the systemic bases for argument can undermine the very framework that allows argumentation. Argument becomes ideological by virtue of assigning these kinds of forbidden issues to the realm of unreason. "Why should every feature of our experience that cannot be justified in a public domain be for that reason dismissed as irrational" (p.193)? Because argument attempts to dissolve the private domain and eliminate unexamined behavior, audiences constrain argument to protect themselves. That everything is thinkable only for a hypothetical audience precludes those who think the unthinkable having any identity. To think the unthinkable is to relinquish ideals of rationality that produce identity for both individuals and groups. Identity is moral in that it expresses a particular relationship between ourselves and others. Therefore, an audience that could think the unthinkable would be immoral by all standards. Clearly, an ideology free position is untenable in a rational society. Freedom from ideology is only useful to the extent that a locally expanded perspective helps in resolving a particular conflict. "Once reason achieves this reconciliation, it has reached the level of ideology-freeness required for the situation. To ask for more is to misunderstand the limits of argument and to risk destroying what moral identities human beings have managed to achieve" (p.199).

The power of argument to examine claims is gained at the expense of freedom to examine the process of argumentation itself. Part of what may not be examined is ideology. Yet that does not mean we need be ignorant of the part ideology plays. To insist on such ignorance is to call forth radical skepticism. Neither of these conditions is in the spirit of reaching provisional conclusions and agreements. "[A]rgument privileges sameness over difference, consensus over dissensus" (p.200). Sameness and consensus constitute the foundation on which differences may be resolved. Understanding difference as conflict that must be resolved is itself highly ideological, considering the positive value placed contemporarily on differences between individuals and groups. A broader understanding of argument recognizes the possibility, but not the necessity, for resolving differences. The ability to restrain challenges to claims, to give priority to affirmation, and to build syncretic rather than synthetic logical models is a means of giving due appreciation for differences.

Choice and Power

"Differences become conflicts only when choices must be made" (p.202). Otherwise ideology might serve to preserve differences just as easily as to eliminate them. When choices must be made, argument is called on as mediator and arbitrator. The necessity of choice connects argument to the exercise of power, and people with power reserve the prerogatives of choice to themselves. Without power, the process of argument is futile because the choices made cannot be effected. Consequently, conclusive argumentation is associated with powerful individuals and groups which have the authority, and the responsibility, to make choices and to make them effective. "Argumentation is linked to a particular kind of power limited power, not absolute power. Monarchs and dictators do not need to argue" (p.203) because they do not need to justify their choices.

Expectations for justification vary inversely with distribution of provisional power. Where assumed power is lacking, choices may be seen as illegitimate or ineffective because the expectations for justification are too high. The existence of the conditions for argument demonstrates that neither claimant nor audience has the unilateral power to make choices affecting both. Claimant and audience share that power and the collateral responsibility to each protect the interests of the other. However, this sharing of power does not extend over some cultural lines. Age is the most obvious break because the young must come of age before they are allowed to share power. Other breaks have historically been rationalized which are recently called into question. Power differences based on gender, race, and class, that have precluded arguments on issues along these lines, are becoming less distinct, and the conflicts inherent in these differences are increasingly a matter of public discourse.

Argument as Inquiry

Rhetorical reasoning can make discovery possible and help to create new knowledge. The theory of argument likewise can explain how argument is essential to inquiry. A theory of rhetoric and argument refuses the distinction between genuine reasoning and rhetorical reasoning and attempts to again unite the classical purposes of philosophy and rhetoric. The argument that rhetoric is an incomplete form of philosophy because it simply pretends to knowledge plays on the common sense idea that the ability to manipulate a tool is not the same as being able to use the tool masterfully. In philosophical terms, the ability to produce opinion, i.e., persuasion, is inferior to the ability to produce true knowledge. Of course, this argument neglects the question of the difference between opinion and true knowledge.

Production of knowledge is seen, by many who claim to understand it, to be a solitary endeavor, which they contrast with the social relationship they see between a speaker and an audience, rhetoric. They see reason and knowledge as distinct from persuasion, the art of appearances. The source of this distinction is presumed to be in method and discipline, which, once mastered, make a difference between those who are proficient and those who are deficient. In this context, teaching is the process of transferring knowledge from the proficient to the deficient. At the center of the question of how knowledge is constituted is a single problem: what is the relationship "between how we come to know something (how things are for us) and how things really are (by nature)" (p.242). The position one takes on knowledge determines how one relates philosophy, rhetoric, science, and method. Positions have become polarized on this issue along the lines of mind/body and logical/physical.

Another axis involved in the process of inquiry lies between certainty and doubt. Knowledge is not produced by linear progress from doubt to certainty, but by a constant dialectic between these two states. Accompanying the doubt/certainty dialectic is a similar conversation between the logical and the physical, reason and experience. Thus the two dialectical axes resolve themselves into a single system of inquiry, where the logical/physical question is addressed by philosophy and the doubt certainty question is addressed by rhetoric. These two complementary processes can be seen as, respectively, discovery and justification. Rational reflection on experience accumulates in models that are presented to, and accepted by, "more and more general audiences" (p.254) where "our understanding of the context of justification is a function of our conception of the universal audience" (p.255).

There is no final, absolute resting place for this system, the system of inquiry. However, the system's position at a particular time can be the basis for choice. Meanwhile, the necessity to act does not interfere with ongoing inquiry. The system tolerates contradictions and other anomalies that are anathema to absolute systems of knowledge. A theory of rhetoric as inquiry explicitly nurtures anomalies as a source of further discovery.

A rhetoric of reason brings discovery and justification back together as modifications of the same process, so that their similarities and their inevitable and proper tensions can be better understood. It describes the difference between them without absolutizing it in a metaphysical way a way that ends up degrading inquiry and discovery and the processes associated with them.


Crosswhite, J. (1996). The rhetoric of reason: Writing and the attractions of argument. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.

Index of Essays

Please e-mail your impressions to: