Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Challenge of Avant-Garde Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

The Challenge of Avant-Garde Argument

Article excerpt


The commonplace among many contemporary students of practical argument is to proclaim the tentativeness of any inference, i.e., an argument is built on the probable, not on an absolute foundation. Despite this tentativeness at the ground floor of reasoning, there remains an enormous confidence in the production of argument itself. Many scholars place the entire weight of personal and social progress on some concept of argumentation. Indeed, argument and hope are frequent bedfellows in the academy; various conceptions of informal and rhetorical argument are increasingly recommended as solutions to nagging philosophical and political problems. For instance, argument is presumed to be efficacious in democratic political judgment (Barber; Bellah et al.) and to be crucial in the critique of contemporary society (Goodnight; Willard, "Argumentation"); it is given the power to overcome radical relativism (Kienpointner) and to combat justificational epistemologies (Weimer); it is instrumental in rescuing philosophy from social irrelevance (Toulmin, "Recovery"); it is even described as the practical and interpersonal expression of reason itself (Walton). Each of these positions requires a confidence in argument. Of course, the degree of confidence varies, and so would the accompanying degree of hope, but in each instance argument is deemed worthy of functioning as a support for an intellectual position; it is a truss or brace for a larger intellectual structure. Often, it constitutes the entire structure itself.

Chaim Perelman is a fitting example of how argument can serve as an object of academic trust. His writing, both as an individual and with L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, has strategically placed argument at the center of human affairs. Wherever human struggles are found--in philosophy, science, ideology or politics--Perelman's message is constant: argument is the ideal mechanism for approaching human disagreements.

One such account of his message is elaborated in the essay "Reflections on Practical Reason." Herein he places argument at the center of any determination of the proper ends of humankind; he includes in this center the nature of justice and the appropriate criteria for evaluating actions. Characteristic of his work, he accomplishes his goal through a strategic review of modern philosophy. He identifies the philosophical understanding of practical reason among the skeptics, such as Montaigne and Hume, then he moves through the rationalist response, by Descartes and Kant, and on to an explanation of how practical reason has been reduced to technical (means- ends) reasoning. He finally uses the logical positivists for the leverage point by which (rhetorical) argument can be restored to practical reason; their ultimate reliance on the justification of foundationalism, i.e., the axioms of their deductive system must be defended, is the place where argument returns. He can avoid, therefore, a rationalist epistemology and rely on a rhetorical epistemology. Skepticism is sidestepped through the admission that knowledge cannot be certain and that argumentation, which even the skeptics inevitably practice, is the basis for reasonable human decisions.

Perelman's epistemological position is persuasive. One can never know in any foundationalist sense of the concept of knowledge; one can only be reasonable. Yet in the center of his epistemology is a trust in argument as the key to reasonableness, by extension, a trust in argument for the well- being of humankind. We owe it to ourselves to interrogate this confidence in argument.

An initial step in the interrogation, and that which serves as the purpose of this essay, is the presentation of an idea--a notion or an insight--which is by nature unpresentable. Thus, the idea can be sketched and elaborated, but it will remain indefensible to an important degree. Furthermore, the idea always will escape any attempt to capture it within discourse. …

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