Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Beyond Tabula Rasa

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Beyond Tabula Rasa

Article excerpt

Tabula rasa is no longer secure. The assumptions that stand watch at the frontiers of that perspective are no longer sufficient to turn are the foreign elements that threaten its purity. Proponents of the tabula rasa judging philosophy have erected a fortress around the dialectic of academic debate, where only competitors are offered asylum. Judges are beggars who cannot find work in that dialectic and are turned out at the city gates. They are marginalized by the assumption that they have no role to play in the competitor's deliberation. The judges are able to infiltrate the castle by day amidst the mob of traders and towns-people who move through its gates. But very evening when the crowd thins and the gates are locked for the night, the beggars are driven back into the countryside where they chronicle the day's events. Though alienated from debate's dialectic, tabula rasa judges have found their niche beyond its confines as historians. The subjects of this history understand that there is no such thing as an objective rendering of the facts, and at night steal away to ;Appeal for a more prominent place in the hermits' accounts. This dialogue has opened up under the nose of the night watch, and it is bringing down the walls as surely as any siege.

Tabula rasa is the Latin term for a cleaned tablet, one that has been erased and is ready for new marks. Academic debate borrows the term from empiricist philosophers who hold that, prior to sense perception, the mind is as blank as a tabula rasa. There are no innate ideas. To guess from its name, then, the tabula rasa judging philosophy is one in which the judge "enters the debate tabula rasa; to determine the outcome solely on the basis of argumentation in the round (Ulrich 1979, p. 2). The tabula rasa judge defers to the competitors, not only on substantive issues, but on procedural issues and standards for argument evaluation. The competitors distinguish between good and bad arguments, and even determine what constitutes an argument at all. In this way tabula rasa is not a judging paradigm in the traditional sense. Whereas traditional paradigms impose standards upon competitors which are beyond appeal, the tabula rasa perspective allow,; new standards to be developed in every round.(1)

In practice as well as in literature, tabula rasa is not the purist conception that Ulrich articulates; Ill the preceding account of tabula rasa, all standards are generated by the competitor s dialectical exchange. The judge looks to that dialectic, and not to her own predispositions, to decide which team has won the debate. In fact, "decide" is the wrong word. Ideally, the judge merely "records" the winning team on the ballot. But this ideal has been attacked by critics who argue that the dialectic cannot function absent the judge's imposition of standards for argument evaluation.(2) Argument over the nature of argument is a circular endeavor because the warrant always presupposes the claim. Meaningful progress can only occur in a dialectical situation when the disputants are bound to rules of argumentation that are themselves beyond argument. This criticism, fatal to the purist conception of tabula rasa, has been conceded. Even advocates of tabula rasa acknowledge that judges must impose, some standards for argument evaluation, upon competitors.(3)

This concession manifests the disparity between the tabula rasa philosophy as it is put into practice and the tabula rasa ideal that often parades in its place. The tabula rasa ideal asks the judge to arrive at a decision that does not contribute to the competitor's exchange. Remember, however, that the ideal is unattainable; judges must in fact contribute to the dialectic, if only by supplying foundational standards for argumentation. The tabula rasa judge confesses the need to impose standards of some kind upon competitors, but the judging philosophy she adheres to tells her only that it would be best if she could impose no standards at all. …

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