Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Navigating the Visual Turn in Argument

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Navigating the Visual Turn in Argument

Article excerpt

This is the third special issue of Argumentation and Advocacy devoted to visual arguing. In it, we and other authors discuss visual arguing broadly conceived-as disagreement, debate, and explanation that employ non-verbal visuals of some sort (pictures, maps, drawings, video, imaging, bodies, etc.). The first special issue on visual argument, published in 1996, was the first scholarly work to have a range of authors theorize and analyze the use of pictures, photographs, videos, art, and other visual media in arguing and reasoning. The second special issue, published in 2007, expanded the study of visual argument to include the body as a medium (as in the case of tattoos) and brought into the discussion texts that originated outside the United States.

Since the 1990s, the study of visual arguing has become a mainstay in argumentation theory, which has itself emerged as an interdisciplinary amalgam of rhetoric; philosophy, especially (informal) logic and epistemology; communication theory, including pragma-dialectics; and other subdisciplines (e.g., critical theory, cognitive and social psychology, and artificial intelligence) that study arguing. In the last quarter century, argumentation theory has reinvigorated the study of argumentation and advocacy in verbal, visual, embodied, and multimodal forms.

This introduction to the current special issue comments on some of the key developments that have fostered (and, in some cases, possibly hindered) the ways in which argumentation theory has engaged questions about visual arguing. Our aim is not to provide a comprehensive account of these developments (for that, we recommend the recent review and bibliography by Kjeldsen, 2015), but to offer commentary on questions about visual argument that have been settled and to frame discussion about those that require more research as the field continues to evolve.


Like many new ideas, the idea that arguments can be visual began its life in controversy. In an attempt to ensure a balanced discussion, David Birdsell and Leo Groarke began the 1996 special issue with a skeptical essay by David Fleming. In answer to the question "Can pictures be arguments?" Fleming (1996) responded with an emphatic "No." In the present discussion, we begin by revisiting his response, asking whether his fundamental challenges have been answered. Is it now clear that visual arguments exist, that pictures and other images can be arguments? We respond with an emphatic "Yes."

An answer to such a question must be founded on an account of visual arguments and, more fundamentally, the notion of argument it assumes. Let us begin with the notion of argument that Fleming (1996) invoked in his discussion:

Let's try out a fairly conventional definition and see how pictures stack up. An argument is an intentional human act in which support is offered on behalf of a debatable belief... An argument, in other words, involves a two-part relation, one part (evidence, data, proof, support, reason, etc.) supporting the other (position, claim, assertion, conclusion, thesis, point, argument, proposition, etc.), (p. 12)

In considering whether pictures and other images can be arguments in this sense, it is important to note a key difference between our conception of visual argument and the notion of pictures-as-arguments Fleming rejected (his paper never used the term visual argument). He assumed that the question of whether pictures can be arguments is the question of whether an argument can be conveyed in non-verbal ways that are exclusively visual. This is an odd restriction given that pictures, especially those that function argumentatively, rarely occur in isolation given that arguers combine verbal and visual (and many other kinds of elements) in whatever ways they think most effectively establish their conclusions in particular situations.

In part, the literature on visual argument has answered Fleming's claim that pictures cannot be arguments by embracing a broader notion of visual argument than the one he proposed. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.