Argumentation Theories

Janice Schuetz. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications, 2009.

No single theory of argumentation exists. Instead, a constellation of features and concepts drawn from philosophy, rhetoric, and social theories infuses different concepts and explanations of argumentation. Since ancient times, an emphasis on rationality and reasonable communication distinguished argumentation from other kinds of communication. Argumentation is a cooperative process in which communicators make inferences from various grounds and evidence; provide justifications for their conclusions or claims based on those starting points; choose among disputed options in controversies; and promote, defend, and amend positions and standpoints in response to other participants in the argumentative processes.

In contrast to formal logic, argumentation emphasizes practical reasoning, the everyday arguments that people use to solve disputes in interpersonal and public contexts. Examining products, processes, and procedures provides general perspectives for theorizing argumentation. Pragma-dialectics, the new rhetoric, and narrative paradigms explain and offer prominent frameworks for theorizing about argumentation.

General Perspectives for Theorizing Argumentation

Joseph Wenzel conceptualized three perspectives for studying argumentation theory: products derived from logic, processes associated with rhetoric, and procedures connected with dialectic. These perspectives have been reconfigured by some theorists to take into account the different fields or spheres in which they occur.

Products from Logic

Argument products extend the concepts of formal logic, a correct form of reasoning based on the linguistic progression that moves from a certitude stated in a major premise to an assertion of conditions in the minor premise and ends with a claim solely derived from both premises. Informal logic emphasizes everyday reasoning in which people make inferences, draw conclusions, and reason from one set of options to another in order to resolve disagreements or solve public problems. A long tradition of pedagogy based on informal logic theorized about argument products as different types of evidence, reasoning, and methods for creating and evaluating arguments. Evidence, the primary feature of argument products, consists of one or more grounds that arguers put forth as the basis for believing their claims. Naming and identifying adequate evidence is a common approach for teaching argumentation theory. Evidence consists of definitions, testimony, examples, personal experiences, history, and statistics located in complicated chains of reasoning found in speeches, essays, literary works, proposals, and other discourses. Pedagogical approaches to argumentation establish explicit norms and standards for evaluating a particular type of evidence. For example, a norm for assessing the quality of statistical evidence depends on the extent to which numerical measures derive from reliable and valid methods that are up-to-date and generalizable to populations other than those from which the statistical evidence originated.

Of equal importance are the types of logical connections that supply the implicative structure in arguments, including signs, examples, cause-effect, analogy, authority, and definition. Argumentation pedagogy explicates the different types of reasoning and the relevant implicative structure that links evidence to claims. If an argument fails to meet these standards, a fallacy may result. Fallacies are errors in reasoning that deceive an audience by seeming to prove a claim based on a faulty inference. A cause-effect argument, for example, should establish a relationship between two events so that the first brings about the second; that is, the high price of oil is the cause of inflation. A type of fallacy, false cause (post hoc), results when two events or actions occur at the same time and the arguer infers that one event is the cause of the other without considering other possible causes. Errant logical connections lead to a variety of other fallacies resulting from appeals to authority, pity, fear, the majority, or tradition. Because fallacies are both common and interesting, teachers often engage students in diagnosing the errors in argument products and explaining how flawed arguments can be avoided.

Wayne Brockriede and Douglas Ehninger adapted a model developed by philosopher Stephen Toulmin for teaching argumentation that describes and evaluates a unit of proof as an argument product by creating a visual construction of its parts. Diagramming begins with a claim: the judgment or conclusion that the arguer wants someone to accept. The diagram identifies the evidence (grounds or data) that serves as the basis for the claim and the warrants that make the connection between the evidence and claim. A reservation placed under the claim states the conditions under which the claim does not hold, and a qualifier acknowledges a limitation on the generalizability of the claim, using words like most, many, or some. Backing provides additional evidence to support the warrant. Although Toulmin diagrams proved to be a useful tool for teaching students about logical products, they have limited potential as a method for analyzing and evaluating complex argumentative processes.

Processes from Rhetoric

The conception of argument processes derives from rhetorical theory and concentrates on the ways people argue in interpersonal and public interactions. Processes of practical reasoning concentrate on reasoned and purposeful rhetorical interactions that seek to resolve disagreements and disputes.

One simple concept of practical reasoning is the enthymeme, a truncated syllogism in which one or more of the premises or the conclusion is unstated but supplied by the audience to complete the argument. Examples of condensed arguments of this type are abundant. Many advertisements use enthymemes that present a conclusion—buy this brand of cola or vote for this candidate—that rely on audiences to fill in the missing premise and thereby supply the logical principles on which the conclusion is based. Enthymemes appear in many argumentative processes because audiences commonly contribute to the meaning of the reasons.

Argumentation processes take into account the rhetorical resources used by arguers in interpersonal and public disputes. For example, theories about argumentation processes consider the uses and effects of multiple chains of reasoning of complex arguments and counterarguments that involve rhetorical concepts, such as arguers’ character, stylistic features of the discourses and interactions, and exigencies of the situation that generated the argument. Other relational, ideological, or ideational concepts impact argumentation processes in substantive ways. Examining the intricacies of argumentation processes reveals how arguers find and construe issues; what choices they make regarding evidence; what strategies they use to assert, modify, and refute arguments of others; and how arguments are first assembled and then altered in the process of resolving disagreements and making decisions. This process perspective applies to analyses of the development, use, and outcomes of argumentation in marital disputes, children’s playground disagreements, and roommate conflicts and investigations of complex public policy disputes such as those involving women’s rights, immigration, global warming, and stem cell research.

Procedures from Dialectic

Argument procedures include explicit and implicit rules and interactional protocols that influence disputes and reveal the situational constraints and cultural norms affecting argumentative processes. Dialectic, the art of arguing for or against an issue from a particular standpoint, proceeds according to rules and norms agreed on by disputants, such as searching for probable truths, avoiding fallacies, and resolving controversial issues. Strategic dialectical processes are planned interactions that arguers employ to test ideas by asserting and defending standpoints and by refining and reformulating evidence, claims, and inferential patterns in response to the reasoning of other disputants. Dialectic is a cooperative means of arriving at a reasoned decision according to specific procedures.

Dialectical procedures help to promote ethical argumentation and enable disputants to reason in a civil manner. Several features characterize dialectical procedures: (a) Arguers cooperate in obeying rules in order to achieve a common purpose; (b) arguers present complete and accurate content; (c) arguers are open about their positions and standpoints and clear about the ideas they offer to support them; (d) arguers apply rigorous standards for presenting their own arguments and evaluating those of other disputants; (e) arguers respect other disputants; and (f) arguers act as restrained partisans who retain a standpoint at the same time they show a willingness to accept the amendments and judgments of others toward that standpoint. Parliamentary procedure is an example of a procedure that regulates the structure, content, and ethical interaction during decision-making processes.


Some theorists reconfigure products, processes, and procedures of arguments according to the different fields or spheres in which they occur. Thomas Goodnight and others elaborated this construct by examining contextual similarities among spheres—collections of people or groups, organizations, and professions—that interact with one another to make decisions or resolve disputes. The reasonableness of argumentation in a particular sphere depends on how arguers construct reasons; engage with others; and support, defend, and amend issues and standpoints according to the norms and rules of a sphere. For example, differences exist between personal, technical, and public spheres because arguers emphasize different procedures and processes in constructing and evaluating evidence, providing justifications, using language, and pursuing specific goals of a sphere. In personal spheres, arguers seek to resolve interpersonal disputes by identifying issues and negotiating outcomes according to mutually agreed-on rules. Friends and coworkers tend to resolve their disputes in personal spheres. Argumentation in technical spheres, however, adheres to explicit rules of evidence and modes of justification that direct reasoning processes toward specific goals and outcomes. The scientific and legal professions are exemplars of technical spheres. Public spheres are discursive arenas in which arguers take into account customs, traditions, and requirements of a polity and deal with the public business in deliberative forums, such as town meetings, legislative arenas, or the Internet. In counterpublic spheres, minority groups argue in ways that challenge and resist the standpoints defended by those holding positions of public power. Sphere theories construe argument products, processes, and procedures in innovative ways that bring attention to the importance of various contexts, goals, and procedures of argumentation theories.

Sample Theories

Various frameworks have been developed to theorize the argumentation process. Three sample theories will be discussed here: pragma-dialectics, the new rhetoric, and the narrative paradigm.


Pragma-dialectics, an argumentation theory introduced and refined by theorists at the University of Amsterdam, relies on reasoned and orderly dialectical procedures and practical reasoning processes for resolving differences of opinion. This perspective emphasizes how particular speech acts used in social-reasoning processes increase or decrease the acceptability of arguers’ controversial standpoints in disputes. This perspective stresses both the dialectical procedures and the instrumental and pragmatic goals that arguers pursue. One key procedural rule is that proponents of a standpoint must defend their positions when requested to do so, and another is that arguers must defend standpoints using correct argumentative schemes that address the patterns of inference underlying an argument. A scheme consists of types of arguments, such as appeal to authority, cause-effect reasoning, or analogy. Explicit standards exist for judging a particular scheme, such as determining whether an analogy shows sufficient similarity to another idea that it establishes a reasonable connection.

Argument analysis is the primary goal of pragma-dialectics. After categorizing a dispute according to sequential stages of confrontation, opening, argumentation, and conclusion, analysts then describe the disputed issues, identify standpoints of the arguers in relation to those issues, state the explicit and implicit arguments associated with disputants’ standpoints, and explain the complex structures and standards that apply to the arguments. Specifically, analysts utilize pragma-dialectics to explain disputes according to the interplay of argumentative speech acts, instrumental goals, and dialectical procedures. Speech acts take the form of arguers’ verbal claims—assertives, declaratives, and expressives—offered to support, defend, and amend specific standpoints. Instrumental actions consist of the strategic maneuvers that arguers employ to achieve their goals by accommodating their ideas to others. Strategic maneuvers demand consideration of the sufficiency of evidence, the commitments implicated in the speech acts, and the schemes utilized in relation to arguers’ standpoints. Resolving disagreements also depends on how arguers meet their dialogical obligations of cooperation, thoroughness, and the presentation of appropriate evidence. Pragma-dialectic analysis can be applied to resolutions of simple disagreements between a tenant and an apartment manager, for example, as well as complex disputes in legal forums and international negotiations.

The New Rhetoric

The new rhetoric emphasizes appeals to values as the primary means that arguers use to persuade others. Audiences consist of ensembles of people from whom arguers seek adherence to their claims. In order to make their claims acceptable to audiences, arguers construct reasons based on premises that come from facts (ideas that are of general knowledge and are verifiable), presumptions (shared and generally believed ideas about reality), and values (judgments about what is good or moral in society). Gaining audiences’ adherence to arguments depends on how arguers make connections between their own values and those of their audiences. The particular audience consists of real and definable groups of people that arguers seek to persuade in a specific situation. Voters in a city election, for example, are the particular audience addressed by a city council candidate. The universal audience is not the real ensemble of people addressed but is instead an ideal of competent and reasonable people holding universal values of justice, fairness, and equality. In order for arguers to gain the adherence of audiences to the reasons they put forth, the arguers must explicitly address the values of their particular audience and implicitly invoke the values of the universal audience.

Argument types depend on values. The quasilogical argument, for example, creates illusions about the connection between claims and the audience values on which those claims are based. These arguments are partially logical because they contain the structure of arguments, value associations, and connections, but not the logical content. For example, when legislators claim that new taxes hurt the middle class more than the upper class, they give the impression that the tax code is unfair although the taxes may in fact reduce the income of the upper class by a higher percentage than they do the income of the middle class. The persuasiveness of arguments about taxation policy depends on arguers’ and audiences’ sharing values of fairness rather than on causal logic based on facts. Another type, arguments based on the structure of reality, justifies arguers’ positions by linking them to audiences’ opinions and experiences of reality. For example, when arguers claim that global warming is a threat to the future of the planet, arguers rely more on their audiences’ opinions and experiences related to climate change than on their own ideas. This type of argumentation assumes that audiences already hold a view of reality, and so arguers create reasons directly aligned with audiences’ preexisting knowledge of reality. In contrast, arguments establishing the structure of reality promote a view at odds with the reality familiar to audiences. In this type of reasoning, arguers utilize examples, analogies, and models to construct a reasonable view of reality that is not part of the audiences’ knowledge. For example, to create a structure of reality for a criminal trial, defense attorneys may try to construe a criminal action as accidental rather than intentional based on the supposed reality in which it occurred. Although the jurors have no direct knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the crime, the defense attorney creates a reality (a description of circumstances) based on analogies of events familiar to jurors. The attorney’s descriptions serve as the basis for arguments showing that an action was accidental, not intentional.

The new rhetoric explains arguers’ strategic uses of reasoning based on associations and dissociations of ideas and issues in ways that gain audiences’ adherence. The reasonableness of argumentation process is influenced, not by external rules or norms, but by arguers’ explicit and implicit connections of their reasoning to the values of the particular and universal audience.

Narrative Paradigm

Narrative paradigm theory also conceptualizes rhetorical processes of argumentation influenced by values. Although stories are not the most common form for expressing arguments, they are a prominent kind of practical reasoning used by arguers to influence their audiences. Narratives convey specialized social knowledge that evokes reasoned responses from audiences but does not rely on the same kinds of evidence, modes of inference, and justifications typical of other products and processes of argumentation. Instead, narrative reasoning depends on how audiences make meaning from the values embedded in narratives and how these values inform their judgments and actions. Narratives contain both a logic and a rationality derived from how audiences attribute coherence and fidelity, along with probability, or the likelihood that the events described could have happened, to the stories they hear, read, and see. Coherence refers to the internal fit of the narrative parts, that is, the consistency of characters, action, dialogue, and setting. Fidelity relates to the truth value of the story, whether the narrative fits with the experiences of the audiences and their notions about sound reasoning. Taken together, both create narrative rationality, a quality that enables people to understand the actions of others and judge narrative accounts as reasoned explanations of human choice and action. Values are the core of narratives because they supply good reasons that authorize, sanction, or justify certain kinds of beliefs and actions for audiences. Good narrative reasoning embodies characteristics similar to other argumentation processes; it includes facts, assumes relevance, contains inferential patterns, embodies coherence and consistency, and addresses transcendent issues.

Narrative paradigm theory de-emphasizes informal logical products and stresses argument processes as social constructions of values. Narrative rationality applies to argumentation in fictional literature, television and stage dramas, and biographies and autobiographies, as well as to processes of jury decision making, organizational advocacy, and many kinds of political discourse. Some communication theorists apply narrative paradigm theory so generally that they lose sight of the centrality of practical reasoning processes and values and instead concentrate on narrative as a general idea related to communication practices.


Argument theories examine practical reasoning products, processes, and procedures. Theorists are indebted to traditions of logic, rhetoric, and dialectic for the concepts they have appropriated, modified, and constructed to explain argumentation. Early theories of argumentation developed in response to pedagogical goals. Later theories of pragma-dialectics, the new rhetoric, and narrative paradigm responded to pragmatic, analytical, and interpretive goals pertinent to the use of reasoning as a means of settling disagreements or disputes, making critical decisions, and socially constructing knowledge. In this way, argumentation theories are constellations of concepts that explain the centrality of reasoning to theories of communication.