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That’s no argument! The dialectic of non-argumentation


What if in discussion the critic refuses to recognize an emotionally expressed (alleged) argument of her interlocutor as an argument, accusing him of having presented no argument at all. In this paper, we shall deal with this reproach, which taken literally amounts to a charge of having committed a fallacy of non-argumentation. As such it is a very strong, if not the ultimate, criticism, which even carries the risk of abandonment of the discussion and can, therefore, not be made without burdening oneself with correspondingly strong obligations. We want to specify the fallacies of non-argumentation and their dialectic, i.e., the proper way to criticize them, the appropriate ways for the arguer to react to such criticism, and the appropriate ways for the critic to follow up on these reactions. Among the types of fallacy of non-argumentation, the emphasis will be on the appeal to popular sentiments (argumentum ad populum). Our aim is to reach, for cases of (alleged) non-argumentation, a survey of dialectical possibilities. By making the disputants themselves responsible for the place of emotion in their dialogues, we hope to contribute to a further development of the theory of dialectical obligations.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    There are other kinds of ad populum and ad verecundiam, which are not specimens of non-argumentation. For instance, the present type of ad populum should not be confused with the popularity type, which consists of an appeal to the large number of adherents to an opinion in order to justify the opinion. See also Note 7.

  2. 2.

    Commandment 4 corresponds to Rule 4 of the Rules for Critical Discussion (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992, p. 208).

  3. 3.

    In Rehg’s view, rhetorical considerations must be seen as useful from the stance of Habermas’ theory of argumentation: “Properly employed, these devices [ethos and pathos] do not circumvent or undermine logos, or substantive arguments on the merits, but rather assist in the intersubjective judgment of such arguments,” especially when the participants agree on the relevant considerations, yet judge their weights differently (Rehg 1997, p. 369).

  4. 4.

    We return to Gilbert’s and Walton’s accounts of emotion in argument when examining, below, how discussants may legitimately employ emotions in an argumentative discussion.

  5. 5.

    On the other hand, he also mentions cognitive advantages: “While being close, you may understand better some aspects of the situation you are in. Moreover, emotional arousal increases attentional capacity. Accordingly, emotions typically increase memory” (p. 48).

  6. 6.

    In Walton’s view emotions are closely connected to an arguer’s concessions. A first connection is that an emotional appeal “can link an argument to an arguer’s so-called dark-side commitments on an issue” and reveal these implicit, but deeply felt, commitments (Walton 1992, p. 27). A second connection is that “emotions have a steering function as presumptive bases for reasoning” (p. 256). For example, the feeling of sympathy may guide a reasoner to act according to the following (prima facie legitimate, yet presumptive and defeasible) maxim: “If you feel sympathy, steer towards supportive action” (p. 256).

  7. 7.

    These four types of ad populum arguments in some way or other directly appeal to the commitments of the addressees. In the popularity types of ad populum, however, the strategy rather is to appeal to the idea that other people are committed to some proposition, which is then put forward as a basis for the addressee to accept that proposition (Walton 1999, p. 198). The popularity types are characterized by argumentation schemes—the “pop scheme” and its variants (p. 200)—whereas, for the characterization of the other types here mentioned, the reference to argumentation schemes seems dispensable. This distinction roughly corresponds to the two subtypes of ad populum van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1992. p. 213) distinguish, to wit, violations of the Relevance Rule (non-argumentation) and violations of the Argumentation Scheme Rule (appeal to popularity).

  8. 8.

    In this paper, we use the term “appeal to popular sentiments,” unless we refer to Walton, in the somewhat wider sense, which includes all kinds of ad populum except the popularity types (see Note 7).

  9. 9.

    We did not find this exact slogan elsewhere in Neos’s campaign. Yet, their campaign does breath the spirit that, in general, the unification of Europe deserves our appreciation.

  10. 10.

    Also, there may be an implicit appeal to authority, in so far as Strolz presents himself as a serious politician whose evaluative commitment merits due consideration.

  11. 11.

    This characteristic refers to the popularity subtype of ad populum, rather than to the popular sentiments subtype in which we are primarily interested. See Note 7.

  12. 12.

    In pragma-dialectical terms: Evading the burden of proof is a fallacy of the opening stage whereas non-argumentation is one of the argumentation stage (van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992, pp. 209, 210; van Eemeren and Grootendorst 2004, pp. 167–168, 171, 191–192). Van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1992, p. 209–210, 216) mention appeal to diffidence (“personal guarantee of the rightness of the standpoint,” “Argumentum ad verecundiam \(_{2}\)”), but not appeal to popular sentiments, as a way to evade the burden of proof. Both are mentioned as variants of non-argumentation (1992, p. 210, “parading one’s own qualities” and “playing on the emotions of the audience;” p. 216 “Argumentum ad verecundiam \(_{3}\);” p. 213, “Argumentum ad populum \(_{2}\)”).

  13. 13.

    Note that, from a theoretical viewpoint. what she conceives as non-argumentation could actually be a case of acceptable argumentation or of very weak or bad argumentation, instead of non-argumentation.

  14. 14.

    Barth and Krabbe (1982, p. 63) propose a rule according to which one may “withdraw from the discussion without losing it,” if the other side commits a rule-violation (rule FD E5). They also suggest strengthening this rule to one that makes the perpetrator lose and his victim win the discussion (rule FD E5super).

  15. 15.

    In their criticism of respectively Case 1(b) (Giuliano) and 2(a) (Boehner), Chait and Leon disregard the nuggets of argumentation (based on tradition, law or the authority of a church) present in these contributions, i. e. they do not consider them as arguments.

  16. 16.

    To this end, we will use four parameters—focus, force, norm, and level (Krabbe and van Laar 2011).

  17. 17.

    Hamblin (1970) introduced the notion of a “point of order” in particular to examine charges of equivocation. This account of equivocation has given rise to the more general study of metadialogues in which participants can evaluate previous moves as (il)legitimate, strategically weak (strong) or institutionally (in)admissible (Krabbe 2003, cf. Finocchiaro 2013).

  18. 18.

    We recognize that the utterance “That’s no argument” can be and is also used to charge the interlocutor with having provided argumentation that is probatively irrelevant or argumentation that, though relevant, is overly weak. In this paper, we restrict our attention to occurrences of this charge in which the opponent can be taken to mean literally what she says.

  19. 19.

    In limiting ourselves to the two ways explained below, we assume that “an argument” is a configuration of one or more propositions, advanced with the apparent aim to convince an opponent of a standpoint. Note that if one starts from a richer notion of argumentation, this would have the consequence that additional defenses become available for defending a charge of non-argumentation. For example, if argumentation is supposed to include a “dialectical tier” next to an “illative core” (Johnson 2000), a third way to defend the charge would consist in advancing that the proponent’s contribution, although it may contain an illative core, does not contain a dialectical tier.

  20. 20.

    We use argumentation scheme in an inclusive sense to encompass both deductively valid patterns of reasoning as well as merely defeasibly valid (or cogent) patterns of argumentation.

  21. 21.

    i.e. the set of alleged reasons.

  22. 22.

    Somewhat confusingly, they characterize non-argumentation as argumentation that does not allow of such a reconstruction.

  23. 23.

    In a quarrel as well as in other kinds of eristic dialogue, the venting of emotions may be instrumental for the participants both in realizing their individual aims of settling the social hierarchy in their favor as well as in clearing the air and in reaching a social accommodation that is agreeable to both (cf. Walton and Krabbe 1995, pp. 76–79).


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For their useful suggestions, we would like to thank two anonymous referees of this journal, as well as the audience of a presentation of an earlier and shorter version of this paper at The 8th ISSA Conference on Argumentation in Amsterdam, July 1–4, 2014 (Krabbe and van Laar 2015).

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Correspondence to Jan Albert van Laar.

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Krabbe, E.C.W., van Laar, J.A. That’s no argument! The dialectic of non-argumentation. Synthese 192, 1173–1197 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-014-0609-9

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  • Ad populum
  • Criticism
  • Dialogue
  • Emotion
  • Fallacy of non-argumentation