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Argumentational Virtues and Incontinent Arguers

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Argumentation virtue theory is a new field in argumentation studies. As in the case of virtue ethics and virtue epistemology, the study of virtue argumentation draws its inspiration from the works of Aristotle. First, I discuss the specifics of the argumentational virtues and suggest that they have an instrumental nature, modeled on the relation between the Aristotelian intellectual virtue of ‘practical wisdom’ and the moral virtues. Then, inspired by Aristotle’s discussion of akrasia, I suggest that a theory of fallacy in argumentation virtue theory can be built upon the concept of ‘incontinence’.

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  1. 1.

    E.g. (Sorell 2005).

  2. 2.

    Aristotle also tells us what virtue is not. Three potential candidates for the status of virtue are found in the soul, i.e. passions, faculties and states. It is shown that virtue is not a passion and it is not a faculty (Nicomachean Ethics II, 5). Therefore it is a state, a stable disposition of a thing by which the thing fulfils its function well. In humans, it is a state or disposition of the soul (Nicomachean Ethics II, 6).

  3. 3.

    Cf. Posterior Analytics I, 3; II, 19.

  4. 4.

    In this paper I take ‘ethical’ and ‘moral’ as synonymous.

  5. 5.

    At one point I was inclined to link the process of internalizing a normative disposition with the processes of belief formation, since argumentational dispositions entail beliefs that regulate the acquisition (or propagation) of (other) beliefs. However, one reviewer’s comments convinced me that this position is problematic and cannot be defended in the space allotted to this paper. I still think there is a relation between virtues considered as dispositions and as beliefs, and I will try to clarify the issue in the future in light of these questions: Is disposition a kind of belief in specific cases? Is belief a type of disposition in specific cases? Or is a belief a sign of an internalized disposition? The eventual clarification of this relation and an extended discussion on the relation between virtues, dispositions and beliefs may provide relevant insights into argumentational virtues. For the moment I will assume that internalized normative dispositions can be expressed via propositions that express the agent’s own beliefs.

  6. 6.

    It is fair to ask what the best medium would be to illustrate the working of intellectual virtues in general and of the deliberative virtues in particular. Aristotle used practical syllogisms to show how these virtues work in the case of human action. Here, I opt for a model mimicking the practical syllogism, but I will name it ‘deliberative syllogism’ in order to accommodate more variants of deliberative processes, not just those regarding human action. Deliberating on the best means of persuasion is one of them. It may well be that before properly internalizing a normative disposition, one needs to formulate it in order to be fully aware of it (like the cases of recalling rules in grammar, logic or mathematics).

  7. 7.

    I take ‘argument’ in a broad sense here, meaning a discourse or act having whose purpose is to persuade someone of something.

  8. 8.

    For a treatment on this topic see Wolf (2010).

  9. 9.

    The roots of this classification can be found in Aristotle’s writings (Krabbe and van Laar 2007). Or we can go even further back to Plato’s Sophist where the different types of dialogue are distinguished by the method of division (Sophist 225a–226a).

  10. 10.

    This is ‘active knowledge’ for Aristotle.

  11. 11.

    It may be of interest that Aristotle presents continence (enkrateia) in terms of a mean: ‘Since there is also a sort of man who takes less delight than he should in bodily things, and does not abide by reason, he who is intermediate between him and the incontinent man is the continent man’ (Nicomachean Ethics VII, 9, 1151b23–1151b25).

  12. 12.

    The view that Aristotle draws a distinction between intended and unintended fallacy has been challenged by Scott G. Schreiber who argues convincingly that this distinction was introduced later, given the perceived context of usage in the case of each type of fallacious reasoning (Schreiber 2003, 173–176).

  13. 13.

    Leaving aside the case of belief, this typology of dispositions is inspired to some extent by Aristotle’s distinction between the irrational and the rational parts of the soul, and the division of the irrational part into vegetative and appetitive.

  14. 14.

    If there are virtues, dispositions or beliefs that can sidetrack the actualization of argumentational virtues, are there also virtues, dispositions or beliefs that aid the agent in keeping his train of thought on track to avoid akratic argumentational behavior? These are topics to be developed in future articles.


Translated Ancient Texts

  1. The Collected Dialogues of Plato including the Letters, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005; Protagoras, tr. W. K. C. Guthrie; Meno, tr. W. K. C. Guthrie; Sophist, tr. F. M. Cornford; Lesser Hippias, tr. Benjamin Jowett

  2. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, 2 volumes, edited by Jonathan Barnes, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984; Posterior Analytics, tr. Jonathan Barnes; Topics, tr. W. A. Pickard-Cambridge; Sophistical Refutations, tr. W. A. Pickard-Cambridge; On the Soul, tr. J. A. Smith; Movement of Animals, tr. A. S. L. Farquharson; Metaphysics, tr. W. D. Ross; Nicomachean Ethics, tr. W. D. Ross, rev. J. O. Urmson; Rhetoric, tr. W. Rhys Roberts

Modern Texts

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  2. Aberdein A (2014a) In defence of virtue: the legitimacy of agent-based argument appraisal. Informal Logic 34(1):77–93

  3. Aberdein A (2014b) Fallacy and argumentational vice. In: Mohammed D, Lewinski M (eds) Virtues in argumentation: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation (OSSA), May 22–25, 2013. OSSA, Windsor

  4. Aikin SF, Clanton JC (2010) Developing group-deliberative virtues. Journal of Applied Philosophy 27(4):409–424

  5. Bowell T, Kingsbury J (2013) Virtue and argument: taking character into account. Informal Logic 33(1):22–32

  6. Cohen DH (2005) Arguments that backfire. In: Hitchcock D, Farr D (eds) The uses of argument. OSSA, Hamilton, ON, pp 58–65

  7. Cohen DH (2009) Keeping an open mind and having a sense of proportion as virtues in argumentation. Cogency 1(2):49–64

  8. Kant I (1992) Lectures on logic [trans: Michael Young J (ed)] Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  9. Kimball RH (2006) What’s wrong with Argumentum ad Baculum? Reasons, threats, and logical norms. Argumentation 20:89–100

  10. Krabbe ECW, van Laar JA (2007) About old and new dialectic: dialogues, fallacies and strategies. Informal Logic 27(1):27–58

  11. Oakley J, Cocking D (2003) Virtue ethics and professional roles. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  12. Rorty AO (1980) Where does the akratic break take place? Australasian Journal of Philosophy 58(94):333–346

  13. Schreiber S (2003) Aristotle on false reasoning: Language and the world in the sophistical refutations. SUNY Press, Albany

  14. Sorell T (2005) On saying no to history of philosophy. In: Sorell T, Rogers GAJ (eds) Analytic philosophy and history of philosophy. Clarendon Press, Oxford

  15. Sosa E (1991) Knowledge in perspective. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  16. Strait LP, Wallace B (2008) Academic debate as a decision-making game: inculcating the virtue of practical wisdom. Contemporary Argumentation and Debate 29:1–37

  17. Walton D, Krabbe ECW (1995) Commitment in dialogue. SUNY Press, Albany

  18. Wolf S (2010) A system of argumentation forms in Aristotle. Argumentation 24(1):19–40

  19. Zagzebski LT (1996) Virtues of the mind. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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This paper is supported by the Sectoral Operational Programme Human Resources Development (SOP HRD), financed from the European Social Fund and by the Romanian Government under the contract number POSDRU/159/1.5/133675. I would like to express my gratitude towards the two anonymous reviewers for their extremely insightful and helpful comments based on which I improved my paper. I would also extend my thanks to the editors for their valuable proofreading of the present paper.

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Correspondence to Iovan Drehe.

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Drehe, I. Argumentational Virtues and Incontinent Arguers. Topoi 35, 385–394 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11245-015-9333-4

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  • Argumentational virtues
  • Ethical virtues
  • Epistemological virtues
  • Instrumental virtues
  • Teleological virtues
  • Fallacies
  • Incontinence