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Modus Tonens


Restating an interlocutor’s position in an incredulous tone of voice can sometimes serve legitimate dialectical ends. However, there are cases in which incredulous restatement is out of bounds. This article provides an analysis of one common instance of the inappropriate use of incredulous restatement, which the authors call “modus tonens.” The authors argue that modus tonens is vicious because it pragmatically implicates the view that one’s interlocutor is one’s cognitive subordinate and provides a cue to like-minded onlookers that dialectical opponents are not to be treated as epistemic peers.

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  1. See van Eemeren and Grootendorst (2004, p. 68) for an account of the commissives that are allowable in the confrontation stages of argumentative dialogue. See also Walton (1989, pp. 9–10) on the conditions for speakers to open argumentative dialogue with expressions of willingness to abide by commitment rules.

  2. See Brown and Levinson (1987) and Cutting (2002) for accounts of strategies for avoiding face-threatening gestures. Additionally, surprised restatement may be taken as following a maxim of tact or approbation where one minimizes overt criticism of others (Leech 1983, p. 107).

  3. See Tracy and Carjuzáa (1993, pp. 181–182) on identity enactment in reasoned dialogue—cognitive authorities enact that authority even with their questions. With expressions of surprise, in cases where the authority is clear, the implication is that of directive to reformulate or rethink.

  4. Such an argument would take the form of argument from authority: those who have thought about the issue of whether p or not p hold that not-p; therefore, it is reasonable to hold that not-p.

  5. Take such situations as tantamount to well-poisoning.

  6. We borrow the term browbeating from Gaus (1996, p. 124).

  7. See Walton (1989, p. 63) for an account of the listener responsibility of helpfulness.

  8. See Aikin and Anderson (2006, pp. 21–22) for aspects of arguers tacitly addressing an onlooking/non-participating audience. The force of such gestures is to communicate an assessment of the interlocutor that should be shared between the speaker and the audience. For example, expressions of exasperation with an interlocutor are not only for the interlocutor but also for the sake of those watching the exchange. Additionally, Richardson’s ‘performative bullshit’ (2006, p. 94) has the same function—a speaker directs her audience to take her arguments as good because she presents them as good, and alternately her opponent’s arguments as bad because she presents them as bad.


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Correspondence to Robert B. Talisse.

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Aikin, S.F., Talisse, R.B. Modus Tonens. Argumentation 22, 521 (2008).

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  • Argumentation
  • Rhetoric
  • Modus tonens
  • Tone of voice