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The Rhetoric of Thick Representation: How Pictures Render the Importance and Strength of an Argument Salient


Some forms of argumentation are best performed through words. However, there are also some forms of argumentation that may be best presented visually. Thus, this paper examines the virtues of visual argumentation. What makes visual argumentation distinct from verbal argumentation? What aspects of visual argumentation may be considered especially beneficial?

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  1. As mentioned elsewhere (Sonesson 2010a, b), Eco’s view of iconicity differs and develops in his work from viewing it as being based on conventionality (e.g. 1972), to proportionality (1979, 1984), and finally viewing icons as mirrors affording a direct view onto reality (2000). It should be noted that my discussion here does not deal with iconicity in general, but with the rhetorical affordances of pictures. Eco (1979: p. 232 ff.) distinguishes between several different types of articulation (e.g. without; second only; first only; two and three articulations as well as mobile articulation); however, it is not altogether clear how he positions pictures such as photographs.

  2. The three focus group interviews were carried out in Norway during June 2014. The groups consisted of six pensioners in their 70s, five young women aged 18–19, and four university students —all unknown to one another. The respondents were briefly informed about the proposed amendment and the organisation “every1against1” and then shown the ad without any mention of the possible message or content. Even though the respondents were Norwegian, and their verbal responses somewhat colloquial, they still clearly captured the general thrust of the argument as I have described it with claim, ground and warrant.

  3. The point is neither to claim that this is “the correct interpretation” nor to claim that audiences will necessarily interpret the ad in this way—even though this is what the focus group interviews clearly suggest. The point is simply to show that the ad invites the construction of a specific argument, and that the respondents generally made the intended inference.

  4. We may also say that they have more weight or strength.

  5. Even though Christian Kock has used the term “weight” in some publications (e.g. 2007b), he expresses resistance to using this term in other publications, because it seems to indicate that everything can be measured on the same scale, thereby neglecting the intersubjectivity and multidimensionality of rhetorical reasoning (Kock 2003, 2007a, 2009). Kock now seems to prefer the term argument strength. Unfortunately, Toulmin (1958) equates strength with soundness, validity and cogency, which differs from Kock’s use of strength.

  6. I am aware that many argumentation scholars are deeply sceptical of notions such as strength, weight, and importance in argumentation theory. Because of the element of subjectivity in this kind of argumentation appraisal, some theorists label this kind of thinking relativistic. However, as Kock has argued, there is necessarily “inherent audience-relativity of argumentation over issues where values are involved” (Kock 2007b, p. 189). Calling an argumentation theory that takes strength, importance and values into considerations relativistic” does not make the facts it describes less true or more avoidable” (Kock 2007a, p. 105).


  8. E.g. Huffington Post 3/13/2013. See (downloaded July 14, 2014). Cf. Hollywood Reporter 06/02/2013. See (downloaded July 14, 2014).

  9. This, of course, is different from the question of guilt, where the emotional appeal of images is rightly banned, but where visual documentation may serve a purpose.

  10. I thank the anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.


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My warm thanks to Tony Blair, Georges Roque and the anonymous reviewer for proposals and comments that have helped me improve this paper.

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Correspondence to Jens E. Kjeldsen.

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Kjeldsen, J.E. The Rhetoric of Thick Representation: How Pictures Render the Importance and Strength of an Argument Salient. Argumentation 29, 197–215 (2015).

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  • Picture
  • Presence
  • Rhetoric
  • Semiotic
  • Thick representation
  • Visual argumentation