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Practical Argumentation in the Making: Discursive Construction of Reasons for Action

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Argumentation and Language — Linguistic, Cognitive and Discursive Explorations

Part of the book series: Argumentation Library ((ARGA,volume 32))


The goal of this chapter is to catalogue ways in which practical argumentation (PA)—argumentation aimed at deciding on a course of action—is produced discursively in deliberative discussions. This is a topic largely neglected in the literature on PA focused primarily on the abstract features of practical inference. I connect to this literature by arguing that the complex scheme of PA inferentially hinges on three different principles for rationally selecting means to achieve the desired goal: the means have to be either the best, satisfactory or necessary in order to ground the practical inference and thus be adopted. Based on these theoretically-derived distinctions, I scrutinise the linguistic indicators of the three types of means-goal inferences of PA. As a corpus, I use a set of official European Union policy documents called Transforming Europe’s energy system released in Brussels in July 2015.

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  1. 1.

    Whether the decision (or even a weaker predisposition) to act is eventually implemented is quite another issue, traditionally discussed as the problem of weakness of will or akrasia. Still, regardless of whether the action is finally undertaken or not, the action-orientation is a definitional feature of practical argument.

  2. 2.

    An exception is van Eemeren et al.’s (2007) study of argumentative indicators of what they call “pragmatic” argumentation, discussed below.

  3. 3.

    I follow the terminology of van Eemeren et al. who “call words and expressions that may refer to argumentative moves such as putting forward a standpoint or argumentation argumentative indicators” (2007, p. 1). According to them: “Argumentative indicators constitute keystones in the discourse, facilitating the identification and reconstruction of argumentative moves that are made in argumentative discussions and texts” (2007, p. 1).

  4. 4.

    In Searle’s (1975, 2001) taxonomy, action-relevant speech acts are either directives or commissives, or some mixture of them. As such, they are characterised by their world-to-words direction of fit, as their point is to get an agent (whether “I”, “you”, or “we”) to perform an action that will bring the world into a state captured in the intentional content of the speech act.

  5. 5.

    This section is based on Lewiński (2017).

  6. 6.

    According to philosophers such as Broome, this would be a paradigmatic case of “[f]ully spelt out and made explicit, correct [practical] reasoning” (Broome 2013, p. 260). See van Eemeren (2016, p. 17) for a similar account within the pragma-dialectical theory of argumentation.

  7. 7.

    The notion of inference-licence is used by Toulmin (2003/1958) interchangeably with inference-warrant (see p. 91). Toulmin traces the origins of the notion to the work of Gilbert Ryle, who also uses the notion of inference-ticket, “which licenses its possessors to move from asserting factual statements to asserting other factual statements” (1949, p. 121).

  8. 8.

    “Who wills the end, wills (so far as reason has a decisive influence on his actions) also the means which are indispensably necessary and in his power” (Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, pp. 80–81; cited in Broome 2013, p. 159). Indeed, the necessity of means is typically considered the paradigmatic type of inference licence in practical reason (Broome 2013; Walton 2007).

  9. 9.

    We need such a “material” licence, if only because the simple scheme for other than necessary means is formally invalid—it is based on the fallacy of affirming the consequent: If p leads to q, and we desire (ought to) q, then we should do p: p  q, q, so p (e.g., Searle 2001, p. 244).

  10. 10.

    Beyond uncertainty regarding the set of options to be considered, one can distinguish further sources of uncertainty, typically affecting our practical argumentation. Hansson and Hadorn (2016) discuss unidentified consequences, undecided values, undetermined demarcation of the decision, unclear connections with later decision on the same subject-matter, and unforeseeable dependence on decisions by others. Over and above simpler decisions under “risk” or “uncertainty” (e.g., when the options and their consequences are known, but not their precise probabilities of success), these complications may lead to decisions being argued for under “deep” or “great uncertainty” (Hansson and Hadorn 2016). Under such circumstances, even “static” contexts (as described here) become “dynamic”, in the sense of ever present uncertainty regarding the complete foreseeable impact of the means taken. Importantly, the scheme of PA presented above incorporates, in an informal fashion, the possibility of critically discussing most of these sources of uncertainty: values and their hierarchies, goals and other consequences of means taken, the way problematic circumstances/decision problems are framed, as well as the options to be considered and how they compare to the options advocated by others. In this way, while not minimally elegant, the scheme comprehensively includes many of the crucial concerns in practical argumentation.

  11. 11.

    For similar reasons, it has been argued (e.g. Byron 1998) that satisficing is eventually a species of optimisation, as it aims at finding the optimal balance between overall costs (effort, time, other resources) and benefits (satisfaction of preferences and values) of our actions.

  12. 12.

    Chang (2016, p. 231ff.) criticises this way of defining rational choice—which she calls “maximalism”—on the account that it is based on a negative (no better reasons, not worse) rather than a positive comparative fact (better than, equal to). However, with some uncontroversial additional assumptions (not worse iff better than or equal to), both views are compatible in this respect.

  13. 13.

    Accordingly, various “decision principles” for practical argument distinguished, e.g., by Brun and Betz (2016, Sect. 5.2) can be seen as specific instantiations of one of the three paths proposed here. For example, their “Practical Syllogism” defines the necessary path, “Optimal Choice” and “Expected Utility Maximisation” are instances of the best path, and so forth.

  14. 14.

    Following Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1969), pragma-dialecticians use the term pragmatic, rather than practical, argumentation.

  15. 15.

    The two other paths are also based on comparisons, but in a less direct way. Realising that a given means is necessary requires its prior comparison to other—inadmissible, unattainable or inefficient—means, thus leaving this means as the only, hence necessary, alternative for reaching the goal (possibly in conjunction with other means, which can all be individually necessary, and jointly sufficient). The satisfactory path requires a comparison to the threshold set in advance (“Will giving up on the TV plan save me enough money per month?”).

  16. 16.

    Available from the official EU Commission website:

  17. 17.

    These languages are: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, and Swedish.

  18. 18.

    For a recent analysis of the intricate linguistic relations between comparatives and superlatives, see e.g. Dunbar and Wellwood (2016).

  19. 19.

    This is in response to a comment of an anonymous reviewer, whom I thank.

  20. 20.

    In this sense, the necessity becomes a meta-argumentative principle in PA. We need to either: (1) do the best thing; (2) do what’s good enough; or (3) do what we need to do.


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I would like to thank Steve Oswald, Jérôme Jacquin, and Thierry Herman for their successful effort in producing this volume, and each individual chapter, including mine. The comments of two anonymous reviewers were most useful in bringing the chapter to its current shape. This work has been supported by an exploratory grant for international projects, awarded by the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities (NOVA FCSH), Universidade Nova de Lisboa, as well as an international grant of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) and The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) “Ecological reasoning and decision making in innovation-oriented industry sectors at the periphery of Europe” (TUBITAK/0010/2014).

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Lewiński, M. (2018). Practical Argumentation in the Making: Discursive Construction of Reasons for Action. In: Oswald, S., Herman, T., Jacquin, J. (eds) Argumentation and Language — Linguistic, Cognitive and Discursive Explorations. Argumentation Library, vol 32. Springer, Cham.

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