Can Argumentation Always Deal with Dissensus?

  • James B. Freeman
Part of the Argumentation Library book series (ARGA, volume 22)


The literary critic Stanley Fish has issued a challenge to argumentation. Dissensus cannot be resolved rationally since dissenters accept incompatible basic premises not on evidence but as constituting what evidence is. There are no objective principles of evidence or value to which one could appeal in resolving disagreements of opinion. One’s basic principles rather express core self-defining commitments, accepted on faith. Different faith means different principles of evidence. One’s basic faith is immune both to critical scrutiny and to support through argumentation. Fish goes further. The liberal stance holds that some basic premises are open to objective agreement while others are matters of ideology. Only those positions open to objective discussion are reasonable. Argumentation theory presupposes the liberal stance. Fish holds that this stance then is itself an ideological view betraying an intolerance of ideological commitment, antithetical to the liberal stance. Liberalism is involved in a dilemma. We argue that argumentation theory can deal with Fish’s dilemma. Basic principles of evidence in effect are warrants. Fish has ignored that warrants can be backed in various ways. Not all warrants, then, need be matters of faith. Fish may reply that it is basic warrants which are matters of faith, reflecting self-defining existential commitments, the other warrants one accepts being derivative from the basic warrants. Without such basic warrants, one cannot recognize relations of evidence. We argue that this view can be easily counterexampled for warrants backed for example on empirical evidence. However, Fish may reply that claims of evidence for meaning and value, as opposed to merely descriptive matters, do depend on basic commitments, and argumentation cannot resolve dissensus here. But how does recognition of a particular prima facie duty, for example, rely on a basic commitment? Rather can we see recognition of such “lower level” judgments of value or meaning and basic commitments defining meaning or value in reflective equilibrium and thus in mutual support? Does recognition of this equilibrium depend on some basic commitment? Cannot one recognize the degree of reflective equilibrium in a given belief system, whether or not it is one’s own? Could one see one’s individual judgments in better reflective equilibrium with the basic axioms of some other culture? Could one then argue for the essential axioms of that other culture? Could one come to see that a basic axiom of another world view had greater explanatory power than one’s own basic axiom? This again is a matter involving argumentation. Fish’s skepticism of argumentation is not justified.


Prima Facie World View Reflective Equilibrium Individual Judgment Basic Axiom 
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Copyright information

© Springer Netherlands 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Hunter CollegeCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

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