Category Archives: rhetoric and argumentation

In-formed and co-formed thinking (Sinclaire-Harding, Miserez, Arcidiacono, Perret-Clermont)

Paper #4

Sinclaire-Harding, L., Miserez, C., Arcidiacono, F., & Perret-Clermont, A. N. (2011). Argumentation in the Piagetian clinical interview: A step further in dialogism. In M. B. Ligorio & M. Cesar (Eds.), The interplays between dialogical learning and dialogical self (pp. 1–45). IAP: Information Age Publications.

This is the fourth and last paper on argumentation by Perret-Clermont and her collaborators that we are going to discuss for the time being. Here the authors make a distinction between a) co-formed thinking, i.e. the type of thinking shaped by the desire to comply with relational and contextual expectations and norms, and b) in-formed thinking, i.e. the type of thinking shaped by the desire to voice one’s own identity as an authentic self and author, thus expressing original ideas, creativity and knowledge. This distinction is evidently inspired in the Piagetian distinction between autonomy and heteronomy.

The authors explain that the co-formed thinker tries to respond to expectations without critique, taking little responsibility, obedient and submissive, and sometimes excessively loyal to the obligations of the interlocutor, social group, or institutional context. The co-formed thinker is externally inspired, regulated, or governed by the values, beliefs and ideas of others.

The authors mention that phrases such as “I think that…”, or “Yes, but…” are usually markers that precede the expression of children’s independent opinion or ideas (in-formed thinking). Further, children feel they own such ideas. Of course, Sinclaire-Harding et al. do not seem to take the relationship of ownership as seriously and literally as I do. (As we have insisted elsewhere, I understand the discursive act of taking a position as rooted in the legal act of taking possession).

But the authors do not seem to be interested in argumentation in everyday life and in the context of institutional contexts and normative practices in general, but more narrowly in argumentation as an activity performed in knowledge-related tasks and with cognitive ends. Thus, although they include the social context of argumentation, argumentation itself seems to be essentially cognitive for the authors, and they aspire to improve educational contexts by implementing more participatory and democratic dynamics that favor in-formed thinking.

The article rightly emphasizes the affective aspect of argumentative exchanges. For example, the authors claim that when children feel their opinions are vulnerable, they frequently withdraw in order to protect their ideas and, ultimately, their self. (This might be connected with the ideas of Jack Ito, a rara avis about whom we’ll someday write in this blog).

In any case, the authors end up talking about how children need to defend their public self and manage their reputation, a topic that for some reason seems to be extremely important for Genevan authors (Rousseau, Rochat, and now Sinclaire-Harding et al.)

The authors also mention some interesting conceptual tensions, even paradoxes of argumentation. For example, an excessive desire to cooperate might make an individual want to agree with other members of her group and therefore boost co-formed thinking (which actually is the cancellation of thinking). Too much desire to argue may create too much competition between the interlocutors and end up in aggression and “war” (again: cancellation of thinking). So, for educational purposes, it seems important to calibrate how much to stimulate the collaborative and competitive kinds of argumentation.


Perret-Clermont on knowledge-oriented argumentation

Paper #2

We continue with another article by Perret-Clermont and her collaborators, in this case: Perret-Clermont, A. N., Breux, S., Greco, S., & Miserez Caperos, C. (2014): Children and knowledge-oriented argumentation. Some notes for future research. In Language, reason and education. Studies in honor of Eddo Rigotti. Bern: Peter Lang.

The authors of this paper claim that classical studies of children’s argumentation over-emphasize the internal, cognitive aspect of argumentation while underestimating the role of the social context. Psychological research tends to neglect the interpersonal and institutional context in which psychological processes such as argumentation take place.

Of course, as it is obvious for the followers of this blog, I agree with the previous claims. I believe, however, that the authors should offer a clarification of what they understand by “institutions” (they don’t define the term in the paper). They seem to refer to social organizations such as school, family or research team. They seem to be concerned especially with school context, because they suggest it should be possible to design pedagogical interventions that are informed by the theory of argumentation (i.e., create more democratic schools in which students exchange reasoning and opinions freely).

I prefer to give the term “institution” a broader meaning (based on Searle’s theory, as I’ve explained elsewhere). This broader use involves treating “promises”, “ownership”, “barter” and other social practices as “institutions” and thus allows us to see institutionally-rooted argumentation everywhere in the daily life of children (not only in school while engaged in learning activities).

One interesting distinction the authors draw (although not explicitly enough) is that between competitive or adversarial argumentation and knowledge-oriented argumentation. You can find examples of the former in arenas such as politics and litigation. Competitive argumentation aims at proving one party right and the other wrong for whatever means; it’s about destroying the other’s arguments while making one’s own point of view triumph. In this scenario, one never doubts one’s own point of view (the position one wants to defend is a fixed premise). In other words: in competitive or adversarial argumentation there’s no win-win situation; for one party to win the other must lose (zero-sum result). This might involve, in some cases, launching psychological warfare aimed at undermining the other party self-confidence or destroying her emotionally.

Knowledge-oriented argumentation, by way of contrast, is not concerned with defending a fixed position. Rather, it’s about collaborating with others in order to discover something. In knowledge-oriented argumentation, we all work as a team in order to explore all possible points of view about a given topic. Thus children as well as adults have moving standpoints when they are engaged in knowledge-oriented argumentation.

I’m still thinking about these different dimensions of argumentation. One can either compete or collaborate with one’s interlocutor. Competition can play out rationally (one plays by the rules and respects the adversary) or brutally (one wants to win whatever it takes). Collaboration can also play out rationally (we explore all possible points of view and reasons together) or irrationally (we don’t want to diverge from the rest of the group so we just assent to whatever reasons they present while suppressing our own point of view).

I’m sorry

My son is an adorable and smart kid. I have talked about him in this blog, especially to provide illustrations of developmental milestones. But, in order to put his achievements in context, it’s necessary to mention that he’s developmentally delayed. That is, he’s 4 years 1 month old now, and he’s mastering certain behaviors that are typical of 2- and 3-year-olds.

For example, he has recently learned how to say “I’m sorry.” There are several ways to perform this speech act (Austin, 1962; Searle, 1969) in Spanish; he uses “lo siento” instead of “perdón”, the latter being more common here in Argentina. I guess he picked up “lo siento” from TV shows such as Caillou or Go Diego Go, that are dubbed in Mexico or Spain.

The speech act of apologizing is a very peculiar and interesting one. It involves a) the recognition that one has done something wrong (something morally bad, or perhaps neglectful or careless), as well as b) the request that the person one is interacting with forgives (gives up feelings of anger and decides not to punish) this behavior. It also implies that the person apologizing is committed to avoid such wrongdoing in the future. There’s a whole conception of responsibility implicit in this apparently simple speech act.

As I have argued elsewhere, I support the Piagetian idea that action precedes thought (Piaget, 1976), which on the level of speech acts translates as: rhetorical moves precede explicit concepts. In other words, my son apologizes because he senses he can get certain pragmatic results by using this speech act. He performs the speech act pretty well, with the right tone in his voice and a cute expression on his face. So he convinces me and I capitulate: “ok, ok, but don’t do that again”.

Yet it’s easy to see he’s not mastered the rules of apology. For example, he tells me “I’m going to wash my hands”, and so I reply, “ok, but please be careful not to make a mess with the water,” and then he says “I am sorry”. Or, when he’s intentionally kicking a chair, I tell him “don’t do that again” and he says “I’m sorry” but continues kicking the chair just as before. So he’s contradicting two felicity conditions of the speech act of apologizing: in the former example he’s not committed the wrongdoing yet; in the latter, he’s not committed to avoid doing it again in the future.

To sum up: my son is pragmatically effective but he’s still not conceptually clear about what “I’m sorry” means. He doesn’t get responsibility, pardon, commitment, etc. Conceptual clarity about the meaning of apologies will arrive later, as a result of reflection on this interaction with the world, favored by social instruction, social representations and symbolic interaction in general.


Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.2307/3326622

Piaget, J. (1976). The grasp of consciousness (S. Wedgwood, Trans.). Cambridge Massachusettes Harvard University PressOriginal Work Published 1974.

Searle, J. R. (1969). Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (p. 203). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from



The doctor will tell you to behave

At about 3 years of age, I tell L. that he will be having a haircut later. I ask him, “Do you know where we’ll take you for the haircut?”. And he replies: “Yes, to the doctor”. This makes sense, I think: both the doctor and the barber do something intrusive with your body.

A month later he is scratching persistently a mosquito bite and I tell him to stop so that he doesn’t hurt himself. He says: “Take me to the doctor”. “Why?”, I ask. His response is: “He’ll ask me to behave” (“me va a decir portate bien“).

A couple of weeks after that he sees me trying to repair my car. He tells me: “call the doctor”. I ask him: “What for?” And his response is: “He’ll ask the car to behave” (Para que le diga portate bien).

So not only behavior problems (or disobedience) are assimilated to physical body problems. In a twist to child animism, the car body is like a human body, and a car can be taken to the doctor to get disciplined, or at least to be scolded and instructed on how to behave.

Foucault lives.



“Let’s trade” and “my turn”

My son L. is 3y 1m old. He’s started recently to use the expression “let’s trade” (“te cambio”). That is: he produces speech acts aimed at swapping objects with another person. For instance, he gives away his glass of milk in order to obtain a yoghurt cup I have. We exchange goods. He seems to understand that the proto- contract we thus celebrate involves the mutual surrender and handing over of possessions. The rules of reciprocity are no doubt regulating this interaction. Which doesn’t mean that the child can understand conceptually, let alone articulate, such rules.

In addition, when playing with other children, L. knows how to claim his turn to use a toy (shouts “¡Turno mío!”). He also uses this expression in other contexts; for instance, to demand his turn to drink mate (in a mate round shared with adults). Again: his understanding of the reciprocity rules involved is perhaps incipient. But L. is clearly starting to master the rhetorical forms that allow efficient access to the desired objects.

My hypothesis: the child first masters the rhetorical forms, and only later the conceptual content. Piaget’s prise de conscience (the conceptual, explicit insight) is the final product of a process that starts with immediate, un-reflected action. The process goes from the periphery of action to the center of explicit, conceptual thinking. Differently from Piaget, however, in the periphery I do not see the actions of an organism but the utterances of a retor.

The persuasive power of likes and up-votes

There’s a recent article in the New York Times about how “likes” and “up-votes” are contagious.

“Likes” and other user feedback systems are at the core of what is called the “Web 2.0”, a transformation of Internet culture (which is like saying, culture) that started around 2006.

A couple of years ago I wrote a book on argumentation (still unpublished) in which I claimed that likes, user feedback, and user ratings are the new form of argumentation. That is, the argument that if many people find something good then that must be good is the main topos of the current era; a purely quantitative form of argumentation. I quote from the article:

“Hype can work,” said one of the researchers, Sinan K. Aral, a professor of information technology and marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “and feed on itself as well.”


The first person reading the comment was 32 percent more likely to give it an up vote if it had been already given a fake positive score. There was no change in the likelihood of subsequent negative votes. Over time, the comments with the artificial initial up vote ended with scores 25 percent higher than those in the control group.

“That is a significant change,” Dr. Aral said. “We saw how these very small signals of social influence snowballed into behaviors like herding.”


Corinne Iten on Anscombre and Ducrot’s Radical Argumentativism

I’ve just read a neat article that summarizes and discusses one of my favorite argumentation theories, namely Anscombre and Ducrot’s (Iten, 2000). The article recounts the historical evolution of A. & D.’s Argumentation Theory (AT).

Let’s start with an example of my own: “August inflation was barely 2%” vs. “August inflation was as high as 2%.” As A. & D. remark in their first publications, both utterances have the same informational (i.e. truth-conditional) content, yet they cannot be used as arguments in favor of the same set of conclusions. Another example: “there’s a little wine left” vs. “there’s little wine left” (conclusions: “we don’t need to buy more wine” in the former case, “let’s go buy a new bottle” in the latter). Same information, opposite argumentative orientations. To explain such phenomena, in their early works A. & D. postulated an integrated pragmatics (pragmatique intégrée). “They call it a ‘pragmatics’ because it is concerned with the sort of meaning that can’t be captured in terms of traditional truth-conditional semantics,” says Iten.

She reviews several of A. & D.’s most famous analyses, such as their treatment of “but” as an “argumentative operator” that connects two utterances with opposite argumentative orientation. My example: “I am enjoying your visit very much, but it’s late and I have to work tomorrow”. Not only do both clauses have opposite orientations; it can also be claimed that the second argument has greater argumentative strength than the first. Or you can take the utterance: “Peter is quite helpful. He didn’t do the dishes but he cleared the table.” According to A & D (1983: 107, as explained by Iten), the but in this sentence “is scalar in nature”, i.e. it not only indicates that the two clauses support contradictory conclusions (or have opposite argumentative orientations) but it also indicates that “Peter has cleared the table” is a stronger argument for “Peter is quite helpful” than “Peter didn’t do the dishes” is for “Peter isn’t helpful”.

Another example Iten brings up is the argumentative operator “nearly”: An utterance containing “nearly” usually has the same argumentative orientation as a corresponding utterance without “nearly”. (“He nearly hit that fence” or “He hit that fence” both warrant the conclusion “he’s a bad driver”). Iten says: “This could be a banal observation if it wasn’t for the fact that, from the point of view of informational content, ‘nearly X’ is equivalent to ‘not X’. This is made even more interesting by the fact that the argumentative orientation of an utterance containing barely (…) is the opposite of that of the same utterance without barely (…), in spite of the fact that ‘barely X’ is informationally equivalent to ‘X’.”

As part of their 1983 formulation, A. & D. also claim that “an act of arguing… is an illocutionary act, which is part of the meaning of every utterance”, a claim that blurs the distinction between the pragmatic and semantic domains.

Iten then discusses the latest formulation of the theory, which relies on the Aristotelian concept of topos or “argumentative commonplace.” “A topos is an argumentative rule shared by a given community.” “This argumentative rule is used to license the move from an argument to a conclusion.” It is an important feature of topoi that they are scalar in nature. For instance, if a topos states that when it’s hot it’s pleasurable to go to the beach, then the hotter it is, the more pleasurable it is to go to the beach (or eat ice-cream, or turn on the air-conditioner, etc.) The general form of a topos is “The more/less object O possesses property P, the more/less object O’ possesses property P’.”

With the introduction of topoi, A. & D. will no longer try to analyze the meaning of utterances in terms of “presupposed contents” (as in the earlier versions of their theory). Rather, the meaning of linguistic predicates is defined by the topoi associated with them, and by the network of possible conclusions they enable. The meaning of a predicate like work, for example, is given by a bundle of topoi involving gradations of work. Some topoi that could be part of the meaning of work are:

  • The more work, the more success.
  • The less work, the more relaxation.
  • The more work, the more fatigue.
  • The less work, the more happiness.

“Gradations of work are linked, via different topoi, with a series of other gradations, e.g. of success, relaxation, fatigue and happiness. These gradations, in turn, are themselves linked to different gradations still. For instance, gradations of happiness could be linked with gradations of health, appetite, etc. This network of gradations, linked via an infinite number of topoi, is what A & D (1989: 81) mean by a topical field.”

With this emphasis on topical fields, Iten claims, we arrive at a completely non-truth-conditional semantic theory. “In their own words, A & D (1989: 77/79) move from a position of considering “argumentation as a component of meaning” to one of “radical argumentativism”. This is a position where “the argumentative function of language, and with it argumentative meaning, is primary and the informative function of language secondary. In that sort of an account, any informational (or truth-conditional) meaning would be derived from an underlying argumentative meaning.”

While in its earlier stages AT acknowledged (to some degree) the distinction between semantics and pragmatics, in its later formulations it abandoned this distinction completely. Iten is right in concluding that, in its current state, Anscombre and Ducrot’s theory non-cognitive, non-truth-conditional, and reduces all linguistic phenomena to a semantic-pragmatic level of analysis.

The latest version of D. & A. also includes their beautiful (in my opinion) concept of polyphony. “The idea is that the (usually unique) speaker (locuteur) doing the uttering stages a dialogue inside her own monologue between different points of view (énonciateurs).” The most obvious examples of polyphony in our speech and verbal thinking are: direct and indirect reported speech, ironical utterances, utterances containing but and negative utterances.

Finally, Iten dwells in the extreme consequences of radical argumentativism for linguistic theory, namely: all linguistic meaning can be captured in purely argumentative terms; the meaning of every utterance can be described in terms of a collection of topoi, which constitute different points of view; and there is nothing about language as such that is informative, i.e. language is not cut out to be used to describe states of affairs.

Although Iten might be French, her criticism of A. & D. is too American in my opinion, and also a little unfair. Iten favors a cognitive paradigm according to which the human brain is a computer that takes in information from the outer world (“input”), processes it by applying computational rules, and produces output. The information is encoded in the head of the speaker as representations that can be true or false, that is, that can match or not match the facts of the world. This cognitive paradigm provides Iten with a yardstick for assessing the virtues of A. & D.’s theory, which does not fare well when subjected to such standards: it doesn’t explain how language represents the world; it doesn’t connect input with output; and it doesn’t predict arguments’ conclusions based on their premises.

Yet the merits of A. & D.’s theory lie elsewhere. A. & D. teach us to look at language in a new way. They provide us with tools to understand utterances as actions. One takes positions, defends certain points of view, creates assumptions, and commits to certain conclusions. All these argumentative movements take place on a stage-like mental space, and are carried out by a plurality of characters or actors that A. & D. call enunciators. I like this approach very much, among other reasons because it fits my own emphasis on the sense of justice that animates all argumentation. That’s why A. & D. (unbeknownst to them) also appeal to quasi-legal terminology, such as saying that a certain topos “licenses” the speaker to derive a certain conclusion, etc. In other words: the movement from premises to conclusions cannot be understood in computational terms; it has to be appreciated on the level of free, human action.