Tag Archives: argumentation

Children value ideas over labor

Text #15

Li, V., Shaw, A., & Olson, K. R. (2013). Ideas versus labor : What do children value in artistic creation ? COGNITION, 127(1), 38–45. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2012.11.001

The procedure is simple: have an adult direct a child making a work of art (so that the adult is contributing the guiding ideas while the child is contributing “brute” labor). Then, reverse the roles: have the child supply the guiding idea while the adult follows directions and executes the work of art. Finally, have the child chose which final product she prefers to take home with her: the one that incorporated her effort or the one that reflects her idea?

In a second experiment, the researchers used a similar situation but now they tricked the subjects so that children believed that the drawing contained their ideas when it actually contained the adult’s idea (and vice versa, they believed that the drawing which they had actually created while being directed by an adult was the one that incorporated their ideas).

In a third experiment, they used a third person narrative to lay out a comparison between someone who contributes labor and someone who contributes ideas to the creation of an object. Who should keep the resulting product?

These studies demonstrated that by 6 years old, children value ideas over physical labor. Six year olds systematically chose pictures that contained their own ideas over pictures that contained their labor, even when they were merely tricked into believing that they had come up with the idea for a picture that they had not. Further, 6 year olds demonstrated a general appreciation of ideas – they not only valued their own ideas (Studies 1 and 2), but also privileged idea creators over laborers in a property dispute (Study 3). In contrast, 4 year olds appear to have preferred pictures that contained their specific idiosyncratic preferences. Four year olds preferred pictures containing their ideas, but also their idiosyncratic preferences in Study 1 and pictures they believed contained their labor but also their idiosyncratic preferences in Study 2. Further supporting this possibility, in Study 3 where idiosyncratic preferences could not play a role in selection, 4 year olds showed no bias for either a third-party idea creator or laborer. Six year olds, by way of contrast, sided with the idea creators in third-party case, even when they personally had no connection to the idea.

The age effect in these studies may exist because 6, but not 4 year olds, understand that ideas are valuable and can thus be owned.

In conclusion, the tendency to value ideas is present in childhood and may emerge between 4 and 6 years old. 6 year olds value ideas over labor even when making third-party judgments, favoring those who only contributed ideas as more deserving of a picture over those who only contributed labor.

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.


Arcidiacono & Perret-Clermont (2010) – The Piagetian conservation-of-matter interview, revisited

Paper #1

In this paper, Arcidiacono & Perret-Clermont (2010) revisit the Piagetian conservation-of-matter interview in light of the theory of argumentation. The authors argue that children’s statements are co-constructed by them and their interviewers, within a specific institutional setting, i.e. the testing situation. While Piaget considered children’s statements as dependent on the cognitive level, Arcidiacono & Perret-Clermont describe children’s arguments as the result of a series of interactions with the tester and as a reaction to the tester’s framing of the interview. The authors claim that, during the Piagetian interview, adults’ interventions strongly influence the statements made by the child. Children’s thoughts do not show up as clear and distinct ideas; they are expressed in a specific social context.

This article contains a number of interesting reflections on the nature of children’s discourse within the Piagetian interview, but it leaves an important issue unresolved. Sometimes the authors seem simply to state that the specific interviewers that participated in the examples discussed did not meet the Piagetian standards for not interfering with children’s spontaneous thought and for not inducing the answers. Alternatively, they sometimes imply that the interviewers’ interference and suggestions are unavoidable because of the very nature of the Piagetian interview and of human communication in general. Which of these is the case for the authors is not clear. They claim, for example, that “the adult repeatedly diverged from the intentions of the Piagetian script and consequently induced answers to the child” and that Piaget’s intentions were “misunderstood” by the interviewers (which implies that the interviewers were not very good), and yet also claim that these diversions “might be an inevitable condition of the situation”.

In conclusion, the authors claim that, according to the Piagetian ideal, “the adult has to offer a real place for debating, so as to give epistemic agency to the child” yet they don’t make it clear whether this ideal can be achieved in the real world or not.

“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. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/09/science/internet-study-finds-the-persuasive-power-of-like.html

“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.