Tag Archives: sense of justice

Pinker on moral realism

I’ve recently read an old opinion piece by Steven Pinker (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html).

It’s a brilliant article. It summarizes current trends on the scientific study of morality. As I frequently do, I will focus on a tiny aspect of his argument.

In addition to a review of the intellectual landscape in this domain, towards the end Pinker integrates different recent findings and prevalent theories into the theoretical position of “moral realism”. By this expression, he means that morality is not just the result of a number of arbitrary conventions or contingent historical traditions. There are, rather, objective and universal reasons why fundamental moral rules are universally valid. There are moral truths just as there are mathematical truths. Let me quote him:

“This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.”

So, just as Stan Dehaene talks about a “number sense”, Pinker talks about a “moral sense”. Just as there is a mathematical reality and mathematical facts, there is a moral reality and moral facts.

According to Pinker, moral realism is supported by two arguments:

1) Zero-sum games are games in which one party has to lose in order for the other to win. In nonzero-sum games, by way of contrast, win-win solutions are possible. Now, in many everyday situations, agents are better off when they act in a generous (as opposed to selfish) way. Thus, these everyday situations can be analyzed (in terms of game theory) as “nonzero-sum games.” His words: “You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys.”

Pinker does not explain this first argument clearly, but he seems to imply that societies respond to a number of constraints by developing norms and structures (such as reciprocity or mutual respect). A group or social organization that enforces the rules of reciprocity, mutual respect, authority, etc., is probably more stable, and it’s in a position to deliver more good to a greater number of members, as compared with a group that does not enforce those standards. This is not a new theory. It is already postulated by Plato (a defender of both mathematical realism and moral realism) in the Republic. It is also advanced, with different nuances, by more recent authors such as Hegel, Piaget, Quine, and others.

Now, in what sense might concepts like “just” or “moral” be real? Only in the sense of being a kind of “pattern” or “form” that regulates human interaction (they are “ideal realities”, not physical realities). Where might such patterns, such ideal realities, come from? They grow out of natural evolution and cultural history; they develop in human experience, relationships, “praxis” (as a Marxist would say). But if “moral truths” emerge from (are conditional on) natural and cultural history, and history is woven by the actions of free humans, can we still say that there is a universal, binding, “true morality”? Is such a “true” form of justice or morality valid for any possible individual or any possible society? At this point, everything gets blurry and fuzzy. My opinion is that, yes, there is one true universal morality, but that it is true in the context of our specific world history. So, ultimately, moral truths are not absolute (nothing is absolute unless you believe in god), but conditional on human nature, human history and human culture. They are real and universal within this context.

I quote Pinker again: “The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.”

“Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the interchangeability of perspectives — keeps reappearing in history’s best-thought-through moral philosophies, including the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance.”

“Morality, then, is still something larger than our inherited moral sense.”

This second aspect, that one might call “generalized reciprocity”, simply consists in recognizing that others have the same rights that we demand for ourselves. This may have a cost in the short term (I cannot rape your daughter or loot your farm) but it will pay off in the long run (I feel that my land and my family are safer, which is a higher good). In our market-penetrated, contractual society, this reciprocal consideration takes the form of an ability to adopt, in everyday discourse, the point of view of others, overcoming our limited perspective and progressively approaching an inter-subjective or trans-subjective point of view. But, against Pinker, I don’t think that this is a different point than the previous one; it is rather a facet of it. Human societies have developed, throughout history, a more complex, democratic, and in some ways egalitarian structure; at the same time, markets have become central institutions of modern societies. Argument 1 is: societies have evolved internal structures that respond to certain constraints. From there, one can derive argument 2: such societies have tended to make generalized reciprocity both a relational pattern and a moral ideal.

Bertrand Russell on the analogy between truth and justice

The following quote belongs to the penultimate paragraph of Bertrand Russell’s “Problems of Philosophy”:

The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

This is one more beautiful example of the point I’ve made over and over again, and that you can find, expressed in different ways, in such varied authors such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Jean Piaget, Charles Peirce, Jean-Pierre Vernant and many others: that there is a fundamental analogy between truth and justice; and that this analogy does not merely consist in a formal similarity between both concepts, but stems from a common, deeper source: the struggle for justice in the realm of the practical affairs of mankind has evolved into the search for truth in the theoretical realm.

Dialogue of the deaf

Dialogue of the deaf

I had a stimulating discussion with a neuroscientist the other day. I tried to explain to her that my interest in children’s cognitive development is linked to my interest in epistemology, that is, to what I refer to in this blog as the normativity of thought.

For example, I argue that researchers who try to explain children’s knowledge of math from a nativist point of view, can only explain the starting point of cognitive development. The starting point is innate mathematical knowledge, which is mostly implicit, and basically consists in an ability to identify the numerosity of collections of objects found in the outside world. In other words: researchers have shown that animals (humans included) have the innate ability to assess the size of a collection of perceived objects (for example, they can notice that a collection of 15 pebbles is greater than a collection of 10 pebbles). They can also discriminate among exact quantities, but only when dealing with small sets (two, three, and perhaps four objects). Also, some animals and human babies can perform elementary arithmetic operations on small sets (adding two plus one, subtracting one from two, etc.) I am referring here to studies by Dehaene (2011), Izard, Sann, Spelke, & Streri (2009), Spelke (2011), and many others.

This basic capacity is certainly different from fully-fledged “human math.” The latter involves, at the very least, the symbolic representation of exact numbers larger than three. We (humans) can represent an exact number by saying its name (“nine”), or by using a gesture that stands for the number in question (depending on the culture, this might be done by touching a part of one’s body, showing a number of fingers, etc. – see Saxe ( 1991) and also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_number_gestures). And, of course, we can write down a sign that represents the number (for example, with using the Arabic numeral “9”).

Scholars agree on the fact that advanced math is explicit and symbolic, and that it builds on (and uses similar brain areas to) its precursor, innate math. Once they operate on the symbolic level, humans can do things like: performing operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and others), demonstrating mathematical propositions, proving that one particular solution to a mathematical problem is the correct one, etc. To sum up: our symbolic capacities allow us to re-describe our intuitive approach to math on a precise, normative, epistemic level.

Now, here’s when it gets tricky. I argue that the application of algorithms on the symbolic level is not merely mechanical. Humans are not computers applying rules from a rule book, one after the other (like Searle in his Chinese room). Rather, as Dehaene (2011) argues, numbers mean something for us. “Nine” means nine of something (anything). “Nine plus one” means performing the action of adding one more unit to the set of nine units. There is a core of meaning in innate math; and this core is expanded and refined in our more advanced, symbolic math.

When executing mathematical operations (either in a purely mental fashion, or supported by objects) one gets a feeling of satisfaction when one arrives to a right (fair, correct, just) result. Notice the normative language we apply here (fair, correct, right, true, just). We actually experience something similar to a sense of justice when both sides of an equation are equal, or when we arrive to a result that is necessarily correct. (Note to myself: talk to Mariano S. We might perhaps do brain fMRIs and study if the areas of the brain that get activated by the “sense of justice” in legal situations, also light up when the “sense of justice” is reached by finding the right responses in math. If a similar region gets activated, that might suggest that there is a normative aspect to math that corresponds to the normative aspect of morality).

For me, then, the million dollar question is: how do humans go from the implicit, non-symbolic, automatic level to the explicit, symbolic, intentional and normative level? What is involved in this transition? What kind of biological processes, social experiences and individual constructions are necessary to achieve the “higher,” explicit level? (These are interesting questions both for the field of math and for the field of morality). And my hypothesis is that this transition necessarily demands the intervention of a particular type of social experience, namely, the experience of the normative world of social exchanges and rules of ownership (I’ve talked a little about such reckless hypotheses in other posts of this blog).

Now, when I try to explain all this to the neuroscientist, I lose her. She doesn’t follow me. For her, human knowledge is the sum of a) innate knowledge and b) learning from the environment. Learning is the process by which our brain acquires new information from the world, information that was not pre-wired, that didn’t came ready to use “out of the box.” Whether such learning involves a direct exposure to certain stimuli that represent contents (a school teacher teaching math to his or her students) or a more indirect process of exposure to social interactions is not an interesting question for her. It doesn’t change her basic view according to which there are two things, and two things only: innate knowledge and acquired knowledge. What we know is the result of combining the two. And this is the case both for humans and for other animals. Period.

Something similar happens when I talk to her about the difference between “cold processing” and “hot processing.” We were discussing the research I am conducting right now. I interview children about ownership and stealing. In my interview design, children watch a movie where one character steals a bar of chocolate from another, and eats it. The interviewer then asks the child a series of questions aimed at understanding her reasoning about ownership and theft. Now, the movie presents a third person situation. This means that the child might be interested in the movie, but he or she is not really affected by it. Children reason about what they see in the movie, and sometimes they seem to say what they think it’s the appropriate thing to say, echoing adults’ discourse. Because, after all, the movie is fiction, not the real world.

I believe that normativity emerges not from absorbing social information that comes from external events (watching movies, attending to teachers’ explanations) but from children’s real immersion in first person, real world, conflictive situations. When a child is fighting against another for the possession of a toy, there are cries and sometimes there even is physical violence. These encounters end up in different ways; sometimes children work out a rule for sharing the scarce resource, sometimes they just fight, and sometimes an adult intervenes and adjudicates in the conflict. The child’s reactions during these events is not dictated by cold reasoning but by deeper impulses. It is in these situations where we should look for the emergence of our basic normative categories, such as reciprocity (both social and logical, or “reversibility”), ownership (or the relationship between substance and its “properties”), quantity (used to implement equity and equality), etc.

But, again, my biologist friend does not feel that the distinction between the impulsive, intense, hot reactions we experience when involved in real conflicts and the kind of third person reasoning that is triggered by movies and artificial stimuli is an important one. In both cases, she argues, it’s the same cognitive system that is at work. What we think about third person characters is probably similar to how we reason about ourselves (thanks to our capacity for empathy, our mirror-neurons, etc.)

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong here.


Dehaene, S. (2011). The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics, Revised and Updated Edition. The number sense How the mind creates mathematics rev and updated ed (p. 352). Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/dp/0199753873

Izard, V., Sann, C., Spelke, E. S., & Streri, A. (2009). Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 106(25), 10382–10385.

Saxe, G. B. (1991). Culture and Cognitive Development: Studies in Mathematical Understanding. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Spelke, E. S. (2011). Quinian bootstrapping or Fodorian combination? Core and constructed knowledge of number. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(3), 149–150.


Kitchener on Piaget as a sociologist

This post presupposes many others. Don’t start here.

I’ve just read Richard Kitchener’s excellent paper on Jean Piaget as a sociologist (Kitchener, 1991). He rightly emphasizes the normative aspect in Piaget’s approach to knowledge. Part of the unfair criticism that the Piagetian legacy endures these days comes from authors who neglect or just don’t understand such normative aspect (A. Gopnik’s publications are good examples of this intellectually shortsighted attitude). I’ve insisted on this topic in previous posts such as this one or this one or this one, and will be writing more about it in the future.

What do we mean when we say that epistemic knowledge and logic have an inescapable normative component? Our point is that individuals engaged in the construction of epistemic knowledge are different from animals in that they are not simply trying to solve problems posed by their environment (that is, they’re not just trying to be effectively adapted to the world) but they are trying to produce valid, legitimate knowledge that they can defend by means of reasons when questioned by interlocutors or adversaries. Ideally, these interlocutors challenge each other as equals, that is, they don’t use the argument from authority. “The need to justify one’s beliefs or actions emerges only under the particular social conditions of equality” (Kitchener, 1991, p. 433). Under conditions of equality people tend to cooperate with each other rather than to constrain or force each other to do certain things or to accept certain propositions. Rationality, in Piaget’s and Kitchener’s view, is a byproduct of peer interaction: cooperation generates reason (Kitchener, 1991, p. 430). Logic, to sum up, arises from interactions between individuals: “The Cartesian solitary knower, separate from social interaction with others, cannot construct an equilibrated logic” (Kitchener, 1991, p. 435).

Similarly, objectivity results from mutual exchanges of subjective perspectives between individuals: being objective “…requires an awareness that what one thinks may not coincide with what is true” (Kitchener, 1991, p. 429). This self-vigilance or, as Kitchener calls it, self-consciousness, is the psychological activity of an individual thinking and arguing with others, and subjecting herself to the normative rules of reasoning. “Rules of reasoning are thus normative obligations binding upon the individual (…) Reasoning in general requires normative principles of inference and the most adequate one is normative reciprocity” (Kitchener, 1991, pp. 425-426).

Kitchener illustrates this last point with a famous example from Piaget’s Études sociologiques: “two individuals, on opposite banks of a river, are each building a pillar of stones across which a plank will go as a bridge”. This creates a problem of action coordination between individuals that can be characterized in logical terms (correspondence, reciprocity, addition or subtraction of complementary actions). But the bridge example is an instance of what I call the technological approach to human action. That is, Piaget (and Kitchener) focus here not on the structure of social relations (the rules and institutions that organize life in common) but on the practical, effective coordination of actions that are a (more or less effective) means toward an end (building the bridge). The bridge example could have as well came out of the desk of a Vygotskian scholar, since it fits with the features of activity as defined by the socio-historical school: people organized in order to achieve a common goal and using tools available in their cultural context. The emphasis here, to say it again, is on technical action and not in the sense of justice inherent to social relations.

So I have two (external?) criticisms of Kitchener-Piaget: 1) to understand normativity (of social relations, and epistemic normativity as well) you need to pay attention to social institutions as they embody a sense of justice; a technical or technological view of human action won’t do; 2) institutions come with many flavors, reciprocity being a characteristic of one particular (albeit important) institution (contract). But there are other institutions (some of them based on authority) that are legitimate and can therefore be a source of valid statements. (There was rational argumentation before the emergence of Athenian democracy).

Kitchener, R. F. (1991). Jean Piaget: The Unknown Sociologist? The British Journal of Sociology, 42(3), 421–442. doi:10.2307/591188


Clarification on the purpose of my planned experiment on “practical math”

What follows is the response to some questions my friends Philippe and Samar raised about the experiment I describe here (previous post).

1) How is the normative context you are proposing different from a school math context?

I try to embed math problems in narratives that remind children of everyday, familiar situations that involve observance or transgressions of exchange and distribution rules. Such narratives, I believe, will awaken children’s sense of justice and motivate them to balance a situation that they see as unbalanced or unfair (“A gave a present to B but B didn’t make a matching present to A”, “A stole something from B”, etc.) Such narrative contexts should remind children about the institutions and rules or reciprocity that govern exchange and distribution. So, this is very different from the formal, instructional school context.

I’m not primarily focused on the educational applications. My questions are theoretical. I’m interested in mapping the social aspects of human cognition. If my work gets the desired results, then the educational applications might follow… but that’s not a primary goal for me. The experiment aims at proving a theoretical point.

2)  Do you think that the social/normative context of math problems would boost children numerical competence?

Yes, my hypothesis is that the social-normative context of these math problems will probably improve children numerical competence. But I would not expect any deep or long term effects from just one session. My idea is as follows: if we can use this one session to show just a local effect of the narrative context on how children construe and solve these problems, this is relevant enough. This would prove that social meanings are transferred to the mathematical domain and have an impact on children’s performance. I think that proving such local effect is much simpler than doing a longitudinal study (which might be a second step in the research). I also proposed to “do some standardized numeracy tests (perhaps those used by Opfer & Siegler, Dehaene, Piagetian conservation tests, etc.) right after the main task in order to evaluate if each of these normative contexts has “sensitized” the child to quantities in a special way.” In other words, we would not be testing for any lasting effects, but we would test numerical competence and/or quantity conservation right after the main experiment, to see whether this “sensibility” to number gets transferred to different problems. So this would only test for immediate effects, but we are interested in the child’s performance in a second, apparently unrelated problem, in the domain of math, to see if there is a “spill-over” from one situation to the other.

3) Why should normative and social context as provided in the narrative improve children’s performance?

Math problems that involve some kind of “equalization” between different parties are social in nature. This type of math was created historically to deal with such social problems (barter and purchase, paying back, getting even, managing debt). The history of math seems to go hand in hand with the history of human exchange and distribution systems. For example, the popularization of coins and the establishment of a class of merchants seems to happen at the same time as (and probably facilitate) the emergence of formal arithmetic. Calculus (developed simultaneously by Newton and Leibniz) is invented at a time when the first stock exchanges are being created.

We are not merely providing children with a social metaphor in this experiment, we are re-embedding math problems in their original social context. It’s the meaningfulness of the situation that should impact on children’s performance. This is the idea I want to test.

4) Where’s the novelty of your approach? 

Most current researchers (Dehaene, Opher, Siegler, Spelke, Lourenco, among many others) are interested in the innate, Approximate Number System (ANS) that humans share with other animals. Although there are differences among authors in the details, there is consensus that such a system is a pre-condition for the development of symbolic number and arithmetic (which are unique to humans). These authors show that symbolic number builds upon such innate capacity but they don’t provide good explanations about how we go beyond the ANS and up to human math. They mention “culture” but they treat culture as a mere collection of arbitrary conventions, technologies and techniques. In the case of number, culture is seen as providing a more or less fast and effective set of arbitrary procedures to perform calculations.

So, again, my immediate aim is not so much to discover the best strategy for training kids or to improve academic performance in the long term, but to prove a theoretical point about the social nature of math.

Thinking about an experiment on “practical math” in normative contexts

I am trying to think about an experimental situation that would allow me to test how normative-institutional contexts impact on children quantitative reasoning. Ideally, it has to be an easy experimental task that can be tested quickly with children from different cultures. What follows is a half-baked draft. Your feedback and criticism is most welcome.

So this is the idea… Children (ages 4 to 7) are interviewed individually. During the interview, they are shown a series of very short puppet plays. After each play children are questioned about the best way to solve a problem that arose in the play. Children are required to offer quantitative answers to such problems; for example, “how much money does character A have to pay character B to get even?” or “How many blocks does character A need to add in order to complete the building?”, etc.  The narratives are different in nature. Some narratives provide a social and normative context to the problem, in the sense that they highlight certain social rules children need to take into account in order to respond appropriately to the situation. Other narratives, by way of contrast, highlight “technical” or “engineering” problems, and involve means-ends reasoning. They problems they involve are similar to the normative problems in their mathematical content, yet the narrative context is markedly different.


A1: “Negative reciprocity and reparation”. Character A has a bag with three candy bars. Character A shows the bag to character B and tells her that she loves candy bars and that she plans to eat them with her friends the next day. Character A goes to sleep. Character B steals the bars and eats them. Character A wakes up and finds character B stole the candy, and asks character B to return them. Character B says she doesn’t have the candy anymore but that she can offer character A some money to make up for the stolen candy. She opens a purse and drops some coins and bills on the table. The child is asked to choose the coins and bills character B has to hand over to character A in order to get even. They child is questioned about how she made that decision; and how she calculated how many bills and coins that character B must give character A.

A2: “Destruction and reconstruction”. The child is shown a tower formed by six big blocks. The child is told that a powerful storm and strong winds hit the building during the night and broke the three upper stories of the building. She’s then given a number of smaller blocks of different sizes and is asked to rebuild the tower so that it is as high as it was before the storm. The child is questioned the criteria she used to select the blocks and to decide how many blocks to use.

B1. “Positive reciprocity”. Character A visits character B and shows up with a present: a stack of stickers or trading cards. Each character returns to her own home. Then character B says that character A was really nice and that she would also like to give her a present to “get even”. The child is asked to help character B prepare her present. She is shown a cup and a collection of marbles and is told to fill the cup up until there are enough for A’s present. The child is also asked about how she decided how many marbles to give; i.e. to justify her decision.

B2. “Bridging the gap”. The child is shown a model of a river. On the river there is half bridge built with legos. The bridge starts on one shore and goes only half-way over the river. The child is asked to pick the lego pieces that she would need to build the other half of the bridge. The set of lego pieces the child can choose from have a different size than the ones used to build the first half of the bridge.

All four situations involve some kind of addition and subtraction of different units; they also involve compensating different dimensions of problems (values of the goods exchanged, sizes of different objects, etc.) A1 and B1 are “social” and “normative”: they involve the concept of justice; A2 and B2 are “technical”: they involve a kind of means-ends reasoning.

One possibility is to give situations A1-B1 to one group and A2-B2 to a different group. One could then compare the reasoning and argumentation of children who are given a “normative” vis- à-vis a “technical” narrative. To this end, one might use the theory of argumentation and other tools of discourse analysis. One could also do some standardized numeracy tests (perhaps those used by Opfer & Siegler, Dehaene, Piagetian conservation tests, etc.) after the main tasks in order to evaluate if each of these normative contexts has “sensitized” the child to quantities in a special way; i.e. if the children who just completed the “technical” problem perform better or worse than the children who did the “social-normative” problem.

Another possibility is to give the same children all four situations so as to compare the features of quantitative thinking in technical vs. normative contexts in the same children.

Still thinking…

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.