(retranscription itw 05/10/2009)


MSI: Do you often see students or scholars in social sciences interested in pragma-dialectics ?

FVE: Yes, and sometimes they underestimate how complicated it can be. That’s not just a pragma-dialectical problem. It would be the same if you would like to use another method. Of course I believe in the pragma-dialectical methods. I think it is the most precisely developed method. That’s why I think it is a method that you can use, but it is harder than you think. And nowadays, the people from what’s called “communication studies”, very often (…) are not well trained in doing a linguistic analysis in the first place, because they are not used to analyzing texts. That would be different in your case, – you have an interest in journalism – but usually, when people have an interest in linguistic or in textual analysis in the more general sense, then they do a better job. But, in the social sciences, they often do not have that kind of experience, and it’s why it’s often harder. And of course it also depends on how much time you spend mastering the theoretical tools. But I know someone in Sweden who did a good job, so, it depends. Of course it is always easier for me when people are from Amsterdam, like this they meet me… like Martin Lewinski (…).

MS: The person you’ve just mentioned, what is his main interest?

FVE: He was looking for a nice topic for his doctor dissertation, and he choose to talk about Internet discussions.  We have now reached the stage in which we are more concentrated on real argumentation and “real life” argumentation, from real life context. And we had concentrated, in Amsterdam on four contextual domains: we’ve said, “we can not do everything”, and hopefully, when you concentrate on a domain you also have to make sure you have enough background knowledge of that domain. And when you study so-called communication types within a certain domain – let’s say when you study for instance the motivations of the judge in a legal case – then you need to know enough about law, in order to be able to assess that well. And we have an old tradition, from the mid-eighties already. I supervise several dissertations on (1) legal argumentation – so that was one of our domains, another domain was (2) political argumentation, and I concentrate now – together with a younger colleague – on what happens in the European parliament, but I also have a student who works on the Dutch parliament, especially on so-called « one issue parties”. We have for instance a party that’s called « party of the animals »… And you can hear from the name already what the issue is, the protection of animals ; and we have another right-wing party, the “ Party for the Freedom ” it is called. It is considered to be so right-wing that some people don’t want to have nothing to do with it. And it deals with the issue Islam, and considers the Muslims are the cause of everything that goes wrong in the Netherland. So what these two political parties try to do – each in their own way – is to shift the topic back to Islam or to the animals. And, so one of my students studies that kind of debates, and then I have another student, she’s Palestinian, and she just completed her dissertation, and will defend that on December 17th, and that’s on “ prime minister’s question time ” in parliament. And I have also another student, from Chili, and he writes on law making debates in British parliaments. We often use British parliament because of the lingua franca of English. They cannot read Dutch, and why would they read things in Dutch, and yes, English is the lingua franca nowadays, and the British parliament is closer than what happens in American congress and things like that. And I have also another student, from Romania, and she concentrate in what we call « political interviews ». Interview in this case again, on British Television, BBC interviews with politicians… And all of them concentrate on arguments in what we call the “confrontation stage”, so it is the first case where someone is confronted with that… and in this case we concentrate on accusations of inconsistency. So, what happens for instance is that – in question time – the leader of the opposition asks a question to the Prime Minister, and he may only ask about policies and things like that, that the government is responsible for, but, in fact, such questions, usually contain hidden criticism, and in many cases he accuses the prime minister of being inconsistent in his policies. And then they study how these people deal with these accusations of inconsistency. How they maneuver strategically in order to get out of this… So, these are all political studies, and then the next domain is (3) medical argumentation, because nowadays, with “informed consent”, there is an obligation on doctors to inform their patients and also to motivate medical choices, to say why you would choose a certain kind of treatment for instance… and in the end it is up to the patient to decide, and I have several students who are working on that. One works especially on doctor–patient argumentation, and on the way in which the doctor uses his or her authority, so on arguments from authority… I also have a student that works on what’s called « health brochures ». Nowadays, you have all these publications where people tell you that you should be more exercised, or that you should have safe sex, or that you should not eat to much, things like that, and, that’s also a topic we’re interested in.. It’s not so much “health” but that is more prevention or things like that. And the last area we concentrate on is (4) argumentation in scientific and scholarly debates; so, it is the way in which, Newton defended himself in the past, for instance, or at least presented his views against his critics. Or, Darwin, but also the people who are working now. How I defend myself against criticism made by some of my colleagues in informal logics or things like that. And – in all these cases – the general idea is that you always have a certain kind of socio-institutional context, and that socio-institutional context provides a certain type of need to concentrate on certain things, and to put an emphasis on certain things, and there are always certain rules involved and they are, let’s say, conventions… They may be explicit or they may be implicit, but they all work as pre-conditions on what we call « strategic maneuvering ”, and how people deal about “how certain things are not allowed”, and “how certain things are open to you”. And we compare that to see how argumentation is determined to some extend by the context in which it appears. And, for now, they all work on studying the institutional context. What are the institutional requirements? How does that influence the definition of the arguments? In what way does that have a certain influence on strategic maneuvering? How does it manifest itself? And that’s always in these four contexts. And, yes Martin Lewinski is the a student who concentrates on the Internet discussions in forums, and on political aspects in particular. But that is not necessarily the case. It could also be on something else.

MS: What is the interest or utility of pragma-dialectics for communication studies and social sciences…

I think that, if they would like to develop tools that they could use in order to see how people make their points, and how they try to make their points across to others, then it is a useful tool. Let me elaborate a little bit. I think that the study of argumentation is not just interesting in a political point of view but also from a social point of view. People use argumentation all the time. When they are having breakfast they already argue… When you meet friends you try to convince them that you should join to a certain movie or play billiard or whatever. When you are at work you have to argue. It’s not just in official political contexts. It’s also when you are in a pub, like we are now. In all these cases there are certain general rules… but there are also certain things that are dependent on that context. And I think, nowadays – in order to study what people are doing, how they are acting – when you talk about acting you have, for the most part… you talk about global acting, you talk about speech acts. Because it’s not that people hit each other all the time, but they say things to each other that have consequences, or create commitments or create amity and things like that. So, speaking – whether in writing or, let’s say orally – is a way of acting. And social sciences are interested in the way in which people interact and how that influences certain developments, at a small scale, or in a macro-context. Then they should be able to study what’s happening, and in order to involve also their ‘language’ in their analysis, they need to know more than they usually do. It’s not an accusation (…). They need to know more about how language works… But, more in particular, if they are interested in how people get each other directly or indirectly to do certain things or accept certain things, or not to do certain things, then it is interesting to see what is at stake there (…). So, I think pragma-dialectics is a theory that is, on the one hand, embedded in “pragmatics” – in the sense of pragma-linguistics, in the sense of “how people use their language in actual circumstances”. But it’s not just that, it also has some critical components that comes from dialogics, and from rationalism and things like that. So it is essentially that kind of combination between empirical studies – qualitative studies, quantitative studies – combined with critical, theoretical and normative viewpoints. That is, I think important. And if people would like to do that well, theses analyses, then they have to know how to proceed to the reconstruction of arguments. How is it on the one hand dictated by certain theoretical and practical ideas, and on the other hand, it what happens in empirical reality. Because, it’s like psychoanalysis : you cannot just say when someone enters your clinic for the first time. “Oh, I see, inferiority complex”. No, you often have to study well what the person is saying. And even if this person seems very satisfied with himself, for the psychiatrist, you know, it does not always mean that he’s at ease with himself. So an inferiority complex may be hidden behind someone who is boasting and saying everyone is jealous of him because he does so well, and he has the best friends, and all the girls want to go with him, and things like than that. And that is the same with argumentation in the sense that we want to look underneath the surface. And of course it’s not entirely different from what an intelligent person would see anyway, because these things happen in real life arguments and discourse. But the training in doing that systematically well offers certain viewpoints for getting out of the discourse all these things that are really important to getting a fair assessment of discourse. That is important. And, there, pragma-dialectics can be important, because it does not only explain what the theoretical angle is, what the different kinds of sources are, that you take from empirical reality. (…) It’s no use giving argument if you do not think that someone may not accept your standpoints. And then they have to know what are the signs that are the indicators also… people are expression standpoints because they may express it in a very indirect way, and they say “wouldn’t it be better to…?”. In that way… And how do you detect that there is someone that is doubting that. And in oral communication you can also see, because of the preference of agreements that’s… (?) People are slower in reacting when they don’t agree than when they do agree, because there’s always some kind of hesitation there. And if you take that, you can say that it is likely that this person does not agree, because it takes a while before he starts asking more questions. And that goes for all these different kinds from the confrontation stage, the opening stage, the argumentation stage, to the concluding stage. It goes for the difference of opinion, for the starting point, for the unexpressed premises, and for instance, yes, how to make an unexpressed premise, that’s something you have to train yourself to develop. That’s why I think if people really like to know what is happening in social reality – at least from an argumentative prospective – then, it is useful to use pragma-dialectics. (…). And I think that if you do that well, then another thing is that in I call the practical component of the research program, you also have something to contribute as argumentation theorist that has to do with improving argument prospective, because very often when people have an interest in argumentation, then it is not just for descriptive purposes, but very often they have that interest because, somehow, they think that something is going wrong in argumentations. They are students and they are thinking “he’s not doing a good job”… or “she did not analyze well what this author said”, or in general discussions when you say things like “aah, this is a low-quality debate”, or “it’s just a waste of time, all these people getting their opinions”… and also when you look at the Internet, when you look at these discussions, then you might, I think mistakenly think that it’s useless, that people just do that as a… But it also has a certain function in keeping up a certain kind of culture, and people do not always see that, and in order to see that well, err, you have to know more about what is happening, but if you would like to improve it, as many people would like to, then there are basically two groups: one is that you would like to teach people (…), but another thing is also that sometimes you want to change the formats, sometimes you discover that people are (?) things in a way that doesn’t lead to the result that they have in mind. You can expect.. For instance, in a company where people are having all kinds of things they’re doing meetings about, then at a certain point, the boss says. “We have all these meetings everyday, and I cannot see whether that leads to any improvement”… And, they might say “these meetings are not as productive as they could be”, “the way we discuss is not so good”. And you could also be more precise. When you look at mediation for instance.