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Argumentation theory

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Argumentation theory, or argumentation, studies the arts and sciences of civil debate, dialogue, and conversation, using rules of inference, logic, and procedural rules in both artificial and real world settings. Argumentation is concerned primarily with reaching conclusions through logical reasoning based on certain premises. Although including debate and negotiation which are concerned with reaching mutually acceptable conclusions, argumentation theory also encompasses the branch of social debate in which victory over an opponent is the primary goal. This science is often the means by which people protect their beliefs or self-interests in rational dialogue, in common parlance, and during the process of arguing. Argumentation is also applied in law, such as court trials, preparing an argument, and to test the validity of certain kinds of evidence.

Philosophical Aspects

As it relates to philosophy, argumentation is used with or without empirical evidence to establish a convincing conclusion about issues which are moral, scientific, epistemic, or of a nature in which science alone cannot answer. Argumentation theory employs the field of informal logic in constructing credible arguments and identifying faulty reasoning.

In general, the label "argumentation" is used by speech and communication scholars while the label "informal logic" is used by philosophers, the informal logic movement being the brainchild of University of Windsor philosophers Ralph Johnson and Tony Blair. Over the past thirty years, however, scholars from several disciplines have co-mingled at international conferences such as that hosted by the University of Amsterdam (the Netherlands) and the International Society for the Study of Argumentation. Other international conferences are the biannual conference held at Alta, Utah sponsored by the (US) National Communication Association and American Forensics association and conferences sponsored by the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation (OSSA).

Some scholars construe the term "argument" very narrowly, for instance as exclusively written discourse. Others construe the term "argument" very broadly, to include spoken and even nonverbal discourse, for instance the degree to which a war memorial or propaganda poster can be said to argue or "make arguments." The philosopher Stephan E. Toulmin has said that an argument is a claim on our attention and belief, a view that would seem to authorize treating, say, propaganda posters as arguments. The dispute between broad and narrow theorists is of long standing and unlikely to be settled anytime soon. The views of the majority of argumentation theorists and analysts fall somewhere between these two extremes.

Argumentation is also a formal discipline within artificial intelligence where the aim is to make a computer assist in or perform the act of argumentation. In addition, argumentation has been used to provide a proof-theoretic semantics for nonmonotonic logic, starting with the influential work of Dung (1995). Computational argumentation systems have found particular application in domains where formal logic and classical decison theory are unable to capture the richness of reasoning, domains such as law and medicine. Within Computer Science, the ArgMAS workshop series (Argumentation in Multi-Agent Systems), the CMNA workshop series (Computational Models of Natural-Language Argument), and now the COMMA Conference Computational Models of Argument are regular annual events attracting participants from every continent.

Typically an argument has an internal structure, comprising of the following

  1. a set of assumptions or premises
  2. a method of reasoning or deduction and
  3. a conclusion or point.
  • An argument must have at least one premise and one conclusion.

Often classical logic is used as the method of reasoning so that the conclusion follows logically from the assumptions or support. One challenge is that if the set of assumptions is inconsistent then anything can follow logically from inconsistency. Therefore it is common to insist that the set of assumptions is consistent. It is also good practice to require the set of assumptions to be the minimal set, with respect to set inclusion, necessary to infer the consequent. Such arguments are called MINCON arguments, short for minimal consistent. Such argumentation has been applied to the fields of law and medicine. A second school of argumentation investigates abstract arguments that by definition have no internal structure.

In its most common form, argumentation involves an individual and an interlocutor/or opponent engaged in dialogue, each contending differing positions and trying to persuade each other. Other types of dialogue in addition to persuasion are eristic, information seeking, inquiry, negotiation, deliberation, and the dialectical method (Doug Walton). The dialectical method was made famous by Plato and his use of Socrates critically questioning various characters and historical figures.

The key components of argumentation

  • Understanding and identifying the presentation of an argument, either explicit or implied, and the goals of the participants in the different types of dialogue.
  • Identifying the conclusion and the premises from which the conclusion is derived
  • Establishing the "Burden of proof" – determining who made the initial claim and is thus responsible for providing evidence why his/her position merits acceptance
  • For the one carrying the "Burden of proof", the advocate, to marshal evidence for his/her position in order to convince or force the opponent's acceptance. The method by which this is accomplished is producing valid, sound, and cogent arguments, devoid of weaknesses, and not easily attacked.
  • In a debate, fulfillment of the burden of proof creates a burden of rejoinder.One must try to identify faulty reasoning in the opponent’s argument, to attack the reasons/premises of the argument, to provide counterexamples if possible, to identify any logical fallacies, and to show why a valid conclusion cannot be derived from the reasons provided for his/her argument

Further reading

Flagship journals:

  • Argumentation
  • Informal Logic
  • Argumentation and Advocacy (formerly Journal of the American Forensic Association)


  • Fourteen proceedings of the American Communication Association and the American Forensics Association Conferences on Argumentation at Alta, Utah.
  • Six proceedings of the International Association for the Study of Argumentation (ISSA) conferences, Amsterdam, Holland.
  • Six proceedings of the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation conferences, Ontario, Canada.


J. Robert Cox and Charles Arthur Willard, eds. Advances in Argumentation Theory and Research 1982.

P. M. Dung, On the acceptability of arguments and its fundamental role in nonmonotonic reasoning, logic programming and n-person games. Artificial Intelligence, 77: 321-357 (1995).

Frans van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst, Sally Jackson, and Scott Jacobs, Reconstructing Argumentative Discourse 1993.

Frans Van Eemeren & Rob Grootendorst. A systematic theory of argumentation. The pragma-dialected approach. 2004.

Eemeren, F.H. van, Grootendorst, R. & Snoeck Henkemans, F. et al (1996). Fundamentels of Argumentation Theory. A Handbook of Historical Backgrounds and Contemporary Developments. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Michael A. Gilbert Coalescent Argumentation 1997.

Trudy Govier, Problems in Argument Analysis and Evaluation. 1987.

Trudy Govier, A Practical Study of Argument2nd ed. 1988.

Sally Jackson and Scott Jacobs, "Structure of Conversational Argument: Pragmatic Bases for the Enthymeme." The Quarterly Journal of Speech. LXVI, 251-265.

Stephen Toulmin. (1959). The uses of argument. 1959.

Douglas N. Walton, The Place of Emotion in Argument. 1992.

Charles Arthur Willard, A Theory of Argumentation. 1989.

Charles Arthur Willard, Argumentation and the Social Grounds of Knowledge1982.

Links on argumentation theory


  • Association for Informal Logic and Critical Thinking
  • International Society for the Study of Argumentation (ISSA)
  • American Forensics Association

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