Monday, December 17, 2012

Michael Billig: Arguing and Thinking (1987)

In chapter 2 of his (highly recommended) book on rhetoric, Michael Billig offers an interesting critique of the frequently invoked reductions of argumentation to a kind of game or a kind of theater.

His argument is that even games involve a certain amount of arguing and disagreeing, and that the metaphor has to obscure this fact (on pain of infinite regress). Or put differently, if arguments are games, they are games whose rules are settled by even more games:
If there is a resemblance between arguments and games, then also arguments can resemble games which never quite get played. It is as if two captains are picking sides in a playground before playing a game to settle an argument. However, they cannot agree how to pick the sides, and therefore they decide to play a second game the winner of which can describe how to pick the sides for the first game. The second game requires that sides be picked, and that provokes a further row, which is to be settled by a third game. And, thus, there looms the prospect of infinite disagreement about the rules, all to be settled by further games, whose rules are disputable. Therefore there is an infinite of disagreements which can be aired, before the teams can line up with agreed rules. (p. 25–26)
This is closely related to what he terms "Protagoras' principle," i.e., the idea that there are arguments for and against any point. Any statement can be called into question at any time, so argumentation is not guaranteed to ever reach a bottom layer of unanalyzed shared assumptions.

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