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University of Amsterdam
Discourse Analysis and Argumentation Studies
Thesis M.A.
Pragma-dialectics fallacies of relevance
Cristóbal Joannon (#5907616)
Francisca Snoeck Henkemans
5 August 2009
I want to thank Francisca Snoeck Henkemans, Bart Garssen, Marcin Lewinksy and Constanza
Ihnen for their useful help when I was writing this thesis. I also want to thank the continuous
support that Ana María Vicuña and Celso López –the friends that introduced me to
argumentation studies– gave me throughout the years. My last gratitude message is to
Professor Frans van Eemeren, who invited me, years ago, to study the theory of argumentation
here in Amsterdam.
This thesis is dedicated to my wife, Elena Cruz T.
Chapter 1. Introduction .............................................................................................................. 3
Chapter 2. What is relevance? ................................................................................................... 6
2.1 The Gricean maxim of relation ............................................................................................ 6
2.2 A pragma-dialectical notion of relevance .......................................................................... 14
2.2.1 Analytic relevance ......................................................................................................... 21
2.2.2 The ‘relevance cube’ ...................................................................................................... 23
Chapter 3. A comparison between the standard treatment and the pragma-dialectical
approach ................................................................................................................................... 26
3.1 Copi and Cohen’s list (2002) ............................................................................................. 27
3.2 The pragma-dialectical definition of fallacies ................................................................... 32
3.3 The pragma-dialectical list (1992, 2002) ........................................................................... 35
3.4 The pragma-dialectical criticism of the standard treatment of fallacies of relevance ....... 40
3.5 Why argumentum ad hominem is not a fallacy of relevance ............................................ 41
Chapter 4. The Aristotelian source of the pragma-dialectical fallacies of relevance .............. 46
4.1 Characterization of ethos ................................................................................................... 46
4.2 Characterization of pathos ................................................................................................. 50
4.3 Characterization of logos ................................................................................................... 54
4.4 The link to the pragma-dialectical approach ..................................................................... 57
Chapter 5. Conclusion ............................................................................................................. 60
Bibliography ............................................................................................................................ 62
Chapter 1. Introduction
As rational subjects, we argue with other people in order to convince them that our opinions
are correct, or that their opinions are doubtful. In this communicative process we mainly use
words. We argue in principle because we believe that it is possible to resolve a difference of
opinion by putting forward arguments. Sometimes we actually convince our audience,
sometimes they convince us. Sometimes our discussion doesn’t reach an agreement because
the dispute becomes extremely sophisticated or simply because we don’t have more time to go
on with it. Sometimes we commit a fallacy or the other party commits one and our
argumentative efforts are to no avail. Let’s look at an example. Two friends are talking.
A: I don’t like American coffee: it’s so light.
B: Well, I think that this is exactly an essential quality of a good coffee.
A: If you repeat that I will never invite you to a coffee bar.
The second exchange of A –a threat– is not quite reasonable. How could A and B resolve their
difference of opinion if A is putting B under pressure to take a certain point of view? The
second contribution of A is a fallacious move: it is not a real collaboration to the discussion in
which they are involved. I presume that this example is very clear. But let’s look another one.
The case occurs in Amsterdam. A is an Afro-American man riding a bike and B –a typical
blonde citizen– crossed a red light and crashed into him.
A: Be careful! You are not alone in this city. Norms are for everyone.
B: Where are you from?
A: So what? I am only suggesting that you –like me– have to observe the norms.
Just as in example (1), B makes an unreasonable move. In example (2) we can easily see that
the rhetorical question of B has a racist implication. When saying “Where are you from?” B is
implicating something like “You are not from here”. This implication can also be understood
as “Because you are not from here you don’t have the right to tell me what to do”. This
personal attack goes by the name of argumentum ad hominem.1 The reaction of A, “So what?”
shows that he doesn’t see the connection between his argument, “Norms are for everyone”,
and what B suggested –A’s race or place of origin. B, however, apparently considers his
contribution as a relevant one. Otherwise –we can ask– why would he put it forward? As van
Eemeren and Grootendorst assert, “without any clear signs to the contrary, it must always be
assumed in the analysis of an argumentative discourse or text that the participants in the
speech event in question act in a meaningful way: They are expected to say things that are
relevant”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004:81) Could it be possible that both parties are
right in the eyes of the analyst, i.e. that the expression “Where are you from?” is relevant and
–at the same time– irrelevant in the given context? If A and B are right, we can conclude that
there is a fallacy only in the eyes of A. This conclusion doesn’t seem to be very realistic.
There is a fallacy independently of what A and B think. The question is what kind of fallacy B
For some theorists –for instance present-day informal logicians–, as pointed by A, B
committed a failure of relevance. For other theorists –specifically the School of Amsterdam,
developers of the pragma-dialectical approach–, this is not the case: B committed a fallacy,
but not one that has to do with relevance. How can we explain this difference?
In this thesis I explore this general problem, the so-called “fallacies of relevance”. My main
goal is to arrive at a better understanding of what a fallacy of relevance is in the pragmadialectical approach. I study the explanation and justification that Frans van Eemeren and Rob
Grootendorst gave in their books and articles of their treatment of thus type of fallacies. As we
will see, the Standard Treatment does not provide a systematic background for dealing with
fallacies of relevance. Fortunately, the case of the pragma-dialectical approach is different.
This thesis has three chapters. In chapter 1 I investigate the concept of relevance. In the first
section I discuss Paul Grice’s pragmatical insights from in his very influential paper “Logic
and conversation”. Grice seems to offer a good starting point to the problem of relevance. In
the second section I deal with what exactly is meant by relevance in the pragma-dialectical
In chapter 2, I make a comparison between the Standard Treatment and the pragma-dialectical
approach: I contrast what they understand by “fallacy” and I revise the list of fallacies that
For the pragma-dialectical approach it is of the kind of the abusive variant.
they consider a fallacy of relevance. To illustrate the main differences between these two
perspectives I tackle the argumentum ad hominem as a paradigmatic case.
In chapter 3, I ask if it is there an historical justification for the fact that the pragma-dialectical
approach considers –apart from ignoratio elenchi– the use of ethos and pathos as fallacies of
relevance. I study what Aristotle says in the Rhetoric and I connect those crucial insights with
the perspective developed by the Amsterdam School. I underline the pivotal place of logos in
argumentation discourses in both the Aristotelian and the pragma-dialectical approach.
Chapter 2. What is relevance?
“The relevance [problem] is too fundamental
and too general to be dealt with in one stroke”.
Van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1992:141
2.1 The Gricean maxim of relation
The purpose of this section is to provide guidelines for to understanding the Gricean maxim of
relation: “Be relevant”. Here I will tackle relevance exclusively from a communication
perspective. In the next section I will deal with relevance from an argumentation perspective,
specifically that of the pragma-dialectical approach.
Relevance is something that we refer to all the time. The notion becomes problematics –like
the nature of Time for Saint Augustine– when someone asks about it. If one declares: “I don’t
think that this is important to the story”, or “I can’t follow your narration: there are some leaps
that are odd”, he is appealing to a certain concept of relevance. A friend of us, with Socratic
manners, could say: “If you are appealing to relevance, perhaps you are able to define it”. Are
we able to do that instantly? It is difficult to admit that we can do that.
Paul Grice proposed that relevance is a crucial aspect of communication. In his influential
approach, relevance is a maxim: the maxim of relation. This maxim is one of the four maxims
that he developed in his theory of Conversational Implicature. Roughly speaking, this theory
explains how a speaker can mean something different from what he is literally saying. It is
possible because the speaker follows what Grice calls the Cooperative Principle, a rationality
principle that governs any conversation: “Make your contribution such as is required, at the
stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which
you are engaged”. (Grice 1989:26) At a more detailed level, the four maxims –and the
submaxims– are in accordance with the Cooperative Principle; they are special manifestations
of it.2 The maxims could be exploited generating what Grice called “implicatures”. These
implicatures are not decoded by the language users, but inferred. In this process, the hearer
must recognize that any flouting is intentional.
“These are not rules that language users just appear to follow in their verbal exchanges, but rules that are indeed
reasonable to follow in interaction with others”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004:76)
With the exception of the maxim of relation, the other maxims are perfectly understandable
and don’t need any further explanation. Grice wrote about our maxim:
Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise
me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be,
how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of
conversation are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such questions
exceedingly difficult, and I hope to revert to them in later work. (1989:27)
Unfortunately, he never wrote this “later work”. This debt of clarification is an important
scholarly challenge. The only contributions that Grice gave to the discussion on relevance are
an illustration of what he means with his maxim –quote (1)–, and the two examples (2-3) that
he offered, in the same paper, to show how the maxim of relation is used to produce a
conversational implicature.
I expect a partner’s contribution to be appropriate to the immediate needs at each stage of the
transaction. If I am mixing ingredients for a cake, I do not expect to be handed a good book, or
even an oven cloth (though this might be an appropriate contribution at a later stage).
A is standing by an obviously immobilized car and is approached by B; the following
exchange takes place:
A: I am out of petrol.
B: There is a garage round the corner.
(Gloss: B would be infringing the maxim “Be relevant” unless he thinks, or thinks is possible,
that the garage is open, and has petrol to sell; so he implicates that the garage is, or at least
may be open, etc.). (1989:32)
A: Smith doesn’t seem to have a girlfriend these days.
B: He has been paying a lot of visits to New York lately.
B implicates that Smith has, or may have, a girlfriend in New York. Gloss is unnecessary in
view of that given for the previous example.3 (1989:32)
The implicature of this example is ambiguous: the visits to New York of Smith could mean exactly the
opposite, i.e. that he is very busy, with no time to personal relationships.
Although the materials are a few, these three texts are quite useful.4 In (1) we can find one
salient property: that relevance is a matter of collaboration not only with respect to the goal of
the conversation, but a contribution suitable for a particular stage.5 In (2), the answer of B is
relevant because it is helpful to the purpose of A –under the assumption that a garage is a
place where one commonly can get gas. In (3), a casual interaction with not a clear purpose,
the response of B is relevant –for Grice– because it is a clarification of what A thinks about
the situation of Smith; is it important to note that this example is different than the other
examples: A is not asking if Smith has a girlfriend or not, but we can understand B’s utterance
like a contribution to A’s state of knowledge: he is collaborating with new information,
independently of A’s demand.
We can conclude then that these three examples have a common pattern: the relation between
the maxim of relation and the Cooperative Principle is very close (extremely close, as we will
see). Relevance appears like a conversational concept that links the sequences in a
conversational exchange. Since it is a link between sequences, we can advance a last feature:
relevance is a relation between predicates, and not something like a monadic predicate, or –so
to speak– an “ingredient” that we can find in a group of words.
What is the main problem of Grice’s lack of clarification about the maxim of relation? The
principle debt of Grice is that he didn’t give an explicit criterion that permits us to decide
when an utterance is relevant and when not. This debt is of course very serious because the
relation maxim is an essential piece of his theory: if we erase this maxim, the concept of
implicature is seriously affected.
A number of authors voiced one strong criticism against the Gricean approach to relevance:
the virtual equivalence between the maxim of relation and the Cooperative Principle. “For, as
many of Grice’s examples indicate, there is a sense in which a certain concept of relevance,
perhaps not identical with the one required for the maxim of relation, governs the operation of
the other supermaxims, as if the Cooperative Principle itself were in fact a principle of
‘relevance’ rather than a principle of ‘cooperation’”. (Dascal 1977:311) The essential question
was pointed by D. Walton: “If the Cooperative Principles itself defines relevance, then why
have a separate maxim of relation?” (Walton 2004a:115) Years before, Berg advanced a
skeptical answer to this question: “…only because the maxim of relation serves as a catch-all
For Dascal (1977), these examples are not a great help to dispel the “disparagingly vague state” of relevance. I
not totally agree.
See Walton 2004:111 for more details.
for those aspects of the Cooperative Principle not explicitly falling under the other maxims”.
(Berg 1991:412)
I think that the Cooperative Principle is not a good “explanation” for the maxim of relation;
the Cooperative Principal is too general. We will see below that a clarification of the maxim
of relation needs to resolve some important questions about the nature of relevance; these
clarifications, obviously, must be in accordance with the Cooperation Principle. It is not a
surprise, then, if they are closely linked.
When I started studying this problem, I thought that a shortcut to arrive at a broad meaning of
the maxim of relation was describing the contexts when we use the expression “Be relevant”,
like in examples (9-10). But while I advanced designing different language games, one clear
pattern appears. Of course, it was easy to anticipate: one uses the expression “Be relevant”
when a jump occurs in the communication, when there is a connection lacking in the
exchange. These jumps could be described as irrelevant moves. Nevertheless, are we able to
understand what an irrelevant move is only by describing the use of “Be relevant”? It is not
possible. So I changed my methodological procedure and started looking for the features of
these jumps. These jumps are commonly –and wrongly– understood with a non-gradual state
of relevance, i.e. that the jumps are of the kind “black or white”. I think that this prejudice is a
typical impediment to understand the nature of relevance. I found the following statement in
the book of G. N. Leech, Principles of Pragmatics:
[…] relevance, like informativeness and truthfulness, is not a yes-or-no quality, but a manner
of degree. (1983:99)
We can support this assertion by giving examples. In example (4) we have five answers to the
same question:6
A: Why did John beat Carl?
B1: Because Carl insulted John’s mother.
B2: Human kind is violent sometimes.
B3: Why Not?7
B4: Why are two and two four?8
The question and the last three answers appear in Dascal 1977:323-4.
Implicature: “There’s nothing to be explained”, or “It is not your business”.
B5: What is the solution to Fermat’s problem?9
B1 doesn’t pose any problem: it responds in a very direct way to what A is asking; we can add
that B1’s utterance is totally relevant: we can’t find any jump in the contribution. With B2
something different happens: the answer makes sense, but it is a common-place, an extremely
general contribution that can be used in virtually any context of human controversy. Is it a
relevant utterance? It is clear that the answer doesn’t refer to John, Carl or the incident. But
we can understand this answer as a remark that someone gives when he doesn’t really know
the reason. The implicature could be “I do not know exactly why” or “Not everything in life
can be explained”. B3, B4 and B5 are indirect answers that are apparently irrelevant, but that
have relevant implicatures. These implicatures show that those answers are quite different to
B2; if we change the utterance “Why not?” to “It is no of your business” we see that there is
no jump there.
These answers are relevant if they are contributions to the purpose of A. If A is asking in a
general sense if John really beats Carl (using a rhetorical “why”), then the five answers are
relevant. But if A is asking because he wants to obtain information, then B3, B4 and B5 are
irrelevant, and perhaps B2 also. As we said above, they are contributions with a different
degree of relevance. What is important to underline is that a “low degree” utterance doesn’t
imply that the maxim of relation is violated.
One interesting problem appears when an utterance is not a direct contribution to an explicit
A: Where’s my box of chocolates?
B: I’ve got a train to catch. (Leech 1983:94)
The remark of B is not very cooperative, but is a relevant answer: B is showing why he cannot
answer the question. Therefore, the demand of A is not evaded; we can assert that it is only
put off for another moment. The important thing –the fact– is that B has detected the demand
of A and tries to give the most adequate answer that he has at hand. We have to acknowledge
that this example is completely different from the last three answers of example (4). With the
Implicature: “The answer if obvious”.
Implicature: “Is impossible to answer this question”.
support of examples (4-5) we are able to conclude that a relevant utterance has a degree of
connection with satisfaction of the demand of the speaker –A, in this case.
Dascal (1977) proposed another maxim, subordinated to the general maxim of relevance:
“Check for correct identification of demand”.10 This “new” maxim is useful: it makes easy to
understand why for instance “The first time that I talked with John was in 1995” is an
irrelevant answer for the question “Why did John beat Carl?” The speaker is not reading
correctly the demand of A; in contrast, in example (4), the answers don’t present a problem
concerning the identification of the demand. Dascal used this new maxim to explain the
famous irrelevant example of Hilary Putnam:
A: Why did you rob the bank?
B: Because that’s where the money is! (Dascal 1977:326)
Like in example (6), confusion about the nature of the demand creates comic situations.
A: Would you like to dance?
B: Sure. Do you know anyone else who’d like to? (Leech 1983:98)
Let’s look for another one. A is a lecturer, and B is a student.
A: Who wasn’t in class today?
B: George Washington and Moby Dick. (Leech 1983:99)
We can conclude that when it is not clear what the demand is guiding the conversation, it is
extremely difficult to put forward relevant contributions. It explains why when someone asks
us if we are free next weekend, normally we respond: “It depends”.
A complete theory of action must include the clarification of what demands are. Fortunately,
here we are not doing philosophy. The main thing that we can add is that a demand gives an
Dascal didn’t explain how a language user can do it. The direct manner is to ask the other party about it; the
indirect manner is to infer the expectancy. I have no doubt that this kind of inference needs to be justified in a
theoretical way, but not using the Gricean approach in order to avoid a circular reference.
orientation: it is the yardsticks that measure many of our conversations. Demands have an
extremely important contextual effect: they give a purpose to the interaction. Let’s look at
some examples:
In (9-10), a girl visits a police station demanding help. A is the policeman, B is the girl.
A: What’s the problem?
B: Someone stole my bike.
A: I see.
B: It is an old yellow bike.
A: Something more?
B: Yes, it was a gift of my grandmother.
A variant:
A: What’s the problem?
B: Someone stole my bike.
A: I see.
B: It is an old yellow bike.
A: Something more?
B: Yes, it has an expensive saddle that I bought in Italy.11
If we continue the conversation for both cases it will be clear why the reference to the gift of
B’s grandmother and the expensive saddle are irrelevant utterances in the given context: the
police with these utterances cannot satisfy the demand of the girl.
A: Please, be relevant.
B: Relevant?
A: I mean that I am asking for information that will help us to find it.
The key-question is the purpose that guides the exchange. With “purpose” we mean the
conversational objective12 of the speaker and the hearer: the police needs visible features
This last utterance could be relevant if the saddle has a Italian name. But imagine that is not the case.
about the bike in order to recognize it. The saddle of the example (10) could be relevant only
if it contributes to the investigation; so, because is extremely difficult to recognize an Italian
expensive saddle, is reasonable to say that it is an irrelevant description.
Example (11) shows that a natural meaning of the word “relevance” –i.e. “helpful”,
“usefulness”– is used in context of goal-oriented activities. Typical cases are requesting for
information and argumentative discussions.13 A goal-oriented activity involves not only a
demand of new data; it is something different –like in the Gricean example (1), when someone
is preparing a cake, or in examples (9-10), when a girl wants to recover her bike. In many of
these cases, persons use the language to achieve a goal, but essentially they are seeking
something that is not of a verbal nature. They use language because it is the way –normally an
easy way– to achieve the purpose.
What happens if the goal is not completely satisfied? Does this mean that the contributions
were irrelevant? Not necessarily:
[...] it would be enough for the conversational contribution merely to initiate a chain of events
that would, if completed, lead to actual realization of the goal, that is, for it to work “in the
right direction”, even if the goal is never actually achieved. [...] Conversational acts are
relevant if their intended effects bring about progress toward the goal. (Berg 1991:422, 425)
“In the right direction”, “progress”: evidently these expressions need a more theoretical
precision, but they are nonetheless very useful to understand the point.
Our last question regards the relevance in non goal-oriented contexts.
A: I want to visit Oslo next summer. I don’t know if it is preferable to do it by train or by bus.
B1: I watched in the TV an interesting reportage of the origins of the railroads in America.
B2: Jimmy, my son, loves electric trains, since we gave him one as a present last Christmas.
B3: Oslo was founded by King Harald Hardraade about 1050 AC.
B4: The last bus that I took was in Portugal, two years ago.
I use this expression as Berg 1991:416 presented it.
Ideally, in argumentative discussions the parties are trying to resolve a difference of opinion. We will see in
detail this specific dimension of the communication in the next section of this chapter.
The four answers of this example are connected with A in different ways. The four make
sense and are coherent, and are also a kind of contribution to the development of the
conversation. But these connections are not functional: they are only topical.14 A is not
demanding something about B, and when the demand is not clear is not possible to say that an
utterance is functionally connected with another one. We can conclude that in non goaloriented exchanges the problem of relevance is not relevant. The key-concept of relevance
then is the expression “functionally-connected”. In the next section we will deal with it.
2.2. A pragma-dialectical notion of relevance
In this section I will try to clarify what exactly is meant by relevance in pragma-dialectics.
This question is focused in argumentative exchanges (as we saw, Paul Grice is focused in
communicative exchanges in general). This question is a crucial step in order to understand
the theoretical justification of the Relevance Rule of the critical discussion: “A party may
defend his or her standpoint only by advancing argumentation related to that standpoint”. (van
Eemeren, Grootendorst & Snoeck Henkemans 2002:182) As we will see in the next chapter
the fallacies of relevance are described as violations of this rule.
The pragma-dialectical notion of relevance is treated in two main texts: in the article
“Relevance reviewed: the case of argumentum ad hominem” (1994) and, ten years later, in the
book A Systematic Theory of Argumentation (2004), in particular in chapter 4, “Relevance”.
The texts share the same starting points, and in general we can say that the theoretical
conclusions are similar. The procedure nevertheless is different, especially in the beginning.
The first text starts with a general definition of relevance:
An element of discourse is relevant to another element of discourse if an interactional relation
can be envisaged between these elements that is functional in the light of a certain objective.
(van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1994:51)
The later text provides three general characteristics of relevance:
First, relevance, just as lack of relevance or irrelevance, always concerns certain specific
elements or parts of a discourse or text, which may be smaller or larger components. Second,
relevance and irrelevance always relate to a certain stage or phase in the discourse or text: It is
The so called “topical relevance” is not enough to indicate the kind of connection that relevance establishes
between utterances. For further details see Berg 1991:414-7.
only when viewed within the context of that particular domain that the question of (ir)relevancy
is pertinent. Third, relevance or irrelevance always pertains to a certain kind of relation between
elements or parts of a discourse or text that is judged (dys)functional to achieving a particular
goal or purpose. This relation can be explicit or implicit. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst
We can see that these two quotes underline the fact that the notion of “functionally connected”
is crucial to understand what relevance is. As we will see, there are three different views of
relevance: a descriptive view (interpretive relevance), a normative view (evaluative relevance)
and a pragma-dialectical view (analytic relevance).
Before dealing with these different approaches, there is one crucial question that we should
raise now: To what extent is pragma-dialectical relevance equivalent to not violating Gricean
maxim of relation? As we said in the other section of this chapter, the maxim of relation can
be understood as a principle of understanding: any violation of it breaks the communication.
Imagine that someone calls you on your cell phone: you will expect that he will say something
(because his call is relevant, isn’t it?). If he doesn’t talk you may think that there is a technical
problem with the phone connection. But if you are certain that there is no technical problem,
you will not understand what is going on. Was he kidnapped? Did another person make the
call? Maybe the cell phone was stolen? These reactions show that it is not easy to deal with a
communicative misunderstanding: one tries automatically to make sense of what happens all
The requirement of understanding holds true for any kind of language interaction. Since
argumentative events are communicative exchanges, we can assert that the Gricean maxim of
relation is a condition of argumentation. But the thing is not so simple: when someone argues
–i.e., makes an effort to resolve a difference of opinion– he really wants that his standpoint
and the arguments that give support to the standpoint are accepted by the listener. In other
words, argumentation is not only a matter of understanding. The expectation of being
understood is different to the expectation of being accepted. That is why the authors explain
that “argumentation is conventionally associated with bringing about the interactional effect
that the other party accepts a particular standpoint”. (2004:80) Let us look at an example. John
and Ana are friends; they often discuss politics, but they never agree:
John: I like Berlusconi.
Ana: What?! I don’t like him. He is extremely ambitious.
John: Many people say that, but I totally disagree: extreme ambition is the ideal quality of
a great statesman.
When Ana says that Berlusconi is extremely ambitious she wants to convince John that
Berlusconi is not reliable or something like that. If Ana actually thinks that her argument
won’t be accepted by John we can say that she is not making a real effort to resolve a
difference of opinion. The same thing can be said about John’s argument “ambition is the
ideal quality of a great statesman”. This argument –any argument, in principle– is provided
not only to be understood, but also to be accepted.
How can we deal with relevance as an evaluative notion? This question opens a new dominion
of relevance in argumentation. To attack this fundamental problem it is important to explain in
what sense the pragma-dialectical approach takes into account the Gricean maxim of relation.
Van Eemeren and Grootendorst made a “turn of the screw” of it.
Unlike Grice, we do not restrict the scope of the relevance concept to the maxim of relation.
Saying too much, for instance, which amounts to violating the maxim of quantity, also leads to a
relevance problem, as is reflected in observations by ordinary users about ‘irrelevant
repetitions’. As problems of relevance may relate to all four Gricean categories, we agree with
Sperber and Wilson that a broader concept of relevance is needed than is provided by the
Gricean maxim of relation. We do not agree with critics of Grice who conclude that the maxim
of relation can be skipped. Neither do we agree with Sperber and Wilson that Grice’s four
maxims can simply be replaced by a single principle of relevance. (1994:56)
To understand the adoption of the Gricean maxim of relation it is important to specify the
main goal of the model that van Eemeren and Grootendorst designed. There are theoretical
reasons for making use of Gricean insights within the model of the School of Amsterdam. The
authors described the pragma-dialectical approach as an analytic a priori approach that is
aimed “at identifying as adequately as possible every aspect of an argumentative discourse or
text that is relevant to the resolution of a difference of opinion”. (van Eemeren &
Grootendorst 2004:74) What do the words “analytic” and “a priori” in this context? With
“analytic” van Eemeren and Grootendorst mean that the pragma-dialectical approach analyzes
discourse in a systematic way from an external perspective. With “a priori” they mean that the
theoretical insights are not gained inductively by making empirical observations, but should
be “viewed as the premises for developing systematic insight into how language is used”.
The pragma-dialectic approach integrates Searle’s speech act theory and Gricean’s principles
of language use in interaction. Both Searle and Grice share with pragma-dialecticians the so
called “analytical a priori” approach. But there are some differences between them. The focus
of John Searle’s speech act theory is the communicative aspect of language; the focus of Paul
Grice is the interactional aspect of language. According to van Eemeren and Grootendorst the
fusion of both approaches provides a sound background to deal with argumentative language
use. “Because the communicative and interactional aspects are closely intertwined in
argumentative discourse, an integration of Searlean communicative insight and Gricean
interactional insight offers, in our view, the best starting-point for approaching argumentative
discourse and texts”. (2004:76)15 The integration of Searlean and Gricean insights allow for
the formulation of several pragmatic principles of language use that give a theoretical ground
for the analytical approach of the pragma-dialectical model. This integration requires a
reformulation of the Gricean Cooperative Principle. Van Eemeren and Grootendorst propose a
broader Communication Principle that covers the principles of clarity, honesty, efficiency and
relevance, i.e., the general principles that we observe and expect others to observe in verbal
communication and interaction.
Starting from the Communication Principle, the authors develop five more specific rules of
language use that serve as speech act alternatives to the Gricean maxims. They correspond
closely to the Gricean maxims, but they are formulated “as rules for the performance of
speech acts”. (2004:79)
1. You must not perform any speech acts that are incomprehensible.
2. You must not perform any speech acts that are insincere (or for which you
cannot accept responsibility).
3. You must not perform any speech acts that are redundant.
4. You must not perform any speech acts that are meaningless.
5. You must not perform any speech acts that are not in an appropriate way
connected with previous speech acts (by the same speaker or writer or by the
interlocutor) or the communicative situation. (cf. 2004:77)
It is interesting to note that the authors give a “pragmatic” reason for the adoption of both approaches: “is the
best starting-point” when dealing with arguments. This is not a weakness of the approach; it can be seen as a
strong and realistic choice that reinforces the application of the model.
We can see that rule 1 is the implementation of the Gricean principle of clarity; rule 2 to the
principle of honesty; rules 3 and 4 to the principle of efficiency; and rule 5 of the principle of
relevance. The last one is of interest of us. For the pragma-dialectical approach, the principle
of relevance is not related to the performance of an individual speech act, but to the
relationship between –first– different speech acts (of the same or different speakers) and –
second– the context. When is the principle of relevance obeyed? If a sequel to previous speech
acts is appropriate in the communicative situation. The authors admit that is not easy to
provide a general definition of what an appropriate sequel is, but in practice it is often possible
to explain what would be an appropriate sequel. They also say that the model of a critical
discussion provides us with a useful starting point for determining what is an appropriate
sequel in a given case. We will deal with the model of a critical discussion when examining
the intermediate concept of “analytic relevance”.
We asked before to what extent is pragma-dialectical relevance equivalent to not violating
Gricean maxim of relation. Here is the answer:
Every speech act is at least aimed at achieving the communicative effect that the listener or
reader understands the speech act and the interactional effect that the listener or reader accepts
what is aimed for in the speech act. As a rule, the performance of speech act that expresses the
idea that another speech act is understood or accepted will thus be a relevant reaction. The same
goes, of course, for expressing incomprehension or non-acceptance. A relevant reaction may, for
instance, also consist in providing arguments why something is acceptable or not acceptable.
This last quote indicates that the performance of a speech act is a relevant reaction if: (i) It
indicates that another speech act is understood; (ii) It expresses that another speech act is
accepted; and (iii) It provides arguments for why another speech is acceptable or not. It is
important to stress that (ii) and (iii) are different: one thing is the acceptance or not of a speech
act and the other is to provide arguments to make a speech act acceptable or not. In our
example, points (i), (ii) and (iii) are well illustrated:
John: I like Berlusconi.
Ana: What?! I don’t like him. He is extremely ambitious.
John: Many people say that, but I totally disagree: extreme ambition is the ideal
quality of a great statesman.
As analysts we can assert that all the exchanges of this discussion are relevant. The first
reaction of Ana, “What?! I don’t like him”, is the non-acceptance of the opinion of John, “I
like Berlusconi”. She advances the argument, “he is extremely ambitious”, to support her
standpoint, “I don’t like him”. The reaction of John, “many people say that”, indicates that
Ana’s argument has been understood, but this understanding doesn’t mean that John accepts
the argument of Ana. John puts forward another argument, “extreme ambition is the ideal
quality of a great man”, in order to make acceptable the standpoint “I like Berlusconi”.
It is time to pick up the crucial notion of “functionally connected”. “The general problem of
those interested in relevance in argumentative discourse is to determine when there is a
functional relation between discourse elements that are communicated by the language users
in a given case in order to achieve a certain interactional objective”. (van Eemeren &
Grootendorst 1994:51) There are three approaches that deal with this issue, viz. “different
conceptualizations of the functional relation inherent in the concept of relevance”. (1994:52)
The different approaches depend on the particular goal of the analyst and the manner in which
functionality is conceived within this goal.
The first is a descriptive approach. The analysts that follow this theoretical line are commonly
linguists and social scientists. They have an interpretive view of relevance, i.e., relevancy or
irrelevancy depends on the interpretive judgments of the speakers that are involved in a
certain discussion. Descriptive analysts “start from the proceedings in real-life cases of
argumentative discourse and identify relevance and irrelevance empirically by describing
what the language users themselves appear to consider as relevant or irrelevant”. (1994:52) In
the following example, we can easily see that Adam thinks that the argument that Mary put
forward has a problem of relevance:
Adam: I don’t like this music. It sounds like a funeral melody.
Mary: How can you say that? I studied Musicology at the University and I can tell
you that this beautiful Bach’s motet is a choral piece of religious joy.
Adam: I don’t see the point. Sometimes Classical Music sounds like funeral music.
Any language user, as Adam, undoubtedly would say that Adam’s expression “I don’t see the
point” means that Mary’s exchange is irrelevant. Interpretive relevance doesn’t take into
account the possible case that Adam’s expression “I don’t see the point” is an incorrect charge
of irrelevance. The descriptive approach is concerned with these types of questions: “When is
speech act A seen as a relevant reaction or sequel to speech act B?” and “How do the
participants in a conversation determine what is a relevant sequel to what was said earlier –
and what are the relevance criteria?”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004:71)
The second is a normative approach. Formal and informal logicians generally adopt this
theoretical line. Since “they assign relevance to the context of evaluating arguments and
identify relevance and irrelevance in argumentative discourse by referring to certain standards
for sound argument” (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1994:53) we can assert that they have a
normative view of relevance. To judge a certain speech act as relevant or irrelevant they use a
normative framework –the result of a specific theory of argumentation. In contrast with
interpretive relevance, for the evaluative relevance what the speakers consider relevant is...
irrelevant. The principle task for these analysts is to make normative assessments. The general
problem of fallacies of relevance is traditionally concerned to evaluative relevance.
Van Eemeren and Grootendorst explain that evaluative relevance is concerned with questions
such as “When should a personal attack, an appeal to authority, an appeal to sympathy,
threatening with sanctions, or pointing at the undesirable consequences of accepting a
standpoint be rejected as irrelevant?” and “What are the criteria for determining whether or
not certain (complexes of) speech acts are to be judged as relevant?” (van Eemeren &
Grootendorst 2004:71) The example that van Eemeren and Grootendorst provide is taken from
the book Logical Self-Defense written by Johnson and Blair:
Bertrand and the commissioners must be out to lunch. In no possible way could he have one
lousy shred of evidence to support their allegations. I can say this because my husband has been
working for the oil company for 30 years and the company has always been good to him. To say
that the industry my husband works for has been ripping off the public for years really irks me.
Johnson and Blair judge the position of the woman as irrelevant. Her position, they say, arises
only from her “egocentric investment”, from her self-interest. Her loyalty to her husband’s oil
company is supported by the loyalty that she has to him and the loyalty that he has to the
company. This sort of “triangle of loyalties” doesn’t have a functional connection with the key
question: the frizzing of the oil prices. For the woman the relation is apparently not
problematic. This contrast between the speaker –the woman– and the analysts –Johnson and
Blair– shows us the evaluative dimension of the normative approach.
2.2.1 Analytic relevance
The most important contribution of the pragma-dialectical approach to the theoretical
discussion about relevance is the introduction of an intermediary concept in between
interpretive and evaluative relevance: this crucial concept is “analytic relevance”.
Van Eemeren and Grootendorst think that argumentative discourse cannot be restricted to
either interpretive or evaluative relevance. We said before that when people are arguing
expect their speech acts to be understood and also to be accepted. The interpretation of these
speech acts “anticipates its evaluation and its evaluation presupposes its understanding”. (van
Eemeren & Grootendorst 1994:53) An adequate treatment of relevance then requires a
methodical reconstruction of the discourse. This pragma-dialectical reconstruction results in
an analytical overview, in which only those elements in the discourse that are pertinent to its
evaluation are brought together. “A calculated and systematic analysis of the argumentative
discourse is therefore required, in which the relevant connections between speech acts are
methodically reconstructed. The interpretation is, then, as it were, theoretically programmed”.
How can we know which are the relevant connections in an argumentative discourse? The
relevant connections have a difference-resolving functionality. We only can see this
fundamental property when we reconstruct the argumentative exchange as a critical
discussion. This reconstruction process is crucial for the pragma-dialectical approach; only
through this reconstruction process we find, for instance, that an element that is apparently
interpretively irrelevant is analytically relevant. The link between analytic relevance and the
pragma-dialectical model of critical discussion is thus essential.
The model of critical discussion can be explained briefly as an ideal model that an analyst
uses when describing and evaluating an argumentative discussion; it is a useful analytical tool
in order to make an argumentative reconstruction. The model of critical discussion allows us
to establish the analytic relevance of the speech acts that form part of an argumentative
discourse. In doing so, analytic relevance takes account of the interpretive view and also of the
evaluative view. That is the reason why we said above that analytic relevance is an
intermediary concept. Since arguers try to resolve a difference of opinion by testing the
acceptability of the standpoints concerned, the reasonable resolution of the dispute has to go
through several stages. According to van Eemeren and Grootendorst, the relevance of speech
acts depends on the specific stage in the resolution process in which they occur. Speech acts
are relevant if they are functional to achieve the goal of their stage, i.e. if they play a
constructive role in that specific stage of the discussion.
The model of critical discussion has four stages: the confrontation stage, the opening stage,
the argumentation stage and the concluding stage. A certain speech act, for instance, might be
relevant in the confrontation stage but not in the argumentation stage –the agreement on
premises and discussion rules is a clear example.
We can conclude, then, that the analytic relevance of any speech acts in an argumentative
exchange is “stage-dependent”. To make things more clear, in the following scheme I present
the goal of each stage and the list of speech acts that are functional to each goal.16
The parties establish
that they have a
difference of opinion.
The parties decide to
try to resolve the
difference of opinion.
They assign the roles
of protagonist and
antagonist. They also
agree on the rules for
the discussion and on
the starting points.
The protagonist
defends his or her
standpoint against the
sometimes persistent
criticism of the
antagonist by putting
forward arguments to
counter the
antagonist’s objections
or to remove the
antagonist’s doubts.
The parties assess the
extent to which the
difference of opinion
has been resolved and
in whose favor.
·Expressing a
standpoint [a]
·Acceptance or nonacceptance of a
standpoint, upholding
non-acceptance of a
standpoint [c]
·Requesting a usage
declarative as a
definition, specification,
amplification, etc. [d]
amplification, etc. [ud]
·Challenging to defend
a standpoint [a]
·Acceptance of the
challenge to defend a
standpoint [c]
·Agreement on
premises and
discussion rules [c]
·Decision to start a
discussion [c]
·Requesting a usage
declarative as a
argumentation [d]
argumentation [a]
·Acceptance or nonacceptance of
argumentation [c]
·Requesting a usage
declarative as a
amplification, etc. [d]
·Acceptance or nonacceptance of a
standpoint [c]
·Upholding or
retracting a
standpoint [a]
·Establishing the result
of the discussion [a]
·Requesting a usage
declarative as a
amplification, etc. [d]
The goal of each stage can be found in van Eemeren, Grootendorst & Snoeck Henkemans 2002:25; the
distribution of speech acts in a critical discussion in van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004:68.
amplification, etc. [d]
amplification, etc. [ud]
amplification, etc. [ud]
amplification, etc. [ud]
* [a]=assertives [c]=commissives [d]=directives [ud]=usage declaratives
2.2.2 The ‘relevance cube’
Besides the distinction between interpretive, evaluative and analytical relevance, van Eemeren
and Grootendorst present another distinction in order to be able to deal adequately with the
concept of relevance as a functional connection.17 They claim that relevance has three
dimensions: contextual domain, verbal component and relational aspect; the combination of
these dimensions can be represented in a ‘relevance cube’, with one co-ordinate level
representing the contextual domain dimension, another the verbal component, and the third
the relational respect. “The three-fold classification makes it possible to distinguish between
different types of relevance problems, and to deal with each of them in the most appropriate
way”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004:83) It can easily be seen that the analyst is not
dealing with only one problem of relevance; a speech act could be relevant for the contextual
domain but irrelevant in its relational respect.
The first dimension of relevance is the contextual domain. When a discourse is reconstructed
as a critical discussion –i.e., as a resolution process with the four corresponding stages– as
analysts we have to specify each time in which contextual domain this speech act is relevant.
The main question then is in which stage of the resolution process the problem of relevance is
raised. It has to be stressed that, traditionally, argumentation analysts are interested
exclusively in the problem of relevance in the argumentation stage. The pragma-dialectical
approach shows us that the problem needs to be attacked in a broader manner. Indeed, the
authors give two examples considering other stages: “There may, in a certain case, for
example, be a question of relevance for the opening stage (‘It must be clear whether we are
agreed on this, otherwise it is pointless to continue’) or of relevance for the concluding stage
(‘Of course what you say now does not matter, because we have just concluded the
discussion’)”. (2004:82) We can see that we assign a certain function to a speech act
depending on the contextual domain.
All these distinctions are extremely important for the purpose of this thesis. As we will see in the next chapter,
these precisions provide the adequate background to examine the fallacies of relevance with a new light. Van
Eemeren and Grootendorst are explicit: “With the help of this taxonomy, it will be shown that the problems of
evaluative relevance with which the standard approach to fallacies cannot satisfactorily deal can be more
systematically approached within a pragma-dialectical framework”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1994:56)
The second dimension is the verbal component. Here the key question is not in which stage of
the discussion a certain speech act is relevant but “to which component of a speech act or
constellation of speech acts the question of relevance applies”. (2004:82) Since the
functionality of a speech act normally concerns only one of its components and not the speech
act as a whole, this component could be the constituent communicative act, the
communicative force, the propositional content or the linguistic phrasing. To clarify this
dimension van Eemeren and Grootendorst explain that “an observation concerning relevance,
for example, may have a bearing on a proposition that is expressed in a particular speech act
(‘That really is pertinent to what we are discussing at the moment’) or on the performance of a
speech act with a certain communicative force (‘If this is only a question, it is out of order
now, but if you are claiming that I am wrong, then of course it is not’)”. (2004:82)
The third and last dimension is the relational aspect. A certain speech act can be a functional
anticipation, reaction or sequel to another speech or the communicative situation. Here the key
question is which function of relevance is at issue. An exchange such as “There is no need for
any further justification; I already accept your argument” (2004:83) is an observation of
relevance that pertains to the type of supporting sequels to an argument. That explains why it
is important to determine in what respect a connection between one speech act and another
act is relevant or not. A reaction to the communicative situation could be “We have been
discussing for hours and apparently our positions are totally irreconcilable. I believe that we
will loose our time”.
The initial question of this section, viz. what exactly is meant by relevance in pragmadialectics, can be answered now in the following way. What is relevant –or not– is a certain
speech act that is performed in a critical discussion. The critical discussion is an ideal model
that the analyst uses in order to describe, analyze and evaluate this speech act. Since the goal
of the critical discussion is the resolution of a difference of opinion, the relevance of this
speech act depends on how functional it is to reach the goal. In other words, a speech act is
functionally connected to the goal if it is a contribution to the resolution of the dispute.
Because there are different goals in each stage of the resolution process, a speech act is
relevant –or not– in a specific contextual domain, for instance the confrontation stage of the
discussion. But the contextual domain is only one dimension of relevance; there are other two
dimensions that have to be considered when dealing with the functionality of speech acts: the
verbal component and the relational aspect. It is important to stress that the notion of
relevance in the pragma-dialectical approach is two fold: it can refer to the notion of analytical
relevance or to relevance in different domains: contextual domain, verbal component and
relational aspect.
If we want to provide a brief answer to the initial question of this section, we can assert that
the relevance of a discussion move depends on its contribution to the resolution of a difference
of opinion.
Chapter 3. A comparison between the Standard Treatment
and the pragma-dialectical approach
In the so-called “gang of eighteen”, the traditional group of fallacies which main sources are
Aristotle and Locke –father of the ad fallacies–, we find two categories: in dictione (in
language) and extra dictione (outside language). This Aristotelian division changes in modern
logic textbooks to a new distinction: between fallacies of ambiguity or clearity and fallacies of
relevance.18 Broadly speaking, the in dictione group corresponds with the former category,
and extra dictione with the later.
The list of fallacies of relevance is a matter of discussion. Van Eemeren (2001b) in his
historical account of the matter registers eighteen fallacies. Walton (1992b) argues that only
four fallacies are primarily failures of relevance. Any categorization of these fallacies
presupposes at least two theoretically well-designed answers for the following two crucial
questions: what is relevance and what is a fallacy. This fact explains in part why
argumentation scholars haven’t reached yet a consensus on this subject.
In this chapter I offer a comparison between the Standard Treatment and the pragmadialectical approach. As a paradigmatic corpus of the Standard Treatment I use the (last) list
provided by Copi and Cohen. This comparison contemplates what these authors understand by
a fallacy and by relevance. In the case of the pragma-dialectical approach I present what van
Eemeren and Grootendorst consider to be a fallacy and I also describe the main criticism that
they put forward toward the Standard Treatment’s notion of fallacy of relevance. To illustrate
the main differences between both perspectives I show in the last section of this chapter a case
in point: the argumentum ad hominem, “perhaps the most well-known informal fallacy”. (van
Eemeren & Grootendorst 1994:63) There I explain why for the pragma-dialectical approach
this is not a fallacy of relevance, but a fallacy that violates the Freedom rule for the critical
We can find this distinction yet in the version of 1972 of Copi’s textbook Introduction to Logic.
3.1 Copi and Cohen’s list (2002)
In Introduction to Logic (2002), Copi and Cohen distinguished 17 types of fallacies. They are
divided in three categories: fallacies of relevance, fallacies of presumption, and fallacies of
ambiguity. Here I will summarize the seven fallacies that these authors consider as mistakes of
relevance, but first it is important to inquire what they understand by the word “fallacy” and
by the word “relevance”.
The authors explain that an argument can fail in two ways in order to prove that its conclusion
is true. First, when at least one of the propositions is false, “the argument fails to establish the
truth of its conclusion, even if the reasoning based on those premises is correct”. (Copi &
Cohen 2002:137) We have to underline that this type of failure is not fallacious: it can be said
that it is only a bad argument. The second way is when it has premises that are true but that do
not imply the conclusion. These kinds of errors are typical –they form a pattern– and receive
the name of “fallacy”. Because this sort of errors could be psychologically persuasive, Copy
and Cohen define a fallacy as a “type of argument that may seem to be correct, but that
proves, on examination, not to be so”. (2002:138)
Copi and Cohen don’t give a systematic explanation of the word “relevance”, perhaps because
they think it is not a problematic concept. In the glossary of the book we find that relevance is
an essential attribute of a good scientific hypothesis when the fact(s) to be explained are
deducible from that hypothesis, either alone of from it together with known causal laws.
They also point out that relevance is one of the six criteria of cogent analogical arguments.
They give the following example: suppose that you want to purchase a pair of shoes because,
in the past, other similar pairs gave you satisfaction. If you buy them on a Tuesday, like the
other pairs, it doesn’t mean that they shall satisfy you.
But if the new pair, like all the previous pairs, had the same manufacturer, that will count
heavily. Respects add to the force of the argument when they are relevant (as style of shoe, and
price, and material surely are)–and a single highly relevant factor contributes more to the
argument than a host of irrelevant similarities. (2002:432)
In analyzing the given example, the authors assert that what could be a matter of disagreement
is which attributes of the shoes are relevant, “but the meaning of relevance itself is not in
dispute”. (2002:432) The main question is when an attribute is relevant. “One attribute is
relevant to another when it is connected to that another, when there is some kind of causal
relation between them”. (2002:432) This criterion is not totally clear, according to me,
because is possible to imagine other kind of relations that are not causal in an analogical
argument. In many cases the relation is only a matter of resemblance.
These few features of what Copi and Cohen say about relevance can help us understand their
definition of fallacies of relevance: “When an argument relies on premises that are not
relevant to its conclusion, and that therefore cannot possibly establish its truth, the fallacy
committed is one of relevance”. (2002:139)19 A good argument, then, needs to have at least
one requirement, viz. an essential attribute: the premises that support the conclusion must be
relevant to its conclusion, i.e., they must be connected to its conclusion. For Copi and Cohen,
there are seven mistaken ways in which the premises may not be connected to their
conclusion. Each way is a type of fallacy of relevance. Let’s take a look of them.
The argumentum ad ignorantiam. We found this fallacy “when it is argued that a proposition
is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false, or that it is false because it has not
been proved true”. (2002:139) The authors admit that in the context of criminal law the appeal
to ignorance is legitimate: innocence must be presumed until guilt is proved. But in many
other contexts this is not the case. They don’t give a concrete example of an argument that
commits the given mistake, but is not easy to find a simple one, for instance: “Mental
telepathy may be accepted as a fact, for nobody can prove that it is impossible”.20 The authors
present several explanations of how it functions,21 but it is not clear why it is a mistake of
relevance. It is perfectly understandable that the speaker can’t avoid the burden of proof, but
why the lack of evidence is a failure of relevance? The authors don’t give any answer to that
question. We can infer that there exists a problem of relevance because the conclusion of the
argument could be supported with a premise that is false.
With nominal category I mean the criterion of the “something in common”.
This example of Werkmeister (1948) is quoted in Walton 1996:43.
“This fallacious appeal to ignorance crops up most commonly in the misunderstandings incidental to
developing science, where propositions whose truth cannot yet be established are mistakenly held to be false for
that reason, and also in the world of pseudoscience, where propositions about psychic phenomena and the like
are fallaciously held to be true because their falsehood has not been conclusively established”. (2002:139)
The argumentum ad verecundiam. Copi and Cohen affirm that this fallacy arises “when the
appeal is made to parties having no legitimate claim to authority in the matter at hand”.
(2002:141) The source of this mistake is a misplaced appeal to authority, i.e. when an
authority has no special competence with respect the question that is in discussion. “Suppose
we want to know whether some proposition, p, is true. Suppose that a person, A, is alleged to
be an expert on p, or propositions like p, and A says that p is true. What are the conditions
under which A’s saying so really gives us good reason to accept the truth of p?” (2002:142)
The problem is not complex: the main condition that A has to fulfill is that he already must be
–as he said– an expert. In other words, what he alleges ought to be the truth. However, if A is
not a real expert on p, then the justification of p lacks support. This lack of support amounts to
a problem of relevance. We can add that this fallacy is committed when one makes an appeal
to an irrelevant expert of the matter in question. In this case, the conclusion relies on a premise
that consequently is not relevant.
The argumentum ad hominem. This prototypical fallacy, “against the person”, refers to “a
fallacious attack in which the thrust is directed, not at a conclusion, but at the person who
asserts or defends it”. (2002:143) The authors distinguish two major forms of this fallacy: the
abusive form and the circumstantial form. The latter is a special case of the former. The
abusive form consists in a disparage of the character of the opponent. In these attacks it is
implied that the person who is defending an argument can’t have told the truth because of his
character. The move is linked with the problem of relevance because “the character of an
individual is logically irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of what that person says, or to the
correctness or incorrectness of that person’s reasoning. To contend that proposals are bad, or
an assertion false, because they are proposed or asserted by ‘radicals’ or ‘extremists’ is a
typical example of the fallacy ad hominem, abusive.” (2002:143) On type of abusive ad
hominem is the so called “genetic fallacy”: it occurs when an arguer attacks the source or
genesis of the opposing position. Another pattern of abusive ad hominem is named “guilt by
association”. As these authors state, this was in part the case in the condemnation of Socrates:
“[He] was convicted of impiety at his notorious trial partly because of his association with
persons widely known to have been disloyal to Athens and rapacious in conduct”.
(2002:144)22 This association was not relevant to the charges that were attributed to him.
Another “Socratic” example, quoted by Copi and Cohen, of an abusive ad hominem can be found in The
Republic of Plato: “When we had got to this point in the argument, and everyone saw that the definition of justice
had been complete upset, Thrasymachus, instead of replying to me, said: “Tell me, Socrates, have you got a
nurse?” “Why do you ask such a question,” I said, “when you ought rather to be answering?” “Because she
leaves you to snivel, and never wipes your nose; she has not even taught you to know the shepherd from the
sheep”. (Copi & Cohen 2002:152)
The second form of this fallacy is the circumstantial variant. Copi and Cohen say that the
failure of this form consists in the irrelevance of the connection between the belief held and
the circumstances of those holding it. The circumstances of the person that advances or rejects
a claim “have no bearing” on the truth of that claim. The fallacy is committed when an arguer
charges the opponent with inconsistence by virtue of group membership or conviction. But, as
they point out, “the arguments in favor of a protective tariff (for example) may be bad, but
they are not bad because they are presented by a manufacturer who benefits from such tariffs”.
(2002:145) For these authors, the tu quoque pattern is part of the circumstantial form. They
quote the paradigmatic case of the eventual contradiction that some animal hunters claim to
exist when saying that their critics eat meat.
The argument ad populum is the forth fallacy of relevance for Copi and Cohen. It is a type of
deliberate manipulation because it consists in an appeal to emotion that doesn’t supply an
argument. “Ad populum” can be translated to “to the people”; the authors explain that the
name of the fallacy implies “a mob easily aroused emotions”. (2002:145) It is a fallacy of
relevance because one of the premises –i.e., the manipulation– is not relevant to the
conclusion of the argument. It is fallacious not because it appeals to the belief of the listener
or reader: it is fallacious because it evades the advancing of arguments. “It replaces the
laborious task of presenting evidence and rational argument with expressive language and
other devices calculated to excite enthusiasm, excitement, anger, or hate”. (2002:145) Typical
cases of this fallacy are commercial advertising, for example when a breakfast cereal is linked
with trim youthfulness and athletic prowess but it is not explained what exactly the association
is: if you consume this cereal will you become slim, or do slim people eat this cereal?
The argumentum ad misericordiam is linked with the argumentum ad populum. It is also an
appeal to emotion by means of which the arguer avoids having to present arguments, but a
special case of it. What defines this fallacy is the sort of emotion that is addressed: the mercy
and altruism of the audience. The authors quote the Apology of Plato, where Socrates during
the trial referred with scorn to the defendants who appeared before the jury with their children
and families in order to evoke pity.
The argumentum ad baculum is also connected with the last two fallacies. What is essential to
this fallacy is the appeal to force, whether physical or not, in order to cause the acceptance of
some conclusion. It is a fallacy of relevance for the same reason that we mentioned above:
because one of the premises –the coercion– is not relevant to establish the conclusion of the
argument. The threat could be a subtle one. A real case is quoted by the authors. During the
Reagan administration, the Attorney General was attacked by the press for misconduct.
Howard Baker, the White House chief of staff, opened a meeting with the following words:
“The President continues to have confidence in the Attorney General and I have confidence in
the Attorney General and you ought to have confidence in the Attorney General, because we
work for the President and because that’s the way things are. And if anyone has a different
view of that, or any different motive, ambition, or intention, he can tell me about it because
we’re going to have to discuss your status”.23 It is not difficult to observe that Mr. Baker
didn’t advance a clear argument –an acceptable reason– that explains why the audience must
be confident of the Attorney General. Two non-argumentative expressions have to be stressed:
“that’s the way things are”, a futile explanation, and “we’re going to have to discuss your
status”, an indirect appeal to force.
The last fallacy of relevance that Copi and Cohen present is the ignoratio elenchi. The name
of it literally means “mistaken proof”. The Latin expression “non sequitur” –i.e “does not
follow from”– is applied specially to this fallacy. It is committed “when an argument
purporting to establish a particular conclusion is instead directed to proving a different
conclusion”. (2002:149) An argument could be perfectly reasonable, put not to support a
certain standpoint. A basic example: “I have to visit France because I really like The
Beatles”.24 This lack of connection between the premise and the conclusion invite us to see
every fallacy of relevance as a kind of ignoratio elenchi. For the authors, this interpretation of
the fallacy makes sense, “but as we use this term, it is the fallacy in which the argument
misses the point without necessarily making one of those other mistakes –an ad hominem
attack, or an ad populum appeal– that often characterize fallacies in which the premises are
not relevant to conclusion”. (2002:149) It can be seen that in the example the fallacy is only a
mistake, but in many cases it is committed deliberately in order to obscure the real issue with
seductive generalizations. For the authors, a typical context in which we find ignoratio elenchi
are the political deliberations of national budget, were for instance a new weapon project
design is approved of only for a matter of national security. In the following example, we
observe that Michael Moore miss the point in order to avoid a clear answer: “As the war in the
Persian Gulf began to appear unavoidable in the late fall of 1990, Michael Moore gave a
“White House Orders Silence on Meese”, Washington Post, 29 April 1988. (2002:148)
Of course, if we presume that the speaker is saying something with sense –viz. that he is following the
Communication Principle– we can imagine a context which this argument could be reasonable. Nevertheless,
when committing the ignoratio elenchi fallacy what’s wrong is the “evaluative relevance”. In other words, the
problem is not that the utterances don’t have sense in terms of communication: the problem is that the arguments
are not relevant to justify the standpoint. Briefly speaking, is a problem of argumentation, not of communication.
speech at the Law School of the University of Michigan condemning any American military
action against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. [...] A student asked him what he thought
America should do in the light of the probability that Saddam Hussein had or was acquiring
nuclear weapons. Moore replied: ‘What should we do about Israel. They have the bomb. Does
Hussein have the bomb? What if he did? It keeps eyes off the depression we’re heading
toward or we’re already in. It keeps the focus off the Palestinian cause. It does a lot of things
to prevent the pickle Bush was almost finding himself in’”. (2002:151)
3.2 The pragma-dialectical definition of fallacies
The pragma-dialectical approach to fallacies can bee seen as a critical reaction against the socalled Standard Treatment. As we will see, the Standard Treatment is quite problematic.
For Charles Hamblin, the Standard Treatment of fallacies makes use of the following
definition: “A fallacious argument is one that seems to be valid but is not so”. (Hamblin
1970:12) Ralph Johnson compares this definition with other definitions: “A fallacy is an
argument that seems to be sound without being so in fact” and “A fallacy is an argument
which appears to be conclusive but is not”. (Johnson 1995:109)25 Compressing these three
definitions, Johnson develops a new one:
A fallacy is reasoning which appears to be good but is not. (1995:110)
This definition is very open and seems useful: it explains why well-known fallacies like
petitio principii, where the failure is not a matter of validity, can still be seen as fallacies. In
this respect, it is better than the one that Hamblin offers critically.26 But is this definition
sufficiently broad to cover all the informal fallacies that we know, or at least the most familiar
ones? What happens for instance with the argumentum ad baculum? The theoretical problems
that this last fallacy opens are a good point of departure to understand the pragma-dialectical
approach to fallacies.
If we reconstruct a typical ad baculum fallacy we will see that it is neither an argument nor
reasoning. Let’s see a very basic example of the fallacy:
The first definition is of Max Black’s Critical Thinking and the second of H.W.B. Joseph’s An Introduction to
This definition for Hamblin is not a sound definition. He only is describing the definition of fallacy that
manages the Standard Treatment. Curiously, Gerald Massey (1995) thought that Hamblin agree on it.
Either I’m right or you don’t take the car tonight. Therefore I’m right.27
If we consider that b means “you don’t take the car tonight” and p means “I’m right”, we have
the following monological structure:
Therefore, p
In this reconstruction it is clear that the premise is irrelevant to the truth of “Therefore, p”. In
this sense, we are able to say that the argument is irrelevant. But can we admit that this is an
argument that “translates” correctly the threat that is presented in (1)? If we add a dialectical
assumption, another problem appears: the argument turns valid.
{dialectical assumption}
Therefore, p
To deal with these kinds of informal fallacies –so frequent in real-life exchanges– we need a
more comprehensive approach: pragma-dialectics aims to provide it. If we agree that the main
problem of argumentum ad baculum is the appeal to fear –because normally it consists of a
direct or indirect threat–, then we must consider it as a particular linguistic act, with some
“non-reasonable properties” that “produces” the fallacy. The following quote of Douglas
Walton will put us in the right way to deal with the pragma-dialectical approach.
For example, I might say to you: ‘If you persist in carrying out course of action A, disaster
will ensue. Therefore, you should avoid persisting in carrying out course of action A’. On the
model of practical reasoning, such a warning might be reasonable, and not in itself
‘fallacious’ in a given instance. Now the ad baculum threat is supposed, on the traditional
account, to be a fallacy. But here is the problem: what is the difference between a threat and
a warning? If a warning can be reasonable form of advice, according to the standards of
practical reasoning in the context of decision-making about actions, when does a reasonable
This example is quoted in Woods & Walton 1989:49.
warning become a ‘fallacious’ threat in argument? I don’t claim to have a solution to this
problem. I simply want to point out that it should be regarded as a very serious problem by
anyone who would undertake to give an analysis of ad baculum as a fallacy. The solution to
this problem should be sought in the theory of speech acts in argumentative discussions
developed by van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1983). (Walton 1987:41)
The pragma-dialectical approach starts from the fundamental conviction that if we insist only
on looking for the logical aspects of fallacies –like (1’) and (1’’)– the understanding of them
will never be complete. We have to be aware of other aspects. First, we must consider a
fallacy as a wrong move. Take the threat of example (1): it is not a premise, but an illicit
resource to obtain an achievement. Second, this wrong move occurs in the communication
process of argumentative discourse. In these contexts the parties are trying to convince each
other in order to resolve a difference of opinion. A third aspect is that this wrong move is
primarily an impediment to the resolution of the disagreement where the parties are involved.
Of course, a move can be wrong in many different manners: this fact explains the existence of
different fallacies. “The specific nature of a particular fallacy depends on the way in which it
interferes with the resolution process”. (van Eemeren 2001:157)
As Walton asks, if a warning can be a reasonable way of advice, when does it become a
threat? To deal with this kind of problem –and many others– the pragma-dialectical approach
makes use of the speech act theory. The main theoretical question consists in establishing
which types of speech acts “play a constructive role” (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004:67)
in the resolution of a disagreement. A speech act that doesn’t play a constructive role in the
discussion will not be considered as a relevant move. It means that the analyst will not take it
into account when doing the analysis and the evaluation of the argumentation. “A pragmadialectical analysis is aimed at reconstructing all those, and only those, speech acts that play a
potential part in bringing a difference of opinion to a conclusion”. (van Eemeren, Houtlosser
& Snoeck Henkemans 2009:5) Nevertheless, a speech act can also be an obstacle for the
resolution of a difference of opinion on its merits, which is the case with a threat. We can
respond to the question of Walton by saying that a threat is a commissive speech act that
performs a wrong move that prevents the achievement of the aim of the exchange. But there
are other commissives that the parties are allowed to perform, like the acceptance or noracceptance of argumentation and standpoints. We can add that a warning is also a speech act
that is not instrumental in an argumentation exchange of the type of a critical discussion. A
warning or a threat could be indirect, extremely subtle, but this doesn’t mean that the speaker
is not responsible for it: in the eyes of the analyst, the speaker is responsible for the
implications that he makes in the critical discussion.
When we assert that a fallacy is a wrong move we mean that a fallacy violates one of the rules
that regulate the critical discussion. These procedural rules regulate which speech acts ought
to be performed in the process. “These rules can be recapitulated in a series of basic principles
each of which expresses a separate standard or norm for critical discussion”. (van Eemeren
We can say, roughly speaking, that the Standard Treatment to fallacies considers only one
stage of the discussion –the argumentation stage. It means that all the fallacies are committed
when the parties are advancing arguments in order to give support to their standpoints. But a
resolution process –as it is described by the Amsterdam School– is broader than that. The
pragma-dialectical approach has showed that if we want to analyze argumentation we must
consider the other three stages of the critical discussion as well: the confrontation stage, the
opening stage and the concluding stage. All four stages are of great importance to fallacies. As
we saw in the second chapter, because each stage of the discussion has a specific goal, the
performance of a certain speech act may be a permissible move for instance in the opening
stage, but it could be forbidden in the concluding stage.
In the last section of this chapter he will see that the argumentum ad hominem is traditionally
considered as a relevance fallacy, but in the pragma-dialectical approach it is seen as a
violation of another type: it violates the Freedom rule and occurs in the opening stage. In the
pragma-dialectical approach the fallacies of relevance are thus considered wrong moves in the
argumentation stage. In other words, in this perspective the problem of argumentative
relevance appears only in one specific stage of the critical discussion.
3.3 The pragma-dialectical list (1992, 2002)
A fallacy of relevance is committed when the speaker violates the Relevance Rule for the
critical discussion: “A party may defend his or her standpoint only by advancing
argumentation related to that standpoint”. (van Eemeren, Grootendorst & Snoeck Henkemans
2002:182) This rule is designed to ensure that the speakers defend their standpoints only by
means of relevant argumentation. The key issue is that the standpoint has to “be assessed on
its merits”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 2004:192) Only when this requirement is fulfilled a
difference of opinion can be resolved.
The list of fallacies that I shall present here corresponds with the different ways in which this
rule can be violated. It is important to stress that these fallacies are committed by the
protagonist only in the argumentation stage of the resolution process of the critical discussion.
Van Eemeren and Grootendorst, when dealing with fallacies of relevance, make a distinction
between two kinds of violations of the Rule of Relevance: when an arguer uses irrelevant
argumentation, and when he uses non-argumentative means of persuasion. The distinction is
analytical: in reality it is not easy to draw the line between these two cases, because “is not
always so clear whether the conditions for the performance of the complex speech act of
argumentation have indeed been fulfilled. In borderline cases, the strategy of maximally
argumentative interpretation may provide a solution, but this solution is not always truly
satisfactory”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1992:137)
By irrelevant argumentation, van Eemeren and Grootendorst understand a violation that is
committed when a standpoint is supported by arguments that have no bearing on it. In other
words, when “the argumentation supports a standpoint that is quite different from the one
about which the opinions differ”. (1992:133) The unique fallacy of this kind is the ignoratio
elenchi. This perspective is the same that we find in the Standard Treatment as represented by
Copi and Cohen. Nevertheless, our authors signal an interesting relation: ignoratio elenchi is
the “reverse” of the straw man fallacy; in the latter the arguer shifts fraudulently the
standpoint of the antagonist in order to attack it more easily, but in the former the arguer shifts
his own standpoint so that it becomes easier to defend. Making this unreasonable shift, the
arguments get disconnected from the standpoint and so become irrelevant. A good example of
the ignoratio elenchi fallacy is not an absurd –and unrealistic–disconnection between the
argument and the standpoint as the kind of “Tomorrow will be a sunny day because I have a
caramel in my pocket”. Normally the fallacy is more subtle: an argument that justifies a
certain standpoint in an acceptable manner suddenly appears to support another standpoint.
Let’s look at an example:
Crimes of theft and robbery have been increasing at an alarming rate lately. The conclusion
is obvious: we must reinstate the death penalty immediately. (Hurley 1994:123)
Since the critical discussion ought to be resolved only by the use of rational arguments, nonargumentative means of persuasion are not reasonable attempts and hence have to be
discarded. Non-argumentative means are not used to test the acceptability of the standpoints in
order to know who is right in the disagreement; what they pursue is winning the acceptance of
a third party. “The rhetorical techniques used in the endeavor primarily consist of uses for
gaining the victory in the eyes of an audience of outsiders”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst
There are two types of non-argumentative means: when playing with the emotions and
prejudices of the audience, and when the arguer supports the standpoint by parading his own
qualities. Doing that, “the protagonist acts as though he or she was providing argumentation”.
(van Eemeren, Grootendorst & Snoeck Henkemans 2002:119) In the first case we have that
pathos take the place of logos, and in the second we have that ethos take the place of logos. In
view of the speech acts’ nomenclature, we can say that in both cases the arguer put forward an
expressive speech act. Expressives are not real contributions to a critical discussion: they do
not further the resolution of the dispute in a reasonable way. Because expressive speech acts
“do not create any commitments for the speaker or writer which are directly relevant to the
resolution of dispute; the mere expression of feelings cannot be an argument in support of a
standpoint”. (van Eemeren, Grootendorst, Jackson & Jacobs 1993:29) To the analyst
expressives thus have no place in a critical discussion. In the next chapter of this thesis I will
deal with these three Aristotelian notions –ethos, pathos, logos– that are crucial to understand
the fallacies of relevance.
In terms of speech act conditions, non-argumentative means of persuasion neither fulfill the
identity conditions (propositional content and essential condition) nor the correctness
conditions (preparatory and responsibility condition) for argumentation.28 In the case of the
identity conditions, we find a violation of the essential condition: the speaker doesn’t make a
serious attempt to convince the other party, i.e. the disputed proposition is not rationally
justified or refuted. The violation of both correctness conditions is linked with this issue.
Someone who does not make a genuine attempt to convince the other party, “will himself not
really believe that the chosen means bring about an acceptable justification or refutation of the
proposition. In that case, the responsibility condition is not fulfilled either. Indeed, even the
“The identity conditions have to be fulfilled for an utterance to count as a particular speech act and not to be
identifiable as such. If these conditions have not been fulfilled, it is not possible for the listener to decide whether
he is dealing with a promise, a request or a statement and what it entails. The correctness conditions have to be
fulfilled for the utterance concerned to be an appropriate performance of a particular speech act”. (van Eemeren
& Grootendorst 1992:30)
preparatory condition may not have been met, because the listener cannot be expected to
accept the non-argumentative defense as an acceptable justification or refutation”. (van
Eemeren & Grootendorst 1992:133)
The first way of using non-argumentative means is exploiting pathos instead of logos. Van
Eemeren and Grootendorst name this violation argumentum ad populum in its pathetic
version.29 Our authors, such as Copi and Cohen, understand this fallacy as an emotional
manipulation of the audience. The purpose of this fallacy “is to play on prejudices of the
audience that are not directly relevant to the standpoint being defended rather than defend this
standpoint starting from the premises mutually agreed upon by the discussants”. (1992:134)
This violation can frequently be committed in contexts where large groups of people are
personally involved, for instance a crowded political manifestation. The orator –imagine a real
demagogue– appeals to the heart of the people, growing feelings of loyalty or shame.
Exploiting nationalistic prejudices for instance could be a very effective strategy to arouse
violent passions, for example to declare the war against an archetypical enemy. Because
argumentum ad populum is not aiming for the rational dispositions of the audience, “it is
enough to emphasize to give them emotional ‘presence’: the audience will itself make the
desired connection with the standpoint at issue”. (1992:135) This observation explains why
the audience does not perceive the jump between the premises and the point of view: the
emotions “generate” the link. We can say that in these situations relevance is only a matter of
appearance: with an accurate examination we can discover that the standpoint remains floating
in the air.
The second way is exploiting ethos instead of logos. Van Eemeren and Grootendorst name
this violation argumentum ad verecundiam in its ethic version.30 An arguer while deliberately
not advancing arguments presents his personal qualities as support of the standpoint. This
strategy, which could be rhetorically very efficient, even more than the pathos resource of the
argumentum ad populum, draws the attention of the audience to his expert knowledge,
credibility or integrity. The irrelevant connection is not perceived by the listeners simply
because there is no need for it, viz. because they go along with whatever he states. We can say
The argumentum ad populum has also a “populistic” version, i.e. when is a violation of the argument scheme
rule. In this case, the argumentum ad populum is a variant of the argumentum ad verecundiam. cf. van Eemeren
& Grootendorst 1992:161.
The argumentum as verecundiam is also a violation of the argument scheme rule. It occurs when someone uses
in a wrong manner an argument from authority by falsely presenting an authority that it is not. cf. van Eemeren &
Grootendorst 1992:163. The pragma-dialectic approach considers a third type of argumentum ad verecundiam, as
a violation of the burden of proof rule. It happens in the opening stage of the critical discussion when an arguer
evades the burden of proof by giving a personal guarantee of the acceptability of the point of view. cf. 1992:216.
that while avoiding any argument, the speaker turns his character into the reason that is
required. It is easy to imagine a Latin-American leader –as the Juan Domingo Perón of
Argentina– exclaiming: “Trust in me: you know that I am the right path”.31 Of course, this is
not a reasonable mean of persuasion. “In relying too heavily on ethos, blind faith may take the
place of rational considerations. People then accept the standpoint not because they have been
convinced by sound arguments, but simply because they have faith in the authority of the
protagonist”. (1992:136)
The argumentum ad verecundiam is also used in another manner: when the protagonist
exploits the ignorance of the audience presenting himself as an authority on a matter that he
does not have a real knowledge. For example: a professor of Modern Philosophy makes
pronouncements about Greek Astronomy. Naturally, everyone can talk about any subject, but
in cases of abuse it can be an obstacle to the resolution of a critical discussion, specially when
it is a way of deceiving the audience. It is a fallacy of relevance because the connection
between these two areas of our knowledge is quite distant, so any contribution of this kind can
be seen as superfluous.
In connection with the argumentum ad verecundiam, van Eemeren and Grootendorst also
mention the argumentum ad misericordiam as a fallacy of relevance.32 The later is the reverse
of the former. The protagonist stresses his modesty, not his excellent attributes. The fallacy is
committed when the arguer exaggerates his layman status and so puts pressure on the
listeners. In general, the effect that is pursued when a weak character is exaggerated is the
feeling of compassion. “By electing for the position of an underdog he attempts to sow the
seeds for a climate of sympathy and benevolence on the part of the audience, so that it will be
more inclined to believe what he says”. (1992:138) Again, the character of the speaker takes
the place of the argument in order to support the standpoint. It can be seen that the pragmadialectical list of fallacies of relevance is –except for a few interesting details– quite similar to
the Standard Treatment. The main difference –the great innovation that this approach
provides– is that the fallacies argumentum ad ignorantiam, argumentum ad baculum and
argumentum ad hominem are not considered fallacies of relevance. Why are these fallacies for
The Spanish word that describes these types of leaders is “caudillo”. The origin of the word is the Latin term
capitellum that means “head”. The Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary defines “caudillo” like “the one that, as
the head, guides and envies the people to the war”. (DRAE 1992)
This version of the argumentum ad misericordiam should not be identified as a violation of the Freedom rule:
that one occurs in the confrontation stage, while the violation of relevance rule occurs in the argumentation stage.
Nevertheless the mechanics of the fallacy is the same: putting pressure on the antagonist by playing on his
emotions. cf. van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1992:110.
van Eemeren and Grootendorst not failures of relevance? In the last section of this chapter I
will deal with that crucial issue.
In order to have a clear view of the differences in the lists of fallacies between both
perspectives, here I present an overview:
Copi & Cohen (2002)
ignoratio elenchi
argumentum ad populum
argumentum ad verecundiam
argumentum ad misericordiam
argumentum ad ignorantiam
argumentum ad hominem
argumentum ad baculum
Van Eemeren & Grootendorst
ignoratio elenchi
argumentum ad populum²
argumentum ad verecundiam³
argumentum ad misericordiam²
Van Eemeren, Grootendorst &
Snoeck Henkemans (2002)33
ignoratio elenchi
pathetic fallacy
ethical fallacy/abuse of authority
3.4 The pragma-dialectical criticism of the Standard Treatment of fallacies of relevance
Van Eemeren and Grootendorst explain that the Standard Treatment deals with the fallacies of
relevance in a non systematic way. The category of fallacies of relevance apparently serves as
a general depository for all those fallacies that are beyond the scope of the standard definition
of fallacy, i.e. that a fallacy is an argument that seems valid but is not so. The main criticism
that van Eemeren and Grootendorst put forward is that the Standard Treatment works with an
unclear concept of logical relevance. Because this concept remains unclear it is possible to use
the category as a depository of problematic cases.
In the common examples of fallacies of relevance there is no sign of any argument in the logical
sense. Reconstructing them as prototypical arguments with two premises and a conclusion
usually requires stretching a point or two. Even then, not much is explained. Naturally, it only
makes sense to claim that an argument is fallacious because its premises are ‘logically
irrelevant’ if the notion of logical relevance is first defined. In the Standard Treatment, no effort
is made to that effect. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1995:223)
The theoretical background of the Standard Treatment is the logico-centric perspective. The
central suggestion is that in a fallacy of relevance the irrelevancy of the premises for the
Between the list of 1992 and 2002 there are only differences in the terminology that the authors use. The
pathetic fallacy is described as the argumentum ad populum but the Latin name is not mentioned. The ethical
fallacy/abuse of authority is also described as the argumentum ad verecundiam; they quote the Latin name of the
fallacy. What we don’t find in the list of 2002 is any reference to the argumentum ad misericordiam. Neither the
Latin name nor the type of failure is mentioned.
conclusion is a matter of logic. This suggestion means that “not only the logical validity of
arguments will have to be tested, but also their logical relevance”. (1995:224) But, as van
Eemeren and Grootendorst assert, the notion of logical relevance is left undefined, and the
link between logical validity and logical relevance is also not explained. This situation
prevents us to know in a precise sense when –and when not– we are dealing with a fallacy of
This problem is circumvented in the Standard Treatment by selecting only examples that are as
it were dripping with irrelevance. The ‘explanatory comments’ that are added are confined to the
observation that the premises are not germane, do not really support the truth of the conclusion,
or something of the sort. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1994:57)
The theoretical task thus is to provide a sound guideline to resolve this difficulty. The solution
that the pragma-dialectical approach gives is clear: as we said above, we have a fallacy of
relevance when the speaker violates the Relevance rule for critical discussion.
3.5 Why argumentum ad hominem is not a fallacy of relevance
We said in this chapter before that the argumentum ad hominem in the pragma-dialectical
approach is a violation of the Freedom rule and not a violation of the Relevance rule. How can
this difference be explained and justified? In the following pages I shall give a clear answer to
that question. Let’s see now what the argumentum ad hominem is and the three variations that
it has.
For van Eemeren and Grootendorst, a dispute arises when a party puts forward a standpoint
and the other party casts doubt on it. If the acceptability of the standpoint is immediately
recognized by the other party no dispute will take place. The main requirement, therefore, is
that the parties must be free to externalize any standpoint and any doubt. This externalization
occurs in the confrontation stage of the critical discussion, i.e. when the parties establish that
they have a difference of opinion.
To be able to make the best use of this fundamental right to externalize their differences of
opinion, the discussants must not be hindered from advancing standpoints and from calling into
question the standpoints of their opponents. This prohibition against limiting one’s opponent
opportunities to resolve a dispute by restricting his rights of free speech is formulated in rule 1
for a critical discussion: Parties must not prevent other from advancing standpoints or casting
doubt on standpoints. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1992:108)
Rule 1 can be violated in many ways. The two examples that I gave in the introduction of this
thesis are violations of this rule. Both discussions are hampered to resolve their differences of
opinion. The first is an argumentum ad baculum –B is prevented to express his opinion as a
result of A’s threat– and the second is an argumentum ad hominem –A is prevented to express
his opinion in due to B’s personal attack.
A: I don’t like American coffee: it’s so light.
B: Well, I think that this is exactly an essential quality of a good coffee.
A: If you repeat that I will never invite you to a coffee bar.
A: Be careful! You are not alone in this city. Norms are for everyone.
B: Where are you from?
A: So what? I am only suggesting that you –like me– have to observe the norms.
In example (2) A is prevented to give adequate support to his standpoint. The fallacious move
of B consists in slipping a racial impediment on A. The implication of B’s question is that A is
not a serious partner in the discussion because he was born in another country or because he is
from a race “without rights”. After B’s move, can we say that A is free to express his
thoughts? I don’t think so –in principle. If A is not free to express his opinions the resolution
of the dispute becomes impossible.
The argumentum ad hominem was described initially by the British philosopher John Locke.
He wrote that this argument (he didn’t explain the fallacious component of it) is a way that
men use to drive others. He said that it is a manner to “press a man with consequences drawn
from his own principles or concessions”. (Hansen & Pinto 1995:56)34 Nowadays this fallacy is
described as a personal attack “by being directed not at the intrinsic merits of someone’s
standpoint or doubt, but at the person itself”. (van Eemeren, Grootendorst & Snoeck
Henkemans 2002:112)
This quote was taken from Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV, xvii, 19-22.
The pragma-dialectical approach distinguishes three variants of the argumentum ad hominem.
The first is called “abusive”. It is a direct personal attack on the opponent aimed at “casting
doubt on his expertise, intelligence, character or good faith”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst
1992:111) If we reconstruct in example (2) B’s question as “You are black so...” or something
similar it can be classified as an “abusive” variant of the fallacy. The second variant is the
“circumstantial” variant. It is an indirect personal attack. The move consists of creating
suspicious about an opponent’s motives award a certain standpoint: “He has an interest in the
matter and is thus biased”. (1992:111) Example (3), quoted above, is a “circumstantial”
variant of the fallacy. The third variant receives the Latin name of “tu quoque”, i.e. “you too”.
The move consists in an attempt to establish a contradiction between the opponent’s words
and his deeds. When doing so the one that performs the fallacy undermines the credibility of
the other party. We can see that these three clear-cut variants are offences against the Freedom
rule for the critical discussion.
It has to be stressed that the variants are all attacks that one party performs against the
opponent. The fallacy is not committed against a third party. When dealing with the
argumentum ad hominem the Standard Treatment usually don’t recognize this fundamental
distinction. Let’s take a look at two examples. A and B are doctors of the same department;
they are talking about the next election of the directory of their hospital.
A: Mr Carl Ross is running for a membership of the directory. Some people say that he is the
right person: he has been working for 25 years in this hospital with many and great
achievements. I agree with that: I worked with him quite closely and I know that it is true.
B: Are you joking? You are promoting Mr Ross because he will nominate you as the head of our
A: Mr Carl Ross is running for a membership of the directory. Some people say that he is the
right person: he has been working for 25 years in this hospital with many and great
achievements. Peter Taylor worked with him quite closely and he says that it is true.
B: Come on! Peter is promoting Mr Ross because Mr Ross will nominate him as the head of our
As we saw in the list of Copi and Cohen, the argumentum ad hominem is considered as a
fallacy of relevance. The following precision explains why there is a problem of relevance:
“The character of an individual is logically irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of what that
person says, or to the correctness or incorrectness of that person’s reasoning”. (Copi & Cohen
2002:143) So for those authors in examples (3) and (4) the argumentative problem is basically
the same: an irrelevant connection is established between a person and his words. Arguer A –
in example (3)– and a third party like Peter Taylor –example (4)– have the same place in the
argument: they are the target of the same fallacy.
The main problem of this approach, van Eemeren and Grootendorst explain, is that the
criterion to describe fallacies of relevance –i.e. the premises of the argument are irrelevant to
the conclusion– is “no only implicit and intuitive, but also highly arbitrary and ad hoc”. (van
Eemeren & Grootendorst 1995:226) How can we know that in example (3) or (4) the premises
are irrelevant for the standpoint? This unclear approach can be substituted with the systematic
perspective that the pragma-dialectical approach provides. In this model there are no
exceptions: a fallacy is committed only when an argumentative move fulfills the criteria
described above for each variant of the fallacy. “Unfortunately, when an author [that follows
the Standard Treatment] uses the term argumentum ad hominem it is not always clear whether
he is dealing with a justified exception. To avoid this kind of obscurity, we use the ordinary
expression personal attack for the neutral case and the technical term argumentum ad
hominem for the fallacy of an incorrect personal attack”. (1995:227)
For the pragma-dialectical approach examples (3) and (4) are very different. The first is an
argumentum ad hominem fallacy. The second one perhaps is not a fallacy, or at least is not an
argumentum ad hominem fallacy. Example (4) could be an incorrect symptomatic
argumentation. If it is the case then it is a violation of the Argument Scheme rule: “A
standpoint may not be regarded as conclusively defended if the defense does not take place
my means of an appropriate argument scheme that is correctly applied”. (van Eemeren,
Grootendorst & Snoeck Henkemans 2002:183) We can also add that for van Eemeren and
Grootendorst examples (2) and (3) are quite similar. The Standard Treatment shall never
admit something like that: in example (2) they might say that we don’t have an argument, and
since a fallacy is an argument that seems to be valid but is not so, how it can be a fallacy?
We can conclude that in the pragma-dialectical analysis of this fallacy no reference is made to
the relevance of the premises of an argument for its conclusion. The problem with the
argumentum ad hominem is not the irrelevance of their premises. “Viewed within a pragmadialectical perspective, the relevance of a discussion move depends on its contribution to the
resolution of a difference of opinion. In a critical discussion, an argumentum ad hominem is,
in fact, always highly relevant, but in a negative sense: it hinders, or sometimes even prevents,
the resolution of a difference of opinion”. (van Eemeren & Grootendorst 1995:228)
What we explained for argumentum ad hominem can also be applied for other two fallacies
that Copi and Cohen consider as fallacies of relevance: the argumentum ad baculum and
argumentum ad ignorantiam. I think that we don’t need further precisions for the case of
argumentum ad baculum: what we have said in this chapter is enough. It is only important to
underline that what Copi and Cohen point out, i.e. that one of the premises –the coercion– is
not relevant to establish the conclusion of the argument, shares the same problem with the
argumentum ad hominem: the criterion to determine the irrelevance is unclear. We must
remember what we said in section 2 of this chapter: in many cases the threat is not a premise
and, when the threat is reconstructed as a premise, the argument seems to be valid.
The argumentum ad ignorantiam is a different case. This fallacy is committed in the
concluding stage, not in the argumentation stage. It violates the Closure rule: “A failed
defense of standpoint must result in the protagonist retracting the standpoint, and a successful
defense of a standpoint must result in the antagonist retracting his or her doubts”. (van
Eemeren, Grootendorst & Snoeck Henkemans 2002:183) The description that van Eemeren
and Grootendorst give is similar to Copi and Cohen’s description. A speaker makes the claim
that his standpoint is true because the other party’s standpoint has not been successfully
defended. This fallacious move is advanced in order to close the discussion, but this is done in
an unreasonable way. In which sense is a failure of relevance? Copi and Cohen don’t give a
reason. The criterion that they have in mind is similar to that for the argumentum ad hominem
and the argumentum ad baculum. Therefore, the argumentum ad ignorantiam as a fallacy of
relevance remains unclear.
Chapter 4. The Aristotelian source of the pragma-dialectical fallacies of relevance
In this chapter I deal with the Aristotelian source of the pragma-dialectical fallacies of
relevance. Three crucial Greek words are in the background of these fallacies for the
Amsterdam School: ethos, pathos and logos. Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, explains that those are
the three means of persuasion. In which sense they are means and what are the differences
between them? In the following pages I respond to these two questions.
As we saw in the third chapter of this thesis, in the pragma-dialectical approach three fallacies
are committed when the protagonist makes use of non-argumentative means: when ethos or
pathos takes the place of logos. What is Aristotle’s point of view on this matter? Using the
Rhetoric and secondary literature I shall answer that third question.
This last question is relevant, since Aristotle can be seen as a sort the father of rhetoric. I think
therefore it is important to show that the pragma-dialectical approach has not only pragmatic
and dialectical reasons to consider the use of ethos and pathos as fallacies of relevance: it has
also a historical justification in the rhetorical theory of Aristotle. In this sense, the pragmadialectical contributions to the fallacies of relevance –quite different from the Standard
Treatment, as we saw in the third chapter– are in line with the ancient rhetorical tradition that
Aristotle inaugurated.
4.1 Characterization of ethos
Aristotle distinguishes two types of means of persuasion:35 the technical means and the nontechnical means. The technical means –also called “artistic proofs”– are those that the speaker
can prepare in order to convince his audience; in other words, technical means have to be
invented, “artistically” produced. The non-technical means are pre-existing facts like
testimonies, witnesses, tortures and oaths; because these means can not be prepared by the
speaker, they are not part of the rhetoric, in the sense that the rhetoric is a techne that virtually
any speaker can learn: it can be learned because we can understand methodically how it
functions, i.e. why certain means are persuasive ways to achieve the acceptance of our point
For George Kennedy, the term “mean of persuasion” (pistis) is problematic. cf. Kennedy 1994:60.
of view for a given audience. So the rhetorical means of persuasion are the only technical
means and “everything else is merely accessory”. (Aristotle 1984:2152 1354a14)
The technical means of persuasion are derived from the three elements in speech-making:
“speaker, subject, and person addressed”. (1984:2159 1358a37) These three elements
determine the three technical means. They are: ethos (the character of the speaker), logos (the
argument of the speech itself) and the pathos (the emotional state of mind of the audience).
The technical challenge of ethos is “how to make our hearers take the required view of our
own characters”. (1984:2174 1366a25) Let’s see in detail what ethos is.
Aristotle introduces ethos as an essential part of rhetoric. In this sense, he was a great
innovator in the context of Greek thought. “Some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric,
that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of
persuasion”. (1984:2155 1356a11-12) For Aristotle the situation of ethos is exactly the
opposite: he thinks that it is the most effective mean of persuasion for a speaker, especially in
deliberative speeches. It occurs when the speech that he performs make him credible. “We
believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the
question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided”.
(1984:2155 1356a6-9) Because rhetoric is the realm of plausible discourses, it is crucial that
the speaker appears trustworthy. The credibility of the speaker then is the source that makes a
discourse true or acceptable. If the audience doesn’t have the real conviction that the speaker
is telling the truth, his discourse shall be ineffective. This is the reason why Aristotle considers
ethos the most effective mean of persuasion that the speaker possesses. Aristotle underlines
that the ethos of the speaker has to be an essential property of what he says; in other words,
the effect of credibility has to be achieved throughout the discourse. This kind of persuasion,
says the philosopher, is not a matter of “what the people think of his character before he
begins to speak”. (1984:2155 1356a10-11) This essential attribute is what makes ethos a
technical mean of persuasion. A reputation which exists before the speech is made, is not
relevant for rhetorical purposes, “otherwise the authority of the speaker would be analogous to
the role of a witness and would thus be atechnos, something not created but used”. (Kennedy
1972:82) In order to be effective before his audience, a good speaker then must be able to
“understand the human characters and excellences”. (Aristotle 1984:2155 1356a23)
The credibility of the speaker can be technically improved if he displays three aspects of his
There are three things which inspire confidence in the orator’s own character –the three, namely,
that induce us to believe a thing apart from proof of it: good sense, excellence, and goodwill.
False statements and bad advice are due to one or more of the following three causes. Men either
form a false opinion through want or good sense; or they form a true opinion, but because of
their moral badness do not say what they really think; or finally, they are both sensible and
upright, but not well disposed to their hearers, and may fail in consequence to recommend what
they know to be the best course. These are the only possible cases. It follows that anyone who is
thought to have all these good qualities will inspire trust in his audience. (1984:2194 1378a7-15)
This fundamental quote requires some clarification. It is clear that if the speaker does not
display (i) good sense, (ii) excellence and (iii) goodwill the audience will perceive that the
speaker is not able to provide good advice at all. If he displays the three things he will be in a
perfect situation to avoid any room for doubt about his practical capacities to address the
people. Christof Rapp explains analytically the relation between these three elements. “If he
displayed (i) without (ii) and (iii), the audience could doubt whether the aims of the speaker
are good. If he displayed (i) and (ii) without (iii), the audience could still doubt whether the
speaker gives the best suggestion, though he knows what it is”. (Rapp 2002:8) It is important
to stress that this is not an ethical issue: Aristotle is describing the “mechanics” of persuasion.
A speaker could be in itself not an excellent citizen, but he will have to give the impression
with his discourse that this is the case. In other words, he has to give “the right impression of
his character”. (Aristotle 1984:2238 1403b12) It is a matter of appearance, not of the true
dispositions of a moral character.36 There are pragmatic reasons for displaying this triad of
elements: “There are occasions when opposing arguments are or seem to be equally strong, so
that the listener has little choice but to consider the speakers and to decide in favor of the
speaker who appears wise, virtuous and full of goodwill”. (Fortenbaugh 2007:114)
The reference to the appearance opens the discussion to a possible dramatic characterization
of the ethos, like in the theatre. Is the speaker a kind of actor when he is trying to persuade
their listeners? Cristopher Carey (1994) when examining this interesting question explains that
Aristotle touches briefly this aspect in his discussion of the appropriateness of style and of the
The goal of rhetoric is not the moral education. As Aristotle asserts in Nicomachean Ethics: “Now if
arguments were in themselves enough to make men good, they would justly, as Theognis says, have won very
great rewards, and such rewards should have been provided; but as things are, while they seem to have power to
encourage and stimulate the generous-minded among the young, and to make a character which if gently born,
and a true lover of what is noble, ready to be possessed by excellence, they are not able to encourage the many to
nobility and goodness”. (Aristotle 1984:1864 1179b4-10) Linked with that, this observation of James Baumlin
brings light: “Over against Platonic theology, Aristotle outlines a sociology of rhetoric, with particular
implications for ethos”. (Baumlin 2001:256)
inclusion in the narrative of details appropriate to “each ethos” in order to make the narrative
ethikos. The scholar mentions two passages of the Rhetoric.37 He also quotes chapter 15 of the
Poetics (cf. Aristotle 1972:110 1454a16-26), where the philosopher deals with the
representation of character. In this passage Aristotle gives four specifications that can clarify
our question. He says that the characters represented should be morally good, suitable, lifelike and consistent. Can we attribute these conditions to an orator? Why not? Perfectly we can
see an orator standing before the Assembly like an actor in a dramatic competition during the
spring festival of Dionysus. The situations are not so different, for example in a speech like
Lysias 24: it has the appearance of a dramatic performance. However, Carey is more prudent
in advancing a judgment over the issue. “The absence of any hint of this quality in Rhetoric
suggests that Aristotle has not thought through the implications for rhetorical theory of the
notion of character as dramatic construct”. (Carey 1994:40)
The good speaker needs two other capacities: flexibility and open eyes –daily-life intelligence
to distinguish things– because he ought to know how to adapt his ethos to a specific audience.
Aristotle makes an analogy between the different kinds of governments and the different kinds
of individuals. “We should know the character of each form of government, for the special
character of each is bound to provide us with our most effective means of persuasion in
dealing with it”. (Aristotle 1984:2173 1366a12-14) In addition with that, Aristotle asserts that
“the most important and effective qualification for success in persuading audiences and
speaking well on public affairs is to understand all the forms of government and to
discriminate their respective customs, institutions and interests”. (Aristotle 1984:2173
1365b22-24) The practical requirement that a “speaker should adapt his ethos” (Hill 2003:74)
in order to be persuasive makes him want to know the main differences between governments
“Your language will be appropriate if it express emotion and character, and if it corresponds to its subject. [...]
This way of proving your story by displaying these signs of its genuineness expresses your personal character.
Each class of men, each type of disposition, will have its own appropriate way of letting the truth appear. Under
‘class’ I include differences of age, as boy, man, or old man; of sex, as man or woman; of nationality, as Spartan
or Thessalian. By ‘dispositions’ I here mean those dispositions only which determine the character of a man’s
life, for it is not every disposition that does this. If, then, a speaker uses the very words which are in keeping with
a particular disposition, he will reproduce the corresponding character; for a rustic and an educated man will not
say the same things nor speak in the same way”. (Aristotle 1984:2246 1408a10-33) The second passage is the
following: “You may also narrate as you go anything that does credit to yourself, e.g. ‘I kept telling him to do his
duty and not to abandon his children’. [...] The narration should depict character; to which end you must know
what makes it do so. One such thing is the indication of choice; the quality of purpose indicated determines the
quality of character depicted and is itself determined by the end pursued. Thus is that mathematical discourses
depict no character; they have nothing to do with choice, for they represent nobody as pursuing any end. On the
other hand, the Socratic dialogues to depict character. This end will also be gained by describing the
manifestations of various types of character, e.g. ‘he kept walking along as he talked’, which shows the man’s
recklessness and rough manners”. (1984:2263 1417a3-24)
and characters.38 For instance, if an orator talks before a democratic polis, he must present
himself as a man that is fully aware of freedom’s value.
The guidelines that Aristotle gives to observe ethical qualities are their “acts of choice” and
“the end that inspires them”. What I mention above “open eyes” refers to the sensitivity to be
able to find these issues in social affairs –a complex and changing world. Of course, in his
treaty (Rhetoric II, 12-17) Aristotle helps the reader by providing a collection of common
places (topoi) of different types of ethos. In this list of “Hellenic dramatis personae” (Baumlin
2001:267) we found the young, the old, those in the prime of life and the well born, and also
the characters influenced by wealth, power and good fortune. We can add that these topoi –
ages and fortunes– of the listeners are the complement of the three elements –good sense,
excellence and goodwill– of the good speaker. It is easy to infer an Aristotelian advice linking
these two sides of the same coin: if you want to persuade young people, you must be careful
with the display of your good sense: don’t forget that young people generally act in anger. We
can see that Aristotle manages the fundamental assumption that human nature is knowable –it
is reducible to a range of types– and that ethos is manipulable by discourse.
In the next section I will tackle with the question of what is pathos. In the following lines of
Aristotle the connection between ethos and pathos is quite clear.
Since rhetoric exists to affect the giving of decisions –the hearers decide between one political
speaker and another, and a legal verdict is a decision– the orator must not only try to make the
argument of his speech demonstrative and worthy of belief; he must also make his own
character look right and put his hearers, who are to decide, into the right frame of mind (pathos).
(Aristotle 1984:2195 1377b21-25)
4.2 Characterization of pathos
A rhetorical discourse is performed to achieve a certain goal: to modify the judgment of the
audience. Only effective discourses can do that. But, there is a technique available to pursue
this aim? Aristotle thinks that an orator is able to modify the judgment of the listeners when he
arouses emotions in them. The starting point of Aristotle on pathos is the visible fact that “our
judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and
The amazing work Characters of his disciple Theophrastus can be understand as a contribution to this aspect
of the rhetoric. Some scholars think that Theophrastus’ book was a research of the different people that appears
in the Greek Comedy. I tend to think that both interpretations are not in contradiction.
hostile”. (1984:2155 1356a14-15)39 The philosophical assumption that he has on emotions is
that they “are not blind animal forces, but intelligent and discriminating parts of the
personality, closely related to beliefs of a certain sort, and therefore responsive to cognitive
modification”. (Nussbaum 1996:303) The changing nature of emotions –their temporary
condition– is a crucial guideline of the Aristotelian rhetoric. The following passage of the
Metaphysics gives a comprehensive account of what an emotion is:
We call an affection (i) a quality in respect of which a thing can be altered, e.g. white and black,
sweet and bitter, heaviness and lightness, and all others of the kind. (ii) The already actualized
alterations. (iii) Especially, injurious alterations and movements, and, above all, painful injuries.
(iv) Experiences pleasant or painful when on a large scale are called affections. (Aristotle
1984:1615 1022b15-21)40
What kind of relation does pathos have with ethos? Amélie Oksenberg provides a plausible
answer: “A person’s character –his deep-seated dispositions– defines his relative susceptibility
or immunity to a specific range of emotional responses: a proud man is susceptible to get
anger, a courageous man finds little to fear”. (Oksenberg Rorty 1996:15) There are also some
similarities between these two means of persuasion. Like ethos, pathos is a matter of
discursive strategy, i.e. a verbal activity undertaken by the speaker. Like ethos, it can be
learned. A good orator doesn’t need to manage all the emotions –he doesn’t need to be a
psychologist– but only those passions that are relevant to public discussions. The Rhetoric
presents sixteen emotions41, “an enormous store of argumentative topics for affecting
judgments”. (Green 2001:558)
In ancient times, the emotional aspect of public discourses constituted a rhetorical common
knowledge. Aristotle was not the first rhetorician to point out the significant role of the
disposition of the audience. Emotional appeal figures in the Greek poets Homer, Hesiod and
Aeschylus, and in the political oratory of Solon and Alcaeus. The radical innovation that
Aristotle introduces is the perspective to deal with the subject: a good orator –says the
philosopher– ought to understand the emotions, “that is, to know what they are, their nature,
their causes and the way in which they are excited”. (Aristotle 1984:2156 1356a23-24) To be
A variation of this idea can be found in 1377b31-1378a3: “When people are filling friendly and placable, they
think one sort of thing; when they are feeling angry or hostile, they think either something totally different or the
same thing with a different intensity: when they feel friendly to the man who comes before them for judgment,
they regard him as having done little wrong, if any; when they feel hostile, they take the opposite view”.
The translator uses the word “affection” for pathos.
They are: anger, mildness, friendliness, hatred, fear, confidence, shame, shamelessness, gratitude, ingratitude,
pity, indignation, satisfaction, envy, rivalry and disdain. cf. Rhetoric II, 2-11.
successful in his persuasive efforts, the orator “needs to know what fear and anger really are,
not just what people think they are”. (Nussbaum 1996:305) Only having this knowledge he
will be able to trigger or produce emotions. Aristotle is explicit when talking about anger: “It
is not enough to know one or even two of these points [i.e. what the state of mind of angry
people is, who the people are with whom they usually get angry, and on what grounds they get
angry with them]; unless we know all three, we shall be unable to arouse anger in anyone. The
same is true of the other emotions”. (Aristotle 1984:2195 1378a26-28) This idea is a very
radical one; as Christof Rapp notes, “in comparison with the tricks of former rhetoricians this
method of arousing emotions has a striking advantage: the orator who wants to arouse
emotions must not even speak outside the subject; it is sufficient to detect aspects of a given
subject which are causally connected with the intended emotion”. (Rapp 2002:9) It has to be
underlined that this capacity to detect the precise strings that link the words and the passions is
a technical matter.
Aristotle asserts that the verbal efforts of the orator must be conducted to generate the
adequate emotional state of the audience:
Particularly in deliberative oratory, but also in lawsuits, it adds much to an orator’s influence
that his own character should look right and that he should be thought to entertain the right
feelings towards his hearers; and also that his hearers themselves should be in just the right
frame of mind. (Aristotle 1984:2194 1377b25-29)
In comparison with the ethos doctrine, the treatment of pathos doesn’t give major details of
how emotions are part of the core of rhetoric. George Kennedy advances a conjecture that
explains this methodological deficiency: “The discussion of the emotions in 2.2-11 is
ostensibly a treatment of psychology, potentially useful in arousing or allaying emotions, but
rather little is done to apply it to a rhetorical situation. Probably the chapters were written as a
part of some other study and incorporated here with minor revisions”. (Kennedy 1994:60)42
Amélie Oksenberg Rorty put forward another argument: “Because Aristotle’s discussion of
the individual passions in Rhetoric Book 2 is limited to those features that are relevant to the
rhetorician’s craft, he does not raise the kinds of questions that might seem germane to a
philosophic account”. (Oksenberg Rorty 1996:16) This lack perhaps can be filled considering
what Aristotle says about the central role that pleasure and pain play in the persuasive process,
It is also relevant to quote what Lawrence Green thinks about the matter: “Aristotle’s larger philosophical
contexts for understanding pathos were lost soon after his death, and without them his surviving pronouncements
on pathos took on the appearance of cynical manipulation”. (Green 2001:559)
since the orator has to manage the ability to show the listeners how to feel pleasure or alleviate
pain. This ability is linked with the third element that inspires confidence in the orator’s own
character: goodwill. The text of Aristotle is extremely succinct, but can nevertheless help us:
before he mentions the place of pain and pleasure, he notes that “goodwill and friendliness of
disposition must form part of our discussion of the emotions”. (Aristotle 1984:2195 1378a20)
The inference that we can establish is that the orator can change the judgment of the audience
because pain is the more acute sensation –it is a movement of the soul away from its natural
state– and pleasure is the attenuation of it.43 Aristotle asserts in Nicomachean Ethics (cf.
Aristotle 1984:1737 1099a5-31) that pain and pleasure are character-dependant: each person’s
ethos defines his pleasures and pains. This issue underlines, again, the crucial relation in
between pathos and ethos.
How can the judgment of the audience be altered through pleasure and pain? Stephen
Leighton, in his enlightening article “Aristotle and the emotions”, distinguishes two kind of
change of judgment: as a consequence of emotion and as a constituent of emotion. Alteration
through pleasure and pain is a type of the former. Leighton reconstructs the explanation –a
very general explanation– considering what Aristotle says in On the Soul: “When the object is
pleasant or painful, the soul makes a sort of affirmation or negation, and pursues or avoids the
object”. (1984:685 431a7-10) Thus pleasure and pain change the perspective of the person
that is experiencing a pleasant or painful experience. Leighton presents the example of love
and anger. “The greater attention upon the beloved provided by love’s pleasure will make
possible a deeper appreciation than could otherwise be had; the depleting of attention upon the
one with whom one is angry, brought on by anger’s distress, will make for less appreciation
than would otherwise be had. Through attention or its opposite, one’s judgments may be
influenced. To this extent, things do not seem the same”. (Leighton 1996:216)
We can conclude that the orator has to be a kind of “artist” of eliciting ethos. At the end, a
good rhetorician can do what he wants with his listeners. Again, we ought to forget any ethical
implication of this capacity. The next lines of Aristotle are totally clear about the question:
It is interesting to mention the general and basic status that Aristotle assigned to pleasure and pain in his
treatise On the Soul: “All animals have one sense at least, viz. touch, and whatever has a sense has the capacity
for pleasure and pain and therefore has pleasant and painful objects present to it, and wherever there are present,
there is desire, for desire is appetition of what is pleasant”. (Aristotle 1984:660 414b3-6)
We can prove people to be friends or enemies; if they are not, we can make them out to be so; if
they claim to be so, we can refute their claim; and if they are disputing through anger or hatred,
we can bring them to whichever of these we prefer. (Aristotle 1984:2202 1382a16-20)
4.3 Characterization of logos
In the lines that we quoted above, the word “prove” implies that we are dealing with
arguments. Are arguments the main form of logos? In other words, the third means of
persuasion has to be understood mainly as the using of arguments, i.e. enthymemes and
examples? To answer these questions it is important to observe what Aristotle says about the
orator: he has to understand not only the human character and the emotions, but also “be able
to reason logically”. (1984:2156 1356a23) This last requirement, in modern words, is a
necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. It has to be stressed that “be able to reason
logically” is not enough to persuade people. We can add that this is the truth –with no capital
letter– of rhetoric. Stephen Halliwell offers a clear observation on this subject: “A purely
formal grasp of, say, patterns of argument, or structures of discourse, ought not to be able to
make sufficient contact with people’s beliefs, particularly those which underlie and determine
their civic lives, to open them fully to the rhetorician’s persuasion: in this sense, the
rhetorician whose art is entirely formal ought to be no better a persuader than the logician”.
(Halliwell 1994:238) So a rhetorician is not a logician, but he also deals with arguments. Is he
then a sort of sophist? The answer of Aristotle is strong: what makes a sophist are his choices,
not his abilities. (cf. Aristotle 1984:2155 1355b17-22) A rhetorician can have the same
discourse capacities as the sophist. In this sense, Aristotle is not developing a normative
standard to judge the activity of the orators: rhetoric is a neutral tool that can be used by
ethical and non-ethical people.
When commenting on other rhetoricians, in the first lines of the Rhetoric, Aristotle asserts
something that is essential: “The framers of the current treatises on rhetoric have constructed
but a small portion of that art. The modes of persuasion are the only true constituents of the
art: everything else is merely accessory. These writers, however, say nothing about
enthymemes, which are the substance of rhetorical persuasion”. (1984:2152 1354a12-15) If
enthymemes are the substance of rhetoric it makes sense to see arguments –in the words of
Cristopher Carey– as “the proper task of rhetoric”. (Carey 1994:26) It is important to have in
mind what Aristotle says about the duty of arguments: it is “to attempt demonstrative proofs”.
(Aristotle 1984:2264 1417b21) Why enthymemes are the substance of rhetorical persuasion?
For Christof Rapp the answer in simple: because “we are most easily persuaded when we
think that something has been demonstrated”. (Rapp 2002:11)
In connection with this latter essential property of rhetoric is the first assertion of the treatise:
that rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic. Cristopher Rapp offers an acute treatment of the
matter; for the purpose of this thesis, I will take three main formulations of him: that rhetoric
and dialectic rely on the same theory of deduction and induction, that both deal with
arguments from accepted premises, and that non-argumentative methods are absent from
dialectic, while rhetoric uses non-argumentative means of persuasion. (cf. 2002:5) About nonargumentative means of persuasion it is sufficient what we already said about ethos and
When the philosopher defines the three means of persuasion, he conceives logos as “the proof,
or apparent proof, by de words of the speech itself”. (Aristotle 1984:2155 1356a3-4) This
general description needs to be connected to what Cristopher Rapp mentions about deduction
and induction. A passage of the Rhetoric, that Kassel regards a later addition to the text by
Aristotle himself, states clearly the relation.
With regard to the persuasion achieved by proof or apparent proof: just as in dialectic there is
induction on the one hand and deduction or apparent deduction on the other, so it is in rhetoric.
The example is an induction, the enthymeme is a deduction, and the apparent enthymeme is an
apparent deduction; for I call a rhetorical deduction an enthymeme, and a rhetorical induction
an example. Everyone who effects persuasion through proof does in fact use either enthymemes
or examples: there is no other away. (1984:2156 1356a36-b6)
Enthymemes and examples are then the two ways to persuade through proofs. The former is
highly suitable for political oratory, the latter for forensic speeches. (cf. 1984:2265 1418a1)
Leaving aside the example as a way of persuasion, we can say that the enthymeme is the
major form of logos. The word “enthymeme” comes from enthumeisthai, i.e. “to consider”.
The predecessors of Aristotle coined the word and originally it designates clever sayings. (cf.
Rapp 2002:10) But it was Aristotle who gave to the word the crucial meaning since he
considers an enthymeme as a rhetorical deductive argument. A fundamental property of the
enthymeme is that it is derived from commonly accepted opinions. That is the reason why an
enthymeme has the function of a demonstration in the domain of public speeches.
For Aristotle the enthymeme deals not with what is certain, but with what is probable. This
feature is evidently connected to the assertion that rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic. So
an enthymeme is not a type of syllogism –as a short or truncated one–; for Aristotle an
enthymeme is a kind of syllogism, i.e. it functions like a syllogism.44
Now we are prepared to deal with the third question that was set out in the initial plan of this
thesis. Can ethos or pathos take the place of logos? Aristotle doesn’t provide a clear answer to
this question, but we are able to reconstruct a plausible answer. First, we must recognize that
logos is the substance of rhetorical persuasion, an element that must be present in any
argumentative discourse. In this sense, logos is always an essential requirement. Although the
following warnings of the philosopher apparently contradict what we are saying:
Avoid the enthymeme form when you are trying to rouse feeling; for it will either kill the feeling
or will itself fall flat. [...] Nor should you go after the enthymeme form in a passage where you
are depicting character. (1984:2265 1418a12-15)
These lines of Aristotle can be interpreted as an assertion: that in public contexts logical
proofs as an independent argumentative resource are not useful, and that ethos and pathos are
mandatory aspects of the discourse that never have to be confused with logos. In addition, we
can advance that the philosopher considers the possibility of an absolute difference between
those means of persuasion, i.e. that there exist ethical and pathetical moves dissociated with
logos. This point of view is similar to the pragma-dialectical approach: as we said, for the
School of Amsterdam those moves are fallacious.
A second consideration we can add. In general terms, the Aristotelian rhetoric can be read as
an effort to link the three means of persuasion. The systematic and broad list of topics that the
Rhetoric provides strongly suggests that enthymemes can support ethos and pathos in order to
achieve an effective argumentation. In the Rhetoric, the philosopher provides the orator with
an extensive list of appropriate topics in order to design the right logical proof for a given
audience in a given context.
In this respect it is important to have in mind the following historical fact. During his early
period in the Academy of Plato, Aristotle wrote two lost works about rhetoric: a dialogue
named Gryllus and a general vision of old handbooks of rhetoric, the Synagoge Technon.
This ambiguity is treated in Burnyeat 1996:94-96.
Stephen Halliwell thinks that about the former work “we can say virtually nothing” (Halliwell
1994:234), but Jonathan Barnes informs us that in this dialogue one of Aristotle’s main claims
“was that an orator should not excite the passions by fine language but rather persuade the
reason by fine argument”. (Barnes 2000:34) As Christof Rapp explains, Gryllus has
traditionally been regarded as a Platonic point of view of Aristotle, because he put forward an
argument that Plato defends in Gorgias, i.e. that rhetoric cannot be an art (techne) (cf. Rapp
2002:2)45, a position that Rhetoric clearly contradicts. This last treatise is clearly a non
Platonic contribution: “For Aristotle, rhetoric is neither a knack, a debased art, nor a mode of
access to an unchanging truth. It is oriented toward production rather than contemplation, and
toward particular exigencies rather than eternal forms”. (Wells 2001:458) Since the orator
tackles a given audience in a given time, for Aristotle the rhetorical logos is not a guarantee of
truth, but only of plausibility.
We have seen that in the Rhetoric Aristotle considers that not only logos is a means of
persuasion –a very different position of what Barnes said about Gryllos. However, this doesn’t
mean that ethos or pathos can take the place of logos. The most persuasive discourse is the
discourse that includes the three means of persuasion, at the same time. The rhetorical
perspective that Aristotle presents strongly urges the orator to add ethos and pathos in his
discourse, but not at any prize: logos is still the primary way to convince an audience. As
Martha Nussbaum briefly points, “it seems to be the underlying assumption of the whole
rhetorical enterprise that belief and argument are at the heart of the matter”. (Nussbaum
1996:305) In this sense, the Rhetoric of Aristotle is not in conflict with the traditional
assumption that “Greek rhetoric presented itself as a persuasive ‘art of logos’”. (Halliwell
4.4 The link to the pragma-dialectical approach
In a general sense, Aristotle’s point of view is similar to the pragma-dialectical approach:
when arguing, the protagonist must use logos in order to convince the antagonist. For
Aristotle, as we saw, this is not a normative position: it is descriptively useful. The
philosopher thought that if someone wants to convince a certain audience in practice he will
have to achieve his purpose by using arguments. This is the best way to pursue this goal. Of
course, to be effective he also needs to make us of ethos and pathos.
Christof Rapp has some doubts about the position of this dialogue in the Aristotelian corpus. He prefers not to
advance strong conclusions, since “it could have been a ‘dialectical’ dialogue, which listed the Pros and Cons of
the thesis that rhetoric is an art”.
For the pragma-dialectical approach, the use of logos is an essential requirement of the critical
discussion. Arguments are the mean par excellence to resolve a difference of opinion. It
doesn’t mean that the parties can not use ethos and pathos. The crucial point is that they can
not use ethos or pathos in the place of logos. We can see that this model is in line with
Aristotle. It is also interesting to point out that this common perspective provides an historical
justification to the pragma-dialectical fallacies of relevance.
To make things more clear, let’s see two examples:
A: I strongly recommend you to turn-off the lights of your room when you are not there. We
have to save energy, otherwise the future of the planet will be a misery.
B: Alas! You are talking like a typical Greenpeace member.
A: You are right: I joined Greenpeace. Now I am quite aware of what’s going on in the world.
You are invited to join us.
A: War is a nightmare: many innocent people die. Just think of yourself: probably you really
want to live in a peaceful place, in calm with your family at home. Is easy to imagine that you
hate the idea of loosing the persons and the things that you love.
B: I totally agree with you.
In example (1) we find logos and ethos, and the argument if perfectly reasonable. Party A
offers a good argument to save energy and she also makes an ethical appeal concerning her
ecological decision: “Now I am quite aware of what’s going on in the world”. The important
thing is that the justification of the standpoint, “turn-off the lights of your room”, is logos and
not ethos. We can delete the ethical appeal and the argument will still be acceptable. A fallacy
is committed when the sole justification of the standpoint is the ethical appeal –imagine
something like “turn-off the lights of your room because I am saying it, and I am a member of
In example (2) we have something similar. We find logos and pathos. The argument is also
reasonable. Party A defends his standpoint giving a reason: “many innocent people die”. The
emotional appeal is a complement of the reason, but is not the final background that supports
the point of view that the protagonist defends. If we eliminate the emotional appeal the
argument is still sound. Otherwise, party A would have put forward a fallacy –since he
provides an appeal to the fear as a justification of the standpoint.
As we see, for the standard pragma-dialectical approach the use of ethos and pathos are not
intrinsically fallacious. Using these means is fallacious only when they prevent the resolution
of a critical discussion. In this sense, ethos and pathos can be legitimately used if they don’t
disturb the display of logos. It has to be stressed that they are not considered relevant moves in
the argumentative reconstruction: for the eyes of the analyst they are analytically irrelevant, as
any kind of expressive speech acts.
More recently, in the extended model of the pragma-dialectical approach, which makes use of
the concept of Strategic Maneuvering, we find an even more close similarity between the
Amsterdam School and the Aristotelian rhetorical thought. Orators are committed not only to
be reasonable: they also want to be effective when arguing. Ethos and pathos, then, are
considered fundamental means of persuasion, since they can impact the audience and
contribute to persuade them. But this is another aspect –a very interesting aspect– that is
beyond the goal of our research.
Chapter 5. Conclusion
The pragma-dialectical approach to fallacies of relevance provides clear criteria to deal with
these argumentative failures. Using this model we can easily know when we are dealing with
a fallacy of relevance. Unlike in the Standard Treatment, exceptional cases have no place
within the model; no intuitive or ad hoc considerations are supporting the claim that some
specific case is –or not– a fallacy of relevance. This is possible because the pragma-dialectical
model has a precise notion of what a fallacy is and what relevance is in an argumentative
context. Since the theoretical justification is very rigorous, the argumentation analyst can
make use of this approach with confidence.
It is also interesting to note that the pragma-dialectical approach, when dealing with nonargumentative means of persuasion, is in line with the ancient rhetoric, specifically the
Aristotelian rhetorical thought. The mandatory use of logos –i.e. arguments– in a certain
dispute links the model with the first systematic approach that we know: the Rhetoric. Chapter
3 can be seen as an historical exploration toward the roots of the three basic concepts that
articulate one way of violating of Relevance rule. The other way, the use of irrelevant
argumentation, is a good subject for further research. The ignoratio elenchi fallacy in this
thesis is not dealt with in more detail because it seems to be a non problematic fallacy of
relevance. If the premises of an argument are clearly not supporting the standpoint, the only
thing that we can say is that this argument has a problem of relevance. This is different in
cases where someone advances a personal attack, or a threat, or is appealing to the pity of the
The second example of the introduction is a good case to illustrate the point.
A: Be careful! You are not alone in this city. Norms are for everyone.
B: Where are you from?
A: So what? I am only suggesting that you –like me– have to observe the norms.
As we have shown in chapter 2, the natural reaction of A, “So what?”, doesn’t mean that B is
committing an irrelevant move. Perhaps this “practical” observation is the source of the
typical categorization of the argumentum ad hominem as a fallacy of relevance. The question
“Where are you from?” can be analyzed as an attack that is preventing A to express his
opinions. If someone tells me: “Ok, I understand you, but tell me if the premise is logically
relevant to the standpoint”, I shall answer: “What do you mean with ‘logically relevant’?
What I see is that this personal attack is relevant only in the sense that it is not helping the
goal of the dispute. It is clear that the question that B put forward is problematic, but not in the
way that maybe you think it is”.
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