Perelman and Olbrechts-Tytecha – The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation

Perelman, C., and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation. Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1969. Print.

In this classic text on argumentation originally written in French by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tytecha, the authors presented a “new rhetoric” that reintroduced argumentation into rhetoric and reason. The two asserted their theory of argumentation by establishing its link to Greek rhetoric and dialectic in order to break with Cartesian concepts of reason and reasoning which they claimed had defined Western philosophy for the previous three centuries. The exigence behind their argument is that traditional logic and reasoning alone cannot help resolve all disputes (and they never have); to this end all available means need to be explored. Under Cartesian logic, claims that are not self-evident could/ would be considered false, but Perelman and Olbrechts-Tytecha argued against this reasoning and for the exploration of the plausible:

“…the post-Cartesian concept of reason obliges us to make certain irrational elements intervene every time the object of knowledge is not self-evident. Whether these elements consist of obstacles to be surmounted-such as imagination, passion, or suggestion-or of suprarational sources of certitude such as the heart, grace, “Einfuehlung,” or Bergsonian intuition, this conception introduces a dichotomy, a differentiation between human faculties, which is completely artificial and contrary to the real processes of our thought.” (3)

The consideration of these irrational elements, nor argumentation are “new” to rhetoric; however, Perelman and Olbrechs-Tytecha posited that these elements had been neglected to the detriment of rhetorical theory and criticism. They wrote: “The effect of restricting logic to the examination of the proofs termed ‘analytical’ byAristotle, together with the reduction of dialectical proofs-when anyone felt they were worth analyzing-to analytical proofs, was to remove from the study of reasoning all reference to argumentation” (509). Their text is an attempt to reduce and further reduction of proofs to formal logic.

In this treatise on argumentation, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tytecha put forth numerous technichal elements of argumentation which they said only scratched the surface. A major takeaway is that argumentation is audience-centered, not form-centered and as such:

  • has the goal of persuading a “universal audience” which is a construct of the author’s mind (the audience can legitimately be treated as universal because “for legitimate reasons, we need not take into consideration those which are not part of it” (31).)
  • is more influenced by ethos (18)
  • dictates that the presumption and “burden of proof” are dictted by the audience, not the question or rhetor (105-106)
  • relies on the “community of minds” or what Burke would call identification (14)
  • uses strategies associated with sophistry, like dissociation (the constant constantly detaching from or adding “appearances” to notions in order to appeal to their audiences) (412)

Perelman and Olbrechts-Tytecha acknowledged that their theory of argumentation and with these proofs that fall outside of formal logic sound sophistic, and would typically be dismissed as a “misleading form of reasoning” (512); however, they argued that “absolutist epistemology” has not served us as well as desired.

“Only the existence of an argumentation that is neither compelling nor arbitrary can give meaning to human freedom, a state in which a reasonable choice can be exercised. If freedom was no more than necessary adherence to a previously given natural order, it would exclude all possibility of choice; and if the exercise of freedom were not based on reasons, every choice would be irrational and would be reduced to an arbitrary decision operating in an intellectual void.” (514)

“The theory of argumentation will help to develop what a logic of value judgments has tried in vain to provide, namely the justification of the possibility of a human community in the sphere of action when this justification cannot be based on a reality or objective truth. And its starting point, in making this contribution, is an analysis of those forms of reasoning which, though they are indispensable in practice, have from the time of Descartes been neglected by logicians and theoreticians of knowledge.” (514)


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