Coalescent Argumentation

CA coverCoalescent Argumentation was published in 1997, and describes my theory of agreement based argument. You can get a copy by clicking on the cover graphic.  What follows is a summary of my theory.

Coalescent Argumentation: An Overview

Michael A. Gilbert,
York University

The goal of my work for a considerable time now has been to create a system of argumentation that, first, is applicable to natural everyday argumentation, and, secondly, puts the focus on agreement as opposed to disagreement. This is in opposition to a great deal of tradition in the area. Historically, arguments studied have tended to be more rarified, academic, or, at least, more carefully formed than the sorts of arguments that take place between friends, business associates, or life partners. Also, the emphasis has almost always been on determining which side ought win, ideally be identifying which side holds the “true” view, though sometimes the most persuasive view will suffice.

My theory flies inn the face of both these assumptions. First, because I believe that argumentation as it occurs in natural settings is the most crucial to examine. It is there that we find people changing their minds, facing real conflicts, and attempting to obtain and understand the most important physical and metaphysical components of their lives. Secondly, if we want to increase the likelihood of both avoiding conflict and maximizing satisfaction, then we sorely need to move the emphasis in everyday argumentation away from criticism, nit picking and zero sum thinking toward a view that permits of flexibility, openness, and negotiation. This view I call Coalescent Argumentation, and it is an agreement organized system based on an understanding of exactly how real people really argue.

The system has two main foundations. The first is that there are several non-logical modes of communication which are typically accessed and utilized during a real natural argument. These non-logical modes have largely been ignored or, worse yet, banished, in earlier examinations. CA builds on these modes insofar as they are means of communication relied upon by marketplace or (as I sometimes prefer) kitchen arguers.

The second foundation is that it is possible to focus on those aspects of the arguers’ positions that do not disagree, as opposed to the usual instinct which is to focus on points that do disagree. I.e., the emphasis is on finding points of agreement rather than point of disagreement. Often, as will be discussed, the points of disagreement are not nearly as crucial as on might initially suppose.

These two foundations allow for enlarging the possibilities of agreement by coalescing the goals of the arguers into a conjoint position that sets aside the points of extreme conflict. The following will place my work in the context of current thinking as well as explain it in detail.

The Historical Context

My interest in argument goes back to my work in Informal Logic and Critical Reasoning which resulted in my book, How To Win An Argument. This book, now in a new second edition, surveyed the traditional techniques, in particular, fallacy theory, but with an emphasis on interpersonal argumentation. My latest book, Coalescent Argumentation, presents a complete theory of interactive everyday argument that goes beyond earlier considerations. This latter book is squarely in the new, inter-disciplinary field of Argumentation Theory.

Three main streams feed the river of work being produced by the new cross-disciplinary field called Argumentation Theory. The first stream, Informal Logic, an area that had been around since Aristotle, suddenly, since the 1970s, took it upon itself to become more “relevant” and revitalized. A second stream was Communication Theory, especially as evidenced by publications appearing in the Journal of the American Forensic Association (since renamed, Argumentation & Advocacy,) where various communication theorists were applying their tools to interactive argumentation. The third stream has its source in Holland in the Pragma-Dialectic School centred at the University of Amsterdam. All three groups were placing greater emphasis on the situated and informal nature of argumentation as opposed to viewing it as something that does and must follow strict logical processes.

Key elements in the first stream included Toulimn’s DWC model which built on legal argumentation as the iconic form of argumentative communication. Toulmin introduced a model that allowed for a more natural arrangement of items in an argumentation, as well as allowing that various fields of endeavour cold have different rules and procedures for argument and evidence. The layout, reproduced here,

Toulmin__dwcbecame very popular, especially in communication studies and speech discourse arenas. Others included Kahane, who wrote the first Informal Logic text that was ‘relevant’, and Hamblin, Fallacies, who argued that fallacies must be studied in context.

The Communication theorists were headed by Wayne Brockriede, whose early article, “Where Is Argument?” released a flood of response. His work was quickly followed by many scholars. Charles Willard argued that no model could capture natural argumentation; Daniel O’keefe, offered a distinction between argument1 and argument2 wherein the first indicates an argument that is made, while the second is the argument that is being had. Wenzel wrote about the triumvirate of process, product and procedure, Trapp about serial argument, and McKerrow about argument communities.

The Amsterdam School headed by van Eemeren and Grootendorst was fueled by work in Discourse Analysis wherein ordinary discourse was analyzed and patterned. More will be id about their approach below. Their work, and the work of other Discourse Analysts such as Jacobs and Jackson also stressed natural settings and actual argumentation.

All of this movement away from formalism and toward a perspective on argumentation that emphasizes context and fluidity is good, but the roots of most researchers were still strongly based in theories that called for formal analyses, usually independent of particular situations. The emphasis on models meant that uniformity is at a premium—without consistency across situations rules and models cannot be applied. So in spite of the desire to emphasize context and respect for situation, there was still a heavy emphasis on creating sufficient uniformity and structure so as to generalize beyond individual occurrences of argument.

This is not all bad, and not all wrong. There is nothing misplaced in attempting to find models, rules, and procedures that apply to diverse situations. Indeed, I am doing that myself. But, I believe limitation to a tidy syllogistic configuration, explicitly or implicitly, is limiting to Argumentation Theory and preventing a true breakthrough. In order to go further, research must bring argument down to where it belongs, a human activity occurring between people with wants, needs, prejudices, beliefs and attitudes.


Multi-Modal Argumentation

As the current project encompasses and builds on my previous work, I need, in this section, to briefly describe that work. In 1990 I presented a paper to the International Society for the Study of Argumentation meeting in Amsterdam entitled “Multi-Modal Argumentation.” That paper outlined a view of argumentation that encompassed modes of argument and communication that went far beyond the restriction of argument to the logical and linear. In it I insisted that the term ‘rational’ be liberated from a conflation with the logical. I identified four modes of argumentative communication with the logical being only one. One was not, I claim, being irrational or non-rational when using one of the alternative modes. Logicality is not the same as rationality.

The three non-traditional modes are integral avenues of communication as used by actual arguers in everyday arguments. In addition to the logical, there is the emotional, the visceral (or physical,) and the kisceral (or intuitive). Each mode represents 1) a form of communication, 2) a source of data and or information, and 3) patterns of inference. The emotional mode, for example, allows communication through certain non-verbal activities such as expressions of anger, sorrow or fear. Similarly, an arguer might well perceive that a dispute partner is evincing emotions that are important to understanding her or his position. Finally, how one feels about a particular piece of information, situation, or person can be relevant to what one believes is the connection between presented data and possible conclusions.

The visceral mode includes the complete physical realm. This covers physical actions such as touching, looming and gesturing, but also includes the physical setup as in the actual location and micro-geographic context. In this category I also put various relationships such as employee-employer, husband-wife, small person-large person, and so on. The kisceral mode covers all non-sensory information, beliefs, and patterns of reasoning. (The term derives from the Japanese work ki which signifies energy, and is introduced in an attempt to avoid unnecessary controversy.) Within this mode we find everything ranging from a run of the mill “hunch” through a feeling that a house is “creepy” to the entire gamut of New Age folderol.

Very few researchers would claim that these modes of communication do not actually exist. There is nothing radical in pointing them out. What is radical is that I am putting these modes forth as legitimate and normal modes of argumentative communication. I argue that if we are going to understand marketplace argument, then we must pay attention to all the forms of argument that arguers actually use. Further, I argue that reduction from non-logical to logical modes does not work, and if it did that would be irrelevant.

Arguments (or, for that matter, communications,) never occur simply in one mode. Rather they typically occur in various modes but may have a predominant mode, a mode that seems the best description of the sort of argument it is. And argument about not buying a house because it’s “creepy” may well be primarily kisceral, but may also have logical or visceral aspects to it. Consider a physical argument that goes as follows: Mr. Smith comes home, in clearly a foul mood. Ms. Smith asks him if he’s all right, as he seems very tense. He answers, loudly and abruptly, “Yes, damn it I’m just fine.” Ms. Smith, saying nothing, goes and pours him a stiff drink, hands it to him, and begins to massage his neck. After a bit, he says, “Well, maybe I am a bit tense.” I call this an argument, and I label it as primarily visceral.

Other arguments will have different characteristics, and will appear at different places in the sphere. But note one important thing: The fact that an argument not in the logical mode can be reduced to the logical mode or given a logical mode gloss does not mean that it really is in that mode. That Ms. Smith’s actions can be translated into the logical mode is no more significant than that a beautiful sunset can be described in terms of particle physics. They are two different things.


Coalescent Argumentation

Multi-modal argumentation encompasses the first aspect of my initial programme, and can be seen as its metaphysics. The second aspect of my existing work is, as it were, the epistemology.

Hand in hand with the assumption that logic is the prime tool of argumentation is the assumption that arguments are things to be won, and that by using argumentation one can distinguish between correct and incorrect views, i.e., one can separate, by dint of argument, truth from falsehood. Naturally, no one believes this method indubitable, but many accept that it is the best alternative there is. This approach, especially when applied to interpersonal argumentation, has two major difficulties. First, it portrays most argument as a zero-sum game where one party is right and one wrong. Secondly, it emphasizes a positivistic approach to truth that is likely false or, at best, not useful. This is especially true in non-quantitative contexts, which form by far the most common argument group; i.e., mostly we do not argue about simple “facts.”

Given that most arguments are not about facts, but about values or how to use and/or choose facts, the traditional approach does not meet the needs of the researcher investigating real marketplace or kitchen argument. What is required, as was explained above, is a multi-modal approach. But, if we abandon the idea that logicality, (in the extended sense of the term,) is the correct procedure, then we can also abandon the idea that argument is dealing with black and white decision making. That is, giving up logicality as the correct or best mode of proceeding in an argument enables one to give up the allied assumption that truth is dichotomous. Instead, we can embrace the idea that arguments are occurring between people with manifold beliefs, attitudes, feelings and goals, and that the resolution of these arguments may be independent of alleged truths or theories.

This approach led me to an analysis of “positions” in argumentation as only representing a small part of the information, attitudes and beliefs they encompass. If we consider what goes into the creation and maintenance of a position then it becomes clear that a large variety of metaphysical objects of all sorts are required. You need beliefs about the world to create various facts and bits of information, attitudes to help govern and orient feelings and sort out value conflicts, emotions to assist in the prioritization of goals, and a vast array of social mores to enable the resolution and control the disputation. And these are but a few of a vast array of articles required to flesh out even a simple position. In other words, a position as identified by Informal Logicians was really what might be called a “stated position,” and should be thought of as merely the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of the iceberg is hidden and contains a multitude of attitudes, beliefs, intuitions, prejudices, and, most importantly, goals.

Goals as components of positions are perhaps the single most neglected unit of argument­ation. Goals, to begin with are invariably manifold, and when they are examined, especially in light of the various modes in which they occur, then many conflicts simply disappear. That is, positions that were thought to be opposed do not in fact actually exclude each other. Rather, opening up the position to full examination in light of all modalities permits the dispute partners to identify where they are not in conflict. In Argumentation Theory goals are rarely considered as significant players. This is primarily a function of the alleged dedication to “critical discussion” and the search for truth. The goals one has in an argument are irrelevant to the alethic value of the position construed as a proposition   Frequently, goals are ignored when they contain valuable information.

Simply put, the heart of Coalescent Argumentation is the full identification of positions, and especially of the goals contained therein, with an eye to finding ways to forge agreement by isolating those areas truly in dispute. All this was stated very fully in the series of papers I began to write in 1990 and publish beginning in 1994. The culmination of the theory is to be found in my 1997 book, Coalescent Argumentation, (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).


My Current Research

As I have explained, by far the greatest emphasis in Argumentation Theory has been placed on the logical mode. Indeed, being “rational” is often equated with being logical, with the term ‘rational’ itself serving as an honorific for those who think and argue logically. As a result there are full and interesting schema for interpreting, analyzing and modeling the logical mode, but none for the other modes. Clearly, on my views as laid out above, this is an egregious gap in our knowledge of argumentation.

The goal of my current project is to create the epistemology of the theory, i.e., to design a model for each of the non-logical modes utilized in everyday argumentation that would permit the analysis and inspection of arguments occurring within that mode. These models and analytical tools should be used to investigate and unpack the intricacies of each mode as it naturally occurs in situated contexts. This means that, for the emotional, kisceral and visceral modes, one wants the following.

  1. A set of tools useful for analyzing the internal dynamics of an argument wholly or partially in that mode.
  2. The uncovering of descriptive principles that govern the normal use of the mode.
  1. The uncovering of normative principles that govern the normal use of the mode.
  2. The identification of fallacies or errors dependent upon [2] and [3].
  3. Means of using information about the mode to increase the likelihood of coalescing divergent positions.

This would permit the inclusion of non-logical modalities into the analysis of argumentation, and encourage their investigation

To this point I have written and presented a paper which lays out the requirements for each of the modes if one is to create a generalized model. I have been working on the investigation of the remaining two non-logical modes, especially with regard to the required general principles.


The Specific Approach

The primary, though not exclusive tool for creating these mechanisms are the forms constructed by the Pragma-Dialectic School centred in Amsterdam. Their work on what I label the ‘logical’ mode and they refer to as the ‘dialectical’ provides a general pattern for designing a pragmatics of argumentation. They cite, to begin with, four foundations of the pragma-dialectic approach. These are externalization, functionalization, socialization, and dialectification. I have already begun, in Prolegomenon, to argue for the various alterations and extensions. I will use the emotional mode to exemplify my approach.

When dealing with the emotional mode the first two categories can be extended without too much contortion. Socialization requires that we be involved in a social communicative interaction which externalization demands be based primarily on explicitly or implicitly expressed assertions. The question then becomes, Can emotions be understood as expressions? In other words, if linguistic assertions form the core for information communicated in the logical mode, can emotional expressions do the same for the emotional mode? I argue that, especially since we know that in the logical mode we must fill in a great deal that is left out of a communication, the rule applies mutatis mutandis, in the emotional realm. In other words, one may search for or deduce unexpressed premisses or reasons when operating in the logical mode—arguers do this constantly, and the same is true in the emotional mode. Moreover, just as one cannot ascribe an unverified or un-evidenced logical reason regardless of one’s degree of confidence, so one may not impugn hidden or unearthed emotional motivations.

The next feature of the Pragma-Dialectic approach is functionalization. That is, argumentation is treated as a “purposive activity.” On the Pragma-Dialectic analysis, the purpose of the interaction is the logical investigation of a standpoint with each partner taking a Pro or Contra stance. This, on their model implies a verbal exchange involving language. In the emotional mode there is certainly language, though not necessarily verbal. Emotional language includes body language, tonality, and other common indicators of emotional states. Again, one must remember that explicit logical verbalization devoid of context and situation is every bit as meaningless as is a series of gestures taken in isolation.

Finally, the last assumption is dialectification, and here we encounter the major foundational change. For van Eemeren and Grootendorst, dialectification means that argument takes place within the framework of a critical discussion; that is, within an arena governed by rules designed to produce the dialectically best result. These normative considerations govern the process of argument and make it essentially propositional, and tightly controlled by normative criteria intended to uncover the truth. Argumentation, viewed from the emotional perspective may well have a different role, and we cannot consider that each of the non-logical modes shares the logical modes’ essential principle. Moreover, there is no reason to think we would want argumentation to be so univocal.


It is, therefore, in this last category that the unique nature of each mode must find its core expression, and it is in this area that the greatest work must be done. I have, in Prolegomenon formed the outlines of how one must proceed in order to continue the model by replacing dialectification with emotionalization, and mutatis mutandis, for the two other modes. An example of the sort of tools that need to be discovered for each of the non-logical modes is developed in my essay, “Prolegomenon to a Pragmatics of Emotion,” [Prolegomenon] where I (tentatively) offer a principle designed to aid in the analysis of an emotional communication. To wit:

The Principle of Pragmatic Emotionalization [PPE]:

Given that a communicator is presenting an emotional message that is inconsistent with the logical message, then the recipient may assume that,

  1. the logical message may not be reliable, and/or
  2. the complete message may be compound, and/or
  3. the goals of the communicator may have been misidentified, and/or
  4. the communicator’s position may not have been fully exposed.


The principle allows for the investigation of situations common to many arguments, and by doing so includes the emotional in the realm of the rational instead of banishing it to the periphery. This inclusion is vital for many reasons including the creation of an inclusiveness for feminist concerns, the creation of analytical tools that pertain to actual argumentation, and, most of all, providing a further means to increase the likelihood of coalescing diverse positions and diminishing the incidence of protracted disharmony.

The PPE is an example of how one can move from the ideal of dialectics as conversation governed by the rules of critical discussion, to something that also actually occurs in argumentation but that may not be focussed on an ideal of propositional truth, but on some other aspect of communication including alternative ways in which the truth can be uncovered..

The aim of my current research is to create a unified theory of argumentation that includes the forms of communication actually used by human arguers. It is intended to be a pragmatic theory that draws upon all of the areas currently being researched under the umbrella of Argumentation Theory, but that goes beyond the limits of the logical, which represents the ideal, into the realm of the real. By doing so we move to a deeper understanding of the processes that govern actual argumentation, and, thereby, increase the likelihood of moving from conflict to agreement. In addition to moving forward the current state of knowledge and research on argumentation, this project has concrete applications and results for the public at large in terms of providing insights and techniques for agreement based argument.