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A Critique of the Idea of Neutral Language, by Marc Silver

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Arguing the Case: Language and Play in Argumentation

by Marc Silver

Over the past thirty years there has been an intense scrutiny brought to bear upon the ways in which various disciplines deploy rhetorical devices to “argue their case,” as well as to consolidate their identities and maintain them intact.

In Arguing the Case: Language and Play in Argumentation, Prof. Marc Silver builds his own argument upon such topical foundations, but also shifts the ground in new and original ways. For he is not content merely to “deconstruct” the discourse founding the disciplines he studies – the political, the legal, the scientific, the literary, and the psychoanalytic. He consistently attempts to reveal the rhetorical, logical and philosophical rules as well as the paradoxes and aporias, which subtend and sustain the disciplines which he illuminates.

Employing analytical methods deriving from linguistics, logic, psychoanalysis and cultural and literary criticism, he reveals the common premises and common illusions behind the claims being made about the “human sciences” today.

* * * *

What is the expression “getting into an argument” most likely to conjure up? I suspect it is not a process in which you measure your words or scrutinize your language, nor is it any sort of play, either with the self, or with the other, or indeed with the medium of exchange. More probably, the expression will conjure up a more or less heated or passionate dispute. In popular usage “argument” and “dispute” have become virtually synonymous. And while this popular usage of “argument-as-dispute” will be a minor concern in the present work, there is a truth or insight in this overlap of the two terms which is of exemplary value here. At its simplest, it is that when in argument – and as I shall be arguing, not only when in dispute – you are not master of your own words. When in argument, for example, you very often meet with “interference.” Neat categories like “having an argument” and “making an argument” blur. You say more (or less) than you meant to say. You find words in your mouth which seem to have arrived there of their own volition. You find that what you are arguing for is often far from the “case” you believed was your own. You are no longer arguing “the point,” but are rather skewered on the point of language itself. And what is true for the discourse of the individual, is doubly true for institutionalised or collective discourse. For such discourse, despite any semblance of neutrality it might wish to assume, being required to constitute itself through argumentation, will never be free of precisely the “interferences” adduced above which affect and disconcert the individual when in dispute.

Thirty years ago, this book would most probably have confidently overlooked any such “interferences,” and opened with a vibrant assertion of “There is no such thing as neutral language,” in an attempt to combat the then all-pervasive myth that “some language is loaded whereas some is objective, fair and neutral.”1 Since that time, the study of argumentation has received increasingly close attention in different disciplines, and the temptation to frame language in universal, empirical terms, at least among scholars, seems to be on the decline. From Chaim Perelman’s “new rhetoric,”2 with its groundlaying implications for the humanities, to Thomas Kuhn’s influential work3 on the epistemological link between language and discovery in science, new theories of the role and function of argumentation have, over these last thirty years, attempted to chisel away at longstanding ratiocentric models of language by demonstrating how linguistic communication cannot be subsumed within the parameters of formal logic. Moreover, theorists from disciplines as far afield as the history of science and linguistics, psychoanalysis and literary theory, have shown the essential link between a discipline’s way of arguing and its construction of knowledge.

It was more or less with the second half of the seventeenth century that notions of objective, neutral or natural language became fashionable,4 and by the middle of the nineteenth century the generally held belief was that all language could be formalized and represented propositionally.5 Purely formal criteria came to furnish the guidelines for the “correct” expression of ideas, and although there were clearly limits to the types of language which could be define as “objective,” the notion that thoughts were communicable in a perfectly univocal and unambiguous way became a seductive metaphor for scholars and the general public alike.6

The power of decontextualized, ratiocentric models of language has passed down barely undiminished into our own century, as can be seen in linguistic philosophers such as Wittgenstein, who attempted in various ways to explore and reveal the nature of language through recourse to the rules of formal logic.7 As much as it is important to recognize the complexity and tension in Wittgenstein’s theories of language, it is interesting to note how reluctant he was to shift his attention away from the prospects offered by the fixed first principles of propositional logic. Although Wittgenstein is careful in his Philosophical Investigations to insist that his “language-games” are not intended to impose a “preconceived idea to which reality must correspond,” and that they are not “preparatory studies for a future regularization of langugage,”8 they nonethelesss always find their maximum semantic power delimited by the structural constraints of the proposition. Language, from this point of view, “is and can be only the expression of objects in ‘states of affairs,’ i.e., the only acceptable language is the logical, since it alone puts the rationality in question into words.”9 In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein makes this clear:

To give the essence of a proposition means to give the essence of all description, and thus the essence of the world. The description of the most general propositional form is the description of the one and only general primitive sign in logic.10

It is easy to see how this kind of idea bases itself on a double closure: the rejection of all passionate rhetorical language on the one hand, and the relegation of all ordinary language as the expression of common sense on the other.

One need not look as far as philosophers of language, however, to grasp how powerful the vestige of the “objectivist” or “naturalist” view of language remains today. Most people continue to think it obvious and a matter of common sense that word-meanings are firstly and essentially denotative and only secondarily connotative. This idea went so unchallenged until recently that a semanticist such as Geoffrey Leech felt no need to furnish serious justification for implying something of this sort when explicating the basis of his semantic model. In his introductory definition of the “seven different types of meaning,” he gives “primary importance to logical meaning,” affirming: “Conceptual Meaning (sometimes called ‘denotative’ or ‘cognitive’ meaning) is widely assumed to be the central factor in linguistic communication, and I think it can be shown to be integral to the essential functioning of language in a way that other types are not […].”11 Meanings here become independently existing objects, containers which “carry” linguistic expression. Communication failures become matters of subjective error “since the meanings are objectively right there in the words, either you didn’t use the right words to say what you meant or you were misunderstood.”12


For Chaim Perelman, in some ways the “father” of the new rhetoric, “[T]he new rhetoric is a theory of argumentation. But the specific part that is played by argumentation could not be fully understood until the modern theory of demonstration – to which it is complementary – had been developed.13 On the one hand, Perelman rejects both the classical Hellenic theory of demonstration, in which the validity of the deductive method is guaranteed by intuition or evidence “by the natural light of reason,”14 as well as that of modern formalism which, although avoiding recourse to evidence or to any intuition outside the senses, founds its certainty on the conformity or lack of conformity to rules (premises accepted as axioms) that have been laid down beforehand.15 He rejects the very idea of a formal system based on the exclusion of ambiguity and doubt, which are so essential when questions of value and judgement are posed. On the other hand, Perelman by no means rejects rationality or logic tout court. On the contrary, his aim is to give these a full, more complete sense, wresting them from the gradual “impoverishment” which they have suffered. In this sense, Perelman insists that it was only as a result of the developments in formal logic spawned by and after Descartes that “practical reason” – as he terms the New Rhetoric – could be conceptualized.


My purpose in utilizing Grassi’s definition is therefore less to exploit it for its presumed truth value than for the ways in which it strategically allows me to include in discussion of arguments forms of argumentation which otherwise would prematurely be sidelined or not taken into consideration. Distinctions and debates which have long been axiomatic within the field, between, for example, those who limit argumentation to the constitution of a thesis (“making an argument”) and those who limit argumentation to the dialogue between two people (“having an argument”), can, from this point of view, be ignored.16 In my view, argumentation has to be considered as “dialogical”17 in a fundamental sense, not because it invokes a relationship between speaker and audience, although this is patently the case, but rather because the speaker producing the argument is itself a “split subject.”18 The “audience” is first and foremost a part of the speaker, pre-inscribed, and that is why the text inevitably bears the trace of both the speaker and audience, and bears this trace as différance.19 The speaking subject is therefore a fact of language in a context where différance regards what is formative of language, and not merely an occasional dysfunction that language must overcome.20 The concept of différance, a concept coined by Derrida, is meant to convey the ideas of “difference” or “differing” and “deferral,” and it is by characterizing the temporal and spatial slippage engendered when oppositions like “subject” and “argumentational event” are invoked, that it becomes particularly fertile for the problem at hand.


1 – W. Ross Winterowd, Rhetoric: A Synthesis. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston; p.1.

2 – Chaim Perelman & L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, trans. J. Wilkinson & P. Weaver (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1969) although the idea of a “new rhetoric” was already adumbrated by Perelman in the fifties.

3 – Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science 2, 2 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962).

4 – This is certainly not to say that there were no thinkers who resisted this idea, above all in Germany and France. For a discussion of the problem, see Parts 1 and II of R.H. Roberts and J.M.M. Good (eds.), The Recovery of Rhetoric: Persuasive Discourse and Disciplinarity in the Human Sciences (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1993); Ernesto Grassi, “Remarks on German Idealism, Humanism, and the Philosophical Function of Rhetoric”, Philosophy and Rhetoric 19, 2 (1986); Hans Aarsleff, From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History (London: Athlone Press, 1982), above all chapters on Condillac, Humboldt and language-origins theories since the Renaissance.

5 – Chaim Perelman dates the decline of rhetoric as beginning at the end of the sixteenth century, “due to the rise of European bourgeois thought, which generalized the role of evidence: the personal ‘evidence’ of Cartesianism, or the sensible ‘evidence’ of empiricism.” See The Realm of Rhetoric, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982); p.7, or Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, “Logique et rhetorique,” in Rhetorique et philosophie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France), p.80.

6 – Chaim Perelman, in a lecture presented in 1981 at the École Normale Superieure de Paris, entitled “Logique formelle et logique informelle,” recalls a paper presented by Bochenski in Rome in 1976 on “The General Sense and Character of Modern Logic” where the great logician simply equates modern logic with formal logic. The three principal methodologies he cites as characterizing modern logic are: the use of an artificial language, formalism and objectivism: and the sense of his paper is to show the great advantages of moving as far as possible in this direction. See Michel Meyer (ed.), De la metaphysique à la rhétorique (Bruxelles : Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1986) ; p.15.

7 – Attempts to treat messages according to the rules of formal logic is certainly not new with or exclusive to these philosophers. But their attempt to develop a logic for linguistic communication starting from the Aristotelian syllogism is nonetheless noteworthy. See, for example, Willard Van Orman Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1960).

8 – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1968; pp.131,130.

9 – Ernesto Grassi, Rhetoric as Philosophy: The Humanist Tradition, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980; p.5.

10 – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus. (trans. C.K. Ogden). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; 5.4711 and 5.472.

11 – Geoffrey Leech, Semantics, Middlesex England: Penguin Books, 1981; pp.9-10. See also H.P. Grice, “Meaning,” Philosophical Review 66 (1957), pp.377-388.

12 – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980; p.206. This explanation is offered by Lakoff and Johnson in describing the “conduit metaphor” of language, where language is taken as a conduit of thought. See also, Hans Aarsleff, From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History (London: Athlone Press, 1982), and Michael J. Reddy, “The Conduit Metaphor – A Case of Frame Conflict in Our Language about Language”, Metaphor and Thought, Andrew Ortony ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp.284-324.

13 – Chaim Perelman, The New Rhetoric and the Humanities: Essays on Rhetoric and its Applications. Drodrecht. Boston. London: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979; p.9.

14 – Ibid.; p.10.

15 – Perelman thus rejects both A. J. Ayer’s position, which asserts that formal proof exposes argumentation to be irrational, and those more ‘reasonable’ positions, where argumentation becomes a loose approximation of strict logic (as, for example, Aristotle does, centering rhetoric on the enthymeme and examples of loose deduction and induction).

16 – Daniel J. O’Keefe is the most authoritative voice in defining the distinction between these two. “In everyday talk the word ‘argument’ is systematically used to refer to two different phenomena. On the one hand it refers to a kind of utterance or a sort of communicative act. This sense of the term I will call ‘argument1.’ It is the sense contained in sentences such as ‘he made an argument.’ On the other hand, ‘argument’ sometimes refers to a particular kind of interaction. This sense, argument2, appears in sentences such as ‘they had an argument.’ Crudely put, an argument1, is something one person makes (or gives or presents or utters), while an argument2 is something two or more persons have (or engage in). See Daniel O’Keefe, “Two concepts of Argument,” Journal of the American Forensic Association 13 (1977) p.121; see also Daniel J. O’Keefe, “The Concepts of Argument and Arguing”, Advances in Argumentation Theory and Research, J. Robert Cox and Charles Arthur Willard eds. (Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, 1982) pp.3-23.

17 – For more on this concept, see Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Hoquist, ed. Michael Holquist, Univ. of Texas Slavic Series 1 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) pp. 259-422; and “The Problem of Speech Genres”, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, Univ. of Texas Salvic Series 8 (University of Texas Press, Austin, 1986) pp.60-102.

18 – For more on this concept, see Julia Kristeva, The Kristeva Reader (Toril Moi ed. Oxford Basil Blackwell, 1986).

19 – See, Barbara A. Biesecker, “Rethinking the Rhetorical from Within the Thematic of Différance”, Philosophy and Rhetoric 22, 2(1989).

20 – Psychoanalytic theories of the subject inspired by Jacques Lacan take this position as well. For more on the psychoanalytic interpretation of the subject in relation to language, see: Jacques Lacan, “Le Séminaire sur ‘La Lettre Volée’”, “Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage”, and “L’instance de la lettre dans l’inconscient ou la raison depuis Freud” in Écrits (Paris, Éditions du Seuil: 1966); Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire II: Le moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse (Paris: Éditions du Seuil: 1978); Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire IV: La relation d’objet (Paris: Éditions du Seuil: 1994) ; Jacques Lacan,  Le Séminaire XX: Encore (Paris, Éditions du Seuil: 1975); Alain Juranville, Lacan et la philosophie (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France: 1984) and Samuel Weber, Return to Freud, trans. Michael Levine (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1991).

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