- Perelmanian Universal Audience and the Epistemic Aspirations of Argument
The notion of universality in argumentation is as fecund as is it is controversial. Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s notion of universal audience (UA), given their requirement that all arguments be evaluated in terms of their audiences, clearly promises a rich account of argumentative norms. It equally yields a variety of questions. For the most part, the questions come in three forms: what, precisely, is the universal audience; whether it is, in the end, a coherent notion; and how its norms actually constrain argument. Many objections to the notion claim that it is either incoherent or too empty to constrain. My objective here is to provide an account of Perelman’s notion of UA that avoids these objections. I will argue that the UA can be clarified with a distinction between two functions it plays in argumentation— one pragmatic and another epistemic. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca do not explicitly disambiguate these roles themselves, though they do use the notion in two distinct ways in The New Rhetoric (TNR ), and so it seems clear that although the view in the end may be Perelmanian, it is arguably not Perelman’s. No matter. The purpose of this essay is not to exhume Perelman but to resurrect and exercise his views. That is, historical work in philosophy must straddle the demands of two distinct goals— fidelity to the author in question and defensibility of the views developed. My case [End Page 238] will jointly depend on the comparative plausibility of my account as an interpretation of Perelman’s universal audience and of the view as correct regarding argumentative norms in relation to the other competing interpretations of Perelman’s UA. So if my argument for a divided universal audience is at least Perelmanian in spirit, and if it survives the objections to UA that other interpretations do not survive, it should be the philosophically preferable interpretation.
The first principle of Perelmanian rhetoric is that arguments are addressed to audiences for the purpose of inducing or increasing adherence to a view (TNR, 14). Consequently, the less reliant arguments are on a specific audience’s idiosyncratic commitments, the more effective the arguments will be in generating assent and resolving disagreements in wider and wider groups of people. Perelman describes the universal audience in The Realm of Rhetoric (RR ) as “itself . . . made up of an infinite variety of particular audiences” (14). The UA is the regulative ideal of maximal intersubjective agreement. That is, we see both the relative weakness of arguments that depend on the commitments of particular audiences and “the value attached to opinions that enjoy unanimous approval” (TNR, 31). This unanimity is reached at its highest point in the universal audience. As such, UA is an agglomerative notion that functions as a criterion for how widely an argument may be given credence. Call this trajectory toward unanimity the pragmatic element of UA.
However, the universal audience’s assent is used to define facts for arguments, and as such, it is a marker of the objectivity of a conclusion, not just the breadth of the effectiveness of an argument. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca stipulate that “from the standpoint of argumentation, we are confronted with a fact only if we can postulate uncontroverted, universal agreement with respect to it” (TNR, 67). Facts and truths are defined in terms of the “agreement of the universal audience” (TNR, 67). This, of course, is not to say that arguments make facts but, instead, that their universal acceptability is a criterion for whether some purported fact is or is not the case. Agreement on this level does not play a metaphysical role of explanation but, rather, a cognitive role of justification for taking a commitment as a premise for further argument. The agreement in a universal audience, further, must be uncontroverted, which means that this UA must have some shared commitment that survives scrutiny (or at least is [End Page 239] not defeated): “The agreement of a universal audience is . . . a matter, not of fact, but of right” (TNR, 31). And further, this right has a very powerful normative element: “Argumentation...