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  • Kinship:The Relationship Between Johnstone's Ideas about Philosophical Argument and the Pragma-Dialectical Theory of Argumentation
  • Frans H. van Eemeren and Peter Houtlosser

1. Johnstone on the Nature of Philosophical Argument

As he himself declared in Validity and Rhetoric in Philosophical Argument (1978, 1), the late philosopher Henry W. Johnstone Jr. devoted a long period of his professional life to clarifying the nature of philosophical argument. His well-known view was that philosophical arguments are sui generis, i.e., not to be judged by the standards of argumentation in science or everyday discourse. Philosophical arguments are not ad rem, but are based on premises that are expressed or implied commitments of a party in dialogue. This is why philosophical argumentation is, according to Johnstone, always ad hominem. In philosophical argumentation, every ad rem argument begs the question.

Usually, ad hominem argumentation is dismissed as invalid. Johnstone, however, maintains that making use of argumentum ad hominem is the only way to establish a philosophical conclusion. In an argumentum ad hominem, inferences are drawn from propositions stated or implied by the other party and critical questions are raised about the conclusions that were drawn, so that it can be used to refute a philosophical position by showing that this position is inconsistent. As Walton (2001) rightly observes, this type of ad hominem argumentation boils down to arguing from commitments of the other party, i.e., ex concessis.

The use of ad hominem argumentation as the criticism of a position in terms of its own presuppositions is, in Johnstone's view, the only valid argument in philosophy, if any philosophical argument is indeed valid. All philosophical polemic is in this perspective in fact addressed ad hominem. This applies not only to philosophical argumentation that concerns self-referential refutation but also to other ad hominem types of philosophical argumentation, including the tu quoque argument (1978, 11–12).

According to Johnstone, there is no objective criterion for determining the validity of ad hominem argumentation. Validity must, says Johnstone in the [End Page 51] epilogue of his collected essays on philosophical argument, be viewed as "a regulative ideal" (135). Much earlier, Johnstone had already come to the conclusion that "the valid argument is the one that maintains philosophical discussion" (38). It is this self-perpetuating feature that is the distinctive rationality of philosophy. By forcing the interlocutor to elaborate his philosophical position rather than just repeat it, the gap between the interlocutors is bridged.

In order to distinguish between constructive persuasive argumentation and mere repetition or other forms of paralyzing the discourse, the line must be drawn between responsible and irresponsible persuasion. This is a problem for Johnstone. Where the Ancients solved the problem by insisting that the persuader be virtuous, Johnstone proposed to base the distinction between responsible and irresponsible persuasion on the attitude of the philosopher and his interest in maintaining the philosophical enterprise. The philosopher is a critic who criticizes con amore. His intention to do so, however, is revealed "only in the way he goes about his work" (84).

A more down to earth criterion for responsible persuasion that Johnstone proposed is that the discourse should not tend to degenerate. Logic, as the discipline concerned with reason, serves to prevent the discussion from degenerating, but it can do so only if the parties concerned have jointly committed themselves to certain logical principles. If in philosophical argument a defendant is under no obligation to acknowledge an inconsistency when the other party points out an inconsistency in his position, then the other party's criticism cannot count as valid. According to Johnstone, however, it will depend on the parties' presuppositions whether or not they consider two statements as being inconsistent. In other words, what is inconsistent for the one party may not be inconsistent for the other party.

Few obligations are imposed on everyone; most obligations arise from commitments made by specific individuals or groups of individuals. As Johnstone says, "Even the cogent philosophical argument is not, of course, absolutely cogent; it is cogent only relatively to interlocutors who maintain the premises on which it depends" (27). Once we abandon the search for objective conditions under which philosophical arguments can be valid, according...


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