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  • Room for Maneuver When Raising Critical Doubt
  • Jan Albert Van Laar


When interlocutors start talking at cross-purposes it becomes less likely that they will be able to resolve their initial difference of opinion (Van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992, 125). How much room should we give a party for rephrasing or revising her adversary’s standpoint in a manner that suits her individual purposes in the dialogue? Certainly, as textbooks in argumentation and critical thinking make clear, we should steer clear of erecting and attacking straw men (Ennis 1996, 172; Govier 1985, 109–12; Groarke, Tindale, and Fisher 1997, 123). Still, a critic in a discussion or debate should be given some room to maneuver in order to rephrase the arguer’s position in her own words or to get at the underlying position of the arguer. In this article, I will be dealing with this issue from the pragma-dialectical perspective of strategic maneuvering between the shared dialectical objective of resolving a difference of opinion and the individual rhetorical objective of persuading the other side. According to existing accounts of the straw man fallacy (Talisse and Aikin 2006; Van Eemeren and Grootendorst 1992; Walton 1996), the criterion for fallaciousness resides in whether or not the critic misrepresents or distorts the arguer’s actual position. In this article I intend to provide more detailed guidelines for critics: a critic distorts or [End Page 195] misrepresents a position when she changes the formulation or nature of the arguer’s standpoint, even though this contribution by her cannot be reconstructed as containing a proposal for a change that might be acceptable to the arguer.

In section 2 I will elaborate on the notion of confrontational maneuvering, that is, of strategic maneuvering between the dialectical and rhetorical goals that arise from the confrontation stage of a critical discussion. In section 3 I will characterize the form of maneuvering where an antagonist reformulates or modifies the protagonist’s standpoint in an opportune way. In section 4 I will examine the conditions under which applications of maneuvering of this kind can be sound and legitimate from a dialectical perspective and relate these conditions to the straw man fallacy. In section 5 the results of the preceding sections will be applied to a case.

2. Confrontational Maneuvering

In argumentative discourse, participants typically try to achieve two kinds of objectives. First, they try to be dialectically reasonable, and second, they are out for some kind of personal triumph. The act, by the critic, of reformulating or revising the arguer’s standpoint will be dealt with from this dual perspective of strategic maneuvering (Van Eemeren and Houtlosser 2000, 2003). In order to analyze and evaluate the maneuver under discussion, I will elaborate in this section, first, on the notion of critical discussion in order to clarify the meaning of dialectical reasonableness and fallaciousness; second, on the importance of reconstruction for understanding argumentative discourse; third, on the notion of a confrontation stage; and fourth, on the distinction between direct and indirect maneuvering. These notions will be applied as follows: critics have some room for maneuvering when raising critical doubt, even when they change the arguer’s position or formulation, because there are contexts of utterance within confrontations where such a contribution does allow for a reconstruction in such a way that the result is not a direct and fallacious confrontational maneuver but, rather, an indirect and dialectically reasonable one.

According to the pragma-dialectical methodology developed by Van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1984, 1992, 2004), an argumentative discourse must be reconstructed and evaluated from the perspective of a critical discussion. A critical discussion is a normative procedure that starts from a difference of opinion and that is solely aimed at resolving this dispute on the merits of the case (as perceived by the participants). When following [End Page 196] this procedure, discussants start by putting their difference of opinion into words in the confrontation stage; they proceed by deciding on the procedural and material starting points in the opening stage and by exchanging arguments and criticisms in the argumentation stage; and then they bring their discussion to a close by deciding in the concluding stage on whether the initial...


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