Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 3

Henrique Jales Ribeiro

Retórica, Argumentação e Filosofia. Estudos Sistemáticos e Histórico-Filosóficos,

MinervaCoimbra, Coimbra, 2016, pp. 171

On the first pages of Retórica, Argumentação e Filosofia (Rhetoric, Argumentation and

Philosophy), Henrique Jales Ribeiro (professor in the Faculty of Letters of the University of
Coimbra, Portugal) informs the reader that his book contains a collection of systematic and
historical-philosophical essays about the contemporary role of philosophy in the
multidisciplinary field of argumentation theory (p. 11). Despite that, the book does not seem to
have the ambition to provide full coverage of all versions of argumentation theory. Perelman
and Toulmin's approaches are clearly privileged due to their "foundational" and philosophical
relevance. Besides, as far as contemporary studies on rhetoric are concerned, Perelman's
approach serves as the unique reference point.
Thus, in this book Ribeiro faces the not so easy task of providing an historical
reconstruction of the philosophical background in which Perelman and Toulmin elaborated
their theories, mainly in response to the challenges posed by the (standard) analytical
philosophy. More in general, the book seems to have two main themes: a) how argumentation
theorists positioned themselves vis-à-vis analytical philosophy, and b) how they respond to the
challenges presented by what the author calls "postmodernism" and/or "relativism" (according
to the author, a pair of strictly related concepts).
Quite undeniably, Retórica, Argumentação e Filosofia provides a clear map,
particularly useful in the Portuguese-speaking context, which offers its readers an overview of
the main philosophical positions involved in the debate which surrounded what we may call
the "argumentative turn", which started with the publication, in 1958, of the Traité of Perelman
and Olbrechts-Tyteca and of Toulmin's Uses of Argument. The book consists of 5 chapters
(plus introduction), each of them devoted to a main theme (with some thematic overlapping).
The short introduction places the rest of the essays in context and addresses what the author
calls the "contemporary desiderata of rhetoric and argumentation theory". Actually, it makes
explicit the author's intention of placing argumentation theories in the context of contemporary
philosophical debate. The other chapters address the relationship between philosophy and
argumentation (“Philosophy and Argumentation”, chap. 1), logic and argumentation (“Logic
and Argumentation”, chap. 2) and epistemology and argumentation ("Philosophy, science and
argumentation: Karl Popper and pragma-dialectics", chap. 3), the actuality of Perelman's New
Rhetoric ("Rhetoric, argumentation and analytical philosophy: The Actuality of Perelman",
chap. 4) and that of Toulmin's argumentation theory ("Analytical philosophy and
argumentation theory: Toulmin’s lessons", chap. 5).
The author shares with Toulmin and Perelman the idea that a proper theory of
argumentation is more than a "theory of argument". It amounts, in an Habermasian (or
Popperian, from the author's viewpoint) fashion, to a theory of a rationality in general.
Perelman's theory of reasonableness is clearly the reference point, insofar as Perelman
presented his theory of argumentation as a "logic of value judgments" or a "logic of
reasonable", in explicit contrast with the logic of "rational" or with a traditional conception of
rationality. According to the author, both Perelman and Toulmin did not intend to limit their
theories to a set of techniques for analysing arguments. The rediscovery of rhetoric, indeed,
places the ancient technique of persuasion in open conflict with modern Cartesian rationalism
(pp. 29-32).
In other words, Ribeiro takes seriously the Perelmanian program for an alternative
paradigm which translates, in terms of an argumentative analysis, the demands for a "logic" of
practical reasoning. Argumentation, as an intersubjective procedure, can be reconstructed
through a dialogical theory of meaning, which represents an alternative to the traditional, neo-
positivist approach. Thus, the rediscovery of rhetoric itself should be considered from the
perspective of the concept of the "universal audience", inasmuch as this concept represents the
cleavage between ancient and "new" rhetoric. The same relationship between Toulmin's and
Perelman's theoretical positions, according to the author, should be interpreted from this
perspective (p. 41). The audience, as the author states, is not a mere target for a persuasive
strategy: it is a conception of rationality. So far, so Perelmanian. Interestingly enough, the
author defines this conception of rationality based on the universal audience – which represents
the dialectical dimension of Perelman's theory – by making reference to the fact that the arguer
should anticipate the audience's beliefs, attitudes and values. However, this fact – the
contextual nature of argumentation – represents the rhetorical dimension of Perelman’s theory
(p. 34).
This (unnoticed?) shift from dialectic to rhetoric is neither surprising nor unjustified,
due to the author's viewpoint, and leads us to the main point of the unresolved tension between
the universal and the socio-historical dimension, inherent in the Treatise's construction and, in
some sense, also in Ribeiro's book. In spite of all the efforts, the answer provided by Toulmin
and Perelman to the tension between foundationalism and absolutism, on the one hand, and
relativism, on the other, seems to me far from being satisfactory, as the author presupposes (p.
61). Significantly, the pages of the paragraph devoted to the "threat of relativism" (§2.1, pp.
60-62) oscillate between the acceptance of relativism as inevitable consequence of the
dialogical and contextual framework of argumentation and the demands for standards of
justification that allow us to move beyond relativism.
As a matter of fact, argumentation theory, as a "true unified conception of rationality"
(p. 64), like most "third ways" between alternatives perceived as unacceptable, suffers from a
fundamental ambiguity. In this case, the ambiguity is related to the very notion of
"reasonableness", which ultimately does not manage to avoid the pitfalls of both Cartesian
rationalism (in Perelman's words) and post-modern relativism (in Ribeiro's words). Perhaps
precisely for this reason, argumentation theory has become more a "theory of the argument"
(as Ribeiro would say) than a "unified conception of rationality". The (controversial) notion of
the universal audience shows very well this fundamental ambiguity. One the one hand, it is
presented by Perelman as a "matter of right", transcending historical and cultural contingencies,
on the other hand is nothing but a subjective reconstruction of the orator, starting from his own
beliefs and values. Any interpretation of Toulmin's theory from the point of view of the
Perelmanian notion of audience, cannot help to reduce this fundamental ambiguity. Ribeiro is
clearly aware of this problem. For this reason, for instance, he presents the early development
of argumentation theory in a dialectical opposition to the traditional, neo-positivist theory of
meaning. Particularly, in the fifth chapter (pp. 127-151) he interprets Toulmin's model as an
argumentative theory of meaning, alternative to that of analytical philosophers such as Quine
or Carnap. According to Ribeiro, such a theory should have "strong metaphysical and even
ontological claims" concerning "how the world should be conceived" and how the "relationship
between man and the world" should be conceived from the perspective of the "argumentative
use of language" (p. 146). Whether these metaphysical assumptions are clearly articulated in
Toulmin's theory or not, is a question that the book seems to leave unanswered. Actually, from
this viewpoint, Ribeiro's essays seem mainly to represents a program, rather than a specific
In conclusion, Retórica, argumentação e filosofia is, undoubtedly, a clear and
systematic overview of the main philosophical themes involved in the "argumentative turn" of
the second half of the twentieth century, mainly represented by the theories of Perelman and
Toulmin. Such topics have already been debated extensively in the English- and French-
speaking literature (I refer to authors, for example, such as Frans van Eemeren, Christopher
Tindale, Michel Meyer et cetera), but not so much in Portuguese (with the exception of the
works of Manuel Maria Carrilho). Retórica, argumentação e filosofia ultimately constitutes a
comprehensive reconstruction of the philosophical background underlying these two
conceptions of argumentation, with all their strong theoretical ambition and, also, with all their
main ambiguities.