Friday, May 31, 2013

Reading :: The Uses of Argument

The Uses of Argument
By Stephen Toulmin

A few days ago, I remarked on Twitter that I was reading through The Uses of Argument, and it was like listening to a Flock of Seagulls album—I had a hard time enjoying it because I was waiting for the Top 10 hit. That may not be fair to Toulmin, a careful logician with a well-earned reputation. But the Toulmin Structure was his Top 10 hit in rhetoric and composition, becoming a major tool for teaching argumentation structure in first-year composition handbooks such as Everything's an Argument. That's the section in which I was the most interested.

However—to continue the analogy—The Uses of Argument is really an album rather than a collection of songs; its chapters, although they still work as standalone essays, build on each other to develop a larger argument about language. Since Toulmin is a logician rather than a rhetorician, that larger argument is oriented toward logic and (like most logic texts) attends to levels of detail in which I am uninterested.

The argument is that we need to answer the question "what sort of a science is logic?" (p.6). And after describing several possible answers—logic as individual psychological phenomenon, logic as group sociological phenomenon, logic as technological craft, logic as mathematics (pp.3-5). He suggests that we consider a new analogy:
Logic is concerned with the soundness of the claims we make—with the solidity of the grounds we produce to support them, the firmness of the backing we provide for them—or to change the metaphor, with the sort of case we present in defence of our claims. The legal analogy implied in this last way of putting the point can for once be a real help. So let us forget about psychology, sociology, technology and mathematics, ignore the echoes of structural engineering and collage in the words 'grounds' and 'backing', and take as our model the discipline of jurisprudence. Logic (we may say) is generalised jurisprudence. ... A main task of jurisprudence is to characterise the essentials of the legal process: the procedures by which claims-at-law are put forward, disputed and determined, and the categories in terms of which this is done. Our own inquiry is a parallel one: we shall aim, in a similar way, to characterise what may be called 'the rational process,' the procedures and categories by using which claims-in-general can be argued and settled. (p.7)
This jurisprudence analogy should be familiar to rhetoricians—after all, systematic rhetoric began with law—and sets the tone for the rest of the book. It also brings us to Chapter III, "The Layout of Arguments," which is the Top 10 hit I mentioned.

"An argument is like an organism," Toulmin states at the beginning of Chapter III. "It has both a gross, anatomical structure and a finer, as-it-were physiological one" (p.94). The gross structure might include introduction, background, proposition, conclusion, etc.—although Toulmin doesn't use the term, we might think of the genre of the argument, including the different "chief anatomical units" that distinguish a sermon from a proposal from a recommendation report from a Yelp review. But Toulmin is more interested in the finer structure: "within each paragraph, when one gets down to the level of individual sentences, a finer structure can be recognised, and this is the structure with which logicians have mainly concerned themselves" (p.94).

In regarding this finer structure, Toulmin contrasts two models: the mathematical and the jurisprudential. Is a formally valid argument in proper form or geometrical form? "Or does the notion of logical form somehow combine both of these aspects, so that to lay an argument out in proper form necessarily requires the adoption of a particular geometrical layout?" (p.95).

To attack the problem, Toulmin proposes an elementary distinction: between the claim (C) "or conclusion whose merits we are seeking to establish" and the data (D), or "the facts we appeal to as the foundation for the claim" (p.97). The two are connected by warrants (W), or general, hypothetical statements that bridge the two. So we have a pattern like this:


Data (D) are explicitly stated; warrants are generally implicit or assumed (p.100). 

But an argument can be more complex, and usually is. For instance, claims are often modified by qualifiers (Q), "indicating the strength conferred by the warrant on this step," and sometimes indicate conditions of rebuttal (R), or "circumstances in which the general authority of that warrant would have to be set aside" (p.101). So the form now becomes:

And here's an extended example:

Sometimes the warrant itself needs some data behind it, and Toulmin terms this backing (B) (p.103). Although warrants are hypothetical and bridgelike, backing can be expressed in form of categorical statements of fact. So here's the structure with B included:
And here's the extended example:


The advantage of the Toulmin structure is that it is very generally applicable. It's also recursive: since any statement can be considered a claim, we can select one statement in the structure (say, D), treat it as disputable, and unpack it as a separate argument. (If we treat "Harry was born in Bermuda" as a claim, we might offer data: here's Harry's birth certificate. If we treat "here's Harry's birth certificate" as a claim, we might offer data for that claim: here's the signature of Harry's attending doctor and here's an affadavit by the same doctor.)

But—this is important—when I say this is an advantage of the Toulmin structure, notice that the advantage is both in terms of analyzing arguments and in producing them. Toulmin is most interested in the analysis. But what made the Toulmin structure a Top 10 hit for rhetoric and composition was that it provided a simple framework for students to think through how to compose their arguments as well.

Let me end with a few general remarks. The Toulmin structure does seem to fit well with Western rationalist argumentation patterns. For that reason, I think it has real potential as a training tool for rationalist discourse aimed at audiences in bureaucracies (e.g., the judiciary, to take Toulmin's example) and markets (e.g., expressing a value-proposition). Certainly it's made a big impact on how I analyze and teach my functionalist-oriented writing classes.

But I'm not sure to what extent the Toulmin structure is universally applicable. That is, although it provides a solid heuristic given certain assumptions, I'm not sure to what extent it applies to different cultures and forms of organization.

In any case, if you're interested in argumentation, this book is well worth your time. I've mostly reviewed the Top 10 hit, but to better understand it, you really should hear the whole album.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

(Special issues of Connexions)

If you're interested in international professional communication, consider applying as a guest editor for Connexions: International Professional Communication Journal. From the special issue page:
connexions • international professional communication journal places great emphasis on Special Issues as a unique means of promoting high-quality research in thematic areas related to international professional communication.
The journal is accepting proposals from Guest Editors for:
  • Special Issue 2(2): June 2014
  • Special Issue 3(1): February 2015
  • Special Issue 3(2): June 2015
  • Special Issue 3(3): December 2015
  • Special Issue 4(1): February 2016
  • Special Issue 4(2): June 2016
  • Special Issue 4(3): December 2016
  • Special Issue 5(2): June 2017
  • Special Issue 5(3): December 2017
Please send your proposals for Special Issues to Rosário Durão at

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reading :: The Rule of the Clan

The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom
By Mark S. Weiner

I've been reading a lot on social organization lately, and I've been especially interested in better understanding Ronfeldt's TIMN framework. The T part—tribes—has been the least familiar to me, and is also the most likely part of the framework to be contested by anthropology, since anthropologists in general have questioned the notion of tribe, have moved away from the notion of a single originating form of organization, have become skeptical of older anthropological work along these lines, and have problematized kinship, which has been understood as a key part of tribal organization.

And yet, as Ronfeldt argues, this critical work still seems to indicate a measure of organization that is quite different from institutions, markets, and networks. In particular, even the critical work seems to argue for small, strongly affiliated, relatively segmented "simple egalitarian societies" in our past, societies that took on the more familiar characteristics of "tribes" as they came into contact with more complexly organized societies.

It was with that discussion in mind that I read Weiner's The Rule of the Clan, a book aimed at the popular market. Weiner is an expert in constitutional law and legal history, and his book examines the shift from kin-based societies to the rule of law:
In a modern liberal society the state... is vigorous and effective, clearly demarcating and defining the community it surrounds. The discrete individuals living under the authority of the state... are in turn equally vital and independent. An essential aim of the liberal legal tradition, as important as its goal of limiting state power... has been to build state capacities to ensure such vitality and independence. [This is the Kindle version, so I don't include page numbers.]
In contrast,
in the absence of the state, or when states are weak, the individual becomes engulfed within the collective groups on which people must rely to advance their goals and vindicate their interests. Without the authority of the state, a host of discrete communal associations rush to fill the vacuum of power. And for most of human history, the primary such group has been the extended family, the clan.
 Weiner warns that since the clan is such an ancient form, "Left to our own devices, we humans naturally build legal structures based on real or fictive kin ties or social networks that behave much like ancient clans." The rule of the clan, he says, encompasses three phenomena:

  • "the legal structures and cultural values of societies organized primarily on the basis of kinship"
  • "the political arrangements governed by what the Arab Human Development Report 2004 calls 'clannism'"
  • "the antiliberal social and legal organizations that tend to grow in the absence of state authority or when the state is weak" (e.g., criminal networks)
"In the presence of a weak state, the individual is weakened and submerged in the more muscular corporate associations—kin groups—that maintain the society's political order." 

One of Weiner's main sources is "the founding father of legal history and legal anthropology, Henry Sumner Maine," whose work came under sustained attack by Kupfer in The Invention of Primitive Society. In a nutshell, Kupfer was not impressed with Maine's generalizations of primitive society, which he considered both poorly founded and a specimen of social Lamarckianism. Let's keep that in mind as we proceed through the rest of the book.

In Part II, Weiner describes "the highly decentralized constitutional structure of the rule of the clan, in which legal and political power reside not in a public authority but rather in numerous kinship groups." He illustrates this argument with three examples: E.E. Pritchard's account of the Nuer, medieval Iceland, and the contemporary Palestinian Authority. 

In Part III, Weiner discusses clans in cultural terms, examining its "distinctive network of informal legal institutions" across "a range of contemporary societies"—and how its benefits have been undermined by the availability of modern weaponry.

In Part IV, he examines how we might modernize clans by looking at how two medieval societies (England and Arabia) constructed public identities and public life that transcended clans. "Liberals should encourage the spread of information and social media technologies in clan societies" to induce this shift, he argues.

In Part V, Weiner argues that "the normative order of the clan" still plays a role in modern liberal societies—in fact, clan affiliations can provide a basis for personal identity, and affirming clan ties (one example is a Scottish pub that is branded by a family's traditional crest and symbols). This use of clans actually reinforces liberal society rather than threatening it. (Compare with Ronfeldt's argument that the Tribe persists as the organizational form for culture.)

Yet clans still represent a "postmodern threat" since they are considered the default position, the one to which people will return if the state erodes. 

So there's the summary. Now here's the critique.

The Rule of the Clan is an interesting, well-written book that examines the legal substrate and cultural assumptions makes liberal society work. Its examples are clear, its discussion is lucid, and in consequence I learned a lot about how legal frameworks make societies possible.

Yet, as implied above, the book has two issues. These issues may be simply artifacts of the popularization that this work has undergone, or they may represent deeper disagreements.

The first is that clans and liberal society are placed in opposition. Weiner portrays societies as moving from clan-based law to state-based law, with the constant threat of decay back to clan-based law if the state is not adequately maintained. Yet clan and state are not the only two games in town: there are at least a couple of other forms of organization (market, network), and states themselves have undergone significant changes as well. In narrowing the account to state and clan, Weiner creates a binary: evolve to the future or devolve to the past. That account loses a great deal of subtlety.

And that brings us to the second issue. Weiner, following Maine, describes the shift from clan to state as social evolution and warns that if we don't maintain the state, it will decay or devolve. As noted above in Kupfer's book, anthropologists have generally repudiated this Lamarckian view of social evolution, arguing that the evolutionary metaphor is not adequate for understanding social change. To put it another way, rather than understanding society as evolving (going forward to the state) or devolving (going backward to clans), contemporary anthropologists see it as always going forward (adapting to changing circumstances). That is, the contemporary anthropologist's account looks less like Lamarckian evolution and arguably more like Darwinian evolution—although anthropologists now tend to avoid evolutionary metaphors altogether.

That being said, I'm glad I read this book. It gave me a broader understanding of how clans have worked, focusing on the laws that underpin societies, and helped me to think through aspects of organization. Even though I have reservations about some of his themes, Weiner really seems to know his stuff and he writes so lucidly that even a tyro like me can follow along. If you're interested in societies and law, pick up this book and take a look.