ArgLab • Colloquium

Marcin Lewiński

Disagreeing, misunderstanding and strawmanning

The goal of the paper is to investigate the criteria for distinguishing between rational disagreements, genuine misunderstandings, and manipulative uses of the straw man fallacy in argumentative discussions. (The straw man is typically defined as a misattribution of commitments to our discussants in order to easier attack and rebut their arguments.) These three seem in principle easily discernible, but in many actual cases of ordinary exchanges, it may be remarkably hard to tell them apart. Part of the reason for that is that they all rely on the fundamental issues of linguistic interpretation. In the presentation, I will propose a dialectical profile for an intersubjective interpretation procedure that can be used to reconstruct and evaluate argumentative discussions.


The distinction between disagreement and misunderstanding has drawn particular philosophical attention. Arguably, disagreement presupposes understanding: we can only respond ¬p to our interlocutor’s p – a case of straightforward substantive disagreement – once we correctly identify what she means by p. Because of this, it has been argued, many cases of disagreement can be cleared up as mere misunderstandings: “whenever you meet a contradiction you must make a distinction” (James, 1987/1905, p. 505); “assertions startlingly false on the face of them are likely to turn on hidden differences of language” (Quine, 1960, p. 59). But how do we know? No fast and hard criteria for distinguishing between “questions of fact” (substantive disputes) and “questions of language” (verbal disputes) can be proposed, although significant conceptual distinctions have recently been proposed (Chalmers, 2011; Plunkett, 2015; Plunkett & Sundell, 2013).


These classic topics in the philosophy of language have immense and direct relevance to the treatment of dialogical fallacies in argumentation theory, notably the straw man fallacy. To start with, disagreement is seen as an essential pre-condition for argumentation: in both a pragmatic sense (we don’t need to argue for unchallenged speech acts) and a dialectical sense (no argumentation without contradiction) (van Eemeren & Grootendorst, 2004). Disagreement does not only instigate argumentation but, in the form of critical questions and counter-arguments, sustains argumentation, often in an unquestionably reasonable way.


Misunderstandings, by contrast, may undermine the very conditions of the possibility for rational argument. Following Hempel, it has often been argued that misunderstandings require explanation, rather than argumentation (Govier 1987). Within an argumentative discussion, problems of misunderstanding (“How do you mean?”) are solved by resorting to “language usage declaratives” (p means p1) rather than to arguments (p, because q) (van Eemeren & Grootendorst, 2004). However, in natural dialogues these distinctions often collapse: questions such as “How do you mean?!” can express both a semantic clarification request and an argumentative doubt (or even an outright challenge!). Misunderstandings understood as disagreements stemming from “differences of interpretation” are thus inherently murky.


Yet they are perilous (both theoretically and practically) for an additional, key reason: they leave the door wide open for various fallacies, notably the straw man fallacy, a misinterpretation that amounts to a deceptive manipulation of the other’s words. Again, clear-cut criteria for deciding between such fallacious misinterpretations and genuine misunderstandings – think of ambiguous cases such as “by saying p you must have meant p1, then…” – are notoriously hard to formulate, although some progress has been made. Lewiński (2011, 2012; Lewiński & Oswald, 2013) suggested the criteria of contextual plausibility (precise or loose interpretations called for) and charity (critical or constructive interpretations called for). In this presentation I further advance this line of investigation. I discuss conditions for an interpretative dialogue between arguers, where a negotiation over the meaning of contested passages takes place. I draw on dialectical theories of argumentation to propose an intersubjective interpretation procedure where the question of the burden of proof is crucial.




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