ArgLab • Colloquium

Marcin Lewiński

The Paradox of Charity

The goal of this presentation is threefold: 1) to clearly distinguish between the concept of “the principle of charity” as applied in philosophy of language and argumentation theory, defending the former, while criticizing the latter account; 2) to specifically identify a problem in a consistent application of the principle of charity in the dialectical analysis and evaluation of argumentation that I term the paradox of charity; and 3) to propose a possible way out of the paradox. The principle of charity is typically used in argumentation theory as a methodological guideline that directs an analyst into adopting the strongest, and thus most easily defensible, plausible interpretation of the argue’s discourse.


I contend that such an account, while broadly advocated, misses the basic point of a dialectical conception of argumentation: that there are always (at least) two arguers to a debate, and they remain in a disagreement over the issue discussed. Therefore, an analyst who is charitable to one party to a debate (proponent), easily becomes uncharitable to the other (opponent), and the other way round. Thus we embark at a paradox. To overcome this paradox, I suggest to significantly limit the application of the principle of charity in general and to systematically look for contextual cues that advise more or less charity in a given situation.