Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Emotive Language in Argumentation

Douglas Walton, Fabrizio Macagno

We all know that rhetorical argumentation based on the skillful use of persuasive language that appeals to our emotions is an extremely powerful tool that can be used and misused for many purposes. We also have some idea that the powerful effects of such arguments are based on how the terms used in them have been skillfully redefined to put an emotional spin on them to make them persuasive to the audience to whom the argument has been directed. All of us are susceptible to these clever rhetorical strategies on a daily basis, but we have very little in the way of guidance on how to defend against them, or at least cope with them in some useful way. The problem we set ourselves in our book was to devise a set of argumentation tools that can be used for this purpose. Our background is in the field of logical argumentation, and so we begin by saying who we are and generally what logical argumentation methods are.

Fabrizio Macagno is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal, where he teaches courses on argumentation theory and conducts research in the field of argumentation and communication. His PhD is in the field of linguistics and he has been working as a linguistic forensic consultant in the international law firm Martinez & Novebaci. Douglas Walton is a Canadian academic and author, well known for his many widely published books and papers on logical argumentation, especially as applied to artificial intelligence and legal argumentation. He is Distinguished Research Fellow of the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric (CRRAR) at the University of Windsor, Canada. Neither of us is a lawyer, but we often work with lawyers who help us, just as we help them.

Argumentation is a field that takes as its aim the building of practical methods to help a user identify, analyze and evaluate arguments. Moreover, it provides tools for the construction of new arguments to persuade an audience. The field is domain independent, meaning that it can be applied to all kinds of areas where argumentation takes place. This is virtually everywhere. That includes argumentation in law, public relations, politics, science, economics, and all other academic fields. It can be used to analyze arguments found in everyday discourse, such as arguments found on the Internet, and in magazines and newspapers. Argumentation studies started in philosophy and speech communication, but in the latter years has widely expanded to include many academic disciplines. Over the past twenty years it has achieved an especially rapid growth in some areas of computer science. The rapid growth of argumentation in artificial intelligence is indicated by the fact that argumentation-based models have had impact in such areas as knowledge representation, natural language processing, multi-agent communication, automated reasoning, and computer support systems for collaborative work. Recently IBM has unveiled its Debater system designed to give advice to an arguer on how to search through a knowledge base to find pro and con arguments to persuade an audience to accept its claim or to refute the claim of the opposed party in the debate.

Argumentation and emotive language

The concept of “emotive language” is a technical term used to refer to the use of specific terms that have specific argumentative effects. In particular, they can affect the interlocutor’s emotions, and lead him or her to accept or view a certain viewpoint or policy more favorably. Clearly, such words can be manipulated and become fallaciously used. Emotive use of language can be illustrated this example. Bertrand Russell, on the BBC radio in the Brains Trust program, gave three examples designed to illustrate the natural tendency to use words in a persuasive way that support one’s own view and attack an opposed view.

I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pigheaded fool.

I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.

Here the wording reflects a viewpoint, pro or con. We are aware of the tendency to select words that support our own viewpoint, but generally we do not reflect very deeply on what we are doing. Even though we are aware that people are engaging in this kind of verbal persuasion all the time, we have little idea of how to defend against it in instances where it may be important to do so. It is widely accepted that definitions are trivial, and that arguing about definitions is even a sign of quibbling, characteristics of logic-chopping philosophers and lawyers. For this reason it is hard to get people to take the study of definitions seriously. If we consider some legal examples however, it can be seen how the framing of definitions is often far from trivial, and can have significant economic consequences. We will discuss some famous cases in the following blogs.

About The Authors

Douglas Walton

Douglas Walton is the co-author of Emotive Language in Argumentation....

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Fabrizio Macagno

Fabrizio Macagno is the co-author of Emotive Language in Argumentation...

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