Forget any visions of a guy walking about in a toga, sandals and flowing gray hair. He’s clean cut and very approachable, but you’d better have your mind ready for an unusual journey. Patterson is interested in argumentation theory, and his work in this area brings him in collaboration with philosophers around the globe.
Argumentation theory, or informal logic, was born out of frustration with formal logic during the Vietnam War. Philosophy instructors at the University of Windsor (and elsewhere across North America) were getting questions from students about how formal logic could help address numerous moral and social issues that came to the surface during the war. The instructors took this question to heart, did some hard thinking, and drew the conclusion that it didn’t really help at all. It’s hard to evaluate arguments that occur in ordinary conversation using only the rules of formal logic. This is because real arguments don’t happen in symbolic notation on a blackboard. Real arguments happen in ordinary conversations, in ordinary language. In “real life” arguments aren’t always conclusive, nor are they intended to be. Oftentimes reasoning is as much a process of debate and negotiation as it is individual reasoning. Similarly, the goal isn’t always to decide a question of fact. We argue to reach conclusions that are acceptable to people on both sides of a dispute or a deliberation. Context, background knowledge, the speaker’s intent, and her assumptions about what the audience feels and believes are all important factors we use every day when we evaluate arguments, yet they aren’t reflected in formal logic at all. This is why formal logic wasn’t helpful to students grappling with social questions.
Since it’s inception in the 1970s, the field has grown considerably. During the mid 1980s, this field of study grew and became international as well as interdisciplinary—it began to attract rhetoricians, linguists, psychologists, legal scholars and many others who found in argumentation theory a banner under which they could do their work. Today there are interdisciplinary centers, journals, and conferences devoted to the study of argumentation all over the world, from Santiago, Chile, to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, to our own neighborhood here, just across the border at the University of Windsor in Canada.
Patterson found argumentation theory through working on a project involving religious participation in diverse democracies like that in the US. In societies like ours we have deep disagreements around religion, but laws still have to be made. Patterson is interested in studying what people can do when they cannot come to an agreement because of clashes between their deepest convictions. He presented a paper on this subject in 2008 at a conference in Denmark. In the paper he argued that, contrary to popular opinion in mainstream political philosophy, societies did not need (and probably could not realistically expect to find) a shared conception of reason for deciding political questions. Instead, he argued, they need moral “rules of engagement” for dialogue with one another. Basing political theory on predetermined ideas of public reason or on theories of discourse that come to the much the same thing, he argued, only results in the problematic exclusion of some legitimate points of view.
The conference was both enlightening and disappointing for Patterson. “When I went to the conference, I wasn’t aware how evolved argumentation theory had become,” he says. “I showed up and found out that my topic was, in essence ‘old news.’ In one sense, it was good, however, because I realized that my idea wasn’t crazy and that there was a like-minded scholarly community already working in the same direction. That was reassuring to me.” The Copenhagen conference was also where Patterson connected with Hans Hansen, a professor at the University of Windsor. Hansen invited Patterson to visit the University and attend some events with an argumentation theory working group there: The Center for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric (CRRAR). Based at the University of Windsor, CRRAR is one of the premier argumentation research groups in the world, and numbers among its members many of the founders of the discipline—those same instructors who took the first steps to answer their students’ questions about the real arguments of the Vietnam era. Patterson accepted the invitation, began attending CRRAR events, and within a year found himself invited to become a visiting research fellow with the group. His work with CRRAR so far has produced a publication, two presentations and two articles currently under review with major journals in the field. Patterson recently accepted an invitation to extend his relationship as a visiting research fellow with CRRAR for another year. He is hard at work making sure this year is as fruitful as the last. Already there are indications that it will be. His calendar extends to 2012 with argumentation-theory-related events and projects.
In addition to his scholarly work on argumentation theory, Patterson hopes to develop aggressively the newly redesigned philosophy major at Marygrove College to include coursework around this area of study. If he succeeds, Marygrove would be one of only a few philosophy departments in the entire U.S. offering the study of argumentation as a programmatic focus.
But it’s not all academic for Patterson. When asked how argumentation theory applies in “real life,” Patterson responded by saying: “As researchers and teachers of this approach we don’t look at forming rules, so much. We’re more interested in trying to develop best practices for real people in real situations. Think about a group that has to make decisions—a neighborhood association, for example. Let’s say the neighborhood is diverse—anytime we try to do something together, we have disagreements because we have different points of view or prejudices. If we know this it’s easy to get cynical and check out of the dialogue, assuming it will fail. Argumentation theory pushes us in the opposite direction. Once we understand how biases creep into discussions and know the pitfalls, we can try to avoid them. We can also avoid the pitfalls of the old ways of thinking about reasoning—that all appeals to emotions are fallacious, for example. The fact of the matter is that sometimes emotions are relevant. They have to be dealt with if dialogue is even going to be possible. The other side of the coin, of course, is that sometimes they aren’t relevant. We have to know the difference in those kinds of cases, and right now only argumentation theorists are doing the sort of work that helps us make that kind of judgment. If we do our jobs then I think the payoff is potentially huge—it offers a powerful therapeutic for communication. We need that at this point in time, I think. This is what motivates many of us who study argumentation and who teach students about it,” continues Patterson. “The discipline was born out of a felt need for better social discourse. We’ve never really lost that spirit.”