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Detail of contribution

Auteur: Steve OSWALD

Cognitive pragmatic constraints on meaning in argumentative discourse

Abstract/Résumé: This paper defends a cognitive-pragmatic approach to the study of argumentative discourse, which has traditionally been the province of discourse analysis and rhetoric. The issue of rhetorical effectiveness will specifically be discussed by showing how pragmatic constraints bearing on utterance comprehension can positively affect an argument’s overall convincingness, i.e., by showing how understanding may affect believing. A number of examples will illustrate a cognitive pragmatic contribution to the investigation of communicative phenomena of this sort, located at the discourse/cognition interface. This paper will also attempt to delineate what a ‘cognitive rhetoric’ investigation could look like, building on the input of cognitive pragmatics and recent research on epistemic vigilance (Sperber et al. 2010, Mercier & Sperber 2009, 2011). An argument – be it fallacious or not – may be described as rhetorically effective when it has modified its addressee’s mental states, by convincing him to believe something or to act in a specific way. For this to happen, the premise/conclusion articulation must be treated not only as valid, but also, above all, as relevant and meaningful. In principle, thus, comprehension is a precondition for evaluation. One consequence of rhetorical importance emerges: if the speaker manages to constrain what the addressee understands so as to block the likelihood of the latter mobilising critical contextual information in the process (counterarguments, speculations about the speaker’s intention, etc.), chances are that her argument will be more convincing. It will be shown that some arguments – fallacious ones in particular, such as the ad hominem, ad verecundiam and ad populum fallacies – exploit constraints on information-processing such as those postulated by Relevance Theory, namely processing effort (i.e., ease of accessibility) and cognitive effect (i.e., epistemic strength and informational usefulness) (see Sperber & Wilson 1995). The proposed account will therefore characterise effective arguments as operating cognitive constraints on the accessibility and epistemic strength of information sets mobilised in the interpretative procedure, in an attempt to characterise rhetorical effectiveness in terms of constraints on meaning.