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The analysis of the selected political discourses has been informed by Isabela and Norman Fairclough’s study, Political Discourse Analysis (2012). The authors develop a new approach to the critical analysis of political discourse, working with a version of Critical Discourse Analysis. Starting from a definition of political discourse as essentially a form of practical argumentation, “argumentation for and against particular ways of acting, argumentation that can ground decision”, they develop a framework for the analysis and evaluation of political discourse as practical reasoning (or argumentation). This analysis incorporates elements of Critical Discourse Analysis such as discourse, representations, narratives, “imaginaries”, legitimation etc.
Since politics is “grounded in action”, it involves making choices and arriving at reasonable actions “in response to circumstances and events in light of certain goals and values”. As a response to challenging circumstances and events, policy makers engage in a form of “collective deliberation” in order to reach decisions for action in a climate of public disagreement and uncertainty. Practical reasoning lies at the basis of such choices. In liberal democracies, deliberation is of paramount importance because it guarantees that the decision arrived at is both legitimate and reasonable.
Political discourse is distinct from other types of discourse in that it is “primarily argumentative”. It consists mainly of practical argumentation (or reasoning) and involves the argumentative genre of deliberation. However, political discourse does not exclude the “non-argumentative genres” such as narration, description, and explanation, which are included in the premises of practical argumentation. Consequently, the approach put forth by the authors seeks to address what they view as distinctive in politics, practical argumentation and deliberation.
This type of analysis rests on a “critical conception of reasonableness”. Thus, a reasonable political decision is one which is arrived at from a reasonable (dialectical) procedure, from the process of deliberation i.e. from the systematic critical testing of reasons, claims and arguments for action.”
Deliberation is defined as a genre in which the main mode of argumentation is practical argumentation (reasoning). Argumentation is “the practice of giving and receiving reasons”. The main category of analysis employed by Political Discourse Analysis is the argument, a “premise-conclusion structure” which implies “an activity of giving and receiving reasons” for or against a certain claim. Practical reasoning “is the mental process that corresponds to the practical argument as linguistic object, as premise-conclusion set.”
Argumentation is a socio-cultural practice whose aim is that of rational persuasion- leading a person rationally to accept a claim by providing reasons. Hence, argumentation can be seen as an “exercise in manifest rationality”. The practice of argumentation involves: (a) participants and agents (the Arguer and the Other); (b) the process- arguing; and (c) the product- the argument. It is a dialogical process of speaking out and responding to criticism, revising or changing one’s views, dealing with alternative explanations.
Argument Analysis: Identifying the Argument’s Structure
Analyzing practical argumentation involves an assessment of the argument’s structure: its premises and conclusion. Practical argumentation is a type of argumentation that involves finding solutions to practical problems. It is a “problem-solution” type of argumentation. The solution is called a practical claim, a proposed course of action (what we should do) which is arrived at on the basis of four types of premises: the circumstantial premise, the goal premise, the value premise, the means-ends premise. Thus, an argument has five elements.
The circumstantial premise deals with the context of action, with the existing circumstances and the perceived problems. The goal premise involves “desired (or imagined) future states of affairs” that the action would bring about. The value premise represents the values that inform the agent’s goals and description of the context of action. The means-end premise links the circumstantial premise to the goal premise. It is the proposed course of action, the “(hypothetical) means that will presumably take agents from the current state of affairs to the future state of affairs that is their goal.” It involves the presupposition that if a certain course of action is taken, the goal is reached.
The circumstantial premise is closely linked to the value premise. It includes “empirical circumstances (facts of the world) but also social, institutional facts (duties, commitments, moral values that function in a society).” The circumstantial premise is informed by two types of reasons for action: internal and external. Internal reasons have to do with “real psychological motives” (the wish to fulfill one’s obligations). External reasons relate to “external constraints”- or what the agent “ought to want” (duties, obligations over-imposed on the agent that relates to different sources of normativity: moral, legal). The empirical facts that enter the circumstantial premise are selected according to certain values. The circumstantial premise is important because it identifies the problem to be solved, and the evaluation of the context of action restricts the possibility of choices.
The goal premise is understood as “a future, possible state of affairs” that matches the agent’s concerns, which figure in the value premise. This is why the goal premise is closely connected with the value premise. In other words, goals “are compatible with various sources of normativity” that are specified in the value premise. Goals of action can also be understood as intended consequences of action. Although there may be some possible negative effects on the goal, it still has to be achievable. This is different from consequences of actions which compromise the goal. As the authors put it, “agents operate with hierarchies of goals and hierarchies of values, and they are willing to accept some costs but not others, depending on how these affect highly ranked goals and values.” Strategies are “complex chains” of actions, where a hierarchy of goals is in place, and once the top goals of an action are achieved, they become the circumstances for future action.
The value premise supports the goal premise because arguments are formulated in relation to a set of values that are important to the agent and the audience. Consequently, values act as “restrictive sources of normativity” on the goals and actions towards them. The value premise is also closely connected with the circumstantial premise, because the context of action is described or perceived according to the values that are important to the agent.
If the circumstantial premise is understood as a present state of affairs and the goal premise is a future possible state of affairs, the means-ends premise advances a certain line of action that would hypothetically link these two instances.
There are two types of reasoning: practical and theoretical. Practical reasoning is defined as reasoning about the best course of action to be taken, in response to “practical problems” which are addressed by agents placed in particular circumstances and having certain goals to achieve, taking in consideration certain values. The question that lies at the basis of practical reasoning is “What should I do?”. Theoretical reasoning concerns reasoning in relation to epistemic claims, it aims at the truthfulness of the conclusion.
Practical reasoning can be divided into two types: (1) “arguments from circumstances and goals” and (2) “arguments from negative consequences” – also called counter-arguments which take the negative consequences of an action as premises and conclude that the action should not be performed because it would compromise the goal.
Practical reasoning, also called “multiple argumentations,” is a type of conductive argument. There are several premises, which bring about different considerations for or against the claim and they independently support the claim, but when considered together, the argument becomes stronger. The conclusion that arguers arrive at is one that weighs different considerations for and against the claim, considerations brought about by different arguments. The conclusion is “drawn on balance”.
When an argument is considered against a counter-argument, practical reasoning is called deliberation. In both single-agent and multi-agent contexts, deliberation is argumentation that involves balancing several practical arguments which favor different claims of action. This type of argumentation necessarily involves at least one counter-argument, “arguing from negative consequences”, finding reasons against the proposed action. Moreover, it may also consider reasons for and against alternative courses of action (weighing different arguments, with different goals and values). We can distinguish between deliberation over goals (taking into account not only the stated goals of the proposed action, but other agents’ goals) and deliberation over means (considering the best course of action that may lead to the achievement of the stated goals). Thus, agents argue either from goals and values or from goals and possible consequences (they either put forth an argument or a counterargument).
Argument Evaluation: The Dialectical Perspective
Political Discourse Analysis employs evaluation of arguments form a dialectical perspective. Because argumentation is dialectical, the nature of the practice requires not just the mere presence of the other, but “the real possibility that the logos of the Other will influence one’s logos”, that the arguer’s reasoning will take into account and build on the reasoning of the interlocutor. From this perspective, the critical question to be asked is not simply: “Does the evidence support the conclusion?” but also: “Does the argument deal with well-known objections, differentiate itself from other positions on the issue and respond to them?” Critical questions are used to test the reasonableness of the argument. A reasonable decision is one which has emerged from a “reasonable procedure”, “a dialectical procedure of systematic critical testing.”
The evaluation of a practical argument involves two main types of criticism: (1) challenging the argument (questions aimed at defeating the argument); and (2) challenging the conclusion (questions aimed at rebutting its conclusion).
One can defeat an argument in two ways: (1) by challenging either of the argument’s premises; (2) by questioning the inference between the argument’s premises and its claim. Premises can be questioned in terms of their “rational acceptability” of the stated goals, values or description of circumstances. The argument can prove to be unsound (untrue), but this does not deny its conclusion. The inference from the premises to the claim can be challenged by pointing to the existence of alternative means, but this cannot rebut the claim. The argument can be defeated by addressing critical questions, it can prove to be invalid (the action is not necessary because there are better alternatives, or is not sufficient, because it cannot lead to the stated goals) but the claim can still be reasonable. Whether an argument is valid or not is not important, because the claim still stands.
The second type of criticism is stronger because it aims at rebutting an argument’s conclusion by advancing a persuasive counter-argument. Starting from the negative consequences that the original claim would have on the agent’s or other people’s goals is the only way an argument can be rebutted (both its in terms of its claim, and its validity).
There are three types of important critical questions that can be asked in order to construct a counter-argument, all related to the issue of the negative consequences the original claim would bring. The first type, relates to the impact over goals. (1) Does the action undermine the stated goal?; (2) Does the action undermine other goals that are important for the agent and other agents, even if it is sufficient (it does lead to the stated goal)? The second set of questions relates to the circumstantial premise: Is the context of action reasonably described? It could be “described in a way that introduces a possible bias for which no burden of proof has been assumed.” Do the circumstances call for action? The third type of questions relate to the value premise and the goal premise (because they are interconnected): Does the agent pursue reasonable values? (“Acceptable Values Question”); Are there other values that might be considered? (“Other Values Question”); Do the stated values disregard the agent’s other values? (“Agent’s Multiple Values Question”). The value premise shapes both the circumstantial premise (the way the context is described) and the goals an agents seeks to pursue. It is also important to consider whether there are other reasonable goals and values.
To sum up, the method of analysis I have chosen to employ focuses on the analysis and evaluation of practical argumentation, which is the main mode of argumentation in politics. This approach is underlain by the notion of reasonableness: a reasonable decision can only be reached only if is the result of “a systematic dialectical procedure of critical testing or questioning.” Analysis of practical arguments involves identifying their structure, while evaluation supposes advancing a set of critical questions, the most important ones being those which relate to the negative consequences of the claim on other legitimate goals and values, but it is also important to test the validity of the proposed action by considering alternative means. Therefore, a rational practical argument can be defined as one that has emerged from a dialectical procedure of considering the possible negative consequences on goals, the context of action and values and can “ground or justify” action.
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