ArgLab is a research unit within the larger research-oriented Institute for the Philosophy of Language (IFL) at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities (Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas) of the New University of Lisbon (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), Portugal. In the research unit, international doctoral and postdoctoral researchers are led by senior researchers from the Institute for the Philosophy of Language.

In our research, we systematically analyse and evaluate various forms of public argument in order to shed light on the rational and strategic aspects of public argumentative practices and their products. In our analysis and evaluation, we examine public argumentative practices from the perspective of their internal and conversational structure, namely their linguistic, logical, dialogical and rhetorical dimensions. Furthermore, we employ a contextualised perspective to the study of argumentation, in which argumentation is viewed as a communicative activity that always takes place in a certain more or less clearly delineated context – be it a small talk over coffee, an online discussion, a parliamentary debate or a legal trial. Consequently, alongside studying arguments as constellations of premises supporting a conclusion, we methodically examine the conditions and procedures under which real-life argumentation is characteristically performed.

In our research, we pursue three basic goals. First, we aim at acquiring better empirical insight into the shape and quality of arguments in different spheres and fields of life, while paying special attention to the public and legal sphere in which a great many fundamental societal and political decisions are made. Second, by undertaking contextual analyses we provide continuous feedback to the theory of argumentation. Ordinary contextual complications of public argumentation, such as the phenomenon of many-to-many deliberation, of pursuing many (often conflicting) goals by arguers, are still not properly theorised. To increase the empirical adequacy and applicability of argumentation theory we thus attempt to give such phenomena a consistent theoretical shape. Finally, and most crucially, all of our tasks converge on the goal of improving public debate, in Portugal and elsewhere. With a strong theoretical background, well-developed empirical tools and a clearly defined object of study, we aim to narrow the gap between ideal models and actual practices of argumentation.  

Three issues in argumentation theory are central to our own studies: interpretation of argumentative discourse, evaluation of reasons offered in justification of positions, and the analysis of the strategic part of argumentation. Interpretation, crucial for all studies of language, is even more important for argumentation, as it guides not only our proper understanding of arguments, but also paves the way for their precise evaluation. In our work, we therefore pay particular attention to the processes of interpretation methodically described in linguistic pragmatics, discourse analysis, as well as theories of legal hermeneutics. In regards to argument evaluation, conditions of correctness of acts of argumentation can be defined in various theoretical terms: as formal rules of logical validity, informal rules of argument schemes, pragmatic rules of speech act performance, or norms of discourse ethics. We aim at embracing a comprehensive view in which each of these concepts has its well-defined role. Our work thus combines the study of formal errors of reasoning (logical fallacies) with mistakes in the application of argument schemes, violations of the rules of critical dialectical procedures, and other infelicities of argumentation that are typically called informal fallacies. Finally, by looking closely into various argumentative strategies we intend to enrich our analysis of argumentation with rhetorical insights.

Our research is governed by some basic theoretical commitments. We view argumentation as a communicative process in which various positions are discussed in interactive exchanges of arguments and objections. Therefore, while internal reasoning and monological chains of inferences (as studied by classical logic) are a necessary element of argumentation studies, they are not all that is relevant to appraising argumentation. Approached from the perspective of the pragmatics of ordinary language, argumentation arises only in the situation of (possible) disagreement and thus can be defined as a communicative act. Moreover, such acts are characteristically strategic in that they are aimed at convincing others that the position advocated by the speaker is better justified than other contradictory or competing positions. On such a view, argumentation is part of a complex fabric of communication where multiple, intricately related goals that speakers pursue are all achieved by means of arguing, that is, presenting reasons that are meant to support their position and objecting to reasons presented by others. This strategic process of arguing and counter-arguing takes place in various contexts of daily life – from largely informal (a family discussion regarding where to have dinner tonight) to highly formalised (a decision of the Supreme Court to abandon a given law as unconstitutional). We find such pragmatic and strategic concerns not only relevant, but necessary in a practically meaningful and theoretically comprehensive approach to argumentation. Such theoretical commitments first emerged in the long tradition of argumentation studies delineated by the logical, dialectical and rhetorical investigations. Today, they are broadly shared in the major contributions to argumentation theory.

Our investigation of the various forms of public argument is conducted at four main levels, bringing to light four distinct structures: the linguistic (pragmatic), the reasoning (or quasi-logical), the dialogical and the rhetorical structure. The pragmatic level of analysis consists in examining the type of implicit and explicit speech acts in a text, in order to show the structure of commitments that the speaker wants to frame. Why is the speaker taking for granted some concepts or propositions? Why and how is he or she suggesting a certain conclusion, without expressing it? For what purpose is he or she making a certain promise or claim? At a reasoning level the structure of what lies beneath the discourse acts is shown. By applying the tools of logic to natural language and combining these two dimensions in a dialectical instrument, the argumentation scheme and the force of implicit and explicit arguments can be brought to surface. The arguments are then reconstructed and their strength evaluated, retrieving the premises that the speaker decided not to express. At a dialogical level, the speech acts and the arguments will be regarded as moves in a dialogue where the participants take turns to prove or refute their implicit or explicit point. The structure of commitments and the rules of reasoning become the instruments of a game where the interlocutors shift the burden of proof and exploit the implicit rules of different institutional dialogues to lead the hearer to a specific move. The rhetorical level can be described as the use of moves to influence the interlocutors’ emotions and ethos and to affect their appraisal of the communicative situation and the argument itself.

One of our crucial theoretical, indeed meta-theoretical, goals is to creatively combine insights from well-articulated theories of argumentation such as the pragma-dialectical theory and Walton’s dialectical logical theory in search for what may be seen as the common agenda underlying much of the theorising within argumentation studies. We do so by critically investigating both theories with a view to exposing their productive commonalities rather than intractable differences. Moreover, rather than simply comparing the two in abstractum we put their theoretical and methodological apparatus to work in the analysis and evaluation of concrete instances of argumentation. Such work is conducive to articulating the common core of the two theories and thus, in a broader sense, to bridging the tradition of the European pragma-dialectical approach and the North-American informal logic approach.