Perelmans Argumentation Theory And International Relations Philosophy Essay

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5/12/16 Philosophy Reference this

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The purpose of this essay is to outline the main notions of Chaim Perelman’s philosophy as presented in The Realm of Rhetoric. Let it be mentioned here that Perelman never intended his book to be a methodological study book, but a concise work on what justification of values looks like in practical discourse. Still, his works have been widely applied as a methodological tool in the field of international relations. From outlining Perelman’s philosophy I will proceed onto how it has been applied in international relations research. In the last part of my essay, I will study how to use Perelman’s work in my own research.


Initially, the Polish-born philosopher Chaim Perelman carried his research in law and philosophy along the lines of logical positivism. In 1944, Perelman completed an empiricist study on justice, “De La Justice” [1] . In his research he concluded that the applications of the law always involve value judgments, and as values cannot be subjected to the rules of logic, the foundations of justice must be arbitrary. Perelman found his own conclusions untenable since value judgments are an integral part of all practical reasoning and decision-making. To deny the value judgments would mean denying the rational foundations of philosophy, politics, law and ethics. As a result of his own empiricist study, Perelman rejected his positivism, absorbing influences from the philosophies that provided a rationale for value judgments [2] . According to him, the usefulness of logical positivism was limited to the applications of “pure science” [3] . Regressive philosophies that provide a rationale for value judgments were just as untenable for him because metaphysics’ self-evident axioms – only one perceived error would cause the metaphysical construction and its claims for universal truths to collapse [4] . Prevalent alternatives, especially the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, do not elicit any sympathy from Perelman either: Perelman says that Sartre merely replaces absolutes of metaphysicism with absolute skepticism [5] .

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In 1948 Perelman met with Madame Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, with whom he set on a collaboration project, the purpose of which was to develop a philosophy that avoided the absolutes of both positivism and radical relativism. Their basic question can be expressed as: “What does justification of values “look like” in actual, verbal discourse? [6] In other words, they set on to research non-formal arguments.

Together with Olbrechts-Tytega, Perelman created a theory of rhetoric and argumentation, based upon Greco-Latin rhetoric, as the foundation for a logic of value judgments. Their multidisciplinary study, Traitè de l’argumentation la nouvelle rhétorique was published in French in 1958 [7] . This work, where Perelman and Olbrechts-Tytega create their theory of rhetoric and argumentation, is the basis of Perelman’s The Realm of Rhetoric, where he broadens the original work further. Relying heavily on the works of Aristotle, Perelman concludes that instead of aspiring to universal truths, philosophy in reality is more concerned with persuading specific audiences to accept its claims. For Perelman, a functioning philosophy (which would induce action and essential aspects of being) should be constructed on probabilities, not “universal truths”, and it should also be able to carry propositions of values stemming from its reception by particular audiences. [8] 


Rhetoric and theory of argumentation form the central core of Perelman’s thought. Perelman’s study of argumentation is the study of discursive techniques that induce or increase the mind’s adherence to the theses presented for its assent [9] . As Arnold [10] proposes, Perelman’s “realm of rhetoric” is the entire universe of argumentative discourse. Perelman’s rhetoric is based on the idea that since argumentation aims at securing the adherence of those to whom it is addressed, argumentation is relative to the audience to be influenced [11] . Thus, rhetoric is an art of persuasion.

3.1. Audience and the premises of argumentation

Argumentation is a person-centered activity – it is personal because it starts with the premises that the audience accepts [12] . As for the audience, Perelman sticks to the twin concepts of a particular audience and a universal audience; while every argument is directed to a specific individual or a group, it is up to the speaker to decide what information and data will win the greatest adherence according to an ideal audience [13] . The aim of all argumentation is to move an audience from an agreement on the premises to an agreement about some conclusion, to modify an audience’s convictions through discourse, gain a meeting of minds instead of imposing its will through constraint or conditioning [14] . Thus, all argumentation must begin from bases of agreement adequately accepted by the audience prior to the argument. Perelman differentiates between two categories of bases of agreement: the first category consist of facts and truths, the second of the values and hierarchies [15] . Facts and truths here can be understood as supposedly having been accepted by the universal audience, whereas the second category, the values, which can be concrete and abstract, are not universal [16] . Establishing values as a starting point of argumentation is important as they may influence action and define good behavior. Values are usually arranged in hierarchies, for instance the superiority of the “just” over the “useful”; as a starting point for argumentation – an audience may value both but in argument set a preference between the two [17] .

The last argument starting point, to draw the attention of the audience, is creating a presence. Perelman refers to creating and evoking presence as a technique belonging uniquely in the realm of rhetoric, reaching beyond space and time; convincing an audience through their imagination. [18] 

3.2. Techniques of argumentation

As the non-formal argument depends on the adherence of an audience, the orator must see to it that his successive elements of an argument will be accepted or adhered to by the audience. Perelman offers two basic techniques to achieve this: firstly, the association through quasi-logical arguments, and appeals to reality; secondly – responding to incompatible opinions through dissociation of concepts. [19] 

Quasi-logical arguments resemble logical, mathematical thinking. However, a quasi-logical argument always presupposes adherence to non-formal theses which alone allow the application of the argument [20] . An example of this would be a parlamentarian presenting budget figures in the Parliament, with the aim of initiating an additional rescue package for banks. He/she presents actual figures but purports them in a certain way in his argumentation, in order to convince his/her audience.

Association through appealing to reality, on the other hand, refers to affirming of a causal tie between phenomena. From this vantage point argumentation can be directed toward the search for causes, the determination of effects, and the evaluation of a fact by its consequences, which in some cases leads to further inquiries [21] . A simple example of this could be a discovery of a corpse and the consequences that follow this particular action. Other ways of argumentation by appealing to reality include examples, illustrations, models and analogy [22] .

The second technique – dissociation of concepts – the orator uses when the tenets of an argument are incompatible with accepted opinion. Perelman’s view is that when faced with the incompatibilities that ordinary thought encounters, a person tries to resolve it in a theoretically satisfying manner by reestablishing a coherent vision of reality by dissociating the ideas accepted in the start. An example of this dissociation to an appearance vs. reality, a practice found directly or indirectly in all dissociations, could be an oar plunged into the water – it appears broken but when we touch it, it is straight. Accordingly, appearances have an equivocal status – some of them correspond to reality but sometimes they are only a source of an illusion. [23] 


First and foremost, Perelman was a philosopher, not a theoretician in the field of international relations. Secondly, as far as I have understood it, he never aimed his project on rhetoric and argumentation theory, neither his book The Realm of Rhetoric, to be used as a book of methodology in any academic discipline per se.

Anyway, during the past two decades there has been a lot of research in the field of international relations that focus on the impact of the politics of talk, or linguistic practices on world politics. Rhetoric and argumentation theory have been used extensively as a method. However, in my opinion, different scholarly communities seem to be pursuing different agendas on different forums, and despite the overlaps, complementarities and possible unification of how language matters in politics, seems to be beyond reach.

The different forms of “talk” – bargaining, rhetoric, commonplaces, legal argument, verbal fighting – take place in different forums in the sectarian field of international relations. The different forums vary in the degree to which they are public, or rule-governed/institutionalized. The talk of politics also exerts its effects through different mechanisms – legitimization, representational force, grafting, framing, persuasion, coercion. The political effects of talk are manifold: the resolution or the escalation of the conflict, the acceptance of or resistance to authority and domination, the construction and transformation of identities and narratives, etc. [24] 

What I would conclude about Perelman’s rhetoric and theory of argumentation in the realm of international relations, is that as a method it is extremely adaptable and flexible, and it has thus been used extensively. An itemized listing of using Perlman’s philosophy as a method in the different studies in international relations, apart from on the general level, as in the previous chapter, would run tens of pages.

When trying to find examples of studies in the field of international relations, where Perelman’s philosophy had been applied as a method, the most interesting one I stumbled upon was a study by the Viennese researcher Markus Kornprobst, called International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline. Kornprobst proposes that the “irreconcilable” differences and debates inside the fragmented discipline of international relations are not that irreconcilable and immeasurable at all – if we understand the discipline in Perelmanian terms. He proposes, borrowing from Bakhtin and Gadamer that we should understand international relations as a field of overlapping paradigms, which are not hermetically sealed and sectarian. Speechlessness, non-communication inside the discipline can be overcome by uncovering overlaps. Secondly, he argues that this can be applied even to the most “irreconcilable” epistemological differences (positivism/postpositivism) inside the discipline. His heuristic vehicle for uncovering overlaps is a classification of epistemological stances in Ancient Greece, which in Kornprobst’s study starts from the thesis that international relations is a rhetorical discipline; based on its Aristotelian truth claims, the modes of reasoning and its manner of disseminating what is taken to be knowledge. Thus, the epistemological differences inside the discipline are actually not irreconcilable at all. Dialogue can develop out of the overlap of the horizons and (re)produce the shared language across horizons on which a scholarly community depends. [25] 


I have planned to write my Master’s thesis on Thailand’s democratization process and the national identity of Thainess. I am still at the early stages in my thesis. However, I am planning to use an interdisciplinary theoretical framework in my thesis, along the lines of the political thought of Robert J.Cox, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Polanyi and Gianbattista Vico. Let it be mentioned here that I am only beginning to outline the theoretical framework of my thesis, so the method I am going to use is still open.

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However, my intention is to study how the Western concept of democracy has been implemented in the local Thai context so that the concept of democracy has been assimilated to the strong nation state by the local competing elites. In this process, the local elites have used the concept of democracy as an instrument of order and discipline. This elite liberal democracy has been used to create Western-style projects, of which creating a national identity of Thai-ness -project is a prime example to suppress diverse segments of population. Thus, the liberal democracy is a kind of ideological tool to secure hegemony to control and discipline the population. An important part of the hegemonic process is immersing for instance the civil society, various people’s movements and democracy it into creating obedient citizens, who will act as guardians to the elite and their interest. In the centre of the national identity project in Thailand’s particular “case” is the monarchy.

My emphasis would be on the socio-cultural interplay between rulers and ruled within state struggles over hegemony leading to different ways along which domination and resistance can be studied. Initially, I thought my emphasis would not be on economics and on the economical analysis, however during the research process my research is directing me more and more towards the international political economy and critical geography. [26] 

When it comes to the applicability of Perelman’s rhetoric and argumentation theory to my thesis as a method, the argumentative approach would be easily applicable. As footnote here: Gramsci offers a very elastic frame of thinking, which calls for interdisciplinarity and open-mindedness – just like Perelman’s philosophy does [27] .

A good starting point to use Perelman in my own research would be the central notion in Gramsci’s thinking, namely hegemony. Hegemony is a multilayered concept; it operates within the duality force/consent and violence/persuasion that to Gramsci characterizes the nature of power. It acquires concrete structure and specific content particularly during those periods in history in which the people or the masses either form the ground for political action or become a force in politics [28] . According to Gramsci, capitalism maintains control not only through political and economic coercion and force but also ideologically, through a hegemonic culture [29] . Any class that wishes to dominate in a society, has to move beyond economic-corporate interests, to exert moral and intellectual influence and to make alliances and compromises with different social forces to create a counter-hegemonic historic bloc [30] .

Applying Perelman’s rhetoric and theory of argumentation in analyzing Gramsci’s notion of hegemony would mean analyzing everyday argumentative discourse in public policy, in my thesis it would involve the dichotomy between the struggle of the subaltern classes versus the dominant elites. What is the dominant discourse in holding onto power of the different elites and how is it used to solidify the sovereignty of the authoritarian state over different segments of society struggling for power? What are the aspects of the dominant discourse, political, economical – and cultural?

As Gramsci sees the society as an organic process, much like the modern physics, he also sees the prevailing hegemony as a process on many levels, including the struggle between the authoritarian state and subaltern classes. Thus, the history of the subaltern classes and counterhegemonical forces is bound to be sporadic, depending on the political space that the subaltern classes manage to create for themselves at certain periods of history. What is the public discourse and the argumentative discourse of the subaltern classes like, and what are its implications when the space the subaltern forces create for themselves at these historical periods? How to interpret the talk of politics in my own research?

In many respects, Perelman’s rhetoric and theory of argumentation offers an extremely interesting and fruitful tool for my own research. However, as I am still writing my own research plan and doing the background research, I will leave the option of which method to use, open.


In this essay, I have tried to outline Chaim Perelman’s sometimes obscure philosophy on rhetoric and theory of argumentation. Perelman’s theory has been widely applied as a methodological tool in the overlapping fields of research in the academic discipline of international relations. When it comes down to my own research, I find that Perelman’s rhetoric and theory of argumentation is definitely one possible option I can as a methodological tool.


Agnew, J. (2001): “The New Global Economy. Time-Space Compression, Geopolitics and Uneven Development”. Journal of World Systems Research VII, 2, Fall 2001, 133- 154. . Accessed 15/12/2010.

Arnold, C.C. (2008): Introduction. In Perelman, Ch. : The Realm of Rhetoric. Notre Dame, IN: UND Press, vii-xx.

Cox, R. (1987): Production, Power and World Order: Social Forces In Making the World History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Fontana, B. (2005): “The Democratic Philosopher. Rhetoric as Hegemony in Gramsci”. Italian Culture 23 (2005), 97-123. <> Accessed 15/12/2010.

Gramsci, A. (2007): Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Q. Hoare and G.N. Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Gross, A.J. – R.D. Dearin (2003): Chaim Perelman. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press.

Kornprobst, M. (2009): International Relations as Rhetorical Discipline. International Studies Review 11(1), 1-22. . Accessed 14/12/2010.

Perelman, Ch. (2008): The Realm of Rhetoric. Notre Dame, IN: UND Press.

Perelman, Ch. – L. Olbrechts-Tytega (1969): The Treatise on New Rhetoric and Argumentation. Notre Dame, IN: UND Press.

The Politics of Talk in International Relations. A Workshop at the Research Centre “Transformations of the State”.University of Bremen 27-28 July 2010. < >. Accessed 14.12.2010.

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