Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca on Data Selection

Purrrr, that's a sexy title, isn't it? ;) Seriously, I'm finally posting one of today's struggles--getting through a chunk of The New Rhetoric is somewhat akin to hazing for me. Here's the question I chose:

“Only the existence of an argumentation that is
neither compelling nor arbitrary can give meaning
to human freedom, a state in which reasonable
choice can be exercised” (NR, 514).

Apply this binary between a theory that is “neither
compelling nor arbitrary” to the first section
assigned for Wednesday (115-42). Do Perelman
and Olbrechts-Tyteca show how the selection of
data is neither compelling nor arbitrary?

I don't know if my post measures up to Amy's or not, but it's my humble attempt:

In The New Rhetoric, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca identify a dilemma in contemporary thought: On the one hand is Cartesian logic--certain premises are rational, and one cannot deny them; if you are rational, you must accept such premises as true, and the alternative premises are automatically false and irrational. Such a logic allows no space for agency, choice, or freedom; you would be compelled to think and do certain things and not others. On the other hand is total disorder; nothing is rational, and everything is arbitrary. This may allow for choice, but it drains all choices of any meaning or value. They seek another way to think about reason and truth and find it in their theory of argumentation, which can yield "the possibility of a human community in the sphere of action when this justification cannot be based on a reality of objective truth" (514). Theirs is a fluid system in which ambiguity is taken as a given, and meaning is not fixed or closed; instead, it is continually being negotiated and reinterpreted as new situations and contexts present themselves. In this brief essay, I will show that Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's thought on the selection of data, which emphasizes agreed-upon meaning, interpretation, and flexibility, is in keeping with their theory of argumentation, which allows for meaning and validity without a singular objective truth.

First, what is data, and why is its selection significant? Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca claim that "in the practice of argumentation, data constitute elements on which there seems to be an agreement that is, at least provisionally or conventionally, considered to be univocal and undisputed" (121). These "elements" can be, to use their terms, "signs" or "indices." With a sign comes the intention to communicate, and an index is an act that does not necessarily have an intention behind it. (I am reminded of Burke's distinction between action and motion here.) The basis on which one selects data is crucial because it has a direct bearing on what Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca call presence. The foregrounding of some data and elision of others greatly influence the audience; for example, when I bring a point of view to your attention, I am silencing other points of view, and, as Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca point out, "deliberate suppression of presence is an equally noteworthy phenomenon" (p 118). I am putting one point of view into your consciousness in order to get you to adhere to my argument. Giving a datum a presence in your audience's consciousness is a powerful act, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca claim. They add, "To these data we will consciously oppose their interpretation, when the latter appears as a choice between meanings which are not an integral part, so to speak, of that which they interpret" (121). Interpretation on the part of the rhetor, whose consciousness has been impressed with the arguments of others, comes to the fore as he or she selects data.

Before data can be selected, they must be interpreted by the rhetor, and Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca use interpretation to show that a compelling theory of argumentation is impossible: "The infinite complexity of interpretations, coupled with their mobility and interaction, sufficiently explain the impossibility of reducing all statements to propositions with a numerical probability that can be evaluated" (122). Interpretation entails qualifying data and classifying them into categories, a two-pronged act the authors call comprehension/extension (130). A striking example that they bring up is the epithet, which "results from the visible selection of a quality which is emphasized [given presence] and which is meant to complete our knowledge of the subject" (126). "Abortion is murder" could be considered an example of such an epithet, which, incidentally, is an easy target for the charge of tendentiousness and partiality from the universal audience (119). Indeed, for Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, no argument is ever resolved because of the multiplicity of possible interpretations; "because the notions used in argumentation are not univocal and have no fixed meaning" (132). It is apparent, then, that the authors show how the selection of data is not compelling, but what of arbitrariness? Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca use the law as an example of the selection of data's having, to use William Perry's term, committed relativism as a goal. Notions such as "justice, liberty, and wisdom" (134) do have some meaning in the mind of each individual. Agreement and dialogue are the terms the authors highlight here; for example, the law is a text that sets forth certain prescriptions, but as mitigating circumstances present themselves, the law is reinterpreted and precedents are established. If we live in a world of willy-nilly capriciousness, why take the trouble to argue and interpret at all? I would argue that Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's theory of argumentation is rooted in argumentative practices and that they observed and recognized the daily practices of negotiation, interpretation, and reinterpretation, all of which refute compulsion and arbitrariness, and I view their analysis of data selection as consistent with their theory.