How Postmodern is Perelman? informal look at where to situate Chaim Perelman's theories


       At first glance, one might place Chaim Perelman firmly with Richard Weaver as a conservative philosopher/rhetorician, with all the postmodernity of a George Will. Perelman’s major work was born, by his own admission, in a ten-year search for a “logic of values,” a way of debating values from firm premises and in such a way that the conclusions would be reachable by reasoned argument. The concern for values underlies most of Perelman’s work, in fact - he constantly returns to the theme, talking about ranking values according to quality, setting up “hierarchies” of values, and so forth. The concern for hierarchies crops up repeatedly - “The worth of an argumentation is not measured solely by its efficacy but also by the quality of the audience at which it is aimed,” says Perelman. None of this appears to be very postmodern in outlook.
       Such a reading of Perelman is very quickly problematized as one reads further. For Perelman, the audience was of the utmost importance - not in a simple Aristotelian sense, but as an active participant in the rhetorical process. “Argumentation, unlike demonstration, presupposes a meeting of minds,” he writes. Like Kenneth Burke, Perelman feels that audience identification and cooperation are key parts of any rhetorical act.
      Further, Perelman expressly rejects the idea of a single, objective Truth to which the rhetor can resort in convincing an audience. If there would be such a Truth, he states, then all argument becomes simple, formal demonstration, provable by logic. Instead, “we must recognize that the appeal to reason must be identified not as an appeal to a single truth but instead as an appeal for the adherence of an audience.” This begins to open up issues that later writers such as Pat Bizzell addressed in working on theories of discourse communities. Perelman early on recognized that what any group of people accepts as true will vary from community to community, and that those accepted truths are to some extent created by the community - a very postmodern notion.
      Subjectivity is another fixture in postmodern theory; a common idea is that every act of speech is “political” and subjective, whether consciously or unconsciously so. Here as well Perelman seems more postmodern than traditional. “Although his judgment may appear more balanced, it cannot achieve perfect objectivity - which can only be an ideal.” Perelman goes on to say that even science, frequently viewed as the most objective form of discourse, can never be free of subjective viewpoint.
      So what then are we to make of Perelman’s position? Accepting of hierarchies on the one hand, but claiming a social constructivist view on the other, he certainly defies easy categorization - not a bad thing. I would like to suggest that, though Perelman in many ways preceded current postmodern thought, in many ways he transcends it. Like Toulmin, Perelman was looking for a middle road, a balance of firm standards and the flexibility of relativism. The problem with extreme relativism is that it can quickly lead to a sort of “critical paralysis,” in which one can critique other positions with great conviction, but is barred by one’s own theory from offering any sort of firm plan or solution. I feel Perelman would have little patience with a theory of argument that did not lead to eventual action; his primary study, after all, was legal argument, which must in the end provide a decision or resolution. Toulmin’s solution was a sort of informed casuistry, in which one can have ideals and values, but through study of individual cases apply those values flexibly. Perelman’s solution seems to lie in a melding of audience consideration with another kind of casuistry. He took a “bottom-up” approach, like Toulmin, in studying judicial discourse on a case by case basis to find out what underlied their decisions. He also believes in studying the beliefs and values of a given discourse group, including the importance they assign to their various values, in order to fully appreciate how to write to those groups. In other words, he recognizes that hierarchies can and will exist, but that those value-hierarchies are socially constructed and will vary from group to group. A debate over values might, in Perelman’s system, be a debate on the reordering of those values, or whether to admit a new value into the system, or possibly toss out an existing one. This approach, I think, helps find a way past the swamp of complete relativism while still taking into account the variations between discourse communities and their standards.

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