Perelman, Chaim

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by Luc J. Wintgens

The philosophical work of Perelman (1912-1984) can be divided into two main periods: the “positivistic” period, between 1931 and 1945, and the “argumentative” period from 1945 on. This is a rough characterization that calls for some qualifications.

Positivistic period

In the positivistic period, the object of philosophy is determined as the analysis of prestigious or vague concepts. Such concepts, like “freedom” or “justice” are characterized by the affective colouring their apparently neutral definition carries with it. Every definition of this type of concepts includes a value judgement. Because everyone beliefs his definition, hence the implicit value judgement, is the only correct one, there can be no consensus as to the true meaning of these concepts.

The method Perelman proposes to allow for a scientifically justified discourse about these concepts contains, from the very beginning, some aspects of his later philosophical work, that is, the search for consensus. This method is applied on the concept of justice in one of his first important texts De la Justice (1945). The method consists of three distinct steps, as it appears from De la justice, and is described in a more general way in De la méthode analytique en philosophie (1947).

The concept of justice is defined in several contradictory or incompatible ways. It can be defined as “to give to each one the same”, “to give to each one according to his desert or merit”, “work”, “need” or “according to what the law determines”. Each definition reflects a view of society, and these views contradict each other; they are not compatible.

Despite their incompatibility, each of the definitions shows two formal similarities. The first is that they contain the idea of some similarity; the second is that they all contain the same quantifier “each one”. From these two similarities it can be concluded that any definition of justice involves a common measure that enables the grouping of individuals according to the criterion that is held essential. These groups are essential categories the extension of which are equal, or at least similar, persons from the perspective of the essential criterion.

Although there may be a lack of agreement as to the criterion that is essential in the distribution, there will be consensus though on the following: whatever the criterion of distribution, just action means treating equal cases equally. This is the formula of formal justice that runs through the whole of his philosophical oeuvre like a thread.

Justice however is only rarely considered to depend on one criterion. Most of the time, its definition involves a combination of several essential categories. This combination calls for a treatment in terms of equity. Equity is a trend not to treat too unequally cases that belong to the same essential category. Equity is a complex concept. It refers to an equilibrated synthesis of several essential categories, and so it is not to be determined in a purely formal or analytical way. At the same time, equity as an equilibrium is influenced by public opinion, social relevance, etc. This announces an important aspect of Perelman’s later work, in that it pre-echoes the argumentative approach developed from 1945 on.

The above analysis concerns the reflection on the moral concept of justice in the positivistic period. According to the moral concept of justice, the choice of the conception in the definition of justice is free. Things are different with the legal concept of justice. Upon this concept, the only possible conception is “to give to each one according to the law”. To act justly according to the legal concept of justice means that the law has to be applied equally to equal cases. This approach coincides with the liberal idea of equality or “justice according to the law”.

Consequential upon to the foregoing practical reasoning (like in law and in morals) is most similar if not identical to theoretical reasoning. Both forms of reasoning are a matter of correct rule application.

A second difference between the moral and the legal concept of justice comes to the requirement of justification. Although the choice of the conception of justice in the definition of the moral concept is free, it cannot be arbitrary. Arbitrariness can be avoided with the help of justification. A rule is justified in as far as it is argued that it can be deduced from a more general rule. Upon the similarity, if not identity of theoretical and practical reasoning, no distinction is made between theoretical explanation and practical justification.

A theoretical explanation comes to a reversed subsumption of a concrete rule under a more general principle. The ultimate principle in explanation cannot itself be explained any more in the actual state of affairs of theoretical knowledge. The same holds for practical justification. Any justification comes to a reversed subsumption a concrete rule or principle under a more general rule or principle. It will reach an ultimate principle that cannot be justified any more. Both theoretical explanation and practical justification have to stop once the ultimate axiom is reached. The ultimate axioms in both theoretical and practical reasoning are held to be self-evident.

As far as concrete conceptions of justice are concerned, their justification runs up to a general principle that cannot be justified further. It reflects an irreducible value judgment that cannot be proved in a logical or an experimental mode.

Perelman’s philosophy of law of the first period is premised by the idea that law cannot be criticized from a moral point of view. Laws that is are uncriticizably just, because their just or unjust character cannot be proved from a logical or experimental position. Any proposition that cannot be traced back to a self-evident axiom is not fit for the qualification “rational”.

Argumentative period

The concept of rationality from the first period is criticized and re-assessed from 1945 on. On the positivistic concept of rationality it impossible to transcend the distinction between value judgement and experimental viz. logical propositions. Only the latter deserve to be qualified as rational. The underlying idea that characterises the philosophical work in the second period is the complementarity of the two poles of reason: the rational or constraining pole and the reasonable or argumentative pole.

The originality of this underlying idea consists of distinguishing these two poles without separating them, as occurred in the positivistic period. The distinction between what is rational on the one hand and what is reasonable on the other is articulated as a matter of degree of adherence to a proposition. One has to adhere to logical propositions like p? p. It is a logical or analytical truth.

Most persons aware of the basic laws of physics believe the experimental proposition “metals extend upon heating” is true. It is a true empirical statement that could in principle be defeated by another experiment since the number of experiments on which it is based is not unlimited. Through then the proposition is held true. Without such a defeating experiment, it would not be rational to claim it is false.

The proposition “justice means to give to each one the same” is not a logical or analytical truth. It does not call for necessary adherence like “p? p” does. Nor is it an experimental truth. It is not though completely irrational to hold this definition of justice. Some or even many may agree on it, while others don’t.

Yet, the proposition “justice means to give each one the same” is a value judgement. This means that it is neither true nor false. Since no logical or empirical method is available to prove its truth the proposition does not qualify as rational. It is, though, not necessarily irrational to hold this value judgment.

The latter reveals the basic insight of the argumentative period. While it is not irrational to adhere to value judgments like “justice means to give each one the same” it would be irrational not to adhere to propositions like “p? p” or “metals extend upon heating”.

Apart from the differences between value judgements on the one hand and empirical and logical propositions on the other, the common platform is a (degree of) adherence. From this perspective, the dichotomy between “rational/not rational” is bypassed by the idea of adherence. The gradually qualified adherence to different propositions or judgments is substituted for a binary definition of rationality. The latter is replaced by a bipolar continuum, with rationality in the strict sense as the extreme pole, and reasonableness at the other. Adherence to a proposition or judgement figures as a shifting pointer between these two poles. With “adherence” as a variable mark of rationality, the separation of analytical and dialectical propositions is overcome, and so is the separation between theoretical and practical reason. Both empirical or logical rationality and reasonableness are conceptions of the concept of reason.

This new idea calls for a new method. This method is found in Aristotle’s rhetoric. The dialectical method of Aristotle rhetoric is qualified in a twofold way. First, in whipping of its pejorative stench, rhetoric is held able to fill the gap of a logic of value judgments lacking through the midst of last century; rhetoric is positively evaluated by Perelman.. Secondly, Aristotelian rhetoric is supplemented with the concept of “audience”. On this twofold qualification the method is labelled “new rhetoric”.

Basic concepts

The audience consists of the persons the speaker addresses. The audience can be actual or only virtual. An actual audience is faced directly. Physical presence of the audience is not necessary. A physically absent audience is a virtual one in that it is addressed only indirectly (e.g., by writing, radio or TV).

The new rhetoric distinguishes between two types of audience, i.e., the particular and the universal, depending on the type of the speaker’s discourse. Any discourse aims at creating or increasing the audience’s adherence to one or more propositions. The audience is particular when the speaker aims at persuading its members. An advertising message e.g. is addressed to a particular audience. The audience is universal when the speaker aims at convincing its members. A philosophical discourse e.g. addresses the universal audience consisting of the whole of humanity the speaker wants to convince. It must be noted that Perelman’s theory involves only linguistic interaction. The maximum of rationality is reached when the universal audience accepts it. There may appear a petitio principii here. The universal audience is not an elite audience. It is composed of all reasonable persons while at the same time reasonableness is articulated as what members of the universal audience qualify as such. Reasonableness, that is, is rationality in context which comes to saying that the audience is an idea of speaker. Both audience and speaker are engaged in a context of participation, and share at least the premises of the argumentation. From there follows the basic principle of the new rhetoric that the speaker has to adapt to the audience.

Any argumentation is based on premises. These premises are based on facts, presumptions, truths, or refer to what is preferable. Facts are shared by a number of reasonable beings and could be shared by many.Presumptions are what is considered normal. Truths are sets of facts connected within a more complex relation (like a scientific theory). These factual premises can rely on broad adhesion of the audience.

Premises based on what is preferable for their part refer to a value, a hierarchy of values, or a locus of preference (topos), such as the topos of quantity (“what is bigger has higher value”) or the tops of order (“what comes first has higher value than what comes later”).

Because the main purpose of argumentation is adherence to premises and conclusions that can be of a factual and of preferable nature is, Perelman’s theory involves an interesting attempt to overcome the famous separation between facts and values. Because value judgments can obtain the adherence of all reasonable beings, just like judgments of fact, the theory does not make a qualitative distinction between both.


The main part of the new rhetoric consists of the techniques of argumentation. They are divided into three categories, quasi-logical techniques, techniques based on the structure of reality, techniques structuring reality, and techniques of dissociation.

Quasi-logical techniques are analogue to logical techniques, though they are not compelling because of their ambiguity. The argument of division is an example. If a murderer could have had three possible motives for killing a person with premeditation, the disqualification of each of them leads to the quasi-logical conclusion that he had no motive for the killing, and so he is not guilty of murder.

Techniques based on the structure of reality presume that there is a sufficient agreement as to the way reality is perceived in order to use it as a basis for further persuasion or conviction. Connections of succession and of coexistence serve to found a pragmatic argument or an argument from authority respectively.

Techniques structuring reality try to enforce the audience’s adherence to the speaker’s argumentation by using arguments of analogy or arguments based on examples. Techniques of dissociation typically aim at keeping a coherent view of reality, and so the speaker uses a dissociating technique by qualifying something as “apparent” as opposed to “real”.


Perelman’s rhetorical theory has been criticized from several perspectives. Summarizing, it is objected that his theory is mainly a catalogue of argumentative techniques and that it does not contain normative criteria for evaluating the soundness of an argument. A second critique points to the vagueness of the concept of  “universal audience”, so that it is hard to determine what “reasonableness” comes to. It is suggested that reasonableness coincides with “opportunity” and even with “sympathy”. Thirdly, it is objected that the rhetorical theory of argumentation is of a sociologistic brand because it too strongly relies on current opinion in normative matters. This comes close to a fourth critique holding that the theory is of a psychologistic and even of an emotivistic nature.



Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 1979, vol. 33/127-128 (La nouvelle rhétorique – The new rhetoric. Essais en homage de Chaïm Perelman) contains a complete bibliography including translations of his works published between 1933 and 1979, pp. 325-342.

Secondary (selection)

La théorie de l’argumentation. Perspectives et applications, Louvain/Paris, Nauwelaerts, 1963.

J L Golden and J J Pilota (eds.), Practical Reason in Human Affairs. Studies in Honour of Chaïm Perelman, Dordrecht, Reidel, 1986.

G Haarscher and L Ingber (eds.), Justice et argumentation. Essais dédiés à la mémoire de Chaïm Perelman, Brussels, Ed. U.L.B., 1986.

G Haarscher (ed.), Chaïm Perelman et la pensée contemporaine, Brussels, Bruylant, 1993.

H Johnstone (ed.), Perelman’s Theory of Argumentation: The Next Generation Reflects, Argumentation, vol. 7/4, 1993.

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