Navigating the visual turn in argument.

Author:Groarke, Leo

This is the third special issue of Argumentation and Advocacy devoted to visual arguing. In it, we and other authors discuss visual arguing broadly conceived-as disagreement, debate, and explanation that employ non-verbal visuals of some sort (pictures, maps, drawings, video, imaging, bodies, etc.). The first special issue on visual argument, published in 1996, was the first scholarly work to have a range of authors theorize and analyze the use of pictures, photographs, videos, art, and other visual media in arguing and reasoning. The second special issue, published in 2007, expanded the study of visual argument to include the body as a medium (as in the case of tattoos) and brought into the discussion texts that originated outside the United States.

Since the 1990s, the study of visual arguing has become a mainstay in argumentation theory, which has itself emerged as an interdisciplinary amalgam of rhetoric; philosophy, especially (informal) logic and epistemology; communication theory, including pragma-dialectics; and other subdisciplines (e.g., critical theory, cognitive and social psychology, and artificial intelligence) that study arguing. In the last quarter century, argumentation theory has reinvigorated the study of argumentation and advocacy in verbal, visual, embodied, and multimodal forms.

This introduction to the current special issue comments on some of the key developments that have fostered (and, in some cases, possibly hindered) the ways in which argumentation theory has engaged questions about visual arguing. Our aim is not to provide a comprehensive account of these developments (for that, we recommend the recent review and bibliography by Kjeldsen, 2015), but to offer commentary on questions about visual argument that have been settled and to frame discussion about those that require more research as the field continues to evolve.


Like many new ideas, the idea that arguments can be visual began its life in controversy. In an attempt to ensure a balanced discussion, David Birdsell and Leo Groarke began the 1996 special issue with a skeptical essay by David Fleming. In answer to the question "Can pictures be arguments?" Fleming (1996) responded with an emphatic "No." In the present discussion, we begin by revisiting his response, asking whether his fundamental challenges have been answered. Is it now clear that visual arguments exist, that pictures and other images can be arguments? We respond with an emphatic "Yes."

An answer to such a question must be founded on an account of visual arguments and, more fundamentally, the notion of argument it assumes. Let us begin with the notion of argument that Fleming (1996) invoked in his discussion:

Let's try out a fairly conventional definition and see how pictures stack up. An argument is an intentional human act in which support is offered on behalf of a debatable belief... An argument, in other words, involves a two-part relation, one part (evidence, data, proof, support, reason, etc.) supporting the other (position, claim, assertion, conclusion, thesis, point, argument, proposition, etc.), (p. 12)

In considering whether pictures and other images can be arguments in this sense, it is important to note a key difference between our conception of visual argument and the notion of pictures-as-arguments Fleming rejected (his paper never used the term visual argument). He assumed that the question of whether pictures can be arguments is the question of whether an argument can be conveyed in non-verbal ways that are exclusively visual. This is an odd restriction given that pictures, especially those that function argumentatively, rarely occur in isolation given that arguers combine verbal and visual (and many other kinds of elements) in whatever ways they think most effectively establish their conclusions in particular situations.

In part, the literature on visual argument has answered Fleming's claim that pictures cannot be arguments by embracing a broader notion of visual argument than the one he proposed. This is not a move in a new direction so much as a reclaiming of the original suggestion (in Groarke, 1996) that visual arguments are arguments containing key visual elements. These elements may include, but are not limited to, illustrations, diagrams, maps, photographs, moving images, virtual realities, monuments, and bodies. Unlike Fleming's, this account makes room for visual arguments that are multimodal, having visual and non-visual elements. Fleming's narrower focus was problematic and deflected the debate over visual arguments away from the most important contexts in which arguments are attached to images--contexts that are, as Georges Roque (2012) pointed out, usually a mix of visual and non-visual cues. An emphasis on what is exclusively visual is especially problematic given that the distinction between the verbal and the visual is, as Catherine H. Palczewski (2001) has demonstrated, not a rigid one that allows an easy separation of the two. The papers in this issue (and especially the examples in Brunner & DeLuca) demonstrate the extent to which real life arguers continually mix and integrate different modes of expression. (1)

A broad, multimodal notion of visual argument is one way in which the literature on visual argument has responded to Fleming's critique of pictures as arguments. Considered from this point of view, Fleming (1996) himself maintained that there are visual arguments when he conceded that "the visual can serve as support for a linguistic claim," and that this is not "a minor role" (p. 19). This implies that there are visual arguments in the broader sense in which we understand them and it raises the question of why other kinds of visual arguments are not possible. If the visual can support a linguistic claim, why can't the linguistic provide support for a visual assertion? An artist's sketch of a criminal, used to support the claim that this individual (who uniquely resembles the sketched depiction) is the guilty party seems an example of the first kind of argument. The use of witness testimony to initially compose the sketch as a reason for thinking that this (the sketch) is what the guilty party looks like, seems an example of the second.

Fleming's criticisms of visual arguments are founded on two central arguments. One of them emphasized a distinction between two parts of an argument.

[T]he belief that an argument has two parts--"claim" and "support"-is a cornerstone of Western thought. The practice of bringing forth statements that explain, support, question, and comment on other statements was perhaps the most important contribution of Greek efforts of the 5th and 4th Centuries, BCE, to systematize knowledge and edify public life. The centrality of this practice can be seen in Aristode's Rhetoric, with its logical notion that a statement is persuasive because proved from other statements, either inductively or syllogistically (trans. 1991, 1.2 1356b), and its rhetorical notion that a speech has two parts: statement and proof (trans. 1991, 3.13 1414a). The two-part structure is a pervasive constituent of modern definitions of argument as well. (Fleming, 1996, p. 13)

According to Fleming (1996), this distinction between evidence/data/proof/support/reason/etc. and position/claim/assertion/conclusion/thesis/point/argument/proposition/etc. makes it impossible for pictures to be arguments because a picture lacks the requisite internal differentiation; it is impossible to reliably distinguish in a picture what is position, and what is evidence for that position. The distinction at the heart of argument, the difference between that which asserts and that which supports, is thus collapsed, (p. 14)

One might criticize this critique of the idea that pictures can be arguments by identifying visual indicators that distinguish between evidence and a conclusion (e.g., the arrows in the Michael Ramirez cartoon reproduced below), (2) but there are more fundamental problems with Fleming's argument. He assumed that the distinction between claim and support in an argument must be made linguistically. This is not true even in the case of verbal arguments, which often do not have explicit internal differentiators that distinguish between a conclusion and its support. In real life arguing, arguments frequently-perhaps usually-do not include indicators of this sort. Enthymemes abound.

When someone in an advertisement for a Chevy proclaims that it is made out of high strength steel rather than aluminum, viewers know this is being offered as a reason for buying the truck even though it is rare for this to be announced with an explicit indicator word like therefore. When a doctor lists a series of problems with a patient's knee and says "You need a new knee," the patient knows that the doctor is outlining an argument for a knee replacement even if they do not use a premise or conclusion indicator. When a politician in an election gives a speech about how they would manage the economy, voters know that they are offering reasons to vote for them, though this is not explicitly said. In the world of real arguing, arguments without internal differentiators that distinguish claim and support are commonplace.

In these and many other situations, it is not internal verbal markers, but context that tells an audience that something is an act of arguing. As Ludwig Wittgenstein emphasized in his later work, the meaning of words depends on the use to which they are put. This makes meaning a function of the activities--the "language games"--in which words are embedded, where "the term 'language-game' is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity" (Wittgenstein, 1953, [section] 23). The exact words that function in one context as a description of a house ("It is on a street beside the river, has a large backyard, and features windows that look...

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