Monash Association of Debaters

Daniel Schut

Judging Debates: A Pragam-Dialectical Perspective

About the author:

Daniel Schut has a master's degree in political science and
currently works as a map maker for the Argumentation Factory. In 2006 he
reached the Worlds and Euros ESL finals, and won the Oxford IV ESL final in

Judging debates is a lot harder than debating. As a debater, you can often rely
on your common sense to determine whether your opponent’s argument is
flawed: you know it’s wrong or not. You can decide how to attack it, based on
experience and strategic insight. But how do you weigh up arguments as an
adjudicator? What if the opposition didn’t attack an argument that you thought
was flawed? How do you weigh the relative persuasiveness of two equally good
opposing arguments, when both sides haven’t made these arguments clash?

There are a few general guidelines for judges. One is that a judge shouldn’t
factor in her own opinion of arguments. If a team by virtue of the draw has to
argue that the invasion of Iraq was a success, and you think categorically that it
wasn’t, you can’t blame them for arguing what you don’t agree on.

On the other hand, you can’t discount everything you know: when a
proposition argues reams of utter nonsense, you can’t fault the opposing side
for not disputing every single claim they make. The general rule given to
inexperienced judges in cases like this is that you should weigh arguments based
on what an ‘unbiased, intelligent observer’ would think of an argument.

But how do we know what this hypothetical unbiased observer would think of
an argument? More specifically, what would an unbiased intelligent observer
think when two sides didn’t make arguments clash or when one side didn’t
point out a potential flaw in an opposing argument? The ‘unbiased, intelligent
observer’-method doesn’t provide much help here. Where else can the
beginning adjudicator turn for guidance?

One approach to judging debates can be found in pragma-dialectics. In this
essay I will first introduce pragma-dialectics, then discuss debating through the
lens of pragma-dialectics. Finally, I will show how pragma-dialectics can be used
to judge a debate. Contrary to the ‘unbiased observer’-method, pragma-dialetics
gives some very concrete pointers to judges.

What is pragma-dialectics?

Pragma-dialectics is a theoretical approach to analyzing argumentation,
originally developed by two scholars from Amsterdam: Rob Grootendorst and
Frans van Eemeren. It combines two schools of thought: one from philosophy,
the other from linguistics. The philosophical school is that of formal dialectics,
developed by Hamblin, Bart and Krabbe and critical rationalism, as developed
by Popper, Albert and Naess. The linguistic school is the pragmatic philosophy
of language, including speech act theory as developed by Austin, Searle and

Combining these two schools of thought allowed them to look at
argumentation as both a philosophical practice of intellectual rigor, and as a
sociolinguistic phenomenon, as two or more people performing speech acts
with a specific goal in mind2. That in turn allowed them to build a model of
what they call ‘critical discussion’ that is both descriptive and normative.

For debaters, there are three elements of this ‘critical discussion’ that can be
helpful. The first is the pragma-dialectical concept of ‘reasonableness’, the
second is the four-stage ideal model of a critical discussion. A third element is
related to pragma-dialectical analysis - analyzing the argumentative process.

The pragma-dialectical concept of reasonableness stems from Stephen
Toulmin3. Toulmin introduced three perspectives of reasonableness: a
geometrical perspective, an anthropological perspective, and a critical

The geometrical perspective is the logician’s perspective: it starts from
indisputably certain premises, through logically valid patterns, and arrives at
necessarily certain conclusions. The anthropological perspective is the opposite
end. They say that arguments are persuasive if the audience judging the
arguments finds them to be persuasive. That is to say, if the argument ‘rings
true’ with the ‘epistemic background’, that is, the knowledge, certainties,
uncertainties, norms, values and beliefs of the audience.

The third, critical perspective is that of Van Eemeren and Grootendorst4. It
stems from the intention which discussants have to resolve their difference of
opinion according to procedural rules that they together hold to be
universalisable. They adopt a working form of reasonableness which is
procedural, normatively formalized and relative. Procedural, in the sense of
critical rationalism, in that the truth value of claims is always tentative, and are
and should be subject to procedures to critically evaluate them. Normatively
formalized, in the sense that the participants in a critical discussion – implicitly
or explicitly - agree to be held to normative standards, and try to adhere to rules
of engagement (both behavioral and analytical) which can help them to resolve
their difference of opinion. Relative, in the sense that the rules are
intersubjectively valid: they need not be universal, but are at least

The ideal model of a critical discussion is the process through which
discussants, using the above-described concept of reasonableness, would
resolve their difference of opinion. It goes through four stages: the
confrontation stage, the opening stage, the argumentation stage and the
concluding stage5.

In the confrontation stage, the discussants first notice their difference of
opinion. In the opening stage, the discussants (implicitly or explicitly) establish
the material and procedural starting points for discussion. In the argumentation
phase, the discussants actually argue. In the concluding stage, the discussants
decide the result of their discussion. Importantly, this model can be used both
descriptively and prescriptively.

There’s a lot more to pragma-dialectics than these two elements. A third helpful
element doesn’t relate to the analysis of argumentation, but rather to Van
Eemeren and Grootendorst’s description of what researchers who want to
analyze any argumentative process, are doing. According to them, a researcher
performs certain transformations in reconstructing argumentative language-use.
These are: deletion, addition, permutation and substitution6.

Deletion entails deleting all utterances that are irrelevant to the performance of
the critical discussion itself. Addition is adding assumptions which have
remained implicit, but are clearly held by one of the discussants. Permutation is
re-ordering the utterances in such a way that they can be analyzed clearly. The
substitution transformation is substituting vague and similar utterances by more
precise and meaningful sentences, at the same time trying to keep the meaning

The guiding principle for all these transformations is that the utterances can be
transformed in accordance with how they help or hinder the resolution-process.
This means that the researcher can transform utterances, for as long as she can
reasonably justify that in the eyes of the discussants these transformed
utterances do not lose their function in regards to the communicative and
deliberative goal the discussants had in mind.

Debating and pragma-dialectics

Viewing a debate through the lens of pragma-dialectics delivers interesting
insights. A debate is a highly formalized critical discussion. The critical
perspective of reasonableness seems tailor-made for debating: debaters are
masters of challenging and critically examining truth claims made in a debate.
It’s what the game of debating is designed for. There is even a specific debate
format dedicated to the originator of critical rationalism: the Karl Popperdebate

The four-stage ideal model of a critical discussion is also remarkably applicable
to debating. The confrontation stage is the draw: that’s where debaters get to
know who is for and against a motion, and what they will be debating about.
The opening stage takes place at several moments. The first moment takes place
even before the tournament begins. The CA-team and OrgComm decide to
hold a tournament, and they decide on the specific format they want to use.
Most organizations don’t really ‘choose’ the format, but use the style which is
traditional for their region. But even then, there are choices for OrgCom and
the CA-team, like how long should speeches last, and what’s the policy in
regards to speaking longer then the allotted time? All these procedural decisions
for the opening stage are made by OrgComm and the CA-team. Moreover, the
CA-team sets part of the material side of the opening stage by setting the

The third stage is the argumentation stage, and that’s the stage during which the
debate takes place. But the first speech of the debate isn’t just argumentation: it
should also contain definitions of the motion and other ‘speech acts’ which set
up the material side of the debate. Pragma-dialectics shows us exactly why and
how being Opening Government can be such a difficult role: you’re not just
arguing, but you also have the task to enable others to argue, because you’re
partly responsible for the opening stage of the debate.

The concluding stage commences when the debate is finished: the adjudicators
will analyze the debate and decide who won. An interesting shift takes place
here: the concluding stage is performed by different people than the people
performing the argumentation stage. This is not uncommon: there are many
pragma-dialectical analyses of the courtroom-situation, which has a similar setup.
But it does create specific problems: the adjudicators are in one sense part
of the debate, because they are tasked with performing the final stage of the
ideal model, but on the other hand, they are not part of the debate because they
try to be ‘objective’ analysts of the debate, who use deletions, additions,
permutations and substitutions to arrive at a conclusion of the debate.

And this double role of adjudicators is exactly what makes judging debates so
hard: adjudicators both are and are not part of the debate they just watched.

How pragma-dialectics can help adjudicators

So, how can pragma-dialectics help adjudicators in reaching a decision? I’ll start
with the use of transformations first, turn to the four-stage ideal model
afterwards and end with the concept of critical reasonableness.

Obviously, there is a lot of deletion going on. Seven minute speeches are often
reduced to a few notes scribbled on a piece of paper the size of an A5-paper,
with entire debates captured on both sides of two A4’s. While I’m not doubting
the incredibly efficiency in note taking and recollection of some judges, the first
pointer for any adjudicator would be to be conscious of what you delete (that is:
be conscious of what you don’t write down) and why. This is especially
important at the beginning of the debate: during the first speeches, a judge can’t
be sure of which arguments and strands of thought will be picked up later in
the debate, so she has to make sure she gets the gist of everything which might
be relevant later on.

During the summary speakers, adjudicators can be expected to write less
substantive material down. Since the summary speakers are acting as very
partisan adjudicators, one would expect the adjudicators to add ‘meta’-notes to
the notes they took during the previous speeches, based on where the summary
speaker ‘tells’ them where to put these notes.

Addition and substitution are both dangerous transformations to perform as
adjudicators, especially when judges have deleted much of the debate by not
taking enough notes. They are dangerous because they require ‘mind-reading’
by the adjudicators, which often leads to projection of ‘what they actually meant
to say’. If, as a judge, you feel inclined to do just that, do a reality check, in one
of the following two ways. The first is to check if your fellow adjudicators have
the same interpretation of what you thought you heard. The second check is
going back to (your notes or recollection of) the debate, and ask yourself if you
can reasonably believe that all debaters from the other teams had the same
interpretation of the argument as you did. If they did, you’re probably right. If
they didn’t, you could well be wrong. If you feel you’re right nonetheless, and
the other teams didn’t understand the argument, you can still ask yourself if a
debater’s job isn’t to state an argument so clearly that everyone gets it –
meaning you’re right in your interpretation of the argument, but still have a
reason to not count it as much as you wanted to.

That being said, substitution is crucial for listening to debates at international
tournaments. When listening to ESL-teams, or even English-as-a-First-
Language-teams from very different debate communities, you can be reasonably
sure they each have a different linguistic register for debating. Unfortunately,
pragma-dialectics doesn’t offer much help here, other than point you to the
need to be conscious of the different registers that debaters can use

Permutation is the final transformation a researcher/adjudicator can perform.
The reshuffling of arguments generally can be very helpful indeed, but judges
need to mindful of ‘even if…’-constructions. If the debaters themselves haven’t
clearly stated that they are only conceding an argument for the sake of an ‘even
if’-scenario, the adjudicators should wonder whether they actually meant to
state that, or whether they have just unwittingly pulled a knife.

Turning to the four stages of the ideal model, we find more helpful hints for
the beginning adjudicator. As said above, the debaters are mostly performing
the third argumentation stage, except for the opening speaker, who also
performs part of the second opening stage. As we all know from experience,
this brings with it several difficulties for debates as a whole: whereas later
speakers can screw up their speech and their team’s chances of winning, the
opening speaker actually has the power to screw up the entire debate for
everyone by providing incoherent, inconsistent or incomplete definitions of the
motion. Adjudicators should take this into account.

This is especially important when the debate runs smoothly with no definitional
issues. A judge might then be inclined to judge an Opening Government team
solely on the basis of their arguments, find them lacking in those arguments and
thus give them a fourth. But in doing so, he actually discounts half of the job
that Opening Government is supposed to do. If Opening Government
succeeded in setting up the debate properly so that everyone can provide good,
well-developed arguments against the Opening Government case along the
lines of the debate one would ideally expect (that is, if Opening Government
managed the transition from the opening stage to the argumentation stage
successfully), then actually, Opening Government has done reasonably well,
even though their case might have been argued effectively against.

The summary speakers have in similar ‘double role’. They should ease the
judges from the argumentation stage into the concluding stage. They can and
should help the adjudicators in reaching their conclusion by tying all the
relevant arguments together and pointing them this way or that way. In the
pragma-dialectical sense, the summary speaker can thus be seen as a very
partisan adjudicator, closing the argumentation stage and gearing up for the
concluding stage, which is exactly why there shouldn’t be any new substantive
matter in the summary speeches. The more an adjudicator is guided through his
notes or recollection of the debate, and the more the summary speakers delete,
add, substitute and permute the arguments for the adjudicators so as to make
their task easier, the better they are.

The performance of the other debaters should be decided on how well they
perform as actors in the argumentation stage. Importantly, in this stage, it is
their role to be decisive, that is, to put forward arguments, attack other’s
arguments and defend their own arguments to maximally enable the judges to
decide that their team won the debate. Of course, every pure argumentationstage-
debater will necessarily always intend to be as decisive as possible, since
that is the only way they can make their contribution to the debate relevant to
the communicative exchange. But in how far they succeed in realizing this
intention is exactly what constitutes the heart of debating. What constitutes
decisiveness is in large part determined by the concept of critical

The most interesting contribution that pragma-dialectics has to make is at the
same time the most abstract and controversial. It stems from the concept of
critical reasonableness. Remember that critical reasonableness in a critical
discussion stems from the intention which discussants have to resolve their
difference of opinion according to procedural rules that they together hold to
be universalisable. For a debate, as a formalized critical discussion, this means
first and foremost that an adjudicator should judge a debate on the
(intersubjectively agreed upon) procedural criteria. This has many implications
for how to judge a debate.

One implication of this is that if Opening Government gives an argument,
which subsequently all four opposing speakers take turns to tear apart, then at
least that argument has succeeded in being tested the most during the debate,
and is therefore good reason to value Opening Government, even though
substantively speaking, the argument’s standing might be in doubt by the time it
arrived in the hands of the last summary speaker.

If the first and second opposing speakers didn’t successfully deal with the
argument, and it only got killed by the third opposing speaker, then Opening
Government stands a good chance of deserving to be first in the debate, even if
the third opposing speaker totally demolishes the argument. The reason for this
is procedural: it’s Closing Opposition’s procedural role to kill arguments, but
Opening Government’s procedural role to both set up the debate and deliver
arguments, and if the argument makes it that far, then clearly they have
succeeded very well in taking up their role so far.

A second implication of this is that you need to look for the criteria that the
speakers themselves put forth to judge the discussion by. These criteria can be
explicitly verbalized, but need not be. They are explicitly verbalized in phrases
like ‘the clash of this debate will be…’, or ‘we are going to run this case on the
principle that…’. But you can also infer them from the behavior of the
debaters: if all debaters decide to spend most of their time on an argument
which you think is silly and irrelevant to your perception of the case, you will
have to ditch your perception and run along with the debaters, since they
apparently all agree that this specific argument is the most important.

A third, and final implication is that you are free to judge a debate on formal,
procedural criteria for argumentation, like ‘how well developed’ an argument
was, in the sense that every relevant truth claim was argued to be true, was
argued to be relevant and has been supported with ample illustrations, or how
‘internally consistent’ an argument was, but that you should be careful in
judging the substantive value of any argument. Since, pragma-dialectically
speaking, you are part of the debate, you are allowed to bring in some
substantive ‘common knowledge’, but you can only bring in specifically that
substantive common knowledge which you can justifiably expect to be shared
by the debaters you’re judging – which, given the fact that most judges have
debated for longer than the people they’re judging, is probably less than you


We’ve looked at debating through the lens of pragma-dialectics, and found that
both the game of debating and adjudication are a whole lot more complicated.
Pragma-dialectics has pointed us to unforeseen depths and complications in
what we do for fun. But these complications are exactly what we like so much
about this game: the challenge of trying to establish intersubjectively shared,
universalisable criteria and procedures for saying something true and relevant is
exactly what drives us towards this game. Debating helps us in becoming more
true and more relevant with every speech, and every tournament, and pragmadialectics
helps us in discovering the road to get there.


1 Frans H. van Eemeren, “Advances in Pragma-Dialetics” in Frans H. van Eemeren, ed., Advances in
Pragma-Dialactics, Amsterdam, Sic Sat, 2002, p. 3

2 Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst & Fransisca Snoeck-Henkemans, Handboek
Argumentatietheorie. Groningen, The Netherlands, Martinus Nijhoff Uitgevers, 1997, p. 351.

3 J.H.M. Wagemans, Redelijkheid en overredingskracht van argumentatie : een historisch-filosofische studie over de
combinatie van het dialectische en het retorische perspectief op argumentatie in de pragma-dialectische argumentatietheorie.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam University, Dissertation for the Faculty of Humanities, 2009, p. 20 – 21. Can be
downloaded here:

4 ibid., p. 22

5 Handboek Argumentatietheorie, p. 313 - 314

6 Ibid. p 375 - 376