Motivated Doubts: A Comment on Walton’S Theory of Criticism

Jan Albert van Laar 1
  • 1 University of Groningen


In his theory of criticism, D. N. Walton presupposes that an opponent either critically questions an argument, without supplementing this questioning with any reasoning of her own, or that she puts forward a critical question and supplements it with a counterargument, that is, with reasoning in defense of an opposite position of her own. In this paper, I show that there is a kind of in-between critical option for the opponent that needs to be taken into account in any classification of types of criticism, and that should not be overlooked in a system of dialogue norms, nor in a procedure for developing a strategically expedient critique. In this third option, an opponent questions and overtly doubts a statement of the proponent and supplements her doubts with a counterconsideration that explains and motivates her position of critical doubt, yet without supporting any opposite thesis, thereby assisting, as it were, the proponent in his attempt to develop a responsive argumentation, tailor-made to convince this particular opponent. First, I elaborate on the notion of an explanatory counterconsideration. Second, I discuss Walton’s distinction between premises that can be challenged by mere questioning (“ordinary premises” and “assumptions”) and premises that must be challenged by incurring the obligation to offer counter-argumentation (somewhat confusingly labeled “exceptions”). I contend that the latter type of premises, that I would label “normality premises,” can be attacked without incurring a genuine burden of proof. Instead, it can be attacked by means of incurring a burden of criticism (Van Laar and Krabbe, 2013) that amounts to the obligation to offer an explanatory counterconsideration, rather than a convincing ex concessis argument. Of course, providing the opponent with the right to discharge her burden of criticism with explanatory counterconsiderations brings a clear strategic ad- vantage to her. It is much less demanding to motivate one’s doubts regarding proposition P, than to convince the proponent of not-P. If we want to encourage opponents to act critically, and proponents to develop responsive arguments, the importance of the notions of an explanatory counterconsideration and of a motivated doubt should be emphasized in the theory of criticism.

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