Rationality of public political argument: the case of European parliamentary debates

Dima Mohammed



The project investigates the rationality of public political argument. This has been a major
concern in political philosophy (Habermas, Rawls, Cohen), yet the precise methods to study
the quality of public reason come from argumentation theory (van Eemeren & Grootendorst,
Walton). My theoretical goal is to merge political concepts with updated argumentative
methods to obtain a novel, comprehensive view of political rationality.

In public political discourse, participants typically pursue simultaneously multiple legitimate
goals (criticise government, advocate alternative programmes, represent political interests).
Yet, the rationality of discourse is usually assessed relative to one single goal that is either
furthered or hindered by the discourse. Therefore, such assessments remain partial and
fragmented. By analysing debates in the European Parliament on crucial public issues such as
personal data protection or immigration, I shall investigate the possibility of a comprehensive
assessment of rationality in which various legitimate goals of political discourse are included.


The project has two closely inter-related objectives:

Objective 1:
To develop a method for assessing the rationality of public political argument. The method
will cross-pollinate the philosophically disparate, yet clearly reconcilable, conceptions of
argumentative rationality proposed in political philosophy and argumentation theory. From a
point of view of political philosophy that will heed the call to .add different accounts of the
competence of reason to a conception of the politically reasonable. (Cohen, 2009: 360-61).
From the perspective of argumentation theory, the method will contribute to the recent efforts
of broadening the norms of argumentative reasonableness with contextual, institutional
considerations (van Eemeren, 2010). The projected effect will not be a simple juxtaposition
of complementary accounts, but rather a novel proposal that will enrich both of the fields and
lead to a fuller account of public political argument is its multiple goals.

Objective 2: 
To provide an empirically adequate and critically insightful account of debates in the
European Parliament. These debates are exemplary empirical practices for developing and
testing the method of assessing rationality described in Objective 1. That is mainly because
they are public political practices that are typically argumentative and in which the
participants pursue multiple legitimate goals, such as scrutinising the performance of the
Council and the European Commission, promoting the interests of their countries,
representing the political agendas of the parliamentary political groups to which they belong,
etc. The account pursued will comprise both an analytic and an evaluative component.
Analytically, the different inter-related goals that Members of European Parliament pursue
will be identified and the argumentative discursive patterns that can be associated with each
of these goals characterised. Evaluatively, the reasonableness of the practices will be assessed
by means of the method developed under Objective 1, leading to a judgement that is
argumentatively sound and politically meaningful.

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Faculdade de Direito Universidade Nova de Lisboa