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Panel "Rationality in Discourse. Universalist and Contextualized Views" (Second International Conference on Discourse Pragmatics, Online)

Fri, 10/20/2023 - Sun, 10/22/2023
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Since decades, rationality has been viewed as a cornerstone of linguistic-pragmatic theories of communicative action. Both in Habermas’s theory of communicative action (derived, among others things, from speech act theory) and in Grice’s intentionalist theory of meaning, the presupposition of rationality of conversationalists plays a central role. For Habermas (1981), rationality is “built in” into human language, as communicative action can always enter the realm of rational argumentative discourse as soon as one interlocutor questions a validity claim of a speech act another interlocutor has uttered. Conversationalists then put forward rational arguments until they reach a consensus which is based on the “unforced force” of the better argument. For Grice (1975) rationality is at the core of cooperation (and thus a foundation for his famous cooperation principle) and a pre-requisite for calculating implicatures. As both theories claim universal applicability as theories of human linguistic action, they view rationality as a universal characteristic of the human mind.

On the other hand, rationality has also been critically challenged in philosophy, anthropology, and sociolinguistics. In this context, it is construed as a “post-Enlightenment” or “Western” construct which is at best to be culturally contextualized, if not taken as an ideology that misguides how people ground their actions (for the debate, cf. Hollis & Lukes 1982; Tambiah 1990) and which bespeaks a problematic “denotationalist” approach to language (Silverstein 2014). From this perspective, rationality is not to be taken as a universal, but as a contextualized dimension, as a product rather than as a prerequisite of discourse. The pragma-dialectical theory of argumentation also takes a contextualist viewpoint on issues of rationality when it assumes that any consensus that may be reached in an argumentative exchange of opinions remains context-bound and cannot be regarded as a universal agreement (e.g. Van Eemeren, Grootendorst, Snoeck Henkemans 1996: 94-97). Feminist and gender theoretical perspectives also question universalistic concepts of rationality and revise them at least to the point that – according to them – a strict and binary opposition of rationality and emotionality is not tenable.

As a sort of synthesis of these opposing positions, some researchers have pointed out that rationality is also, or even primarily, a communicative resource upon which conversationalists can draw during concrete communicative events. Specific contributions (or contributors) to a conversation can be claimed to be “rational” or “irrational” at a certain point of an interaction, specific actions can be said to occur for “rational” reasons within specific contexts only. Under this participants’ perspective, the question arises whether conversationalists communicate “rationally” in all situations. These first order (participants’) orientations towards what counts as rational in a certain context of situation might not necessarily and always coincide with conceptions of the above mentioned second order (theorists’) conceptions of universal rationality.

Such “struggles over rationality” do not only occur in local interactions. Often, they are also at the core of larger-scale discourse (or Discourse). Recent debates about “scientific arguments” (in the context of the pandemics or climate change), “alternative facts” or “counter-theories” are cases in point. Here, “rationality” transforms into a social value or commodity, a fact that is of major interest to (meta-)pragmatic inquiry (who claims to be “rational” and how?).

Our panel aims at bringing together research and researchers whose work deals with one or several of these and additional perspectives on rationality and who are interested in bringing various perspectives together in order to exchange results and identify congruities and incongruities which might stimulate mutual intellectual fertilization and further research.


Grice, Paul. 1975. Logic and Conversation. In Peter Cole, Jerry L. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 3: Speech Acts, 41–58. New York, San Francisco, London: Academic Press.

Habermas, Jürgen 1981. Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Band 1: Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung. Band 2: Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Hollis, Martin & Steven Lukes, eds. 1982. Rationality and Relativism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Silverstein, Michael. 2014. Denotation and the Pragmatics of Language. In Paul Kockelman, Nicholas J.Enfield & Jack Sidnell (eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 128–157.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. 1990. Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Van Eemeren, Frans H., Rob Grootendorst & Francisca Snoeck Henkemans (1996):Fundamentals of Argumentation Theory. A Handbook of Historical Backgrounds and Contemporary Delevelopments. Mahwah / New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.


Abstracts (max. 300 words including references) should be sent per e-mail to all three organizers not later than July, 15 2023. Notification of acceptance: July, 30 2023.

Helmut Gruber (University of Vienna)
Martin Reisigl (University of Vienna)
Jürgen Spitzmüller (University of Vienna)
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Jürgen Spitzmüller
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