Chaim Perelman

From RhetorClick

Jump to: navigation, search

Chaïm Perelman (1912-1984) was a Polish Jewish philosopher best known for his 1958 book The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation (Traité de L'argumentation - La Nouvelle Rhétorique) with Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. Perelman was a professor of logic and metaphysics at Université Libre in Brussels in 1944 and spent most of his career there. His focus on mathematical logic would later shift to forms of discursive reasoning and notions of justice.



Early Life

Perelman's Jewish heritage had a profound impact on his outlook on life and strongly influenced his views on justice, a key to his concept of argumentation and The New Rhetoric. Perelman, experiencing post-World World I Europe, the rise of Hitler, and widespread antisemitism, created and lead the Jewish wing of the Belgium resistance movement. The horrors of the Holocaust lead him to publicly announce his devotion to the Jewish notion of justice and cultural Judaism.


Perelman attended Université Libre in Brussels where he earned doctorates in philosophy and law. "His interest in law and justice led to his studying the traditional distinction between philosophical or formal logic and everyday reasoning and finding them arbitrary and unproductive" (Enos, Brown 145). He would later become dean of the philosophy and letters department, as well as director of Educational Sciences. At the Hebrew University he was a member of the board of governors.

The New Rhetoric

Judaism, Justice, and The New Rhetoric

Perelman turned heavily to the Jewish notions of justice in order to make sense of the widespread destruction he witnessed in World War II. He realized "that apodictic logic could not lead to a workable concept of justice for use in life and argument led him to reconsider the question of justification" (Frank 313). Heavily influenced by the Jewish psychologist Henri Baruk, Perelman took in the "Jewish tradition... of justification that avoided dualism and worked to blend love and justice, truth and peace" (Frank 313). The Jewish tradition of justice requires a reason that includes emotion, empathy, and rationality and insists that those who judge should be compassionate.

Drawing inspiration from Talmudic texts, a collection of Jewish laws and traditions, Perelman contrasted Jewish pluralism with the Western notion of dualistic rationality. Perelman believed the Enlightenment rationalists, specifically Descartes, had a limited view of reason and argued against the notion that there must be one answer to a given question. Perelman embraced Talmudic reasoning, which states that "reason is plural, revealing many answers to the same question" (Frank 314). With pluralism, "opinions can conflict, coexist, and remain in the realm of the reasonable" (Frank 315).

Due to his acceptance of pluralism, Perelman recognized the limitations of syllogisms. This can be seen in his view of the audience as the focal point in argumentation, since the aim of argumentation is to persuade or convince an audience to adapt or adhere to a thesis.

The Universal Audience

Perelman uses the term universal audience in order to distinguish it from particular audiences, which applies to particular people, particular places, particular times, particular groups, etc. The universal audience is employed in argumentation in order to transcend particulars and make broad appeals: arguments aimed at particular audiences, Perelman argues, are meant to persuade, while arguments aimed at universal audiences are meant to convince. If the distinction of the universal audience was not made, "there would be no difference between an effective argument and a valid one, and rhetoric would be more vulnerable to the classical philosophical attacks," which is that rhetoric is merely flattery (Crosswhite 162).

The concept of the universal audience has roots in Jewish tradition as well. Like the Jewish thought, "the New Rhetoric prioritizes the community of minds, and it is the human audience rather than God, formal logic, or the individual that judges the merits of an argument" (Frank 320). When it comes to argumentation, it is more important to know what the audience regards as true rather than what the speaker thinks is true. With the focus on the community or audience's values, Perelman had a strong alliance with the epideictic. He believed "audiences are taught fundamental values used in making judgments" through epideictic discourse and that these values can be used to stand up against injustices (Frank 320).

The universal audience can be used in many different ways. Perelman used it to differentiate between persuading and convincing, effective argumentation from valid argumentation, fact and value. As Crosswhite points out, the universal audience "may [also] be used as a standard of relevance" (165). If an argument persuaded one particular audience, then it should also be convincing to another audience.

However, the universal audience is not literally "universal." As Crosswhite mentions, "the universal audience always has some degree of cultural specificity" (166). What one universal audience views as good or true will be different than anothers, due to history, tradition, and numerous other factors. As Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca note, "Everyone constitutes the universal audience from what he knows of his fellow men, in such a way as to transcend the few oppositions he is aware of. Each individual, each culture, has thus its own conception of the universal audience" (The New Rhetoric 33).

Article Summaries

Perelman, Chaïm "The New Rhetoric: A Theory of Practical Reasoning"

Additional Works


Further Readings

Crosswhite, James (1989). "Universality in Rhetoric: Perelman's Universal Audience"

Frank, David A. (1997). "The New Rhetoric, Judaism, and Post-Enlightenment Thought: The Cultural Origins of Perelmanian Philosophy"


External Links

Personal tools
Site Navigation
Wiki Help