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Does persuasion really come at “the end of reasons”?

Pietro Salis
(Università di Cagliari)

(Published in Verità, Immagine, Normatività. Truth, Image, Normativity, Quodlibet, Macerata 2017, pp. 77-100).

1. Introduction: a certain philosophical conception of persuasion


Persuasion is a special aspect of our social and linguistic practices – one where an interlocutor, or
an audience, is induced, to perform a certain action or to endorse a certain belief, and these episodes
are not due to the force of the better reason. When we come near persuasion, it seems that, in general,
we are somehow giving up factual discourse and the principles of logic, since persuading must be
understood as almost different from convincing rationally.1 Sometimes, for example, we can find
persuasion a political speech that relies on our feelings, emotions and values, but we can also find a
persuasive person a dodger, busy in his own questionable activities that are intentionally performed
in order to mislead and manipulate other people. However, I do not want to try to define a general
notion of persuasion from the beginning. I would rather start with a conception that already has a
place, even if controversial, in the philosophical debate. In particular, the version that I have always
found particularly provocative is that provided by Wittgenstein’s On Certainty. This peculiar version
of the idea of persuasion, which is often associated with the possibility of overcoming deep
disagreements, is quite famous in the literature and often understood as indicating certain intrinsic
limits of our reason-giving practices.
The following are Wittgenstein’s famous remarks on persuasion:

608. Is it wrong for me to be guided in my actions by the propositions of physics? Am I to say I


have no good ground for doing so? Isn’t precisely this what we call a ‘good ground’?

609. Suppose we met people who did not regard that as a telling reason. Now, how do we imagine
this? Instead of the physicist, they consult an oracle. (And for that we consider them primitive.)
Is it wrong for them to consult an oracle and be guided by it? If we call this “wrong” aren’t we
using our language-game as a base from which to combat theirs?

611. Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then
each man declares the other a fool and heretic.

612. I said I would ‘combat’ the other man, – but wouldn’t I give him reasons? Certainly; but
how far do they go? At the end of reasons comes persuasion. (Think what happens when
missionaries convert natives.)

This paper is not devoted, as far as possible, to focus on interpretative matters about Wittgenstein’s
late philosophy. Rather, it aims to investigate whether there are problems and incompatibilities
between this particular conception of persuasion and our contemporary understanding of our reason-
giving practices and of our belief-revision procedures.

1
Kant is usually considered to be the first philosopher to have drawn the distinction between (rationally) convincing and
persuading. When I said that we give up the principles of logic, I was referring to the pervasive phenomenon of fallacies.
In general, they can be quite persuasive for standard epistemic subjects; nonetheless, they are invalid patterns of reasoning
that can often mislead. Kant’s point must be somehow connected, I presume, with this feature: the difference between
convincing and persuading can, in fact, be explained, thanks to the difference between good and (prima facie good, but)
fallacious arguments. However, I am not generally going to reduce persuasion only to a kind of violation of logical
principles; it deals with many other factors. See below.
1
The first part of this study will be concerned about assessing this conception of persuasion and
trying to shed new light on it (and on its consequences); most of the work here is done by looking at
some truisms and normative features of our practices regarding the rational updating of our beliefs.
It also addresses the question: Is the resistance to reasons of Wittgenstein’s persuasion capable to
avoid the strict dynamics of belief revision?
The second section of this study concerns the possibility of limiting the scope of this conception
of persuasion, thanks to some of our contemporary ways of understanding rational discursive
practices (I will focus especially on Robert Brandom’s game of “giving and asking for reasons”). If
our rational practices require at least a certain degree of epistemic responsibility, then how is it
possible that one invokes the end of reasons (that would explicitly mean giving up this
responsibility)?
A third section is the attempt, on this basis, to try to revise our contrasting conception(s) of
persuasion (with an eye open on the near doxastic territory). Are there other conceptions of persuasion
which are more compatible with our rational practices and do not entail any version of the “end of
reasons” that are so compatible with our individual and social epistemic responsibility?

1.1 Problems with this wittgensteinian image


We can ask some general questions about Wittgenstein’s claims: Does persuasion really come at
the end of reasons? What does it mean? How far do reasons go in convincing people? Are we sure
that there is a special point where reasons stop and persuasion begins? Where is this dividing line to
be traced? Is this the good old rhetoric/logic distinction?2
These questions give rise to other, more specific questions, like: Are the principles (that cannot
be reconciled) both true? Are we sure that one of them is not simply wrong? Are we sure that we are
not able to show that one of the principles is right or wrong, thanks to some kind of evidence? Or is
Wittgenstein’s advice only relative to some special context where we lose our grasp of true and
justified beliefs?
Let us begin with the first question. Reasons come to an end: let us consider this as a fact that
directly follows from Wittgenstein’s view. What is the usual situation where reasons come to an end?
Normally, reasons come to an end when someone is capable to offer proofs (evidential, or by
argument), in successfully supporting a particular claim. A less usual case can be the special situation
where there is no non-controversially cogent argument (or where crucial evidence is unavailable) in
order to address unequivocally the controversy; for example, where the point at stake is far beyond
the epistemic means of speakers (i.e., they are epistemically unable to assess the relevant beliefs).
There are also the more controversial cases of deep disagreement (where disagreements cannot be
overcome rationally).3
Given this view, the end of reasons invoked by Wittgenstein should be understood as one of the
following options: a case where our rational practices are inefficacious, a case where there is no
decisive evidence (maybe what is at stake is simply out of reach), and, finally, a case of deep
disagreement. All these characterizations are not incompatible with each other: rather, they all seem
suitable to compose a coherent framework. If we have no decisive evidence, then we cannot use our
rational practices. If we face a deep disagreement, then there is no decisive evidence and our rational

2
This is a formula taken from the Italian philosopher Giulio Preti (1911-1972), who devoted a valuable part of his work
on persuasion. See, in particular, Preti (1968). In this case, naturally, logic would be the space where reasons are relevant,
and rhetoric is the realm of persuasive speech.
3
See Fogelin (1985) and Godden and Brenner (2010). A case of deep disagreement could be the following: A claims that
mankind is the fruit of natural evolution, while B claims that it is the fruit of a type of intelligent design. The disagreement
is deep, because both A and B reject the reasons provided by the other, and indeed, fail to be convinced by each other. In
this case, it is not relevant if one of the two is wrong; the point is rather that there is no real communication, and no
possibility to rationally assess the mutual beliefs. Wittgenstein would say that in this case A and B just fight with each
other. Surely, this may be a tendentious way to present the problem: one could just say that one of the two is wrong, and
that such mistaken conceptions are pervasive, to the point of affecting the abilities to evaluate arguments and evidence.
This can be seen as a kind of ideologically self-induced cognitive bias.
2
practices are inefficacious. If our reason giving practices do not play the role they are supposed to
play, then there can be no decisive evidence and proofs (and then it follows that our disagreements
are deep, since there is no possibility to overcome them).
This standard reading is at the least, puzzling. If there is no evidence whatsoever, and we have no
reasons to claim A – or its contrary B – it is not clear why one might find himself in disagreement
with another person. Here, we miss the minimum ground for belief – unless one provides “magical”
theories about belief formation that radically isolate the sources of beliefs from reason and reality.
What I mean is that, if we have no reasons and evidence, then we cannot even begin to disagree: there
is simply not enough substance for disagreement. To admit that we can disagree without the necessary
evidence and reasons, would be akin to admitting the existence of the “brute doxastic facts” people
are equipped with by default – and disagreement would count as one between different brute doxastic
facts. But this is a radical conception of cultural relativism, and surely one that creates more problems
than those it is supposed to solve or reshape.
This conception of persuasion entails that there are discursive contexts where our interlocutor
simply cannot be rationally convinced. This conception suggests, furthermore, that there are contexts,
and situations, where the interlocutor becomes, to say it in another way, resistant to reasons: there is
simply no way to convince him. Imagine, for example, talking of physics to people believing in
oracles, as in Wittgenstein’s case. Could we really convince them that they are wrong? Are we wrong
in thinking that they are wrong? Is Wittgenstein right in claiming that we cannot?4 The underlying
questions here are the following: Are these disputes solvable? Is it possible to evaluate the pros and
cons of believing in physics and of believing in oracles?
Thus, as these questions presuppose, we should introduce a distinction between cases where the
dispute is not solvable and cases where the dispute is solvable but there are objective obstacles to
make the right reasons explicit. Do non-solvable cases actually exist? Are there genuine cases of
disagreement that cannot be rationally solved? These questions can be helpful in gaining a better
grasp of the relevant conceptions of persuasion.
A non-solvable example can be Wittgenstein’s (§609): “Suppose we met people who did not regard
that as a telling reason. Now, how do we imagine this? Instead of the physicist, they consult an oracle
(and for that we consider them primitive.) Is it wrong for them to consult an oracle and be guided by
it? If we call this “wrong” aren’t we using our language-game as a base from which to combat
theirs?”. Here, Wittgenstein is explicitly endorsing the view that not only do such cases exist, but also
that it is only conflict that can get us out of them. It is also interesting to note that Wittgenstein, at the
end of reasons, puts together the concepts of “persuasion” and “conflict”.
A solvable example is the following: The brilliant lawyer persuaded the jury about the innocence
of P, despite the wide amount of evidence proving P guilty, by taking advantage of his oratory skills
and wit, mastering the subtleties of the legal code. This example shows, to the contrary, a manipulative
conception of persuasion. Here, to persuade means “to alter the regular work of reasons”. Skillful use
of rhetoric can, in this way, misguide the jury, and alter the verdict.
The first type of cases is typical of the Wittgensteinian view, while the second type is what I
understand as a different conception of persuasion. We can distinguish these conceptions in the
following way:

Persuasion-1: Persuasion concerns cases where it is not possible to rationally avoid disagreement,
where the views at stake are very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile;5

4
Here, I am not doing the trick of talking about oracles as meant to perform the same job performed by physics. They
concern usually quite different topics. Wittgenstein is responsible for this connection in the quoted passage, “Instead of
the physicist, they consult an oracle” (or at least the British anthropologist James G. Frazer, to whom Wittgenstein is
implicitly referring).
5
And non-reducible to factual issues (see below).
3
Persuasion-2: Persuasion concerns cases where extra-rational factors6 can influence, change the
direction of, or stop, a rational practice/discussion regarding (also factual) beliefs.

In the cases concerning persuasion-1, only persuading – beyond reasons – and conflict, are meant
to lead to a solution (because rational argument is supposed to be irrelevant in this context).7 An
interesting suggestion is Robert Fogelin’s view on deep disagreements in these Wittgensteinian
examples: “they are immune to appeals to facts”.8 In this context, no evidence can change our mind.
Thus, persuasion-1 is not anything that may concern factual beliefs; on the contrary, we could say
that in factual matters, in normal circumstances, there is no end of reasons.9
Another important aspect is that the mutually incompatible principles invoked by Wittgenstein
cannot be comparatively evaluated in the context of persuasion-1, regarding their being true or false.
In this case, there is no principle that is true (at least by discussants’ lights). It would be, if
Wittgenstein is right, also a genuine case of faultless disagreement.10 If principles are not right or
wrong, then a deep disagreement turns out to be also faultless (no person is wrong in disagreeing, and
no disagreement depends on error). But is that true of the case about physics and oracles?
Wittgenstein’s perspective here appears to rely on an idea which is quite controversial: when he asked
“Is it wrong for them to consult an oracle and be guided by it?”, he has been implicitly attacking the
view that there are facts of the matter that are independent of language games played by speakers.
His idea is that if we believe in physics rather than in oracles, we are “using our language-game […]
to combat theirs”. A first consequence is that believing in physics or believing in oracles cannot be
done independently of a particular language-game.11 What does it mean? It appears to mean
something like the following: beliefs are not merely true or false, but they are rather contextually
appropriate or inappropriate; what physics tells us makes sense only within our cultural context,
where certain practices, institutions and meanings are established. Is this a kind of relativism? It surely
appears to be such (of a cultural kind, we may add). But, an obvious problem here is that we can ask:
that water is H2O is true only in our cultural context or is it supposed to be true in any context
whatsoever?12 Is there anything like relativity to a cultural context for such statements? Are they
relative to a kind of conceptual scheme? These questions, here, just serve to indicate that relativism
is not even close to be a solution for our problem. It is yet a live option, but a controversial one.
In the case of persuasion-2, it would be possible to evaluate such principles alethically, only in a
discussion where no obstacle undermines the rational development of arguments. In these cases, there
is always the possibility, in principle, to know and to understand which principle/claim is true and
which is not. De facto, persuasion-2 shows up when obstacles somehow stop/alter/distort the chains
of reasoning, and access to evidence is somehow restricted or ruled out. These obstacles can naturally
belong to different categories. The lawyer used his rhetoric skills to manipulate the jury. Josh lied to
convince Elena. The policeman abused his authority for personal advantages. The president appealed

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Factors external to the appropriate inferential context.
7
However, the example given by Wittgenstein (§612) concerns missionaries converting natives, and indeed, religious
belief, and it somehow reminds the case for oracles (and this aspect can raise further problems). I will not, in this paper,
raise any problems specific to religious belief and the relation between belief and religious belief.
8
Fogelin (1985) p. 8.
9
At least, this should happen in cases where persons who disagree share a language and a set of common presuppositions
and beliefs.
10
See Kölbel (2003). A case of faultless disagreement could be the following: A claims that this Matisse is better that this
Picasso, while B claims that this Picasso is better than this Matisse; A claims that pizza is delicious, while B claims that
pizza is disgusting. Intuitively, we have no reason to say that both A and B could be wrong in the same sense that we use
to say that C is wrong in claiming that 2+2=5. These cases are, however, rather controversial, since we do not feel
compelled to overcome these differences or to consider them as genuine disagreements. It is not clear, in fact, if one must
feel the disagreement as such, in order to recognize it.
11
I find myself intuitively in agreement on this with Paul Boghossian. See Boghossian (2006), pp. 44-46.
12
These questions are influenced by Boghossian (2006) and Marconi (2007).
4
to emotions and moved the audience to generosity. Persuasion-2 is the effect of whatever mechanism
can alter the normal outcome of our reason-giving practices.
A further aspect depends on the following question: Is there also a kind of rational persuasion?
Can be there a persuasion-3? Here, an obvious intuition seems to lead to the use of persuasive
means/dynamics (e.g., rhetoric, power, money, etc.) to support and promote true statements, true
beliefs, and our best reasons. The obvious example concerns a politician writing down her speech to
persuade voters of the goodness of her ideas (which can be, in fact, very good). It is an intuitive
conception, which prima facie permits the union of rational practices and persuasive means.
Nonetheless, this conception shows some serious difficulties, as in the following points:

I. We must know that P is true in advance, to promote it persuasively;13


II. If Patricia has proof/evidence that P is true, then it is not clear why she should also be
persuasive in supporting P (proof and evidence make persuasion rather superfluous).

Therefore, an explanation is needed. The best I can see is the following. Maybe these persuasive
means are not rational or irrational per se. Maybe they are just neutral from this point of view. These
means can be used either for rational or for irrational aims. I can, for example, use rhetoric to defraud
and mislead, but I can also use it to stop violence and promote peace. Persuasive means, for
persuasion-2, can be used for very different purposes, and we can create plenty of examples in both
directions. Hence, if I am right, we have no different versions of persuasion (like persuasion-2 or
persuasion-3), but just different uses of persuasion-2.14

1.2 Problems for persuasion-1: a matter of facts


Is it true that persuasion-1 is incompatible with factual discourse? Let us try a brief test. This is
about the so-called irrationality of speakers: let us assume that who refuses to give his consent to what
is evident is ipso facto irrational – this is not controversial for factual matters. If someone believes
that the platypus is a reptile, and then discovers that actually it is a mammal, it would be rational for
him to dismiss and reject his previous belief. He should start believing that it is a mammal. A person
refusing to abandon the false belief, in this context, would therefore count as epistemically irrational.
If we conceive language games and discursive situations, at least as somehow resistant to evidence
and reasons, then we are undermining this normative feature of discursive practice. We are thus failing
to meet such rational constraints. The simple idea is that, when you discover that your belief is wrong,
you dismiss it.15 At least, we should mention two basic aspects that can be helpful in clarifying the
point: reality is one (and does not have to differ from speaker to speaker), and rules of inference are
fixed (at least in the basic sense that we do not proceed changing them on and on in order to

13
Then we should better care about truth, if it is what we are looking for, and persuasive means are generally not
understood to serve such goal (let aside Aristotle’s suggestion that rhetoric, thanks to its use of emotions, can reveal truths
about people’s reaction to them). In general, it is far from obvious that rhetoric can help us in finding the truth. Hence, to
sum up, persuasion generally presupposes truth. Indeed, rational and epistemic practices are supposed to come first.
14
There exists a different conception of persuasion that is taken to be rational from alternative points of view, such as
that defended by the Italian philosopher, Giulio Preti. See Preti (1968) and Scarantino (2008). See also note 38 for further
information.
15
I am not claiming that belief-revision and reasons-giving practices must be understood as aggressively replacing
common sense and ordinary beliefs and belief-systems with “Knowledge”. That would be a really dangerous scientistic
(and intellectualistic) attitude. Clearly, I am pointing to the general possibility of rational discussion between different,
perhaps even incompatible, doxastic perspectives. However, to depict common sense as a kind of “innocence” to preserve
at all costs would also be misleading; today’s common sense is yesterday’s heresy (100 years ago very different beliefs
than todays’ would have counted as common sense). There is a continuous exchange between scientific progress and
transformations of common sense. Therefore, I think we should be more liberal about the relation between common sense
beliefs and scientific knowledge: it is good to defend and preserve a general commonsensical web of beliefs, but also
because common sense actually encompasses knowledge coming from science. And the very boundaries of common
sense are, in modern societies, de facto always redefined by science.
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understand what is going on here).16 The upshot is that persuasion-1 is in trouble with general truisms
about belief-updating procedures, and that it appears to be unfit to handle factual discourse properly.
Persuasion-1, when applied to factual discourse, avoiding the dismissal of false beliefs by means of
evidence and/or reasons, leads to theoretical irrationality.
In such a context, where we put persuasion-1 and factual matters together, rational practices are
(at least de facto), almost irrelevant: if the way things are does not possess any critical role about what
is good to believe, then practices consisting of assertive and argumentative moves are simply
pointless. Thus, resistance to evidence and reasons is understood to be widely incompatible with our
rational practices (this version of “the end of reasons” is not part of the game). At least, this view just
entails that there are (or must be there) doxastic territories (for now let us call them “nonfactual”) that
simply cannot be easily colonized by our rational discursive practices.17

1.3 Truth entails further problems


Furthermore, issues concerning what we take to be true, have important consequences for our
problem. In this context, the fact that certain beliefs are true, just like the existence of certain states
of affairs, does not make a difference for speakers. If my interlocutor believes in oracles and fiercely
denies the truth of a particular piece of knowledge I am trying to teach him (for example that gold
has atomic number 79), then also the notion of true belief does not seem to play the role that we
expect. I mean, we miss a kind of goal for the very activity of believing, since we miss the criteria in
order to perform the selection between true and mere beliefs. The general insight here is that belief
aims somehow to be true. Indeed, persuasion-1 appears also to be almost incompatible with “being
true” being relevant and central for our beliefs, knowledge, and theoretical rationality and with the
general direction of fit of believing (these features are supposed to restrict to factual matters). In
principle, it is possible that I can be persuaded-1 about P, notwithstanding the objective fact that P is
false – this falsity does not entail anything about my beliefs and what I must believe: my persuasion-
1 that P resists evidence and reasons actually supporting non-P. It seems prima facie that we are
undermining the very activity of believing, and making it pointless. But we can ask: is there still a
meaning for believing in this context? Or would our believing just be an epistemically pointless ritual?
But there are further problems with believing despite the facts. We can raise issues about aspects
of true beliefs which are relevant from a normative point of view. Persuasion-1, for example,
automatically denies that truth is a norm for belief (and assertion)18 or that truth is a kind of
correctness for the normative activity of believing.19 The following truism well summarizes this
family of ideas: “to assert that P implies […] that one believes that P, and to believe that P is to believe
that P is true”.20 “To believe”, here, is supposed to mean exactly “to take as true”; hence, discovering
that things are different from what we believe should press us to revise our belief, because new
relevant information changes the doxastic context. It seems to be just a truism that new information
has to change the doxastic context. Beliefs, therefore, aim to get a grip on what is true: and this view
is, again, incompatible with persuasion-1, because the latter entails that the facts, evidence, and
reasons, make no difference in matters of belief, and that just persuasion, as independent from
reasons, plays a role. Persuasion-1 is, therefore, resistant to evidence, to facts, and to the general basic
aims of our believing.

1.4 Problems with relativism


A last controversial aspect of persuasion-1 is its relation, already emerged, with relativism. If there
are no objective criteria to convince someone about something rationally, it appears as if we are left

16
And logical pluralism is of no help in cases like these.
17
And this appears to be fine with the literature on persuasion. See for example, Scarantino (2008).
18
See for example, Engel (2001, 2004, 2007, 2012, 2015). Or, to the contrary, that belief aims at knowledge. For this
idea, see Williamson (2000).
19
See for example Whiting (2010, 2012).
20
Engel (2001), p. 41.
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with an “anything goes” option, accounting just for a persuasion de facto, describing our beliefs as
“brute facts”. This kind of relativism seems to put all beliefs on the same level: in this context, we
are not able to say, for example, that my belief that water is H2O is more true or reliable than his belief
in oracles (but they may differ in significance from other points of view). Here, we are left with a
very complicated situation, where, simply, there is a difference in “doxastic facts”: I believe that
water is H2O, he believes in oracles, Josh believes in witches, and so forth. The peculiar ways that
crucially contributed to form these beliefs here are totally neglected. Without a relation between belief
and the specific mechanisms that generate it, we risk of falling into doxastic solipsism,21 and then this
kind of relativism must be weakened.
The only defense for this relativism about belief that I can see, so far, must rely on the acceptance,
at least, of a relativization to cultural (or conceptual) contexts: the existence of contexts where there
are objective criteria that can explain why someone believes X and does not believe Y. This does not
mean to say that such relativism is correct, it just means that the other one cannot even get off the
ground. From this point of view, any attempt to rescue persuasion-1 is automatically committed to
defend a kind of cultural relativism. Wittgenstein would talk of people sharing a particular “form of
life” and together playing the same “linguistic games”. A hypothetical disagreement then could be
faultless, since I can believe A in the context C – and this is correct for me, while you believe B in
the context D – and this is correct for you.22 Contrasting beliefs, probably even mutually incompatible
beliefs, would indeed be correct when considered in different contexts. Is that possible? Would this
relativism be defendable? Let us look at the following example: Imagine the debate over phlogiston
and oxygen. Is the belief in phlogiston true and properly justified inside its conceptual framework?
No, it is not! And, as a consequence, we are not dealing with conceptual frameworks placed on the
same level: phlogiston is simply a false theory. Hence, we find an immediate stop here.
But there is another way to develop relativistic intuitions. We can rearrange these issues,
alternatively, by means of the well-known suggestions provided by some popular readings of
Wittgenstein: those provided thanks to the notion of “world picture”. According to this view, humans
are trained to entertain certain beliefs and presuppositions by being socialized in a certain
culture/community. If you are born/socialized within a community C, you therefore inherit the world
picture CWP. Believing in physics or in oracles, we are told, are just a matter of world pictures which
are mutually incompatible. Therefore, understanding is possible only within their specific realm of
significance. Therefore, one cannot tell that someone is wrong from the outside of his own world
picture. Changing one’s mind from believing in oracles to believing into physics is a kind of change
of world picture. Therefore, this is supposed to be a kind of irrational conversion by means of
persuasion.23 And this perspective, prima facie, permits to take persuasion-1 onboard again.
But, are we sure that these so called world pictures must be understood as “monolithic” blocks of
beliefs and presuppositions? Are we sure that we cannot expand our sets of beliefs when we face
evidence which is not contained in our world picture? Are we sure that being socialized in a certain
way render us resistant to reasons and evidence (when strong doxastic incompatibilities are at stake)?
Are we sure that reasons and evidence are just “internal” to world pictures? If these world pictures
are monolithic and do not change depending on single facts and beliefs, then relativism reappears: I
mean, if what you believe and presuppose depend on such a picture, then it is possible to read it
relativistically – a strong type of cultural relativism, according to which the way the world is depends

21
If we conceive beliefs as mere doxastic brute facts that we cannot reconstruct and explain, then we are not able to fully
communicate with each other (even granting that everyone speaks the same language). Beliefs would be, in such strong
relativist framework, almost mysterious.
22
See Boghossian (2006), p. 44.
23
This also perfectly fits with Wittgenstein’s example about missionaries.
7
on the culture/community where you were born and socialized. This would amount to a form of
radical relativism that we may call “strong ethnocentrism”.24
Again, since the world is governed by laws, that are objective, uniform, and always in force –
whatever world picture you may have – if you have to show to oracle believers that certain patterns
of behavior of things are regular and that certain cause/effect relations actually obtain, and that you
can learn from these kinds of experience, then it would be sufficient to show a series of experimental
passages that regularly show connections and allow the making of predictions. Exercises of this kind
can reestablish rational communication, in principle, even where there is evident lack of common
ground. I am aware that there is an ethical tension in Wittgenstein’s perspective here: he is arguing
against Frazer’s (western biased) point of view that physics is (absolutely) better than oracles, and
that oracles have to be understood as a kind of primitive physics. I agree with Wittgenstein on this.
Nonetheless, I have raised the previous problems to claim that there is, or better yet, that there must
be, the possibility of rational communication between believers in oracles and believers in physics
(and so to claim that this version of persuasion associated with the end of reasons is flawed). Inheriting
different cultural traditions does not make us immune, in principle, from rational communication.
Thus, one way or another, a defender of persuasion-1 appears to be committed to the endorsement
of some kind of relativism. This relativism, even if defended by certain authors in the debate25,
however, has a serious flaw: it denies that we have objective practices and criteria to assess our
beliefs; basically, because it defends the view that such criteria varies from context to context (call it
world picture or whatever). Hence, here, the burden of the proof, to show that this view can be
compatible with reason-giving practices that transcend any context, is on the side of the cultural
relativist (who is implicitly denying the objective value of our belief updating practices).
To sum up, persuasion of this genus is, again, incompatible with some of our intuitions and
truisms, and with the important features of our basic idea of (theoretical) rationality – the way in
which beliefs change, reacting to new information. Very roughly, to make the general claim explicit,
it is not arbitrary that, given a certain doxastic context C (a set of beliefs), new information I changes
the context in one of the following ways: if I is in contradiction with some belief B inside C, then the
subject must contract the set C by eliminating B, and then expand (C – B) by adding I, and then
checking the modified set (C – B + I) again for consistency; if I is not in contradiction with any of the
beliefs in C, then the subject must just add I to C, and then check the new set (C + I) for consistency.26
Again, the upshot is that persuasion-1, actually, seems completely unable to take into proper
consideration the mechanisms and practices that we use to select beliefs. But, let us take a closer look
at these practices.

2. Contemporary understanding of rationality of belief change


In the last 40 years, different research programs focused on the principles governing the reasons
that make people change beliefs.27 Among the many proposals trying the get a better grip on these
24
This is the reason why Boghossian, for example, claims that Wittgenstein’s relativism can be interpreted as a kind of
“social constructivism” (as similar to Richard Rorty’s ethnocentric view: standards of objectivity depend on the culture
you belong to). See Boghossian (2006), pp. 69-70. See Nyiri (2015) for a contrasting reading.
25
Peter Winch has been the pioneer of such relativistic readings. See Winch (1958).
26
The locus classicus is Alchourrón, Gärdenfors, and Makinson (1985). See also, for a general introduction, Ove Hansson,
(2011); Huber (2014); Pigozzi (2015).
27
Among the many, three programs are relevant for our purposes: The first encompasses the insight according to which
“truth is a norm of belief”. To believe something which is consciously false does not make any sense, and we cannot
believe at will. There is no point in doing that – apart from delusions and cases of self-deception. This principle appears
to be a promising candidate to explain how reasons may revise beliefs and how these change over time. The second
focuses on the formal characterizations of belief revision and theory change (the main proposal is Alchourrón, Gärdenfors,
and Makinson (1985)). Belief revision can be successfully formalized, and many models are at work in the effort of giving
the best account of it. In general, the set-theoretical understanding of doxastic context is suitable to explain changes in
belief, given new information, thanks to simple set-theoretical operations. This program aims to prove that belief revision
is a normative procedure. Given a certain input, the set of beliefs undergoes certain revisions (depending on the
information that is added to the basic set, or by showing that a certain information within the set is false: in the first case,
8
doxastic matters, there is one that I am going to use in this context. The proposal that I am interested
to present here to contrast persuasion-1 has been developed by Robert Brandom.28 His program is
devoted to understand communication as the mutual check, on the basis of reasons, of the inferences
that people accept. Brandom’s view, in this context, is relevant, since the beliefs that we have are
understood as “commitments” standing in inferential relations with many other judgments, beliefs
and epistemic states. A belief is, indeed, always structurally involved in the inferential network of
implications that is the continuous source of epistemic justifications for, or against, our claims and
others’. Thus, assessing the goodness of the inferences that we draw, has an impact on the
commitments that we undertake. Hence, since we always have to justify what we believe, belief
updating is a social, rational, and normative practice. In this context, my intention is that of analyzing
Brandom’s model of language as having at its center the practice of “giving and asking for reasons”.

2.1 Giving and asking for reasons


Brandom (1994, 2000, 2008), investigated language according to the pragmatist idea that it must
be approached as a social practice. The starting point is the (non-Wittgensteinian) idea that language
possesses a special, rational, core: the practice of giving and asking for reasons (in Wittgensteinian
terms, a main linguistic game – a linguistic downtown).29 Communication and reason-giving
activities are rather hard to disentangle the one from the other: we communicate also to justify and
defend our views and, when it appears to be the case, to challenge those of others because of our own
justifications and views, and not only to pass over information between speakers.
It is a social game where assertion is the basic move, and where claims can be challenged on the
basis of their entailments (both, their premises and conclusions). Assertion brings with it a kind of
responsibility that the asserter must undertake (read on further). Brandom’s semantic program is
based on a primitive notion of inference (inferential role semantics) rather than on the more usual
notions of “truth” and “reference” (this feature renders the model particularly interesting, because it
does not assume any realist presupposition – often associated with truth-conditional semantics). The
meaning of a sentence (the conceptual content of a thought) is thus determined by the inferences that
authorize its expression (its correct circumstances of application) and by those that follow from its
utterance (its correct consequences of application).30
Brandom’s pragmatics finds its pillars in two basic normative notions that can be used to evaluate
assertive moves: “commitments” and “entitlements”. A contentful linguistic act of assertion can count
as a commitment: if I assert P, I am, therefore, undertaking a commitment to P’s being appropriate.
A commitment undertaken by someone in discursive interactions can receive an entitlement when it
is successfully defended in terms of reasons in front of an audience/interlocutor. These notions are

we add the new information [expansion] and check the set again for consistency; in the second case, we eliminate the
false information [contraction] and then check the set again for consistency). The third deals with philosophical
approaches to language that focus on its rational and normative features (the idea is that in linguistic communication there
is always a matter of beliefs at stake). One of the most intriguing ideas of Donald Davidson, which could be used in this
context, is the attribution of rationality to the interlocutor as a condition to understand what he says (principle of charity).
In this model, the possibility of mutual understanding between people that belong to different cultures and languages is
directly faced. In principle, we can successfully communicate even with people coming from radically different cultures,
starting from the simple assumption that whatever they say must be taken to be meaningful and that beliefs are true by
their very nature. See Davidson (1984, 2001).
28
Brandom (1994, 2000, 2008).
29
Wittgenstein (1953), §18. He was explicitly contrary to such privilege accorded to some language games. He defended
an egalitarian conception of language games, while Brandom claims that rational practices deserve a better place since
they are autonomous, more central and expressively powerful than the other (non-autonomous) games.
30
This idea of an inferential role as composed by the correct circumstances of application and by the correct consequences
of application generalizes, to non-logical concepts, Gentzen’s treatment of logical connectives. Circumstances of
applications are modeled on what Gentzen called “introduction rules” for a connective. Consequences of applications are
modeled on what Gentzen called “elimination rules” for a connective. For example, given the sentences A and B, I can
infer their conjunction A ˄ B, and this is an occurrence of the introduction rule for conjunction (I˄); given the conjunction
A ˄ B, I can infer their conjuncts (A, B), and this is an occurrence of the elimination rule for conjunction (E˄).
9
deeply related with our inferential practices. We undertake commitments not only for the asserted
sentence P, but also to the fact that it is the case that we can assert P (and so according to its correct
circumstances of application) and for what follows from P (and so its correct consequences of
application). A claim, in fact, can be challenged in both directions. A claim that is successfully
justified in both directions is, in principle, eligible for receiving an entitlement.
Commitments and entitlements determine speakers’ deontic score within this rational practice: the
game permits to establish which commitments are eligible to receive entitlements, and which are not
(and on what basis this evaluation is made). Inferential practices, thanks to the use of these operators,
open a logical space, that is social, epistemic, and argumentative, that is the very practice of “giving
and asking for reasons”. We assess our commitments and those of our interlocutors together, by means
of the inferences that we draw.
This practice, through inference, permits the updating of our own (and others’) deontic score, by
means of the revision of no longer maintainable commitments and beliefs. Two further normative
dimensions are involved in the reckoning of the deontic score of speakers: responsibility and
authority. One is doxastically responsible for the commitments he undertakes, while one is
doxastically authoritative when he receives entitlement to the commitments undertaken (when the
justifications that he gives defending his views are – at least taken to be – correct). A speaker S who
commits herself to content C by assertion, implicitly undertakes the epistemic/doxastic responsibility
for the appropriateness of C and for what follows from it. This responsibility can be successfully
challenged by an interlocutor I, by evidencing that certain consequences CS are not believable and/or
desirable, and making it explicit by asking “are you seriously going to undertake responsibility even
for these (for CS)?”. The next move is about the notion of authority: At this point, if S wants to defend
her authority as a speaker, she can attempt to revise C if she does not want to endorse CS, or trying
somehow to find a way to defend CS by showing where and why I’s evaluation of CS is wrong (if it
is).31
In Brandom (2008), this epistemic dimension of the social practice is made more explicit by means
of the locution “doxastic updating”. This idea is important, because it involves relevant epistemic
aspects of the practice, and it is motivated also by the particular nature of material inference (the kind
of inferences that are typical of our discursive interactions). Material inference is, in fact, non-
monotonic; new premises can change the goodness of our reasoning, whose conclusion does not
automatically follow. “The inference from p to q may be materially good, even though the inference
from p & r to q is not”.32 What is material inference? These are inferences which are good in virtue
of the meanings/contents involved. The inference from “octopus is a shellfish” to “octopus is an
invertebrate” is a good one, thanks to the concepts “shellfish” and “invertebrate”. When exactly is an
inference non-monotonic? Let us look at the following example:

p1) mammals, normally, do not fly;


p2) Stellaluna is a mammal;
Hence
C) Stellaluna cannot fly.33

If we add further premises, like

p3) bats can fly;


p4) Stellaluna is a bat;

We get a quite different reasoning:

31
By the way, updating deontic score is not an activity that is independent from mutual refining of our concept use.
32
Brandom (2008), p. 106
33
Antonelli 2005, p. 6.
10
p1) mammals, normally, do not fly;
p2) Stellaluna is a mammal;
p3) bats can fly;
p4) Stellaluna is a bat;
Hence
C) Stellaluna cannot fly.34

New premises, as the example shows, can easily undermine the goodness of these paths of
reasoning.
Knowledge here is directly relevant to assess the validity of ordinary reasoning; we could say that
these ways of reasoning are hard to grasp on the only basis of standard rules of inference – epistemic
aspects can be crucial in licensing/ruling out certain conclusions. These inferences are indeed
basically defeasible. This means also that updating our beliefs can be a very fine grained procedure,
too hard to be pursued by a single individual (even possessing the best resources in logics and the
larger amount of evidence). The non-monotonic, defeasible, nature of material inference involves a
constant mutual check of our doxastic commitments (and also a discrete amount of gathering the
relevant data, since these can turn out to be defeasors). This means that we need, when it is the case,
to revise the epistemic dimension of the inferences that we use to draw.
A problem (both social and individual) is that the list of potential defeasors for our inferences is
far beyond our individual doxastic and epistemic responsibility – it is not a realistic
doxastic/epistemic task. The discovery of one of these defeasors is suitable to change premises and/or
conclusions of our patterns of reasoning (and also our doxastic panorama: beliefs and commitments).
As Brandom puts it “[…] many, if not most, of a subject’s beliefs could only be justified by exhibiting
them as the conclusions of material inferences. We may call a believer “epistemically responsible”
insofar as she acknowledges a commitment to being able to justify many, if not most, of her beliefs,
under suitable circumstances”.35 Nobody asks that speakers undertake entirely such responsibility,
but just that “[…] in order to count as a discursive practitioner, one must be at least minimally
epistemically responsible”.36 It means that this responsibility extends at least to the evidence and
information that is accessible from our perspective. But communication with other speakers can help
in extending the range of relevant information and evidence, maybe by directly showing that a certain
inference I is not good, since there is the presence of one of its defeasors (previously unknown to the
interlocutor). And the possibilities of these exchanges are extremely relevant for our commitments.
As Brandom says: “[e]very change of beliefs, no matter how small, is potentially relevant to the
justification of every prior belief. Acquiring a new belief means acquiring what, for any material
inference the believer endorses and relies upon for justification, might possibly turn out to be a
defeasor”.37 Hence, there is an epistemic responsibility that exists, at both the individual and the social
level, and always in play in the matter of beliefs; belief, epistemic justification, and reasoning, go
hand in hand.

2.2 Giving and asking for reasons and persuasion-1


Persuasion-1, prima facie, seems to be incompatible with this social and individual epistemic
responsibility, because the latter requires that inference and epistemic justification necessarily guide
our beliefs as much as they can. This responsibility structurally requires that we avoid believing
without justification, believing what is false and believing at will.
Another problem, here, deals with the possibility that justifications and reasons can have just a
local dimension. The context is again that of cultural relativism, where someone may have reasons
34
Ibid.
35
Brandom, (2008), p. 108.
36
Ibid., emphasis mine.
37
Ibid.
11
for A in the context C, that are not even close to be cogent outside the context C. Well, it may seem
that actually we imagine such cases as the contrast between heliocentric theory and geocentric theory,
explaining the same facts in incompatible ways. But the example would fit, just in case no theory
would have never turned out to be false. Persuasion-1 seems to exclude, in fact, even local reasons,
because it is supposed to operate independently of them, either when there is no hope to prove that
some principle is true, or when our justifications systematically fail to convince someone (we may
conceive Wittgenstein’s “reasons” as justificatory inferences in this sense). Persuasion-1 comes at the
end of (both, local and non-local) reasons.
Therefore, persuasion-1 appears to be almost external to, and incompatible with, the practice of
giving and asking for reasons. This means that this kind of persuasion not only is not factual in every
relevant sense, but it also means that it escapes the minimal constraints of our rational practices (it
violates the norms governing our rational assessment of belief). Thus, it appears to be recommended
that rational agents/speakers resist this particular conduct – basically, because it amounts to giving
up what we defined as minimal epistemic responsibility. Hence, persuasion-1, given this framework,
cannot be reconciled with rational discursive practices: does persuasion-2 fit better? It does, since we
could fail to draw the correct inferences thanks to many situations that are compatible with our
practices: we can have access to insufficient amount of evidence and information, we may be ignorant
about particular defeasors, we may have contrasting (for example, prudential or ethical) reasons
impeding the correct rational assessment of particular commitments, and so forth. Persuasion-2 comes
when reasons lack relevant evidence and/or information, or when someone’s conduct (aware or not
as it may be), somehow alters the regular exercise of theoretical rationality.

3. Conclusion: Which persuasion?


Thus, we are left with a sharp contrast between two different notions of persuasion: one that is
incompatible with reason-giving practices and one that appears to be regularly compatible with them.
In the first (Wittgensteinian) case, persuasion is presented as something that completely exceeds
our reason-giving practices and that indeed comes at the end of reasons (persuasion-1). This
conception is incompatible with what we call epistemic responsibility, because it is supposed to resist
reasons and evidence.
In the second case, persuasion is conceived as something that can alter our theories and practices
and that consist of factual or possible obstacles to belief change (score’s updating). This is what may
be called a “factualist” view: persuasion is the set of actual and possible violation of principles
governing our argumentative and epistemic practices (persuasion-2). This conception of persuasion
has the big advantage of being compatible with our reason giving practices, and with the rational
norms that we use to assess our beliefs.
Rational practices do not appear to deal with, in standard conditions, this resistant type of
persuasion (in Wittgenstein’s meaning) – virtually there is not an end of reasons. Persuasion-1,
indeed, does not concern factual beliefs and rational practices related to the epistemic and doxastic
spheres – apart from mere issues deriving from epistemic limitations. Nonetheless, Wittgenstein’s
idea, presses us to clarify to what extent rational practices can be pursued (in our quest for true beliefs,
in revising our false beliefs, in collecting the list of relevant defeasors, in trying to be rational agents)
– it is what we strive to avoid in such practices; namely, believing without reason/justification. This
notion, in a negative way, can help us focus on more inclusive practices, consisting of the progressive
removal of factual obstacles to rational practices – perhaps following the path traced by Jürgen
Habermas (1981, 1983).
Thus, if we care about understanding better the relation between persuasion and rational practices,
we would probably need empirical studies (just like studies in the psychology of reasoning) about the
dynamics related to persuasion; for example, to be performed in widely inclusive and egalitarian
contexts, to verify to what extent do reasons proceed. A further interesting hypothesis is that devoted
to investigate whether there are cracks and holes in our rational practices: is it possible, for example,
that Wittgenstein may be, after all, right in talking about the end of reasons since our rational practices
12
are weaker than we think? Another research field of interest can focus on the possibility to identify
the grey zones between our rational practices and persuasive dynamics; are there intersections
between the two?38 These possibilities are open, but a point that I consider quite stable is that in the
majority of cases, our practices tend to be sensitive to new information regarding what we believe,
and thus, persuasion-2 appears to be the standard option.

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38
I refer especially to contexts where ethics and emotions play the main role, and belief loses its centrality. See Scarantino
(2008). In these analyses by Scarantino, that discusses the relevant views by Preti (1968), the contrast between believing
only what is true and believing what conforms to the standards of the community is the main theme used to introduce a
notion of “rational” persuasion. It is the special context where the standard of believing is not that of the scientist, where
this kind of rational and ethical persuasion finds its space. The quality and the expectation of the audience, determine the
peculiar type of persuasion that is needed, in order to promote better views without undermining the sense of community
and the identity of social groups. And it works, basically, thanks to the use of emotion, but in a way that is not purely
manipulative, as it happens instead in propaganda.
13
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