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Michael A. Gilbert: Not arguing logically is not illogical: Other ways of communicating arguments

An interview conducted by Linda Carozza
Michael A. Gilbert et Linda Carozza
Traduction(s) :
Michael A. Gilbert : Ne pas argumenter logiquement n’est pas illogique : il y a d’autres façons de communiquer des arguments [fr]


Michael A. Gilbert has contributed significantly to the field of contemporary Argumentation Theory. Most notable are his multi-modal theory of argumentation and coalescent argumentation, models of argument that he developed to address how interlocutors actually argue in the marketplace. His ideas were not always understood, appreciated, or acknowledged by the larger argumentation community. Recently, though, the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation & Rhetoric (in Ontario, Canada) recognized Gilbert’s contributions in a week-long Institute dedicated to his scholarship. Provoking as his theories might seem, rhetorical scholars can find some common ground with Gilbert’s works.

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  • 1 Wayne Brockriede was an early 20th-century American rhetorical theorist and critic with roots in th (...)

Michael A. Gilbert immigrated to Ontario, Canada, and earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. He began his professorial career at the University of Toronto, Ontario, and accepted a full-time position in 1975 at York University in Toronto. His main areas of specialization include Argumentation Theory, and Gender and Transgender Theory. He developed the theories of multi-modal argumentation and coalescent argumentation which challenge traditional views within the logical, dialectical, and rhetorical traditions. Though his theories are least resistant to rhetoric – he was influenced by contemporary rhetorical theorists Wayne Brockriede (1975) and Charles A. Willard (1982)1 – Gilbert’s approach to argumentation may still prove too open-minded for some rhetoricians.


Linda Carozza teaches at York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her academic background is interdisciplinary. Her degrees are from the discipline of Philosophy, specializing in Argumentation Theory. Her research interests include emotional arguments, conflict resolution, and critical reasoning. Her research areas and practice have grown to include the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Carozza empirically investigates undergraduate teaching and learning practices in connection with critical thinking and reasoning.


1Gilbert’s conception of an argument is rooted in interaction. For Gilbert, an argument is, “any exchange of information centred on an avowed disagreement” (1997: 104). The disagreement can be expressed by interlocutors in various manners – via an emoji text exchange, through friendly banter, or even expressed in a physical brawl. Gilbert does not limit the medium of communicating messages and respects the myriad ways humans engage in argumentative discourse. This approach to argumentation is based on empiricism; that is, his model mirrors how people argue in real life, and so is more in the rhetorical tradition than the logical.

2Multi-modal argumentation provides a taxonomy of arguments (Gilbert 1994). A mode of argument can be thought of as a vehicle for relaying a message in argumentation (2022: 490). An argument’s persuasive force is based on the mode that is most prominent in each argument. The multi-modal argumentation model has four modes. The logical mode captures the traditional, reasoned, view of argument. The emotional mode comprises arguments that are expressed emotionally or arguments that use emotion for rationale, where the emotions are more important than the words. A primarily visceral argument relies on physical or environmental factors (e.g., an eye roll, or a dark cloud). And, last, a kisceral argument rests on the intuitive mode, or energy (ki). For Gilbert, communicating messages rarely occurs in a single mode. Instead, an argumentative interaction typically has a mixture of these argument modes, where one is the more predominant mode of persuasion based on particular circumstances. Gilbert acknowledges that these modes are not exhaustive (1994, 1997, 2022).

3Coalescent argumentation seeks points of agreement, rather than focusing on disagreement in argumentation (1997: 102). Even though arguments may be in opposition to each other, by uncovering the values, attitudes, beliefs, or feelings of their arguers, points of agreement may be discovered. What may seem like very diverse viewpoints are brought closer together (coalesced) in this way. This view aligns with the Harvard Business School’s principled Negotiation model (Fisher et al. 2011) and cooperative arguing models (e.g., Makau and Marty 2001). As Gilbert writes, coalescent argumentation is a normative ideal (1997: 201), and it requires the willingness to explore what matters to all arguers.


1. Linda Carozza: You are a Professor Emeritus now; how has this time away from the institution of the university impacted how you connect with your research and writing?


M.G. When I first retired, I was doing a lot more. My work is very popular in Mexico, and I was involved in various initiatives there. Recently, I have slowed down. I’ve been enjoying myself very much. I enjoy my time reading, solving Sudoku puzzles, and engaging in word games. I have become more selective about what I get involved in. I’m working on a chapter for a book about my argumentation theories. I am going to include a discussion about human communication and language. The more that I think about it, my attitude about language and how we use it in arguing has influenced me a lot. This is a very Wittgensteinian-influenced view. My work – at its heart – says there is more in the world than what we are taught in Logic 101.


2. LC. Your work in Argumentation Theory pushed boundaries within the argumentation community; it certainly disrupted the logical tradition. Can you share how your colleagues received you? How did you respond to resistance to your work?


MG. I gave a talk at the Philosophy Department at York University in the late 1980s, and it was well received. The department and my colleagues at York University were always a supportive environment for me. At around the same time I had invited Charles A. Willard to the department to present his work. That went well too. Willard’s work (e.g., 1982) continued to be extremely influential to me. It was with his encouragement that I attended a conference of the International Society for the Study of Argumentation for the first time.

Over the years, I published a lot and gave a lot of talks. Even if colleagues across the field disagreed with me, they knew me and they knew my work. In 2016, in Mexico, there was a conference in honor of my work with multi-modal argumentation. Many graduate students were using my model in their own research. As you know, in 2020 the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric in Windsor, Ontario hosted a one-week summer Institute dedicated to multi-modal argumentation. Several scholars came together to focus, in detail, on each of the modes in multi-modal argumentation (see the Journal of Informal Logic 42-3), as the issue is dedicated to this model).


3. LC Let’s talk about your theories. Which idea was born first multi-modal argumentation or coalescent argumentation?


MG. Multi-modal argumentation came first. My roots were in the logical tradition. The first paper I ever published (1976) was in the area of Formal Logic, in the Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic. I taught an Introduction to Logic course when I was a graduate student, and I had a class that had as many students of the arts as it did students of engineering. Formal Logic was challenging for the arts students and it was easy for the engineers. And, yet, the engineers were not learning anything philosophical. That class really caused me to pause and think, leading me to design a curriculum that taught non-standard logic (e.g., three-valued logic, modal logic). I started to become unhappy with Formal Logic and my redesigned curriculum was motivated by philosophical issues, such as truths and falsities. Between teaching logic courses and observing people talk and specifically how they argued in the marketplace, it was clear that they didn't argue very logically a lot of the time. It’s not that they were being illogical; it was that they weren’t using “just” logic when they argued. They demonstrated other ways of thinking. Around that same time, I published How to Win an Argument (1979). In that book, I described an argument friends had about whether a woman could be a police officer. The man said, “Women can’t be cops” and the woman replied by flipping him over her shoulder. This was an argument, and it was visceral in nature. These are some of my recollections of influences that prompted the development of the multi-modal argumentation model. I was dissatisfied with Formal Logic because, as a philosopher, I wasn’t serving the public with this type of logic. Teaching modal logic, or working with logical axioms, did not truly impact how we reason in real argumentative settings. Formal logic, and even informal logic, focus on arguments as products or proof. When we evaluate an argument’s premises and determine whether they support their conclusion – this has limited usefulness for solving disagreements between people. The multi-modal argumentation model does better address how we engage in argumentation with each other. In effect, it goes further in respecting the rhetorical tradition insofar as it is based on what people actually do.


4. LC. Is there a relationship between multi-modal argumentation and coalescent argumentation?


MG. Coalescent Argumentation grew out of multi-modal argumentation. I was disturbed by the whole aspect of philosophy being focused on disagreement. When I was a very young scholar, the biggest compliment that could be paid to someone was that “he was bright.” What that meant was that he was sharp, that he could tear apart someone else’s ideas; he was a good fighter. I was touched by that and questioned why we didn’t focus more on agreement. I came to understand that we didn’t focus on agreement because what was important was “Truth,” so I threw truth out the window. In a paper on goals that I wrote and presented at a Computer Science conference early in my career, I stated that 1 + 1 does not always equal 2 – knowing this was a sophism for philosophers. A mathematician I met at that conference argued it was not a sophism and validated his point with mathematical theories. What I realized during this time was that when people argue they mistake their goals. They think they want one thing, but it is really something else. For example, I ask to borrow your car today, but my real goal is to do my errands. And you tell me that no one can drive your car except you. Then, when you find out I need to run errands, you offer to drive me into town so that I can complete my errands, and my goal has been achieved! To reach an agreement we need to take goals into account. Arguably, you gave me what I needed (a lift) and my goal was accomplished.


5. LC: Given that Coalescent Argumentation focuses on points of agreement, how does this theory fit within the scholarship of argumentation?


MG. My background is in the philosophical tradition, and I have extensive training in logic, so my work has developed as a challenge to how logic conceives of arguments. Coalescent argumentation doesn’t fit within the bivalent logical tradition. If we are assuming a broader sense of logic, where answers are more nuanced and complex (e.g., Talmudic logic), then yes there would be room for my work. I’m not anti-logical, but logic does not serve my purpose. I have argued in the past that Informal Logic can embrace multi-modal argumentation (2004), but it has to liberate itself from the yolk of Formal Logic, and it has not done so. Traditional rhetoric views an argument as an attempt at persuasion to reach an agreement. In many ways, this is more in line with my work, as opposed to logic, which concentrates on the argument product itself, or dialectical concerns, which focus on the interaction between interlocutors. Multi-modal argumentation recognizes the modes of persuasion utilized by arguers. Where my work parts with the rhetorical tradition is that it does not focus on oral or written language as a means of persuasion, but otherwise I do see myself firmly in the rhetorical tradition. The real difference is my agreement with Willard that people will use all the tools available to them to persuade. And, these tools are not always verbal or direct. More scholars are referencing my work now, maybe a shift in Argumentation Theory is on the horizon.


6. LC. Given that the readership of this journal intersects the areas of Argumentation and Discourse Analysis, can you speak to the potential connections between Multi-modal arguments and Discourse Analysis, or Rhetoric?


MG. Discourse analysis is focused on process and so is multi-modal argumentation, and even coalescent argumentation. You observe what is happening, rather than reviewing discourse from a strict logical lens, for example. It’s important in any disagreement to see what is at the heart of the disagreement. It’s almost always emotional (or kisceral or visceral) to one degree or another. These are the socio-linguistic and socio-psychological aspects that are not being ignored in my theories. Otherwise, what you say is what you mean in an argument (i.e., literal understandings); emotions do not belong in arguments; innuendo or sarcasm do not belong, and so on. Discourse analysis methods, multi-modal argumentation model, and coalescent argumentation all recognize that you cannot always take discourse at face value. There is more to consider. There are others in the field of Argumentation who have had a similar approach (see Barbara O’Keefe 1991).

Multi-modal argumentation and coalescent argumentation are less antagonistic to the rhetorical argumentative tradition than the logical one. This is primarily because the rhetorical view is contextual. In the logical view, we express everything in propositions while in the rhetorical we express ourselves in messages. These contain a lot more information than the mysterious and highly metaphysical proposition. Hence, there is less tension between my approach and the rhetorical.


7. LC. Whenever I am in a larger group of colleagues and multi-modal argumentation is the topic of discussion, inevitably the discussion turns to normative measures. You have written on this, demonstrating how the Pragma-Dialectical model (1997b) and Informal Logic (2004) can both accommodate the non-logical modes. Is it theoretically important for multi-modal argumentation to have a normative framework? Why or why not?


MG. It’s not that important because it is a model that is highly situationally focused. The rules of the argument are the rules that we are using. There are rules that the vast majority of arguers follow. For example, we don’t yell at each other or verbally abuse people in argumentative discussions, and those who don’t follow the rules are shunned. When people won’t argue with you though, you are isolated. Situational rationality allows the norms we create to be accepted in a particular argumentative encounter. Arguers, in my view – and this is in agreement with Tindale (e.g., 2013) – create rhetorical situations in which the rules and processes are contextually dependent.


8. LC. You are also an expert in Gender Theory. Have you reflected on potential similarities/dissimilarities in your work in these different fields of scholarship?


MG. My denial of bifurcations runs through my work in both areas of scholarship. My cross-dressing and viewing myself as transgender is a defilement of the male-female distinction. I defile distinctions. I never met a distinction I liked. By entering a more feminine mode, and becoming familiar with feminism and feminist rationality, it helped me understand that different modes are important and that our values are fluid. This more inclusive approach is captured by multi-modal argumentation. My work in gender theory and argumentation theory are more similar than not in their conceptual frameworks.


9. LC. As a mediator, one of the techniques for facilitating resolution I use is to reframe a party’s arguments when they are misunderstood, or when they offend the other party. Oftentimes, it’s the emotional or visceral messaging that can be off-putting to a party in mediation (e.g., raised voices; standing up tall and looking down at others; looking away from other parties, etc.). In many ways, I am translating and making palatable emotional and visceral persuasion. I am translating into the more accepted “logical” mode. Do you think I should be coaching parties to be more embracing of multi-modal messaging?


MG. You know, you want to take these other modes and get them to a logical understanding, a logical conclusion. But often the conclusion may not even be logical. What we have are our logical components but not a completely logical discourse. I’m thinking of custody cases, and shared childcare. How one feels about the children is very important. And, if I can understand as a co-parent that you feel strongly about little Johnny, as strongly as I do, that’s really important. Now, at the base, I take that what you mean by the logical is that we come up with something that we can both agree to. Okay, so you’ll do this, and I will do that. And yes, that’s seemingly logical. But to get there, we must feel that it’s right. That emotion, that it’s right, holds more weight than a logical presentation of arguments.

Mediators can explore the emotional or visceral cues and explain to disputants that when they do roll their eyes, they are making an assertion. An eye roll says something like “I don’t like that”. In a mediation, that still needs explanation and elaboration for clarity. And this is no different than the verbal equivalent. Oftentimes, we need verbal messages clarified as well.


10. LC. Is there a recent situation of disagreement you’ve experienced or witnessed, and can you share how CA, or your MMA model, offers hope?


MG. I have always been very clear and careful that my interest is in one-to-one argumentation, that the sort of rhetorical tradition of speeches, and so on, really doesn’t interest me. Sometimes we see the attitude from some of our discussion partners that you agree with them completely, or you are a terrible person. This limits the ability for interesting and creative arguments. This level of intolerance makes arguing really challenging because no one seems to care what other people think – you just attack. And, you know the only way to do something serious about it is very time-consuming. It requires a deep interaction between one person with another person, both embracing themselves in the other’s beliefs. That’s an integral part of the framework for both multi-modal arguments and coalescent argumentation. There needs to be some understanding of what the other wants, who they are, where they’re coming from, and so on, and doing that is just not always that easy. My recommendation will always be: begin with agreement. Find a value, a belief, or anything that arguers can find in common. And, you know, that might undercut some of the antagonism.


11. LC. Speaking of antagonism, “conspiracy theories” are so much more visible with social media (e.g., some believed that COVID-19 was not a serious disease; they exaggerated vaccine side effects; some allege that government-initiated wildfires will lead to lockdowns again, etc.). How do we dialogue with arguers of this nature? Or, what do you do when you find out your long-time friend turns out to be a conspiracy theorist?


MG. In my book (1979) I posed the question “How do you argue with a fanatic?” The answer was that you can’t. You cannot have an authentic argumentative dialogue with someone who cannot reason, with someone who cannot understand other positions, and with someone who cannot change their mind. As I see it, you have three real choices: dump them, try and talk about it with them, and understand the different views, or ignore the issue and focus on your friendship. So, for the latter, avoid the conversation any time an issue comes up that is not worth risking the friendship. And, really, oftentimes these different views related to politics, health, and so on, do not have a real impact on you directly. If you’re not going to dump or ignore them, following coalescent argumentation, a strategy that can be implemented is finding some common ground to bridge deep disagreement.


12. LC. If you could see multi-modal argumentation or coalescent arguments in the distant future, how do you think they would develop? What do you hope for your life’s work in the field of argumentation? What about Argumentation at large – where do you see its emphasis in, say, 50 years?


MG. I would like to see the multi-modal framework taken for granted, and that it be considered a foundation for real arguments that occur. You have to look at any argument in terms of its different modes if you want to understand it. Also, you have to look for an agreement to reach a conclusion. More and more scholars are taking this into account.


4I have studied under Professor Gilbert, and his scholarly work inspired my interests in argumentation and conflict resolution. When I was an undergraduate and graduate student, I recall the resistance to multi-modal argumentation from others in the field. I remember sitting in lecture halls at conferences where prominent scholars expressed grave concern that paying attention to emotion or physical aspects within argumentative discourse would stray too far from the conception of argument. Approximately, 20 years later, the disruption Gilbert caused has more traction than ever. Paying attention to how arguments occur in the marketplace allows for an approach that encompasses different models and theories of argumentation. While logicians resisted the descriptive framework of argument espoused by Gilbert, other schools of thought that analyzed arguments were less closed to his approach: speech communication, discourse analysis, rhetoric, and feminism, to name a few. As a mediator, I have witnessed the shortcomings of relying too heavily on logic when facilitating conflict resolution. A comprehensive account of “argument” needs to acknowledge more than a logical definition and analysis of an argument.

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Brockriede, Wayne. 1975. “Where is argument?”, The Journal of the American Forensic Association 11-4, 179-18

Ehninger, Douglas & Wayne Brockriede. 2008. Decision by debate (New York: IDEA)

Fisher, Roger, William L. Ury & Bruce Patton. 2011. Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in (New York : Penguin)

Gilbert, Michael A. 1976. “A heuristic procedure for natural deduction derivations using reductio ad absurdum”, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 17-4, 638-639

Gilbert, Michael A. 1979. How to Win an Argument (New York : McGraw-Hill)

Gilbert, Michael A. 1994. “Multi-modal argumentation”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences 24-2 [Online]

Gilbert, Michael A. 1997. Coalescent argumentation (London : Routledge) [Online]

Gilbert, Michael A. 1997b. “Prolegomenon to a pragmatics of emotion”, paper presented at the Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation Conference: Argumentation and Rhetoric, Brock University, St. Catherines

Gilbert, Michael A. 2004. “Emotion, argumentation and informal logic”, Informal Logic 24-3 [Online]

Gilbert, Michael A. 2022. “Multi-Modal 2020 : Multi-Modal Argumentation 30 Years Later”, Informal Logic 42-3 [Online]

Makau, Josina M. & Debian L. Marty. 2001. Cooperative argumentation: A model for deliberative community (Long Grove : Waveland Press)

O’Keefe, Barbara J. 1991. “Message design logic and the management of multiple goals”, Tracy, K. (ed.). Understanding face-to-face interaction: Issues linking goals and discourse (Mahwah : Erlbaum), 101-117

Tindale, Christopher W. 2013. “Rhetorical Argumentation and the Nature of Audience : Toward an Understanding of Audience”, Philosophy & Rhetoric 46-4 [Online]

Willard, Charles A. 1982. Argumentation and the social grounds of knowledge (Tuscaloosa : Univ. of Alabama Press)

A selective list of Michael A. Gilbert’s publications can be accessed here:

You can also find a fuller list on Google Scholar.

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1 Wayne Brockriede was an early 20th-century American rhetorical theorist and critic with roots in the study of debate in American speech communication. He (with co-author Ehninger) was known for developing cooperative debating activities. In later work, Brockriede stated that arguments were found in the vicinity of people. Arguers interacting with each other, and their relationships, were integral to understanding and evaluating arguments. This was a departure from an emphasis on speeches, and/or the audience, and/or competitiveness in argumentation.

Charles A. Willard, a 20th-century American scholar, is known as one of the first to theorize argumentation from the field of Communication. From a social science perspective, Willard was interested in understanding how arguments occurred (and not with their normative evaluations). He stated that arguments were necessarily interactions between two or more individuals who mutually agreed that their views were incompatible. Willard’s theory highlighted both context and implicit meanings in argument encounters.

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Michael A. Gilbert et Linda Carozza, « Michael A. Gilbert: Not arguing logically is not illogical: Other ways of communicating arguments »Argumentation et Analyse du Discours [En ligne], 32 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael A. Gilbert

York University (Canada)

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Linda Carozza

York University (Canada)

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