An Athenian addressing a Spartan—assuming that weapons can be laid aside long enough for some talk—has a categorically different problem from the one he faces when talking to the Athenians.

—Wayne Booth

Incommensurability, the word and most of its implications, grew out of conversations around 1960, in coffee shops on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, between two of the most important voices in contemporary philosophy and sociology of science, Kuhn and Feyerabend. Taking incommensurability to the extremes inherent in its etymology, the word describes a situation where two scientific programs are fundamentally and irrevocably at odds, the participants of each program therefore seeing their rivals to be spouting incongruities or absurdities or gibberish. As you might imagine, this poses some difficulties for the notion of rational argumentation: like, why bother? This course will investigate, in scientific and other discourses, cases which fit the Kuhnian and Feyerabendian diagnosis, against the background of argumentation theory.

Required texts

Christopher W. Tindale, Acts of arguing: A rhetorical model of argument. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1999; ISBN 0-7914-4388-4.

Readings in incommensurability. 793A course reader available through UW bookstore.

Recommended texts

Howard Sankey, The incommensurability thesis.Aldershot: Avebury, 1994; ISBN 1-8562-8631-2.

Frans H. van Eemeren, et al., Fundamentals of argumentation theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996; ISBN 0-8058-1862-6

Additional readings

I am currently editing a book in which several eminent rhetoricians and argumentation theorists explore the topic of incommensurability (see, and there will be readings assigned from the manuscript of this book.

Essay (30 July)
40 %
Course participation
60 %
Group presentation (2 - 16 July)
30 %
Class discussion
30 %

Here is the class schedule.

If you have any questions about the class, please contact the conductor, Randy Harris.