Introduction to debate from a critical framework: History and Introduction to collegiate debate(Part 1)

Aaron J. Alford
12 min readMar 22, 2019


This is part one of a four part series:

Part 1 can be read here

Part 2 can be read here.

Part 3 can be read here.

Part 4 can be read here.

The National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) claims to be the largest debate organization in America. More than 240 schools have competed in intercollegiate debate through the NPDA. The NPDA is American parliamentary debate, which is a 2v2 format that utilizes the trichotomy of questions: Fact, value and policy. Due to its size, and its influence on the debaters and departments involved in the activity, the NPDA’s debate format is an important one to analyze.

This article, which is far too long for its own good, will seek to provide an overview to the development of the intercollegiate debate, and examine the format and argument discourses in the NPDA through a Habermasian perspective on the ideal speech situation, highlighting how game debate creates a very clear example of systematic distortion of discourse in the debate space.

The NPDA’s methods and format can be analyzed through a Habermasian framework of discourse, because debate is a fundamentally discursive activity, embodying Habermas’s discourse for resolution when executed in its ideal form. This analysis will seek to uncover the assumptions behind the format of debate, and provide a critical perspective on the current issues of in round discourse within the NPDA. This analysis will seek to show that the current issues in the NPDA are tied to the dialectical tension found between debate’s educational goals and competitive praxis, and that utilizing Habermas’s ideal speech situation can assist in reforming debate toward a more civil and approachable space.

In Part One of this critical look at NPTA debate rounds, I want to introduce the critical theory framework that I will use. First, I will describe the history of critical theory and discourse, I will define discourse through a critical lense, and I will introduce Habermas’s theory of communication. This theory of communication will be used in Part Two to analyze the National Parliamentary Debate Association’s argumentation and discourse situation.

Critical perspectives on discourse

Theories of democracy revolve around the assumption that communication is possible, and that agreement itself is possible. The interactions which seek this consensus, or seek to forward knowledge, are called discourse: Discourse is understood as a corpus of statements organized in a systematic way (Foucault 1985). The critical and analytical parts of the communication discipline have long been bound paradoxically through the concept of discourse.

Critical rhetoric is founded upon the discourses of power and critique of freedom and domination in rhetorical acts, while rhetorical analysis is interested in the discourses which influence public rhetoric and frame historical action in a more pragmatic sense. Both are bound up in the concept of discourse, and it is a word that is used often in discussions within academic contexts.

The Frankfurt school

Adorno and Horkheimer founded the Frankfurt School of Social Research, commonly referred to as the Frankfurt School, in 1927. They were soon exiled to America for a time (Zuidervaart, 2015). The project of their social research was to understand the changing conditions of social organization in response to Marx’s failure to accurately predict materialist history, namely the predicted fall of capitalism (Horkheimer, 1939). Both Adorno and Horkheimer accept that Marx’s view of economic development was essentially correct, but that it no longer applies to an increasingly advanced industrial economy (Horkheimer, 1939). They sought to bring the concepts of Marxism into a relevant position in light of technological and social changes which Marx had not foreseen in his historical materialism (Horkheimer, 1939).

For early critical theorists, discourse was a one way affair from mass media to consumer. Adorno and Horkheimer (1944) in one of their early essays examine the idea of a culture industry, whereby modern mass technology is able to stamp culture with machines and produce it for the masses. They were particularly appalled by the production of mass art, strategically focused newsreels, and oddly enough sound in movies (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944). For Adorno and Horkheimer (1944), mass culture represented a form of slavery to the production/consumption process of capitalism. Their concept of culture was that the new era had elites producing “consumer needs” for products, and then producing the products (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1944). The modern demand for fashion trends, entertainment, and “consumer” focused economies was part of the process of manufacturing consensus to the alienation of producer labor. This cycle of consumption encouraged people to move toward the center of the cities they could find jobs in and consume in. This represented the urban shift of American culture, a divide we can see in discourse to this day. For Adorno, rationality in communication was communicated directly from the system of communication to the consumer.

Following the early critical essays on the social function of philosophy and Marxism from Adorno and Horkheimer (1944, 1939) members of the critical school defended the role of philosophy in emerging culture as an independent and reasoned check on social domination. Marcuse set himself apart from the early theorists by rejecting Marx’s conflict theory as not only inapplicable, but also as incorrectly placing the problem. Marcuse in the 1950’s accepted the critique of capitalism offered by Marx, but he diagnoses the problem not as one of resource distribution, but as the ideological marketing of reduced forms of desire and pleasure instituted to prepare a population for crisis (Marcuse, 1964). The concept of crisis would show up later in the works of Habermas (1976), and refers to a moment in time when an institution’s legitimacy is brought into question by either internal or external threat.

For Marcuse, the problem of modern society was much more in line with Lacan. Marx was wrong because he wasn’t able to predict the power of capitalism to sell itself to a population of people. Lacan, also from the Frankfurt school, developed a psychoanalytical framework for understanding social action . Marcuse (1964) adopts parts of this framework, arguing that modern society has a flattening effect on the human psyche that sublimates his natural freedom and creativity to the needs of modern capitalism, or “the big other.” People are confounded and alienated by the system and the ideological discourses surrounding them, and learn to only see what the system is, and never question what the system should be (Marcuse, 1964). For Marcuse, institutions discipline the needs or desires of consumers to conform them to the system through the rhetoric of crisis, and this process represented discourse in modernity for him.

Technology was changing the way discourse was received, and the way society was organized. What Habermas (1985) would later call the “Life World”, which is everyday conversation, was being invaded by discourse that was strategically placed to shift public opinion in favor of institutions of power. An early example of this was the four minute men, who were propaganda tools for Woodrow Wilson in his 1917 campaign to defend the war effort (Danisch, 2010). 5,200 men, many trained in communication at universities in America, gave 7.5 million speeches defending the war effort in thousands of movie theaters across America (Danisch, 2010). They were called the four minute men because their speech was four minutes long, about the time it takes to change a reel in the movie theater. This example is a foreshadowing of the power of mass media, and the development of what Habermas called strategic discourses, which are communicative actions meant to distort the lifeworld discourse in favor of institutions via mass technology.

Habermas’s critical approach

Habermas was Marcuse’s graduate assistant, and in the 1960’s he began writing books about his own concepts of communication, society and discourse. Habermas developed his own derivative of historical materialism, focusing on the communicative action of institutions in building legitimizing messages (Habermas, 1976). Habermas (1976) conceived of history as a dialectic of legitimizing and delegitimizing discourses which form into a series of legitimation crises, this accepts on some level the micropolitical nature of social construction and is in contradiction to dearly modernist thinkers like Hegel who conceive of history dualistically. The role of critical theory is to constantly question the assumptions underpinning policy making and power relationships, and to understand how the strategic discourses of the institutions influence our everyday discourses, and ultimately the construction of institutions.

For Habermas, deliberative democracy was the solution to John Dewey’s problem of the public. Habermas set himself apart from his predecessors in both his construction of history, and his thoroughly modernist approach to critical theory. Habermas accepts parts of Hegelian dialectic, whereas many post modernists were critical of projects that sought absolute truth, and Adorno and Horkheimer were early critics of enlightenment modernism (Though they were Marxist). Habermas (1981) argued that critiques of modernism are part of the dialectical construction of modernity, and therefore are to be expected and valued. For Habermas (1985), the goal of communicative action is to produce a valid and rational consensus. Habermas presents his theory of communicative action as an alternative to Hegel’s (1977) claim that the dialectic of history must always clash in violence. Habermas believed that if certain speech conditions were met, and citizens were properly trained in the discourses of validity, discursive resolution could provide a public consensus on the role of institutions in the lifeworld without a violent outbreak (Lubenow 2012). This view positions the critic as an essential role in deliberative democracies.

This is a modernist approach in Hegelian influences, and also in the Kantian ones. Habermas’s concept of communal consensus on rules which they will be governed by is a modification of Kant’s first categorical imperative (Kant, 1785). The categorical imperative states that if your action cannot be universally taken without doing harm, it is immoral. Habermas (1984) is concerned with the moral power Kant bestows on an individual, and instead argued that your action can be taken only if the rules were instituted through free and open public deliberation, with all relevant publics having a voice in reaching a public consensus on how we should act. He saw ethics as bound up on the process of communication, not the personal struggle with creating exceptions for oneself.

Habermas’s (1984) theory of communicative action invites readers to the idea that society’s organization is ultimately based upon that ability for all able agents to build social cohesion through fair and honest validity claims through deliberative dialogue and debate seeking practical consensus. To understand Habermas’s theory of discourse, it is necessary to first understand his view of history. Habermas’s view of history is influenced by both Marx and Marcuse. His theory is based on the concept of public legitimation of institutions. Habermas (1976) believed that conflict was inevitable between groups that disagree over the role of institutions and the rules they put in place. He argues that systemic history can be understood as a series of legitimation crisis and subsequent reform movements. When an institution loses public confidence it experiences a legitimation crisis where it must prove it is worthy of public trust or it will be replaced with a different system. Systems are thought of as predefined procedures for operating which must be negotiated, and for Habermas they must continually renegotiate their social existence to publics.

Though Habermas is influenced by modernists, much like his predecessors at the Frankfurt school, Habermas was seeking a progressive democratic solution to the problem of institutionally distorted communication. Habermas (1985) explained his desire to develop a “Concept of rationality that is no longer tied to, and limited by, the subjectivistic and individualistic premises of modern philosophy and social theory (p. 2).” Habermas complicated Adorno’s concept of rationality, which was that humans are dominated by social reason, to a concept of rationality focused on how institutional discourses colonized the lifeworld. This allowed him to examine what he described as the colonization of the life world by media influences.

Habermas (1985) suggests that societal communication can be split up into strategic discourses from institutions and the media which justify certain predefined procedures (systems) as valid, and the lifeworld of everyday conversations. Habermas (1984) defined communicative rationality as “oriented to achieving, sustaining and reviewing consensus — and indeed a consensus that rests on the intersubjective recognition of criticisable validity claims (p. 17).” Thus discourse is understood in his writings as both a process which brings people together to discuss and debate validity claims, and the forms of evidence they rely upon to express validity claims (Habermas, 1984).

Habermas’s Ideal speech situation

Types of speech acts.

Habermas was interested in discourse ethics, and how one could develop an ideal space for communication. He argued that there are three primary types of speech acts presented in a communicative forum (Habermas, 1987). Each one focuses on a one of three domains of reality: “the” external nature, “our” world of society, and “my” world of internal nature. Constative speech acts focus on truth claims, and are propositional content (Habermas, 1987; Foss, Foss & Trapp, 1998). Their validity claims rely on empirical backing. Regulative speech acts focus on how we should see the collective world, and seeks to challenge the assumptions underpinning the norms of communicative action in a particular context (Habermas, 1987; Foss, Foss & Trapp, 1998). Avowals focus on the moral testimony and sincerity of the speaker, validity and is within the domain of intrapersonal nature (Habermas, 1987; Foss, Foss & Trapp, 1998). Avowal validity claims come through demonstrating sincerity. Each of these speech acts are used in debate for varying types of arguments.

Validity claims.

Habermas argues each type of speech act stresses different validity claims (Habermas, 1987). Validity for him is a constructed process, by which the statement made is acceptable within the realm of rationality, where rationality is not functionalist rationality but instead a process of reasoned criticisable claims presented in a space of discourse (Habermas, 1987). When validity is questioned one of three things happens, according to Habermas. One or both participants withdraw from the interaction, this is the least ideal because it ignores the negotiation of disagreement all together (Habermas, 1987; Foss, Foss & Trapp, 1998). The second response is, the problem can be resolved by means of further communication action (Habermas, 1987; Foss, Foss & Trapp, 1998). If sincerity claims are questions, the participants make use of this second option, to establish sincerity and trust in the negotiation (Habermas, 1987; Foss, Foss & Trapp, 1998). The final response is to move to the level of discourse for resolution (Habermas, 1987; Foss, Foss & Trapp, 1998). Habermas emphasizes the importance of having an attitude toward practical consensus, when a communicative interaction reaches this third level (Habermas, 1987). This is used for truth/appropriateness claims, and is the primary form of validity discourse utilized in debate, with some specific exceptions such as performance debate which may move to the second level of validity.

Forms of discourse.

Discourses are performances where we seek to demonstrate the ground for our claims/utterances, according to Habermas’s theory of validity. Habermas relies heavily upon Toulmin’s model for understanding how argument is accepted as a discourse, and then utilized within a communicative space (Foss, Foss, Trapp, 1991). Within the Toulmin model, interactants subject themselves to the limits of argumentation, and no longer exchange experiences, but seek to argue for justifications of problematized validity claims being used as grounds for action (Toulmin, 2003). This is the level at which the forum of debate is created.

Toulmin (2003) believed that practical argumentation like the sort Habermas is discussing is separate from the theoretical discourses of immutable truth. He argued that argumentative discourses use of criteria over an objective truth (Toulmin, 2003; Foss, Foss, Trapp, 1991). Criteria are proposed that provide a standard to judge the arguments by, and then that standard is applied. Toulmin argued that an argument can have up to five parts: Claim, backing, warrant, modality, and rebuttal (Toulmin, 2003). The claim is the proposed assertion which is being justified by the argument. The backing is the data and evidence used to demonstrate the claim, and the warrant links the backing to the claim, showing how the backing applies to the claim. Modality and rebuttal are qualifying attributes of arguments, which identify the conditions where the warrant may not apply to the claim and demonstrate how those conditions are not present, therefore the claim is justified (Toulmin, 2003; Foss, Foss, Trapp, 1991).

Communicative spaces.

Each of these authors is interested in the concept of a forum for truth, or a cooperative competition which orients itself toward practical consensus building and idea testing. Habermas proposed what he called the ideal speech situation (Habermas, 1990). There are five rules, or constraints, which must be observed in such a speech situation. First, all who are able to take part and allowed to take part in the interaction (Habermas, 1990). Second, all assertions presented in the discourse are open to be questioned and tested for validity (Habermas, 1990). Third, everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion into the discourse to be tested by the interactants (Habermas, 1990). Fourth, everyone is allowed to express their attitudes sincerely (Habermas, 1990). Finally, no speaker may be prevented from exercising these rights via any type of coercion (Habermas, 1990). It is important to note, Habermas doesn’t necessarily believe this speech situation will ever come about, but that it is the goal of a communicative space to embody this structure.

Toulmin (1972) suggested that “forums of competition” can be oriented toward expressing and testing expressions of truth, to move toward a better view of our shared reality. Toulmin understood a forum of competition as a process of debate and inquiry (Toulmin, 1972; Toulmin, 1958). Habermas also suggests a concept of cooperative competition within discourse, whereby competing concepts of what is real or rational are tested against each other with a common goal of achieving a practical view of what is true (Habermas, 1998). Habermas said “ The practice of argumentation sets in motion a cooperative competition for the better argument, where the orientation to the goal of communicatively reached agreement unites the participants from the outset” (Habermas, 1998, p. 169). Ehninger argued that intercollegiate switch side debate embodies a form of cooperative competition (Ehninger & Brockriede, 1978) . He suggests that debating competing ideas functions within a broader cooperative framework of seeking out what is valid and rational. Here we see a connection between the theorists who are fundamental to the development of debate, Toulmin and Ehninger, using a similar argument in favor of debate that Habermas suggests is the ultimate function of discourse (Toulmin, 1972; Toulmin, 1958; Ehninger, 1958; Ehninger, 1972; Ehninger & Brockriede, 1978).



Aaron J. Alford

Media critique and memes. Writing about rhetoric and society. MA in Communication