Dediscoursification - how discursive attitudes cause wars

Dediscoursification – how discursive attitudes cause wars

TransConflict is pleased to present extracts from Dražen Pehar’s book, ‘Dediscoursification – how discursive attitudes cause wars’, the key contention of which is that the attitude to language should be theorized as one of the major causes of war.

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By Dražen Pehar

This book was long in the making. Its origins can be traced back to my 2005 PhD thesis that deals with diplomatic ambiguity primarily in the form of ambiguous peace agreements. In the thesis I proposed an attitude to language, which can be categorized as discourse-ethical, and which recognizes ambiguity as a valuable tool of diplomacy the purpose of which is to enable ambiguous peace agreements to endure and be effective. I placed such an attitude in comparison to some other attitudes that have a negative, or neutral, impact on ambiguity, and often lead to the unraveling of ambiguous peace agreements.

In this book I generalize this perspective and apply it to a different realm. While my thesis deals mostly with the periods following adoption of an ambiguous peace, that is, a post-war situation, this book deals with the periods that precede wars. Briefly, in this book my key contention is that the attitude to language should be theorized as one of the major causes of war.[1] Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is to quote a famous Canadian fiction writer, Margaret Atwood, one of whose fictional characters stated that war is what happens when language fails. Of course, it is not easy to explain how exactly language fails, what it means, and how this opens the door to an outbreak of war. My relatively simple initial idea is that language often fails through a kind of language-use that the human agents practice. In other words, our use of language always indicates our attitude to language, and if such an attitude is characterized by our partner in the communication as detrimental to language itself, thus to our relationship overall, and is characterized so for a sound reason, then the relationship is brought much closer to the brink of war.

It goes without saying that not all kinds of language-use lead to war. Often, however, two parties will use language as a medium and means of discussing some issues that they consider of a major political and social importance.[2] It is within such a discussion that the formation of a view of one’s interlocutor qua communicator carries high risks, and generally has important consequences. Let us rely on a simple metaphor. Imagine two gunmen who first talk about some social-political issues that are important to them both. Initially the two do not relate to one another as gunmen. However, let us imagine that, after a period of verbal interaction, one of the gunmen starts forming a view of the other that is detrimental to the process of continued communication. That gunman starts to form negative expectations concerning the likelihood of arriving at a negotiated solution with the other primarily due to the latter’s verbal behavior. More specifically, he starts to consider the other a liar, or as one who does not care about a proper pattern of argumentation, or as an incoherent speaker, or a notorious promise-breaker. In other words, one gunman somehow disqualifies himself as a language-using being, and in, and due to, the process of disqualification gradually acquires some negative moral attributes that make the other gunman cease to believe in the possibility of a negotiated solution.

What can we expect to happen next? As the gunmen are gunmen, they will start thinking of the necessity to draw their guns and thus try settling their conflict. At that point, they have ceased to consider the medium of discourse as a likely medium of their conflict resolution. Hence, they start considering some other media, perhaps also of armed force, as the media through which they will be forced to settle their dispute. Or, perhaps it does not need to be so deliberate at all. If the gunmen simply ceased to believe in the use of language, it will become extremely difficult for them to restrain from over-emphasizing the degree of threat in signals coming from the other side. As language ceased to be helpful, every move is viewed as potentially dangerous, because both parties know that the other party has ceased trusting their words, and is now faced with the situation in which non-language-based means of “persuasion” are likely to, or simply can, be tried. This is why the attitude to language, a discursive attitude, needs to be theorized explicitly as a major part or aspect of the genealogy of war.

Imagine that the gunmen are each composed of both ens loquens, a speaking being, and ens belli, a being of war. Ens loquens needs to retreat to make space for ens belli. In other words, wars occur as a gradual silencing of ens loquens, and gradual coming to fore of ens belli. When we start thinking of the possibility of war against a party, this means that we have ceased to think of the possibility of finding a negotiated solution with the party, and we have also ceased to think that further negotiations with the party will make sense. Obviously, one’s experience with the past use of discourse must have a role in the entire process. Human beings often rationally conclude that the use of discourse in dealing with some parties will not pay off. Hence, the attitude to language is one of the key underlying causes of war. One of the key theses of this book may be put as follows: a kind of silence produced by a series of discursive interactions between human beings is among the most menacing kinds. I do not deny that there may be positive kinds, but the kind of silence this book deals with is marked emphatically as menacing primarily because it involves a negative view of one’s interlocutor as a moral agent; it is only natural and expected that such a view is followed by a view of the interlocutor as something “less than, or incompletely, human,” that is, a both dehumanizing and bestializing view.

As to the process of gradual, and reason-driven, silencing of ens loquens, in my previous, and brief, publications concerning the topic I used the term “de-discoursation” (Pehar 2012; 2013).[3] Following Philip Pettit’s suggestion, the term is changed to “dediscoursification.” The term connotes that we need to view the agent who inflicts harm on language as an active, conscious destroyer of language. The agent de-discoursifies another agent, makes him or her lose trust in the use of language, silences him or her as ens loquens, and thereby takes both agents towards an outbreak of war. Or, both agents may de-discoursify one another. More importantly, however, the dediscoursifying agent(s) need to perform a very specific kind of violation to acquire the status of a dediscoursifier. They need to violate a structure, which I call “moral matrix of discourse,” in order to discourage the other, or one another, from further use of discourse. This is surely a discourse-ethical perspective, the view that the use of discourse is guided by moral considerations, or that it is placed within a substantive ethical frame without which it can hardly make sense.[4] Discourse is a foundational institution of any human society, and its proper performance needs to follow some ethical guidelines. This also means that, when we talk to other people, we form a view of them as moral agents simply by focusing on, and characterizing, their discourse. It is through such focus that we check whether, and to what extent, our interlocutors are sociable and agreeable human beings; and we thereby also check the possibility of negotiating solutions in partnership with them.

The book is composed of the following chapters that evolve progressively. Chapter One presents nine case-studies involving at least two parties that discuss some issues; all dialogues involve parties whose verbal interaction leads to degeneration of interaction in the sense that at least one of the parties ceases to believe in the possibility of conflict resolution by means of negotiating or by the use of discourse. Six dialogues involve parties who, after a period of verbal interaction, started fighting a real war. I open the chapter with a dialogue that does not involve warring parties-to-be, but some whose verbal interaction ended with a small-scale violence. The example, however, is sufficiently similar to the others in terms of its ability to demonstrate that a discursive attitude is related to the eruption of violence. Additionally, it is a very simple example and thus pertinent as one that should open a chapter. One of the dialogues I present is not from a real diplomatic or political life, but from a fictional, classical Greek drama by Euripides. However, as the dialogue is a rich source of examples, and the dramatist drew on the phenomena of a real political life, I considered it worthy of inclusion in this chapter. The chapter serves one key purpose: to demonstrate unmistakably that the process of dediscoursification takes place between real political/diplomatic agents in real political/diplomatic settings with a sufficient frequency.

Chapter Two outlines the first step of the construction of a theoretical frame to elucidate and explain the process exemplified by the dialogues from Chapter One. All dialogues evolve around at least one of four key parameters: meaning, truth, reason-, and promise-giving. Hence Chapter Two is composed of four sections dealing with the four parameters respectively. The key task of the chapter is to explain how and why such parameters are important to the process of communication. It explains how a positive attitude to the parameters supports the process, and how and why negative one discourages and stalls it. Throughout the chapter, I draw heavily on the scholarship concerning the use of language, various semanticists, linguists, and philosophers of language, developmental psychologists, and the theorists of cognition. I present the parameters starting from simpler, and developmentally earlier, ones, and then move to the developmentally later, language-wise more demanding, of the parameters.

Chapter Three is the second and final step of the setting of the theoretical frame that explains the process exemplified by the dialogues. It offers a model of dediscoursification that is based on, but also somewhat modifies, Jakobson’s famous six-function model of communication. It is composed of three sections that aim to present the following sequence of the model’s key implications:

1. A foundational structure that explains the four parameters jointly in terms of the theory of language as a creator of the collective body; the theory primarily offers justification for the following two claims:

a. the only way to understand the “glue” that keeps the four parameters together is to posit the notion of language as a body multiplier, or a generator of the collective body;

b. such a notion of language explains the sense in which Jakobson’s phatic function needs to be taken as fundamental to the use of language.

2. Metalingual perspective, and function, is the crux of explanation of the causes of the dediscoursification process; furthermore, the process can be explained only by a properly theorized interaction between the phatic and the metalingual function of language;

3. The model also offers a perspective on the role of rules in language; the moral matrix of discourse cannot be fully reduced to rules, but rules do play an important role in the understanding of the matrix. Most importantly, a proper understanding of the notion of discursive rule, but also of discursive value, is required to explain how the model of dediscoursification must avoid being too restrictive; in other words, we need to avoid a potential implication of the model that disqualifies some otherwise legitimate rhetorical modus of discourse as an instance of violation of the moral matrix of discourse.

Chapter One obviously provides empirical backbones to the theory of dediscoursification. Chapters Two and Three offer a theoretical outline to explain the process. Chapter Two is composed at a lower, Chapter Three at a higher, level of abstraction. Chapter Four is a chapter of implications, applications, and ramifications. Section 4.1 places the theory of dediscoursification in comparison to other theories of war, including primarily the tradition of the just war theory. To anyone familiar with the basic contours of the tradition it will be clear that the theory of dediscoursification overlaps with the “just war” tradition of theorizing through the so-called “ultima ratio” criterion. Interestingly, the very criterion, when properly elaborated, will inevitably guide one to at least a basic outline, or foundational principles, of the theory of dediscoursification. However, one needs to have in mind that the just war theory does not cultivate an unambiguous attitude to the criterion, as the proponents of the theory are strongly divided over the reach and meaning of the “ultima ratio.” In this section, I supply an argument in favor of the thesis that the criterion should be taken as Achilles’ heel of the theory. If one places a strong emphasis on it, one should endorse the view that no war can be just.

Secondly, both the theory of dediscoursification and the just war theory embody a moral discourse, or a moral discursive frame, in thinking about war. In 4.1 I also argue for the view that the former is superior to the latter primarily due to the fact that it proposes a moral discourse at a much earlier stage of reflection than the just war theory. The just war theory invites one to apply moral categories only to the time periods immediately preceding an outbreak of war. In contrast, the theory of dediscoursification invites one to apply moral categories much earlier, to the discursive interaction between the warring parties that may stretch over a much longer section of the past history of their relationship. This enables one to take a much more measured, and more plausible, view of the justice or injustice represented by the claims on behalf of which the war is fought. Also, in the same section, I contend that, strictly speaking, war may be necessary, but it cannot be just simply because there are no reasoned discursive means of defending the view that the just cause in question could be promoted by violent means. War may defend a reasoner, but it cannot defend a reason.

Section 4.2 explains why it is pertinent and prudent to view the theory of dediscoursification as implying the commitment to the tenets of republican political theory. A number of examples from Chapter One suggest strongly that the relationship between the dediscoursifying and the dediscoursified agent, on the one hand, and the master-slave relationship, on the other, should be, in a discourse-related sense, viewed as two facets of the same thing. In fact, both the slave and the descoursified agent have to cope with domination as an arbitrary exercise of power in Pettit’s sense of the word. Also, both the slave and the dediscoursified agent lack freedom as discursive control, again in Pettit’s sense. Moreover, the theory of dediscoursification, when viewed through the lens of republican theory, gives a pertinent explanation of the causes of slave-rebellion and/or of civil wars which erupt in those states that violate the norms of good republican polity.

This means that an anti-republican stance is not only an implausible position in the sense of political theory; it is also imprudent in a practical sense due to its capacity to cause war. But, neither a republican nor an intelligent slave will welcome war, regardless of its outcome, simply because war is an exercise of arbitrary power in its purest form. Hence, from the perspective of either the theory of dediscoursification or republican political theory, the only way to cure and amend the relationships of either “master-slave” or the “dediscoursifying” kind is through encouraging and supporting the process of re-discoursification. The theme of re-discoursification, however, is beyond the limits of the book.

Finally, Conclusion explains how the theory of dediscoursification, and the kind of discourse-ethics upon which the theory is premised, may be traced back to the classical Greek thinking and debates on language, especially in the area of rhetoric. The theory is an heir to one particular type of theorizing on language that we find in Isocrates whose position is determined by his opposition to both Gorgias and Plato. In opposition to Gorgias, Isocrates advocates the view that the dividing line between a reasoned use of discourse, on the one hand, and an application of force, or violence, on the other, can be drawn plausibly. In opposition to Plato whose animosity against the entire area of rhetoric he plausibly repudiates, Isocrates couches discourse-ethics in terms that are sufficiently context-sensitive and responsive to the fact of universal human fallibility. In both aspects, the theory of dediscoursification sides with Isocrates. As a last step in the book, Conclusion also points to more indirect routes through which the process of dediscoursification may take place. For instance, a sufficient potential of dediscoursification is found in some specific views of discourse that picture it as inherently prone to, or as fundamentally unable to resist, the process of dediscoursification. Another way in which the process may infect the relationship between language-users is through cultural matrices, or biases, or cultural codes that undermine our faith in the human potential to use discourse productively and creatively in tackling our common social and political problems.

As to theoretical positioning of this book within a wider spectrum of international political theory, I tend to contrast it mainly with two approaches that dominate today’s intellectual scene. First, the book offers a view that is opposed to so-called “postmodernist” current of international studies as presented in, for example, Campbell (1993; 1998). I, for a start, strongly believe that the phenomenon or process of dediscoursification simply cannot be recognized from a postmodernist angle. Such an angle denies all the key oppositions to which this book is subscribed, and views discourse as too unruly and slippery, which prevents the postmodernist from recognizing, and giving consideration to, the moral matrix of language. This also has an adverse effect on the potential of the postmodernist thought to develop a viable and practicable critical attitude to the processes or phenomena in international politics. Without a relevant discourse-ethical foundation, one is simply not in a position to offer a sustained and plausible critique of the ways discourse is used by relevant international political actors.

Secondly, and more importantly, this book departs in significant ways from the Realist paradigm of international political theory. In contrast to the postmodernist current of thought, which at least considers some notion of language or discourse, Realists tend to view international politics as if human beings are not language-using, conversing and co-reasoning, creatures.[5] Even when they (rarely) decide to address the aspect of language, they tend to view it as completely subsumed to the power-related considerations (see, for example, Morgenthau 1956, 405). Interestingly, it is exactly through such a view that their image of discourse gets fully translated into the postmodernist theory. This prevents them from offering, for instance, a plausible perspective on the notion and phenomenon of diplomatic ambiguity (see Pehar 2011b). Most importantly, however, the Realist political theory seems unable to address the issue of conflict, or war, in terms of cognitive, and reason-driven, responding to some complex moral and legal issues. Ultimately, the contrast between discourse-ethics, which includes the theory of dediscoursification, and the Realist kind of political thought, boils down to incompatibility in the views of the human nature and/or potential.[6]

Dražen Pehar has a PhD in politics and international relations from Keele University (SPIRE 2006), holds an assistant professorship (BiH) in the philosophy of law and in politics with sociology. Dražen is a DiploFoundation Associate, and previously served as Chief of Staff to the BiH Federation President (1996) and as a media analyst to the OHR (1999/2000). Dražen is also part of the Institute for Social and Political Research (IDPI), a member of theGlobal Coalition for Conflict Transformation


  1. For an accessible overview of the major perspectives on the issue of the causes of war, see Anderson (1996, 196-211). Howard (2008) offers a historical and genealogical presentation of major sociological perspectives on the causes of war within specific political contexts of the perspectives’ emergence. The approach I find appealing and kin to the perspective offered in this book is that of Suganami (1996; 2002); Suganami (1996) is neatly reviewed in Ringmar (1997).
  2. Some genealogies of war, such as Caillois (2001, 163-183) and DeMause (2002), seem to assume that this factor of a discussion concerning a divisive moral/political issue plays no causal role in the outbreaks of war; with such an assumption I disagree strongly.
  3. For some early responses to my publications, see Matteucci (2012) and Chamberlain (2013).
  4. For a discourse-ethical perspective as pertaining to political contexts, I would start with Rapoport (1967) and Kettner (2006), not with Apel or Habermas. As to my own understanding of discourse-ethics, the reader is advised to focus more closely on chapters 2 and 3; the concluding paragraphs of section 3.3 provide the summary of my perspective.
  5. See, for example, Waltz (1959), Copeland (2000), and Gat (2009)
  6. Also, my very decision to write this book entails a head-on opposition to the following claim: “Luckily, theories of international relations need not grapple with the nature of language in any depth” (Hollis, Smith 1990, 69).

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