Arguments

"Argument" is the most fundamental concept in our study of critical thinking. Much of this course will be devoted to identifying, developing, and evaluating arguments. We will study valid and invalid forms of arguments, strong and weak arguments, causal arguments, analogical arguments, and arguments based on generalizations. The significance of arguments to critical thinking makes it important for all of us to understand the term, and its relationship to some of the basic language of the critical thinking course.

The word "argument" is often used in everyday language to refer to a heated dispute, a quarrel, a shouting match. Please take note that we will not be using argument in this sense throughout this course. Instead, "argument," as we will be using the term refers to "a set of propositions, or statements, which are designed to convince a reader or listener of a claim, or conclusion, and which include at least one reason (premise) for accepting the conclusion."  

Some other definitions of argument may be helpful to you. Kathleen Dean Moore defines an argument as "a claim or proposition put forward along with reasons or evidence supporting it."  Robert Ennis defines an argument as "an attempt to support a conclusion by giving reasons for it." (Critical Thinking, 1995) Irving M. Copi, in his Introduction to Logic, defines an argument as a "group of propositions of which one, the conclusion, is claimed to follow from the others, which are premises." In his book, Critical Thinking, Richard Epstein provides the following definition of argument: " An argument is a collection of statements, one of which is called the conclusion whose truth the argument attempts to establish; the others are called the premises, which are supposed to lead to, or support, or convince that the conclusion is true."

To understand "argument," it necessary to understand the terms, "proposition" or "statement," the purpose of arguments, and the relationship of premises and conclusions in an argument.

Warning: The different meanings of "argument"

I made reference earlier to the everyday understanding of argument as a shouting match, dispute, or quarrel, and indicated that our definition of argument is different. This everyday conception of argument can cause confusion at times when you try to identify arguments. Sometimes students conclude that a specific passage is not and argument because they agree with the premise(s) and conclusion. Such an answer assumes that an argument requires a dispute or quarrel. Remember that a passage designed to convince you to accept a conclusion, with at least one premise to support that conclusion, is an argument.

Propositions and Statements

The building blocks of arguments are propositions (or statements or claims).  A proposition (statement or claim)  is a sentence that is either true or false. This means that a proposition is distinct from other sentences that not either true or false, such as, questions, commands, and exclamations, All of the following are examples of propositions: "The U. S. holds presidential elections every four years." "Bob bought a new car." "Suzanne has the measles." "More than forty people are enrolled in this class." "An advanced form of life exists on the planet Mars."

Each of these statements is a proposition because it is either true or false, or put differently, it has truth value. With some investigation, one can determine the truth or falsity of each statement. It is very important to note that even if a proposition seems obviously false, such as the statement about advanced life on Mars, it is still a proposition, though a false proposition.

You should also note that a single sentence may include more than one proposition, For example, the sentence, "Since smoking is bad for your health, you should not do it," includes two propositions: "Smoking is bad for your health." and "You should not do it."  "Joseph went to the store and Barbara went to the beach," includes more than one claim.

Beware, sometimes a sentence may seem to include two propositions, but does not. A common error is to mistake propositions like the following as being two propositions: "If Andre comes to the party, then Susan will stay at home."  We will discuss these types of propositions (they're called "conditionals") later in this course. For now, note that this proposition is NOT saying that both events (Andre comes to the party and Susan will stay at home.) will occur.  Rather it is making a single proposition about the relationship of the two parts, namely that if one thing happens the other will happen too.

Warning: "It's not a proposition. It's just his or her opinion."

The statement above is one commonly made by students in a critical thinking class. This statement reflects a misunderstanding that needs to be resolved now. If we define the term "opinion" as a belief that we accept, though without certainty, then the term covers many topics of vital interest to us. Our views about religion, the best form of government, what constitutes the virtuous life, the meaning of works of art, literature, and music, can all be classified as "opinions." If such statements are not propositions, then they are not true or false, and there is no need to offer reasons in support of them.

In this course, we will not dismiss beliefs which people accept, though without certainly, as mere opinions.  Rather, we will make a distinction between "mere opinion," that is a belief that is unsupported by reasons, and "reasoned judgment," which is supported by reasons.  We will try to improve our skills in developing arguments to support our own opinions, and in evaluating the arguments offered by others in support of their opinions.

Please click here to see student responses on sample exercises in identifying propositions.  After you review the samples, you will be asked to complete some exercises on your own.

The Purpose of Arguments: To Convince or Persuade

Arguments consist of at least two claims -- statements that are true or false -- which are offered for a specific purpose, namely to convince or persuade a listener or reader. Arguments are related to persuasion, the activities of convincing and of being convinced. These are activities very familiar to all of us. Scarcely a day passes without someone trying to convince us of something. Parents and friends try to convince us to take better care of our health, advertisers try to convince us to buy their products, or political candidates attempt to persuade us on how to vote. The list of examples could go on endlessly.

Recall something that someone has tried to convince you of -- something you should do or believe -- in the last several days? Make note of this example because we will come back to it.

While arguments are intended to convince, this does not mean that all attempts to convince are arguments. Most of us use and encounter a variety of methods of persuasion. A parent might use a simple gesture or facial expression to persuade a child to refrain from a specific behavior; advertisers sometimes try to convince us to buy their products with advertisements that depict a cute child or pet, a handsome man or pretty woman and the name of his or her product. Sometimes people try to persuade by manipulating language in a variety of ways, such as, through threats and flattery, or by calling people names that have powerful emotional associations, or phrases that insinuate or suggest claims.

Such efforts to convince are not arguments. Arguments can be distinguished from these other types of persuasion because they provide reasons for accepting the conclusion. 

Remember:

You should see that you can identify the issue by turning the conclusion into a question.

To determine the conclusion, ask yourself, "What is this writer or speaker trying to convince me of?"

A passage that only informs is not an argument; the writer or speaker must be trying to convince you of something before it can be called an argument.  Note that 2 and 3, 14 and 15, deal with the same information, though only one of each pair is an argument.

The Parts of an Argument: Conclusion and Reasons

The purpose of arguments, namely to convince or persuade, is reflected in the relationship of their parts. We have already said that an argument is comprised of a claim, or conclusion, and at least one reason for accepting the claim or conclusion.  The propositions in an argument are inferentially related, that is, one or more of the propositions are intended to establish the truth of the main proposition or conclusion.  The conclusion of the argument is the claim that the writer or speaker is trying to convince another person to accept. In addition to a conclusion, an argument must have at least one reason offered in support of the conclusion. A proposition offered in support of a conclusion can be called simply a reason, or a premise.

Don't allow these terms and concepts to obscure from you the fact that hearing and developing arguments is a very common activity, even if you have never reflected on it. If you tell a friend, "You should stop smoking. It's bad for your health," you have given an argument, whose main claim, or conclusion, is "You should stop smoking," and includes at least one reason, or premise, "It's bad for your health." When you express a viewpoint or suggest a course of action to a friend or colleague, and he or she asks "Why?" then the other person is really asking you to give an argument to support your conclusion.

Earlier I asked you to think of an example of something someone has tried to convince you of recently. Recall that example. Did that individual offer at least one reason for you to be convinced or persuaded? If he or she offered a reason, then that individual presented an argument.

Identifying Arguments, Conclusions, and Premises

One of the objectives of this lesson is for you to be able to distinguish sets of propositions that are arguments from those that are not arguments. We have offered the following definition of argument: An "argument" is a set of propositions, which is designed to convince a reader or listener of a conclusion, and which include at least one reason (premise) for accepting the conclusion." Arguments, which are designed to convince, are different from sets of propositions that instruct, give directions, report or inform. Most newspaper articles, for example, give reports and are designed primarily to inform you. Instructional manuals provide directions on how to do something.

If asked to determine whether a set of propositions is an argument or not, ask yourself the questions, "Is this passage trying to convince me of something." If the answer to this question is "yes," then ask, "What claim or conclusion is the passage intended to convince me to accept?"  After identifying the conclusion, ask, "What reasons are given for me to accept this conclusion?"

Remember that so long as you have a conclusion and at least one reason or premise, the passage is an argument.

Conclusion indicators and premise indicators - In identifying conclusions and premises, it is sometimes helpful to look for certain key words which, if used properly, indicate a conclusion or a premise. Terms such as, "therefore," "hence," "thus," "consequently," or "so," normally introduce a conclusion. Similarly, terms such as "since," "because," "for," and "inasmuch as" often introduce a premise.

Common Premise Indicators

Common Conclusion Indicators

Because... Therefore...
Since...  Consequently...
In light of... Hence ...
Whereas... So ... 
Given that... Thus ...
For the reason that... In conclusion...
For... Accordingly...
It follows that...
As a result...

You must be careful in relying on these indicators.  Unfortunately, these terms do not always serve as indicators.  Consider the word "since."  When it is used to indicate a time, i.e.,  "Since I came to FSU, I have had many friends."  In this case, "since" refers to the time that I came to FSU.   Moreover, writers and speakers do not always use these words to introduce their conclusions and premises, and sometimes when people use these term, they use them incorrectly. Hence (Note, I've used a conclusion indicator), these terms do not offer infallible guides to identifying premises and conclusions.

Even though these indicator terms are not infallible guides, they can provide a useful test when you seek to identify conclusions and premises. Consider the following examples. "Mr. Jones has served in the U.S. Senate for twelve years and has extensive experience in foreign affairs. You should support him for President."

Develop several formulations of the set of propositions with different conclusion and premise indicators to determine which formulation makes sense. One possible formulation would be "Since you should support Jones for President, therefore he has served in the U.S. Senate for twelve years and has extensive experience in foreign affairs."

Another possible formulation would be:

"Since Jones has served in the U.S. Senate for twelve years and has extensive experience in foreign affairs, therefore you should support him for President."

Supplying these premise and conclusion indicators make it clear that the second formulation is the most sensible. This lets us know that "You should support Jones for President" is the conclusion, and that "Jones has served in the U.S. Senate for twelve years and has extensive experience in foreign affairs" is the premise.

Issues and Arguments

The "issue" of an argument is the question that the argument is intended to answer.  Consider the example just discussed:

"Mr. Jones has served in the U.S. Senate for twelve years and has extensive experience in foreign affairs. You should support him for President."

The issue here is whether I should support Jones for President.

Recognizing the issue can be helpful in identifying an argument's conclusion. Ask yourself what question the argument seems be answering, and then look for the answer to that question. At the same time if you identify the conclusion, it is then easy to state the issue. State "whether" at the beginning of the conclusion, and that is the issue.

The concept of issue is useful. In the course of discussions and debates, it is not uncommon for participants to lose focus, to stray from the topic at hand. Sometimes a person may intentionally try to turn a conversation away from the issue at hand, because they do not want to discuss it. In such situations, it is helpful to ask, "What is the issue?" In other words, clarifying the question your arguments are intended to answer can help us keep our attention focused.

Please click here to review student answers on exercises on analyzing arguments.  After you review the samples you will have an opportunity to complete some exercises on your own.