Adversus solem ne loquitor.
Translation: Don’t dispute the Sun. In other words, don’t argue against an obvious fact.
As I wander through the Internet like a serially stranded tourist I read many assertions that are not as well-founded as the existence of the Sun, or even the Moon. Actually, many of them are lunatic. This is not restricted to blogs or personal sites. There are many published newspapers and magazines that are full of non-facts asserted as if they were the most obvious, apparent truths of the world. One common example is mind-reading, where a reporter explains that somebody performed an act because of this and that, but at root the explanation is simply the reporter’s imagination running wild with surmises about the pathologies that rampage through the subject’s deranged mind, or even worse when the reporter uses a Marxist or other ideologically biased and invalid explanation of behavior and treats the conclusion as if it were rigorously proved.
I have often taken upon myself where I could the task of leading these poor misguided souls to understanding using logical reasoning based on empirical facts and principles. Imagine my surprise when people don’t exactly do back-flips to express their appreciation of my freely-offered assistance.
So I recently got my hands on A Practical Study of Argument, 6th Ed, by Trudy Govier. The reviews are mostly positive. It is a college-level textbook, and thus, ridiculously overpriced. I obtained the library’s copy and am studying it.
You see, I have come to believe one cannot reasonably expect to read the corpus of a master of syllogistic argumentation such as William F. Buckley and simply absorb his grasp of logical argument without having an independent understanding of what he did.
So what I hope to be doing for a little while is going through the interesting topics in Govier (with an assist from the Internet) under the label “Ars Argumentorum”. This will be a continuing review and digestion of the topic, not necessarily limited to the Govier source material. If you have any sub-topics you would like me to cover I will endeavor to research them and oblige. Practical applications of theoretical material such as this always help clarify the usefulness of distinctions that might appear at first glance to be overly technical.
An argument is an attempt to justify a claim against a dispute. The disputable claim of the argument is the justification for why the argument is needed in the first place. There are usually giveaways that will help you identify an argument, or the lack of one.
Questions, jokes, stories, satire, humor, commands, mathematical and scientific fact, irony, ridicule, conditional statements of the “if A then B” form, exclamations, descriptions, explanations, and poems including song lyrics are not arguments.
It is rude to treat non-arguments as arguments when they are not. On the other hand, it is also rude to use non-arguments to dispute arguments. Rudeness does not discriminate: It goes both ways.
Arguments have premises and a conclusion. They can be presented in any order. There are giveaway words for both premises and conclusions.
Here are some giveaway words and phrases for premises. The technical term is “indicators of premises.” They mean “look out for the premise(s) to an argument.”
- as indicated by
- follows from
- on the grounds that
- as shown by
- given that
- here is the proof
And here are some giveaway words and phrases for conclusions. In other words, these words and phrases mean “look out for the conclusion to an argument.”
- it follows that
- in conclusion
- we can conclude that
- for this reasons we can see that
- proves that
- shows that
- demonstrates that
Argument versus Explanation
Explanations follow the same format as arguments. They use many of the same indicators. Yet, according to Govier, they are not the same. (I am not sure if I agree with this, see below.) For instance, the following sentence is an explanation: “I didn’t turn in the homework. This is because I left it where the dog could get it and the dog ate it.” The next sentence, on the other hand, is an argument: “You should give me a break because I couldn’t turn in the homework after the dog ate it.”
Here is why I think that Explanation is a weak type of Argument. When treated as an argument, any explanation describes why a claim could or should be justified in at least one case. This establishes the claim as factual in at least one circumstance (sometimes true). So it’s impossible for someone to dispute the claim by stating the claim can never be true. Explanation cannot establish a claim as “always” factual, but it certainly covers the “some” territory.
And yet it is awfully rude to dispute someone’s explanatory personal story about his or her own life experiences. It’s hard to avoid mind-reading in such a dispute. And you wouldn’t want to become a rude, combative boor. So beware. Here be dragons.
Professors of Philosophy or Mathematics have long thought of formal logic as a pure, logical process using deductive reasoning and precisely defined premises and terms to come to an airtight, unassailable, syllogistic conclusion. There is no place for inductive argument, analogy, humor, or charisma in such a process. Professors of Philosophy call such argument a syllogism.
Trudy Govier, and thus this series, does not focus on syllogism.
A Practical Study of Argument, by Trudy Govier, studies a new kind of theory of argumentation that has been developing since the 1970s: Informal Logic. Where logical argument had long been restricted to syllogism, this new style of argumentation is based on the way people discuss and dispute contentious topics in real life using sentences composed of natural (non-technical) vocabulary. It also applies to litigation, advertising, and other persuasive activities.
Venn diagrams and boolean logic are not of too much importance within the realm of informal logic. Nor is Truth the ultimate measure of success. Rather, the validity of an argument is determined by whether the audience agrees with it. And an argument can be strong because of facts and evidence, or it can be strong because it is congruent with the existing beliefs and prejudices of the audience, or strong because of positive feelings and emotions solicited by the arguer as she presents her argument.
This does not mean there is no structure to informal logic. There are standard structures for informal argument, and as demonstrated in What is or isn’t an Argument there are words and grammatical structures (indicators) that reveal the existence of an argument.
Just as a teaser, here are a few pictures of standard argument structures to be used in informal logic.
Each of these three structures endeavors to prove 3.
1 therefore 3, in addition, 2 therefore 3.
1 and 2 therefore 3
1 therefore 2 therefore 3
This is the point where I, the writer, became uninterested in pursuing it further. For it became clear that the method of argument proposed by Govier and her fellow theorists was actually a method for the creation of persuasive propaganda, not truth seeking.
Do these methods work? Yes they do. And so does the simplest method of persuasion there is: A 45 caliber pistol pointed at another person. These methods work for lies better than they do for the truth, for the truth is usually complicated and lies are most often very simple.
So though I don’t want to learn how to use these methods any further, I do want to know how to recognize them so I can counter them. And that is the spirit in which I offer them to you.
This article was consolidated from several posts made in March and April 2008.