Chapter Four: Identifying Arguments



I.    Introduction

Identification of arguments serves as the focus for the theoretical work in this chapter.  The discussion of identifying arguments resolved into two sections, viz., the context of argument and the rhetoric of argument.  In the former, we explored various contexts in which arguments are typically found.  In the latter, we addressed the ways of speaking that are manifest in argumentative discourse, including those ways that signal the presence of argument. The bulk of this section is devoted to illustrations of argument identification, using three texts for the purpose.  The teaching points and instructional tips that precede these illustrations can be used to prepare students to produce argument identification work of the sort on display in the Illustrations section.

II.    Teaching Points

  1. Once again, arguments are everywhere.  Many texts (written, spoken, displayed, etc.) are explicitly argumentative, but those that aren't can nevertheless be seen as argumentative in the proper context.  For instance, a factual newspaper article is typically taken to be non-argumentative---just the facts, after all; however, it is possible to view it as evidence for the truth of certain claims about an event or events in the world.  You are asked to presume that the claims in the story are true, but whether or not you do this will depend on the reliability of the reporter and the newspaper. (Compare the reaction one has to a descriptive report in the Washington Post to a descriptive report in the National Enquirer.) Thus, even though the piece is itself non-argumentative, it can be understood as making a claim on the beliefs of the reader.   In general, we are inundated with information that either reinforces or challenges the way we understand the world, and given the proper set-up, this information can be cast as the content of propositions which constitute arguments. 

  2. Ask, "What do they want you to believe here?" When you focus student attention on a text for the purpose of teaching critical thinking, you might begin with this question.  This calls attention to the fact that arguments are vehicles of persuasion, and purveyors of arguments have agendas that their arguments are intended to serve. This needn't be cast as an adversarial relationship, since the arguer may have the audience's best interests in mind; nevertheless, the arguer does intend to use the argument to achieve a certain outcome vis-a-vis the audience's beliefs, and this question highlights that fact.  It is a question that can be used over and over again as the lead in to a critical thinking exercise, and this repetition reinforces the importance of this way of approaching arguments.  In doing this, though, be careful to distinguish between what the arguer asks you to presuppose to get the argument going and what the arguer asks you to conclude as a result of the argument. 

  3. Follow this up with, "Why do they think you should believe this?" This is the question that forces the students to focus on the reasons offered for the claims they come up with in answer to the first question.  These are a critical part of the argument, and regular use of this question can reinforce this fact.  In the discussion prompted by this question, be sure to encourage them to read between the lines.  In the early stages of critical thinking instruction, don't be too technical in talking about the reasons---that will come later, when you are helping them reconstruct and evaluate the arguments they identify.  Here you just want the question to issue in a discussion that nails down principal parts of the argument.  

  4. In general, emphasize that arguments are sets of claims, comprising conclusion and reasons.  All too often, students take arguments to be single claims, typically the conclusion.  They lose sight of the fact that arguments are complex constructs.  Effective critical thinking requires that one remain sensitive to this.  Be sure that both reasons and conclusions figure into your discussion of arguments.


II.    Instructional Ideas

  1. Keep an argument journal.  One way to determine whether students are sensitive to arguments is by asking them to keep an argument journal, in which they record brief descriptions of arguments they encounter outside of the classroom. This can help put them in the critical thinking mindset that has them be sensitive to attempts at persuasion. (The argument descriptions mentioned in Chapter 3 could be kept in journal form.)

  2. Ask if there is an argument in the text, whether there is one or not. Let the students determine whether critical thinking is appropriate by asking them whether there a given text is argumentative.  This could be a question that you ask of all the things you read---a standard question that shows up as you begin moving through any assigned text.  Of course, if critical thinking is appropriate and you wish to pursue that, then you must be sure to prod the students into an affirmative answer if they are not getting there by themselves.  

  3. Distribute a text and have the students count the arguments in it, noting where each one is.  This is a straightforward exercise---select a brief (i.e., 1 to 3 page) argumentative text and have the students write up a list of the  arguments they find in it.  Be sure to have them indicate the arguments they find by conclusion and paragraph number.  This can also be done in class, either in groups or individually.

  4. Take a text that isn't argumentative and ask if there are circumstances under which it could be.  This question challenges students to think about context and its importance to argument.  Be sure to wield it in a context where attention to critical thinking is motivated and is not a distraction.


III.    Illustrations

In what follows, I examine three texts: a debate, a column, and a scientific brief. In each my goal is to identify arguments. Each piece considered is drawn from an argument context: a magazine that delivers articles intended to shape public opinion, an opinion page of a major newspaper, and a science magazine. Thus, we should approach these expecting to find arguments. However, in each of these, as we will see, there are several arguments. The first step toward understanding and evaluating the reasoning contained in these pieces is to identify the arguments they contain. Once identified, we can reconstruct the reasoning for the purpose of evaluation, which we will do in subsequent Applications sections, but first things first.

A. An Interview with Mario Benedetti

This is part of an interview located on a website devoted to news and opinion about political events; as such, it surely qualifies as an argument context. Interviews, however, are an interesting thing to study in connection with argument identification, for three reasons. First, they come as close to a conversation as one is likely to find in a text, and can be used as a model for what is to be done with actual speech. Second, they contain much that is non-argumentative, so we must be on our guard as we work our way through it. Third, arguments could be indicated by the interaction of interviewer and subject, such as when the subject answers a question that serves up part of an argument.

In this piece, Ana Anabiarte asks many questions designed to reveal Benedetti's opinions, and this sort of question is likely to yield arguments at some point. Most of the lengthier responses contain arguments, even though not all of them contain argument terms. There are a few, however, that do. In particular, Benedetti uses "because" to mark reasons on four occasions, viz., in his second, third, fourth, and ninth responses. In each of these places, the term marks a reason and not a cause. An unequivocal conclusion marker appears in the sixth response, viz., "therefore". Note also that "if" in the preceding sentence marks a reason.

The nature of the questions and the appearance of the verbal cues reveals much that is argumentative about this exchange. They do not reveal all of the argumentation, however—a fair bit of it must be recovered through close attention paid to the give and take between Benedetti and Anabiarte. In all there are at least eight arguments to be found in the text. These are located in responses 1, 2, 3, 4 (two arguments), 5, 8, 9, and 10. One might also interpret response 6 as containing an argument about Zedillo’s performance with the EZLN talks. It seems as though it should contain an argument, as Benedetti is passing judgment on Zedillo, but the remarks concerning pressure do not appear to relate in any explicit or implicit way to the judgment; hence, I withhold judgment on whether there is an argument there. I return to this interview in Chapter Five, where I reconstruct the arguments it contains, and in Chapter Six, where I evaluate those arguments.

For reconstruction of these arguments, go here.
For evaluation of these arguments, go here.


B.  Jonathan Alter on the Death Penalty

Here the piece is found in the Opinion section, an argument context if there ever was one. But it reads less like an argument and more like a collection of anecdotes. Beyond the fact that it is an opinion piece, what clues have we that this piece contains an argument or arguments? There are several.

Consider the second paragraph. It begins with an announcement that Alter has changed his position, typically a sign that the new position will receive a defense in the context of the essay, especially when it is announced early and prominently. On the heels of this, Alter uses the term "first", which in this context announces a reason why he has changed his position; as such, it marks a reason, even though it is not generally used in that role. At the end of the paragraph, we have a question highlighting the quandary that frames much of the rest of the piece. Since an answer to it would supply a reason that explains his change of position, it serves to point the way to reasons in this essay. The question is answered immediately in paragraph three, and rhetorical questions in paragraphs three and seven serve to reinforce this answer. In paragraph eight, we find the phrase, "the bottom line," which marks conclusions; in this case, the conclusion relates to the line of reasoning initiated in the previous paragraph. Another argument term shows up in paragraph nine, where the first "because" serves to mark a reason; the second occurrence of "because", however, does not mark a reason--it indicates a causal relationship. Finally, there is the reason marker, "One reason," in paragraph ten.

While these structural and verbal cues are not sufficient to render the arguments in the piece obvious, they nevertheless establish that there are arguments in it. Further examination of the column reveals two general argumentative strands: one for a moratorium on executions, and another that urges skepticism about George W. Bush’s ability to lead. The first of these is located in paragraphs 1 through 9, whereas the latter is located in paragraphs 10 and 11. Additional argumentation in paragraphs 2 and 3 through 9 is intended to support premises in the first of these main arguments. Beyond reassuring the critical thinker that there are arguments in this argument context, they will help guide her as she develops a more detailed account of the reasoning. I return to this piece here and reconstruct the reasoning, before evaluating it here.

For reconstruction of these arguments, go here.
For evaluation of these arguments, go here.


C.  Geckos and Sticky Feet

Popular science magazines, such as Scientific American, can read as though they are delivering facts that stand in no need of support. This is especially true in the early sections of an issue, where you find science briefs, such as this one on gecko feet. But the appearance that arguments are lacking is typically misleading, as most of these magazines supply the reader with insight into the empirical evidence that guides the research, and the relationship between the evidence and the scientific claim is that of reason to conclusion.

In this short article, the author makes liberal use of argument cues. The focus of the article is delivered with a question in the first paragraph--given the brevity of the article and the prominence of this question, it is safe to assume that the subsequent discussion will be designed to answer it. Later in the first paragraph, we find "according to" used in connection with a report to deliver a reason for a conclusion which is marked by the term "determined". Later, in paragraph four, "by" marks a reason, and "indicated" marks a conclusion. We find our final marker in the last sentence, where "considering" serves up a reason.

Once again, the markers make it plain that arguments abound in this piece. Being a short and focused piece, this article devotes a considerable amount of available space to the primary argument for the conclusion that van der Waals forces are what bind gecko feet to surfaces. Most of paragraphs 1 through 4 are devoted to it, in fact. Only the fifth paragraph moves away from the primary argument, serving up additional speculative wonders about gecko feet. If care is taken, reconstruction of this reasoning should proceed apace.

For reconstruction of these arguments, go here.
For evaluation of these arguments, go here.