Chapter Four: Identifying Arguments


I.    Introduction

A bird-watching friend approaches you and excitedly tells you that she's heard the call of a western tanager in the area, and she asks you to help her locate it. What will your initial response be? If you are new to the whole bird-watching game, it will likely be, "What's a western tanager look like?" (Unless it's "No", that is.) You would be of little use to your friend as a spotter if you had no idea what you were after. The same is true with students who are learning critical thinking skills: if you want them to work with arguments, you must make certain that they know how what arguments look like. That is, they must be able to identify an argument when they are confronted by it if they are to examine it critically.

Students are quite good at detecting the activity of argumentation--having been in a few, they know them when they see them. Arguments as rationales, on the other hand, often fail to show up on their screens. The activity sense of the term tends to dominate their understanding coming into a class where critical thinking is taught; however, given that the rationale sense is the privileged one in the context of critical thinking, they must become comfortable with it if they are to develop their critical thinking skills. Once again, you must be able to spot arguments if you are to become comfortable with them. Thus, the first stage along the way to achievement of this goal is argument identification.

First and foremost, then, argument identification ability is valuable because you cannot effectively engage in argument reconstruction or evaluation without it, as I have emphasized above. Critical thinking requires this ability. But this ability is related to more pressing concerns outside the classroom, where application of critical thinking skills in tight spots can help you avoid serious difficulty. If you know how to identify arguments, it will be easier for you to realize when an attempt is being made on your beliefs. Such identification will serve as a filter, enabling you to interpret the remarks, gestures, and actions of others. Further, this knowledge can help you respond in those situations. We respond differently when our beliefs are at stake than we do when they are not threatened. For instance, we may ask for independent reasons and additional justifications, or we may explore the ramifications of the arguments advanced, or we might adduce an argument in support of our own beliefs even though they were not explicitly implicated by the argument advanced. In any case, this first group of argument examination skills has value not only to the academic development of critical thinking skills, but also to the application of those skills out in the world of experience.

Students can be trained to spot arguments understood as rationales in two steps. First, familiarize them with the contexts within which arguments are typically found; if students know the contextual cues associated with argumentative discourse, observation of such a cue will prepare them to expect an argument. Second, familiarize them with the language of argument, i.e., the specific linguistic cues that signal the presence of reasons or conclusions. If students are working within an argument context, these linguistic cues will help them isolate the constituent parts of the argument; however, if they are not, these cues will also serve to announce to them that there is an argument present. In what follows, I detail each of these steps in turn. The main deliverable in each section will be a list: in the context section, I supply a short list of contexts, with associated cues; in the language section, I supply an annotated list of words and phrases that mark the presence of arguments and their constituent claims, i.e., claims that figure into arguments either as reasons or conclusions.

II.    The Contexts of Argument

If you wish to become skilled at examining arguments, you must become skilled at spotting them when they are in your vicinity; if you want to become good at spotting them, it helps to know where they are typically found. Given that we are conceiving of arguments as sets of sentences (or as things which could be converted without much loss into sets of sentences, e.g., arrays of images), they will typically be found in circumstances where language plays an important role. Further, given that arguments are often constructed to convince audiences of the truth of their conclusion, such circumstances typically feature an attempt at persuasion. However, even in the absence of an intended audience, arguments understood as rationales have the potential to serve as vehicles of persuasion, standing ready to convey an audience from premises to conclusion. Common examples of contexts in which both of these features are in evidence include conversations and other interactions in which participants attempt convince other participants to accept certain claims.

II.1 Argument Contexts: General Considerations

The term "argument context" is a cold, abstract term of art designed to serve as a conceptual label. In its theoretical home, this term receives a cold, abstract definition: a context is an argument context just in case it is one in which sets of claims are typically produced, either verbally or in imagistic form, that contain one claim, viz., the conclusion, that is intended to receive support from the rest, viz., the reasons. But outside of this sterile clean room of theory, what do these things look like? Fact is, they are messy, complex things that lack borders and road signs. No one setting is identical to any other, and often these differences will influence our interpretation of the settings in question, causing us to see different affinities and associations than we saw before. Further, contexts can change in unpredictable ways during the course of a conversation. Add to that the realization that you never have full information about such settings, especially where the minds of others are involved, and it becomes unclear whether you will ever find a way to map the concept onto the world.

Fortunately, though, this situation is little different from most involving flesh and blood people with real problems. There is work we can do here to clarify the contexts, work that will pay dividends even though it might imply clean lines and sharp corners where there are none. First, note that I am helping myself to the term 'context' here without much fanfare. I take it to be a repeatable type of event that can include people. Second, an argument context will be a type of context, i.e., it will be abstract and repeatable. As such, we will specify it by describing features that are realized in different ways and to different degrees by token, i.e., specific, contexts. Third, and unsurprisingly, argument contexts are contexts where you typically find argumentative discourse. (Compare: Wallen Road, between Troy and Moscow, could be called a "wildlife context" in the same spirit, since you typically spot deer and other wild creatures when you drive there, even though this might not always be true.) Presidential debates and Op/Ed pages are examples of argument contexts. So too are class discussions and lectures, but not everything qualifies. For instance, the lines at Safeway aren't likely to be argument contexts, even if you have had an argument there. Neither will story time with the kids before bed. As far as general features go, this is pretty loose. For one thing, what counts as "typical" is by no means clear--perhaps for the time being we can think of it as roughly equivalent to "more often than not". For another thing, qualification of a context as argumentative will depend on a number of factors, among them cultural context, participant involvement, and description. In some religious cultures, for instance, lectures would not be argument contexts. Also, if you are a hyperargumentative person, every context that you frequent may qualify as an argument context simply by virtue of your participation. Related to this we can see how argument contexts can depend on description. Meet Al, a hyperargumentative person. Consider the context, "being on a bus with Al". Here we have an argument context; granted, it is a highly gerrymandered one, but being on a bus with Al is a repeatable event, and so qualifies as a context according to our loose way of using this term, and it will typically be argumentative because of Al's personality.

Once you become aware that you are in an argument context, e.g., in a class discussion or a committee meeting or a political conversation, you will be especially sensitive to the appearance of arguments. When they do appear, they can either be explicit or implicit. In some conversations and interactions, the presence of a rationale will be explicitly announced by the participants, who may signal this by using terms like "argument" or "proof". In other conversations and interactions, however, the nature of the context will signal the presence of argumentation, but this will not be explicitly seconded by the language used. Here, identification will depend on an appreciation for implicit linguistic cues and cues associated with the activity of argumentation (e.g., tone, body language, etc.). It is important to call attention to this distinction, since failure to appreciate argumentative subtlety can lead one to ignore an argument that requires attention.

There are times, however, when you find yourself in an argument context and no argument joins you. Its failure to appear may be due to a lack of interest shown by your fellows in that context in supporting or evaluating claims. A class discussion might turn into group therapy, or a political conversation might become a factual accounting of political records. Three points deserve emphasis here. First, even in the absence of arguments understood as rationales, there still might be the activity of argument; for instance, if a quarrel becomes a shouting match, it is no less an episode of the activity of argument simply because no participant is advancing rationales for conclusions. Second, it is often unobjectionable that an argument context lack arguments, but there are times when it is objectionable. For instance, there will be times when the participants wish to support claims but will simply fail to do it. This could be for several reasons, among them distraction from one's primary purpose and ignorance about argument construction. Thus, it could well be that there should be arguments advanced, given the goals of the participants, and absence of those arguments would then be a point of criticism. Third, it is important that students of critical thinking be mindful of the fact that argument contexts are typically the home to arguments, not always home to them. Ignorance of argument contexts will result in missed arguments, but knowledge of them can lead one to tilt at arguments that aren't there, an equally infelicitous result. This can be avoided, however, if you train students to look for further signs of an argument beyond mere recognition of the context type.

II.2 Argument Contexts: A Short List

In what follows, I list and describe a subset of argument contexts. The descriptions are intended to supply features of each that can serve to indicate their realization at a particular place and time. As noted above, argument contexts come in many shapes and sizes, often emerging from the way they are described. Given the lack of general systematicity, I have tried to stick close to rather obvious cases in compiling this list. If you find yourself in one of these, it is likely that you will be surrounded by argument. So, in no particular order, the contexts:

Quarrel: rather unstructured events fed by emotion that can lead to name-calling, shouting, and violence; while quarrels will always involve the activity of argument, it is not too uncommon for them to lack arguments understood as rationales.

Debate: highly structured events where victory is predicated on advancing the rationale that most impresses the judges; it is rare to find a debate that lacks arguments, although it isn't rare to find a debate that lacks good arguments.

Persuasive Discussion: often rather unstructured conversations in which participants attempt to convince each other to embrace certain beliefs (e.g., discussions about politics, religion, morality, the AP basketball top 25, etc.); since these are individuated by virtue of their persuasive character, such discussions usually do not lack argumentation of one sort or another.

Inquiry: confronted by a problem, e.g., ignorance of a desired fact, uncertainty about a decision, etc., an individual or individuals seek a resolution by examining what can be said for potential solutions; while it is typically guided by the evaluation of solutions, and so by the construction of arguments for or against them, inquiry can at times yield more head scratching than headway.

Opinioneering: advancement of an opinion, such as in a Letter to the Editor, a column or Op/Ed piece, or a sermon, that is not immediately dialogical in nature; these can lack arguments, in the event that the opinion is merely asserted without supporting reasons, perhaps over and over again in only slightly different ways.

Negotiation: driven by a sustained desire for agreement in the context of a difference of interests, this is marked more by compromise than persuasive discussion; successful negotiation will typically involve argumentation adduced in favor of initial positions and then a series of compromises.

Action Planning and Pursuit: marked by the need for action, whether by an individual or group; this process involves the presentation and subsequent evaluation of practical options, followed by comparative assessment of those that emerge as viable; this may not be argumentative in character, such as when options are "rammed through".

Learning Environment: classrooms, offices, and administration lawns supply space for the give-and-take of teacher-student interaction; in such environments, teachers often present arguments in the course of lecturing, and arguments are often advanced in discussion, group work, etc.; however, these can be non-argumentative, especially when they involve simple information transfer from one brain to other brains.

III.    The Rhetoric of Argument

If you know that you are where arguments roam, then you will know to be on the lookout for them, but this will not by itself result in a sighting. Picking out an argument from the surrounding bluster can often be very tricky. Identifying specific arguments is facilitated by a sensitivity to the rhetoric of argument, i.e., the type of language in which arguments are typically cast. After all, arguments as we are conceiving of them can be represented as sequences of sentences, and so it is not surprising that we must look to language for additional help in identifying them. Rhetorical cues come in two principal forms, viz., the structural cues and the verbal cues. Structural cues concern the structure of language chunks, whether delivered in written or oral form. These chunks can be large, such as speeches or essays, but they can also be as small as paragraphs or even sentences. Verbal cues concern sub-sentential phrases and terms. I will begin with structural cues and then turn to verbal cues.

III.1 The Argumentative Rhetoric of Discourse Structure

When you put forward an argument, you typically produce more than one sentence. (Unless you're enamored with the semi-colon, that is.) What results is a text with a certain structure and flow. People generally exhibit similar tendencies when structuring and organizing such texts, and familiarity with these tendencies can serve to help you pinpoint pieces of an argument. In particular, they underwrite default heuristics that can guide us when identifying arguments. These can be divided into those that play out at the level of the essay as a whole, those at the level of the paragraph, and those at the level of the sentence. First, consider the level of the essay as a whole. Depending on the context, first and last paragraphs of a piece (or first and last things said, in a verbal contribution) will often contain the principal conclusion or a sketch of the argument(s) or both. Another place to look for help in identifying parts of arguments are in paragraphs directly before and after section headings. At times, sections will be set aside to house the arguments, e.g., the Results and Discussion sections in scientific articles.

Second, focusing in on the paragraph, begin by looking at the first and then the last sentence. We are taught from the time we begin to write paragraphs that the either the first or the last sentence is the proper place for thesis statements, and thesis statement typically gives you a good idea of the argument presented. It often does this by announcing the conclusion, leaving the rest of the paragraph to supply supporting reasons. In journalistic texts, paragraphs are shorter and often deliver only one step each, with early paragraphs announcing the conclusions.

Chunks of text that embed arguments are structured, and regularities of structure correlate in principled ways with argumentative regularities. This is also true at the level of the sentence. Sentences are structured in principled and regular ways, and people exploit these structural regularities for argumentative purposes. Consider in particular the mood of sentences. Two moods stand out as especially relevant to our interests here: the interrogative and the imperative. Let's begin with interrogatives. A question placed early in a text can indicate the problem to be addressed in the text, thereby framing the argumentation that is to follow. If the question is rhetorical, it likely delivers or reinforces a step in the argument, something taken to be obvious. And then there are imperatives, which by their very nature emphasize a claim. Assuming that the author or speaker is not the overly excitable type, the imperative mood is typically employed to emphasize the claim(s) that are most important, and these are typically conclusions in an argument context. Indicatives are not as useful generally, but there are specific circumstances in which they tend to play argumentative roles. For example, if at the end of a string of rhetorical questions you find an indicative sentence that addresses the same thought, it is very often a vehicle for announcing the conclusion for which the questions were headed.

III.2 Words to Argue By

Human beings traffic in arguments. We move them back and forth, producing and receiving them on a daily basis. Belief systems change regularly in response to new information, and often these changes are made because arguments have compelled them. Because of the ubiquity of arguments and the fact that they are generally delivered in language, it should come as no surprise that there are pieces of language, terms and phrases, that have dedicated argumentative roles. More specifically, there are linguistic markers that indicate the presence of arguments, as well as those that indicate reasons and those that indicate conclusions. I call the first group argument markers, and I follow Fogelin and Sinnott-Armstrong (1997) in calling the second group reason markers and the third conclusion markers. What follows is an incomplete list, as it leaves out cognate forms of the listed expressions as well as most idiomatic expressions; nevertheless, it contains a great many common argument terms.

Argument Markers: argue, proof, prove, demonstrate, justify, establish, determine

Reason Markers: because, since, for, in light of, reason, assume, according to, considering, by, if

Conclusion Markers: therefore, thus, hence, as a result, in that case, for that reason, as a consequence, then, so, accordingly, the bottom line, rules in

It should be noted that some of these terms have other uses. For instance, "then" can be used to mark temporal succession, and "because" can be used to indicate a causal relationship rather than a justificatory one. Thus, it is prudent to be careful and evaluate the role of each term in its specific context. If in the course of listening or reading you spot one of these, then you have evidence of the presence of an argument, especially if you are in an argument context; further, at least with the second and third groups, you will be on your way toward identifying the steps in the argument, a topic that will be our focus in Chapter Five.