Chapter Three: Critical Thinking and Argument



I.    Introduction

I begin this chapter by introducing the notion of argument, which is central on all accounts to the business of critical thinking. When we craft arguments for particular conclusions, we participate in an exercise that falls under our working definition and so counts as critical thinking. In the course of this discussion, I attend to the nature of argument and arguments, that is, the nature argument understood as a process and as a product. With the notion of argument in play, I then argue that critical thinking can be approached as argumentation without loss of anything essential to the subject. If we teach our students to construct and analyze arguments, broadly conceived, we teach our students to think critically. No central critical thinking skill need be left out of an instructional approach that emphasizes argument. I conclude by identifying the four categories associated with the construction and analysis of argument: identification, reconstruction, analysis, and critique. These categories will serve to frame the introduction of critical thinking skills and associated pedagogical strategies in the next chapter.

II.    Argument and Arguments

The term 'argument' is ambiguous. On the one hand, it is an activity that we engage in with others; on the other hand, it is a rationale for some conclusion. Both senses of the term are relevant to our concerns. Students will often find themselves in arguments, and facility with critical thinking skills will certainly aid them as they defend their positions. Further, arguments understood as rationales are a perspicuous vehicle for evaluation of the type that is central to critical thinking; indeed, construction and assessment of such arguments will certainly exercise one's thinking skills. In this section, I develop both senses of 'argument'.

II.1 The Process of Argument

In one sense, argument is activity. The activity of arguing can be formal and rule-governed, such as in Presidential Debates, or it can be a free-for-all, no-holds-barred event with lots of shouting and gnashing of teeth, or it can be something in between. In all situations it would appear to be purposive, although the purpose might only be to pass the time; beyond this, it isn't clear if there is any one trait that all instances of argumentation share. Typically, although not always, there will be something over which the participants are arguing, viz., some claim or position. (Contrast: an argument in which the participants are confused about what the topic is, or one that arises out of strong emotion without a focal theme.) In those cases where there is a claim or position in dispute, participants contribution to the argument will be designed to establish the superiority of their views. Superiority in such cases need not always be cast in terms of truth; in fact, given that the goal of many arguments is to vanquish the opponent, superiority will generally be granted to the view that prevails. (At least by the one who prevails, that is. Another point is in order here: "vanquishing the opponent" isn't always about making them cry "uncle"; what counts as a vanquished opponent varies from context to context.) Since contributions to arguments are intended in such cases to achieve victory, they might be designed to convince, confuse, overwhelm, or frighten, to name a few. Very often these contributions are delivered as sentences in a conversation, but they needn't take this form. For instance, as anyone in a relationship knows, you can conduct an argument entirely with your eyebrows.

While it is true that not all episodes of argumentation involve participants who defend determinant conclusions, it is safe to say that episodes typically do. Restricting our attention for the moment to the typical episode, we can offer a more systematic description of the stages that it involves. First, there is the recognition stage. During this stage, the participants recognize that they have something to argue about. This could be highly conventionalized, as in a formal debate, but it need not be. Recognition of a disputed topic could spring from an explicit difference of opinion, a mutual observation, an opposition of actions or reactions, or even an otherwise innocent remark. In addition to mutual recognition of a disputed issue, there will often be recognition of certain rules that will frame subsequent argumentation. For instance, if it is a formal debate, participants will also recognize the existence of time limits, rules governing interaction and interruption, win-loss rules, etc. If the argument is in discussion in a classroom, there will be rules about proscribed types of language, rules concerned with respect for other discussants, rules about turn taking, etc. Many such rules are attached to the context in which you happen to be when the argument breaks out. We can classify the many types of rules with the help of the following structure, borrowing from Douglas Walton and John Searle:

  1. Locution Rules: these constrain the type of words and speech acts that can be used by participants.

  2. Dialogue Rules: these constrain the interaction and include rules about turn taking, time limitation, interruption, and so forth.

  3. Commitment Rules: these pertain to the formation and announcement of commitment by the participants to particular conclusions or reasons, that is, to the positions they defend and the reasons they adduce in defense of those positions.

  4. Content Rules: these constrain the content of the claims made in the discourse, and they consist of relevance, informativeness, truthfulness, etc. (See Grice 1989.)

  5. Win-Loss Rules: these specify how the goal of the argumentative discourse is to be fulfilled.

Some of these rules are constitutive, constituting the type of argumentative episode to which they apply. Win-loss rules are an obvious example of a constitutive rule. Some of the rules are regulative, regulating the episode without changing its essential nature. Locution rules tend to be of this sort, since most argument types can realized by clean instances and obscene instances. Thus, the recognition stage will often serve up not only a topic for dispute but also a structure for that dispute.

Second, there is the initiation stage, in which the participants get after it. This stage is marked by initial contributions to the argument. As noted above, the recognition stage often shapes the ensuing argument, providing rules that constrain potential contributions; in such a case, the initiation stage will involve contributions that conform to those rules. However, it will not always fully constrain them, and in some case may not constrain them much at all. In episodes such as these, the initial contributions can help the participants figure out which specific rules will constrain their exchange.

Third, there is the elaboration stage. It is here that the participants fill out their case in support of the claims or positions they seek to defend. This is done in conformity with the rules that they have identified during the recognition and initiation stages. While there is obviously disagreement about the issue, there should be agreement about the rules that constrain their discourse; if the participants dispute these rules, they will attempt to patch this up before returning to the elaboration of their argument. If important rules have not been identified in the first two stages, efforts will be made to identify them in this stage, often on the fly and without interruption to the main business at hand. It should be noted, though, that the relation between argumentative episodes and their rules is a very unsteady one at best. Arguments often proceed without full specification of the operative rules. Participants may recognize this or not, and occasionally they disagree about the rules that apply to the disagreement they’re having. Further, rules often change during the course of an argument, sometimes unilaterally. Finally, it may be the case that only one of the participants even recognizes that the episode is argumentative.

Finally, there is the resolution stage. It is during this stage that the participants resolve their dispute. This can take several forms. First, participants might end the episode by agreeing that one conclusion is better supported than another, conferring the status of "victor" on the individual who championed that conclusion in the episode. Second, participants might agree to end the debate without declaring a victor. Perhaps they "agree to disagree", or perhaps they just collapse exhausted. Third, resolution could be unilateral, where one walks away without regard for the other’s feelings on the matter.

II.2 Arguments as Products

In these typical cases, the participants defend their conclusions by producing reasons that are intended to support them. The reasons succeed in providing support just in case their truth guarantees, or at least makes more probable, the truth of the relevant conclusion. What results is the production of a rationale for a conclusion, and it is this that also goes by the name "argument". When this sort of argument is introduced in the process of argumentation, it is typically intended to influence the beliefs of the other participants, either to change or reinforce them. In such a case, the argument is a vehicle of persuasion, designed to convince the audience that the rational thing to do is believe the conclusion. It is intended to persuade, not dictate. Arguments as rationales are often produced in episodes of argumentation, but they need not be. For instance, in writing this, I have produced arguments, understood as rationales, even though I have been alone.

In this sense, arguments have two salient parts: their content and their form, or structure. The content of the argument is, broadly, what it is about; the content of an argument as a whole is a function of the content of the claims that constitute it. In addition to content, the nature of an argument is dependent on the way in which its constituent claims are arranged, i.e., the structural arrangement of those claims into a sequence. For instance, consider these arguments:

A.1: John loves all ten people in the foyer; therefore, John loves Mary.

A.2: John loves Mary; therefore, John loves all ten people in the foyer.

A.3: John loves all ten people in the foyer; therefore, John loves Patricia.

These are different arguments, as is clear from the differences in content and form. A.1 and A.2 have the same content but different form.A.1 and A.3 have the same form but different content. A.2 and A.3 have different form and different content.

Arguments in this sense are products of a construction process of sorts. The most prominent part is the conclusion, or the point that the argument seeks to establish. The remainder of the rationale comprises reasons, or premises. These are intended to support the conclusion, thereby establishing it as true (or useful or wise or ...). Associated with arguments of this sort are standards that determine whether they succeed in establishing their conclusions. Three standards figure prominently in the remainder of this handbook. They are:

  1. Inductive Strength: an argument is inductively strong just in case the truth of its premises, taken together, make the truth of its conclusion highly probable.

  2. Validity: an argument is valid just in case its conclusion must be true given the truth of its premises.

  3. Soundness: an argument is sound just in case it is valid and its premises are true.

Note that "true" is not on this short list: strictly speaking, "true" applies only to claims and not sequences of claims. Nevertheless, truth figures into the specification of each of these standards. As we will see in Chapter Four, truth is a function of the content of each claim, and the standards on this list assess whether the form of an argument is proper given its content; thus, the final decision about the quality of an argument will be a function of both content and form.

For an illustration of this in connection with inductive strength, return to the three arguments given above, and assume for a moment that there are exactly ten people in the foyer and this group includes Mary but not Patricia. A.1 and A.2 each include two true claims, but only A.1 is inductively strong; knowing that John loves Mary does not make the conclusion of A.2 highly probable. The form of A.1 supports the transfer of truth from reason to conclusion, but the form of A.2 does not. A.1 shares its form with A.3, but in this case form is not enough—no number of true premises will increase the likelihood of the truth of the conclusion in this case, given that it is false. A.1 is impeccable in terms of both form and content, whereas A.2 is objectionable because of its form and A.3 because of its content.

Conceived as rationales, arguments are closely related to language. Indeed, it is helpful to model them as sequences of sentences, with the last sentence (i.e., the conclusion) supported by the ones that precede it (i.e., the reasons). In what follows, we will make heavy use of this model.

   Critical Thinking as the Construction and Assessment of Arguments

As we conceive of it, critical thinking is thinking that involves the principled application of standards and criteria in the evaluation of practical and theoretical options for the purpose of reaching conclusions about those options. In the preceding section, I paused to elaborate on a pair of concepts that are relevant to our understanding of critical thinking, and I did this not because I plan to develop critical thinking by elaborating on all concepts relevant to it; rather, I did this because I believe that we critical thinking is argumentative thinking. In this section, I defend the claim that we should think of the study of critical thinking as the examination of arguments, broadly construed. I do this in two steps. First, I argue that if you think critically according to this working definition, then you are engaged in argument analysis, and vice versa. Second, I demonstrate that the skills which constitute critical thinking, as described in Chapter Two, §IV, can all be fully exercised in the course of argument analysis. My goal is to convince those who are willing to teach critical thinking skills explicitly but have theoretical scruples against argument analysis and all it entails that the latter is as innocent as the former.

III.1 Considering the Definition

If you are thinking critically, as we conceive it, you are engaging in a rather complex activity. First, you are attempting to reach a conclusion about an option. If the option involves adopting a belief, then the conclusion will likely be that the option is true or false; if the option involves adopting a course of action, then the conclusion could be that it is risky or not, or that it is too costly or not, etc. (Call the former sort of thinking "theoretical" and the latter "practical." There are obviously episodes that involve both.) You are pursuing the goal of making a decision about an option, where this decision is the conclusion you're after. This pursuit motivates evaluation of the option, which is the second component activity that you perform while thinking critically. While it isn't always true that decision requires evaluation of the option--you might make a decision on the basis of a (completely insane) policy that requires you to make a decision that is opposite from the decision you made last time you were in this circumstance (e.g., affirm it if you rejected it last, etc.)--critical thinking requires you to evaluate the option about which you seek a decision. And this fact about critical thinking implies the third component activity, viz., applying standards and criteria to the option in question. When you evaluate something, you apply standards and criteria, whether consciously or sub-consciously. Note, though, that you can apply standards and criteria without evaluating an option, such as when you are first learning the standards and apply them so as to develop facility with them, or when you are consciously suspending evaluation.

Thus, critical thinking is a complex activity in three parts; furthermore, each of the three component activities is embedded in the other. Both evaluation of an option and application of standards are embedded in the deliberation about the option--it is the last which motivates and supplies the context for the other two. Evaluation and application are means of achieving the goal of a decision, and so this sort of embedding is teleological, or end-directed. The relationship between evaluation and application, by contrast, is logical. Evaluation of options logically implies application of standards, since the second is part of what it is to evaluate an option. The relationship between the three can be diagramed like this:

Deliberation     ========>      [Evaluation     --------------->      Application]

                                      Motivates                                                      Implies

Each of these component actions is directed at the option under consideration, and so the complex performance of which they are a part must be conceived as an activity performed on an object. The object is the option under consideration, which is subjected to scrutiny by the person engaging in critical thinking. The goal of this scrutiny is to assess whether the option measures up to the relevant standards or not. There are two ways this might go: if the option measures up to the standards, then they support it; if it does not, then they undermine it, or what is the same, they support its rejection.

At this point, we are in a position to look at an episode of critical thinking, characterized in this way, from the perspective of argument and arguments. First, it is clear that, so described, the episode involves the process of argument. You are out to establish, with justification, the truth of some conclusion, and this is precisely what you do when you engage in the process of argument. Second, and more important for our purposes, the complex activity of critical thinking results in the production and assessment of an argument understood as a product. The option (or its negation) is the conclusion, and the option's performance relative to the standards are the reasons. If we express each of these with a sentence, then we have what we require, viz., a set of sentences, one of which is the conclusion and the others the premises. In fact, it would appear that all of the critical thinking moves in our episode are connected with arguments--the process of deliberation that frames the episode is a process in which a multitude of specific arguments about the relevant options are constructed and then evaluated in the context of an encompassing überargument that yields a final decision, if all goes well.

Therefore, episodes of critical thinking essentially involve both the process of argument and arguments as products. Within these episodes, critical thinkers construct and comparatively assess arguments that are intended to result in a conclusion about the relevant options. These arguments are simply just the evaluations that a critical thinker traffics in. As a consequence, the explicit teaching of critical thinking boils down to the explicit teaching of skills related to the construction and assessment of arguments.

III.2 Considering the List

In Chapter Two, I supplied a list of critical thinking skills, organized according to their relationship with the activities that figure into critical thinking. I now argue that because the examination of arguments exercises all of the relevant skills contained on that list, instruction in the concepts, techniques, and standards of argument examination is a perfectly legitimate way to teach critical thinking skills.

You can examine an argument from one of two perspectives, viz., that of the consumer and that of the producer. First, consider the consumer perspective. We are all asked to consume arguments—televisions, newspapers, our teachers, students, family, and friends pitch them to us all the time. Whenever you are asked to believe something or do something, you are on the receiving end of an argument. Assuming you choose not to ignore the argument, you can decide if it carries any weight with you; thus, you can pursue the goal of judging the argument, and if you choose to do this, you will exercise goal pursuit skills. In the process of assessing the argument, you will seek to determine if the conclusion follows from the reasons proffered, and further, if the claims that constitute it are true. This will require you to observe, recollect, and do all the things one must do when applying criteria. Further, all of this will be done in the service of evaluating the quality of the argument, and so various evaluation skills will be employed. While it is true that no one argument will likely require the exercise of all option evaluation skills, consideration of an array of arguments of different kinds will enable you to exercise all of them. Thus, if in teaching the examination of arguments you serve up a rich and varied diet of examples, the students will walk away having exercised their critical thinking skills.

Second, consider the production of an argument. Argument production often requires creativity, since the way from reasons to conclusion is not always marked. When you produce an argument, you take what you started with and combine it with the fruit of creativity into a structure that supports your conclusion, assuming all goes well. This process typically requires the production of multiple drafts—you build, inspect, repair, add on, inspect, repair, etc., until you have a structure that does the job. Through all of this you seek an inductively strong or sound argument (i.e., your goal), and you do it by constantly applying standards in the course of evaluating what you have done so far. So described, it is clear that argument production requires the exercise of the whole array of critical thinking skills. Thus, from the perspectives of production and consumption, argument examination essentially involves critical thinking and all of its attendant skills; therefore, explicit instruction in the examination of arguments will yield a harvest of critical thinking expertise for your students.

IV.    Categorizing Argument Analysis Skills

Because of their intimate connection with thought, it comes as no surprise that both senses of ‘argument’ identified above are closely connected with language; after all, language is the primary medium through which thought is conveyed. (Quite a few argue that thought itself is fundamentally linguistic—for a recent pronouncement of this view, see Fodor 1998.) If critical thinking is argument manipulation, then argument manipulation should be closely related to certain types of language manipulation. Indeed, that is what we saw above, where both the activity of argumentation and arguments conceived as rationales essentially involved language in the typical case. (In those atypical cases, the argument concerned could be translated into language.)

In the next chapter, we will exploit this affinity for the purposes of introducing and developing critical thinking skills. The list of skills supplied in Chapter Two were organized around our working definition of critical thinking. Now that we have established that critical thinking is argument examination, we can recarve that pie with an eye to teaching students how to examine arguments. Those skills will be divided into three groups, each of which is associated with the construction and assessment of arguments. Skills of each kind are needed whether you are evaluating the argument of another or constructing an argument of your own. The groups are as follows:

  1. Identification: effective critical thinkers can spot arguments when they encounter them. (Compare: you cannot be a very effective bird watcher if you don’t know what a bird looks like.)

  2. (Re)Construction: effective critical thinkers can construct an argument that places premises in the service of supporting a conclusion, or reconstruct the reasoning of another.

  3. Analysis: effective critical thinkers can assess the degree of support supplied by premises for their conclusion.

There are two points to make about these groups.  First, together they constitute the model of critical thinking that we employ in this handbook.  As a model, they add emphasis to those aspects of the process that are central and provide a framework for studying the process.  Second, theses groups distinguish the skills in a way that is somewhat orthogonal to those offered in Chapter Two. In fact, each of these stages will involve goal pursuit, criteria application, and option evaluation. The list of skills identified here is preferable to that offered earlier because it outlines a reasonable and intuitive way of introducing and exercising critical thinking skills, as we will see in Chapter Four.