Core 105: The Monsters We Make

Fall 2004



I.  Introduction

Arguments are everywhere, but this doesn't mean that everything is an argument. When you get up and go get a soda from the fridge, you're not making an argument.  The credits at the end of The Matrix are not an argument.  And it's not an argument when you whisper "Goodnight".  So much is obvious.  But just how obvious is it?  Consider that a harshly whispered "Goodnight" said by a father to his unruly children might carry an implied "or else!", making it an argument---the conclusion is that the children need to go to bed and the reason is that if they don't, they won't like what happens.  Also, what if a film teacher were to use the credits at the end of The Matrix to support some point about how one should not display movie credit information---in this case, the credits would form part of a reason for a general conclusion, and so figure into an argument.  Finally, if at the climactic moment of soda choice you opt for the Coke over the Jones Soda, you may be acting on a conclusion ingrained in you by years of television without TiVo.  

The first stage in critical thinking is argument identification.  Given that some of what people say and do is not argumentative, one must be able to distinguish the arguments from other types of expression.  The situation here is no different than in, say, an English Comp question where you are asked to find the split infinitives in a chunk of text.  It will be difficult to do well on this question unless you know how to properly identify split infinitives. The same is true for arguments, and this section is designed to help you enhance your ability to spot arguments when they are afoot.

There are three steps to argument identification:

  1. Understand the Context: Is someone trying to convince you of something?

  2. Identify the Conclusion: What are they trying to convince you?

  3. Identify the Reasons: Why do they think you should believe them?


II.  Understanding the Context

If you wish to become skilled at grappling with arguments, you must become skilled at spotting them, and if you want to become skilled at spotting them, it helps to know where they are typically found.  When you click on the television to watch the Bush-Kerry debates, you expect arguments.  When you crack open the Newsweek to the back page for the George Will column, you expect arguments.  The same is true for the op-ed page, or C-Span, or Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, or commercialsBut the same is not true for the comics (unless you like This Modern World), or a Jackie Chan movie, or the Eredivisie on Fox Sports World.

This reveals the fact that in certain situations---call them argument contexts---you can expect an argument, whereas in other situations you might be surprised to find an argument.  Knowing the argument contexts puts you ahead of the game as a critical thinker.  It puts you on your guard, inclining you to take care so as not to be taken in by an argument that is not really compelling.  (Think shoe commercials.)   In general, we are pretty aware of the obvious argument contexts---debates, classrooms, the media, political discussions among friends, etc.  We are also sensitive to certain words and phrases that mark arguments, e.g., 'argument', 'my view', 'my opinion', 'what you should think'.  (See below for words that mark conclusions and reasons, thereby also marking arguments.) The first step in enhancing critical thinking ability, though, requires careful reflection on this awareness.  Exercise One focuses your attention on specific contexts and asks you to determine whether you take them to be argument contexts.  For more information about argument contexts, please continue by  reading the Expanded Notes on Argument Contexts



III.  Identifying the Conclusion

"Lance Armstrong will win his sixth Tour de France because he has a 1.25 lead and there are only five stages to go.  Vive la Lance!"  This is an argument, one intended to get you to believe that Armstrong will win the Tour de France.   Typically, the main purpose of an argument is to press a point.  That is, arguments are vehicles intended to convince or compel people to believe something.  This "something" is what we have called the conclusion.  Whether the argument works or not depends on whether it supplies compelling reason to believe this conclusion, but first things first---you can't assess the effectiveness of an argument without first identifying its conclusion.

As with argument contexts, you can enhance your critical thinking ability by learning of ways to identify the conclusions of arguments.  Most of the time, this won't be too difficult; after all, it is in the best interest of the arguer that their conclusion be clear.  This can be done in several ways.  One technique is to position the conclusion prominently at the beginning or the end of the argument, e.g., at the beginning or end of the paragraph that contains the argument.  Another is to repeat the conclusion during the course of the argument several times, calling attention to the fact that it is the most important point.  Finally, there are words and phrases whose primary purpose is to introduce the conclusion---call these "conclusion markers".  Conclusion markers include the following:  'therefore', 'thus', 'hence', 'as a result', 'in that case', 'then', 'so', 'accordingly', 'the bottom line', 'as a consequence', and 'for this reason'.  Be careful, though---not all appearances of these terms mark conclusions; for example, 'then' often indicates the next event in a series of events.  Proceed now to Exercise Two, where you will apply your ability to identify conclusions. 



IV.  Identifying the Reasons

The other essential part of the argument that one must identify are the reasons.  These are claims that support the conclusion---as their name suggests, they give you reason to believe it.  Without them, there is no argument---just a claim.  Thus, it is a mistake to respond to a request for your argument by saying, "Bush will win in 2004!"  This may be your conclusion, but without reasons, it is no argument. 

As with conclusions, there are ways to identify reasons.  One fast-and-loose method is to take everything that isn't a conclusion in the argument to be a reason.  However, as we will see in the next section, this will give you false positives, that is, claims that are considered reasons without actually being reasons, since arguments often contain claims that serve other purposes (e.g., humor, small talk, rhetorical flourish, etc.).  The most effective method is to look for  "reason markers".  These terms include the following: 'because', 'since', 'for', 'in light of', 'reason', 'assume', 'according to', 'considering', 'by', 'if', 'in fact', etc. As before, you need to take care when evaluating appearances of these terms---not all appearances mark reasons.  The final exercise in this section, Exercise Three, tests your ability to identify reasons.



V. Putting It All Together

Chapter 5 of Grendel will be the focus of the paper you write after finishing this Worksite.  It is a chapter chock full of arguments---seven, by my count---and one that we want you to focus on.  Read the chapter closely, marking where the dragon's arguments appear in your books or on a piece of paper.  When searching for these, look for reason and conclusion markers, but also look for changes in focus by the dragon and changes in argumentative strategy.  Grendel isn't exactly a quick study, and the dragon has to try a number of different tacks to get through to him.  When you have done this, compare your list of arguments to the list in the key, indicated by conclusion and page number.  

-- KEY --


VI.  Summary

If you are out hunting snipe, it helps to know what snipe are and how to identify them.  If you are critically thinking, where we take this to mean analyzing arguments, it helps to know what arguments are and how to identify them.  By developing a sensitivity to argument contexts and indications of conclusions and reasons, one can become a very effective argument spotter.

With this in hand, we can proceed to the next section, Argument Reconstruction, where we will develop critical thinking techniques that come into play after we've located the argument.


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