Core 105: The Monsters We Make

Fall 2004


I.  Introduction

Argument identification is only the first stage in critical thinking.  It is a crucial stage, given that you can't evaluate an argument if you can't identify one, but it is only a prelude to the real business of critical thinking.  Once you've identified an argument, you should get to know it before evaluating it.  The real business of critical thinking begins here, in clearly articulating arguments you have identified.  We call this process Argument Reconstruction.  

As the name suggests, this stage involves putting the argument together again in a way that conforms to its original construction.  We take what we have found and piece it together in an attempt to capture the arguer's original reasoning.  A similar approach can be taken in the first place by the arguer in the construction of her argument.  Thus, the lessons we learn at this stage apply whether we are producing arguments or consuming them.    (This is to say that we could have called this section Argument Construction, but for the fact that we are focusing this worksite on the critical thinking done by one who must deal with arguments they find.)

We begin this section by discussing a couple of preliminary issues that are important to successful reconstruction.  We then turn to the three principal steps of argument reconstruction:

  1. Identifying Explicit Steps: What are the steps of the argument that are stated explicitly in the text/video/etc.?

  2. Identifying Implicit StepsWhat steps are required to make the argument work that were left unstated by the arguer? 

  3. Standard Form: This involves writing the reasons and conclusion down in a form that highlights their relationships with one another. 


II.  Preliminaries

The process of reconstructing arguments is generally subtle and complicated.  As with similarly complex processes---e.g., playing a round of golf, playing a Scarlatti sonata, or keeping up with a season of Twin Peaks---one's success is often dependent on one's attitude.  There are two preliminary points that bear on the attitude of the critical thinker that should be mentioned now, before we get too far in.  

First, be charitable.  Often, argument reconstruction takes place in the presence of the arguer or someone sympathetic to the arguer's point of view.  In this case, it is important to keep this audience in mind, at least if you are interested in participating in a meaningful dialogue.  As we all know, arguments can spring from disagreement, and disagreement can get out of hand, making dialogue empty and worthless.  If you are reconstructing an argument and you want a worthwhile dialogue, you should try to capture just what it was that the arguer meant with her argument.  In the event that the argument is not perfectly explicit throughout, as is likely, this will require giving the arguer the benefit of the doubt from time to time.   Given this, the attitude to have when you are thinking critically is one of charity.  For more, please read Why Be Charitable? Expanded Notes on Charity .

Second, separate the relevant from the irrelevant.  Once you have recognized the presence of an argument, perhaps by spotting a conclusion or a reason, you should distinguish those aspects of the episode that are relevant to the argument from those that are irrelevant.  If you are talking with someone, then you might find your fellow arguer initially offering up small talk, and then perhaps humor, rhetorical bluster, and tangential remarks from time to time.  These contributions to the discussion have their purpose and place, but they typically do not qualify as conclusions or reasons and so should not figure into argument reconstruction.  In most cases, the main point of critical thinking in a particular situation is to evaluate an argument, and the job will be accomplished more efficiently and effectively if the argument is presented precisely, without distracting or superfluous elements.  Reconstruction of an argument that involves only the relevant elements will enable you to achieve efficiency and effectiveness.

While there are no precise rules to follow in separating relevant claims from those that are irrelevant, the following questions about the claims in question can serve as a guide:

  1. Is the claim under consideration intended by the arguer to be a part of the argument?

  2. Would it be uncharitable not to fold the claim into the argument as you reconstruct it?

  3. Is the claim related to other parts of the argument?

  4. Is the claim on the same topic as other parts of the argument?

A "yes" in response to any of these should incline you to consider introducing the claim into your reconstruction.  Failure to do so could mean that you wind up with an uncharitably reconstructed argument. For more on distinguishing relevant claims, see Expanded Notes on Relevance.  Before proceeding to section III, please complete the following exercise.



III.  Identifying Explicit Steps

In the Argument Identification stage, you learned strategies for identifying conclusions and reasons.  These argument steps were explicitly introduced by the arguer, either via verbal or written text, visual media, or what have you.  If the argument were delivered verbally, for instance, the arguer would have expressed these steps out loud.  Thus, we call them the explicit steps of the argument.  The first move in reconstruction is to list these steps.  

There are several things to watch out for here:

  1. When making this list, it is helpful to put the reasons before the conclusion.

  2. Be aware of the fact that a reason can itself be defended in the course of an argument.  In this case, you will have a claim that serves as a reason for the overall argument, but is itself a conclusion of a mini-argument designed to shore it up.   

  3. Avoid repetition---at times, an arguer will repeat a step, but you needn't repeat the steps as you reconstruct the argument.  

It is also helpful to think a bit about the order of the reasons.  You could list them in the order in which they appear in the argument, but this is often not the best order.  Reasons typically form a "chain", leading from the first assumption to the conclusion.  It is best to try and order the reasons so that they move in a step-wise fashion from what seems like the starting point to the step that is closest in content to the conclusion.  When you are finished, you should have a list  that flows naturally from the first the first step through to the conclusion.

And as a reminder, conclusions and reasons are typically marked off by the arguer either by positioning in the argument or by explicit markers.  Conclusions are often the first or last claims expressed, and they are generally marked by verbal cues such as 'therefore', 'thus', 'as a consequence', etc.  Reasons tend to be mid-text and are generally signaled by verbal cues such as 'first', 'if', 'because', etc.  For more, see the Argument Identification section.  Not all of what is said will be part of the argument.  In most cases, quite a lot of what is said is irrelevant to the argument, so you must be careful to distinguish what is relevant from what isn't.  For more, see the discussion above on Relevance.  Now, though, it is time to turn your attention to a bit of exercise involving explicit steps.



IV.  Identifying Implicit Steps

When you make an argument, you rarely (if ever) express everything that is relevant to your argument.  After all, why express something if it is obvious to everyone?  Generally, we can rely on people to assume the obvious, or to read between the lines, and so we leave some things unsaid.  Of course, if pressed we can express these things, but most of the time things go ahead without difficulty.  Given this, it should not surprise you to find that the list of explicit steps will typically include a few holes where the arguer left an argument step unsaid.  These unexpressed argument steps are what we call implicit steps.  In a full reconstruction, it is helpful to make these explicit and list them alongside the steps you have brought with you from the preceding section.  

Consider this example.  Your friend calls you and says, "Hey!  I've made my decision.  Because they don't have the advanced courses I want in San Sebastián, I'm going to Heredia."  Being her friend, you know that she is considering a study abroad experience, and has narrowed her choices down to San Sebastián, Spain or Heredia, Costa Rica.  Further, you know that she would like to take a few theater classes while on her trip.  Without this additional information, there are too many holes in her reasoning for it to make sense; with it, the reasoning is seamless.  She plans to travel to either San Sebastián or Heredia; she will travel to the one that has advanced courses in theater; San Sebastián does not have them and Heredia does; therefore, she will travel to Heredia.  

The identification of implicit steps is tricky business---it is more art than science.  The primary goal of this part of reconstruction is to create a list of steps that flow in a smooth way from first step to last. (For more, see Expanded Notes on Argument Flow.) Once you have identified holes in the argument, you must determine if the arguer meant them to be filled.  Sometimes, these holes mark places where background knowledge about the issue in question would go; at other times, they mark places where bridging steps would go to make the argument flow better.  As a rule of thumb, it is important to ask two questions upon recognizing a hole where an implicit step might go: 

  1. Does the argument need the implicit step to go through?

  2. Does the arguer get to have the implicit step?

In general, the attitude of charity will incline one to include the step in one's list of argument steps if the answer to (1) is "yes"; however, if the arguer has explicitly denied this step or has indicated that she would reject it, then it would be inconsistent to list it.  For more on the art of the implicit, see the Expanded Notes on Identifying Implicit Steps.  Once you are confident, proceed to Exercise Three and test your artistic ability.



V.  Standard Form

Once you have your argument steps in a list, it is helpful to put them into what we will call Standard Form.  This form is helpful in that it forces you to make crystal clear just how you plan to organize the argument, from first reason through to the conclusion; further, it makes things easier to evaluate, which is where we are headed next.  What you have when you are finished is a complete version of the argument presented in a form that reveals its structure for all to see. 

To begin, select the claim that is the conclusion and write it below a horizontal line. Above the line, list the rest of the claims, all of which we are thinking of as reasons. Try and arrange these in order, from those that represent the arguer's starting points to those that are asserted immediately prior to derivation of the conclusion. Number each of these consecutively, and then number the conclusion last. You will end up with something like this:

1. Reason #1

2. Reason #2

3. Reason #3


n. Reason #n


n+1. Conclusion

This is highly stylized, but it is effective in focusing attention on the argumentative character of the claims involved and the relationships between them.  And now, for some exercise to help you work on your form.



VI.  Putting It All Together

Return to Grendel, Ch. 5.  In the preceding section, you should have identified several arguments in it.  Select one of these arguments and prepare a list of explicit steps and then identify the essential implicit steps.  Once you have finished your list, recast it into standard form and compare your results with the key.  If you have any questions about this, please talk with your instructor.

-- KEY --


VI.  Summary

When you need to think critically, you need to think carefully and judiciously about a topic, weighing aspects of that topic against one another.  At this worksite, we are modeling this type of thinking in terms of arguments---when you weigh aspects of a topic against one another, you are in effect considering arguments for and against those aspects.  To do this properly, you need to understand the nature of those arguments, and that requires that you engage in systematic argument reconstruction. Without this, you can't be sure that you have identified all of the relevant "moving parts" of the argument.  In this section, we have presented a procedure for reconstructing arguments.  (For this procedure in outline form, see Argument Reconstruction By the Numbers.)  Once you are comfortable with this procedure, it is time to move on to Argument Evaluation, where we focus on responses to arguments.


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