Discussion Argument Identification

March 8, 2022
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Discussion Argument Identification

Discussion Argument Identification

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:

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

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

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 commercials. But 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.

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