Dr. Dickson English 112 Spring 2007 LC

Argument Summary and Analysis


I. Beliefs, Knowledge, and Argument


Claim: something held (however tenuously, however passionately, however blithely) to be true that you share with others.  For example: writing isn’t always the easiest thing to do.


Arguable claim: perhaps a redundancy, an ‘arguable’ claim is one that is open to dispute. Typically, arguable claims are the important assertions in a speech or article—the ones on which important consequences turn.


Feelings, Preferences and Predilections…: the language of emotional experience—basically, we’re talking about the unfathomable depths and fuzzy rhizomes of your internal (not yet fully articulated or shared) “thoughts” about something. Your ‘felt sense.’ For example: You have a misgiving about accepting someone’s invitation to vacation in Florida because, if you really thought it, you have images of wave runners and supersized margaritas.


Often, when we “relate” to something we hear, it’s because what we hear strikes a chord inside—matches up, vibrates to the same frequency, as some inchoate feelings/thoughts we harbor inside us. Of what do these feeling/thoughts consist? Language and culture-influenced images and emotional embroideries. That’s the pat answer. There is no easy way to describe “thoughts/feelings.”


To participate in intellectual culture—to argue or analyze arguments—to some extent you have to dredge up your feelings/thoughts and “air them out”—articulate them—as  claims, and then figure out how you might justify/support those claims for a particular audience.


Knowledge: For Aristotle, a Greek philosopher (384-322 B.C.), there were only a few things we could be absolutely certain about. These are the “truths” of mathematics and logic. Two plus two is always four. If the object of your scrutiny is human behavior, there is considerably less certainty. You can, nevertheless, be good at judging which general rules apply to this or that situation (this is what goes on in ethics, psychology, and politics). This skill at reaching probable conclusions and putting them to work in the world of human affairs Aristotle called techne.


Dialectic and Rhetoric are forms of techne.


Dialectic is the art of analyzing arguments so that your analysis yields new questions, which generate new arguments, which generate new questions, and so on.


Rhetoric is the art of arriving at and conveying probable truths, and this probability is a matter of a particular audience’s willingness to grant assumptions, whether they’re consciously aware of those assumptions or not. Assumptions are those beliefs that allow a person make an inference, to “jump” from one or more stated premises to a conclusion.


Inference: the movement of thinking from two or more premises to a conclusion of some sort. For instance, I note that it’s cloudy outside today. Then I notice that the temperature has just dropped. I infer (or conclude) that rain is on the way. If I could slow down my thinking, I could discover the assumptions that led me from my OBSERVATIONS to my CONCLUSION. In everyday life, inferences are typically made with lightening speed unconscious deliberation. For example, in the case above, the general rules that the presence of clouds and a drop in temperature indicate approaching rain I know without thinking about them. Then again there’s the  general rule that two indicators give a stronger indication than one—and I don’t stop to ponder any of these rules before “leaping” to my conclusion (belief). I just think.


We use metaphors to describe how we think. One metaphor for cognition involves “movement”. We say that people “arrive” at (travel or move towards) beliefs through inference. This metaphor allows analysts to reconstruct the “movement” of the “mind” in what we call “logic.”


Philosophers of Mind (as a group) have themselves “moved” from an earlier interest in formal logic (and mathematics) to a contemporary interest in “natural argumentation” (how people actually argue). They now give focus to the “enthymeme,” a casual form of the syllogism:


Syllogism (formal logic)

Enthymeme (informal logic)

Minor Premise: you’re cute

Observation: you’re cute

Major Premise : cute is good

UNSTATED PREMISES ( or “assumptions”): cute is good; cute trumps poor posture & awful taste when it comes to selecting a mate

Conclusion: I like you.

Conclusion I like you


Argument: the provision of support (evidence and/or reasoning and/or explanation) for a belief. For example, I argue that it will rain today because there are clouds in the sky. Or: I think you’re great. Because basically  you think I’m great.


Evidence: appeals to some situation where methodical (that is, to some extent, unbiased) observation and/or measurement can settle a dispute. Typically, anything (a statement, a statistic, a study) that can be reproduced and authenticated is evidence.


Reasoning: This term refers to either the process of justifying a belief OR the means by which a person “arrives at” a belief. In the former sense, we “reason” together—we figure out which ideas are justified. In the latter sense, we “reason” as we “think.” The “rules” of reasoning, or “logic,” first codified by Aristotle, distinguish two ways of arriving at and/or justifying beliefs: induction and deduction. Induction involves reasoning from observations of specific examples to a generalization. Deduction arrives at a conclusion by inferring from two (or more) premises (assertions accepted as true or probable).


Explanation: because language is often vague and because sometimes a person’s language contains allusions to matters not familiar to all audiences, summarizing an “argument” may involve a good deal of explanation—unpacking the words and concepts a writer uses. For example, let’s say I were to argue that the beach is beautiful because the surf and the sand are pliable and enduring. If you were to summarize me, you might need to explain what I (probably) mean by “pliable and enduring.” How much explaining you need to do depends on your audience’s familiarity with beaches, high brow vocabulary, and tolerance for poetic phrasing. 


II. A Closer Look at Patterns of Reasoning


The principles of formal logic were mapped out by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Induction generalizes from experience and arrives at probable truths:


I observe X, Y and Z (particular events—car accidents in the rain). Since X, Y and Z all concern Q (a kind of car, a Ford SUV) and since something happened—the cars rolled over at medium speeds or P—I conclude that Q (Ford SUVs) are prone to P (rollovers). This is a generalization from examples and I make it by isolating one factor (the car) from all the others (weather, road, driving ability of drivers, etc.).


Deduction, which is held to be a more abstract and often convoluted kind of reasoning, conjectures from two or more premises and arrives (sometimes validly) at a necessarily true conclusion.


If A (Bill’s at home), then B (Sarah goes out)

Not B (Sarah didn’t go out)

Therefore, not A (Bill wasn’t at home)


Some people hold that it is important to be able to distinguish between these two modes of reasoning because the way we analyze arguments differs depending upon how a person arrived at her/his conclusion.


A. Induction


Here are some examples of inductive arguments:


We, students, do not feel comfortable with new pedagogies…. [imagine that this goes on to include examples]

People from the South use a lot of saturated fats in their cooking….[ examples follow ]

Hollywood films are now showing the potential harms of neglecting children…. [examples follow]


Some inductive arguments are really more definition arguments. For instance:


The US has not produced solid evidence that Iraq is developing WMD….[ examples follow]


While the argument is definitely a generalization from a number of incidents, the weight of the argument rests on the term “evidence” (or “solid”).


People in everyday argumentation typically only provide one or two examples because it is understood that the arguer takes the examples to be indicative of larger trends—that’s why the person feels comfortable making the interpretive leap from the few facts at hand to the generalization (or inductive inference).


There are some general rules concerning the dependability and responsibility of inductive generalizations. Thus, generalizations often are accompanied by qualifiers when the examples used are


  • not available for scrutiny (the evidence has been destroyed)
  • not sufficient in quantity (the arguer only has experience with 3 X’s out of the 1000 known to exist)
  • not sufficient in quality (the sample is not "representative" of a group; the arguer offers 100 interviews with people she met at an airport in Houston as examples of Texans—the sample size is OK but most airline travelers are in upper management business)


IMPORTANT: An inductive argument can be reasonable in its inferences and yet not compelling because it harbors assumptions that would not be acceptable to—or respectful of—the people it concerns. Responsible (or ethical) generalizations are usually made with an awareness of a specific context for what they claim; they often provide qualifiers to make sure everyone knows the claims are only suggestive and they avoid ‘essentializing’ (read: stereotyping) people or objects being generalized about (that is to say: they avoid being predictive of the future and restrain themselves to being merely descriptive of a particular context).


For example, lets imagine that you notice that women don’t speak up in class as much as men. How do you phrase your conclusion? Here are two options:


Induction # 1: Men tend to speak more than women in class


Induction # 2: Men are better public speakers than women.


Induction #2: Men are better at public speaking than women in situations which call for the speakers to assert a claim in the context of disputation.


All three generalizations are valid but are all three equally (ethically) sound? Only # 3 facilitates, rather than shuts down, further inquiry into the matter. You could imagine that # 3 might lead a person to speculate how women argue differently than men and to think about how the context of class discussion doesn’t provide women with the time-frame and cues for engaging argumentatively in the way they have learned.


Example 2


Let’s imagine that, in your experience, men and women “relate” to one another differently. Below are two generalizations that follow from those “facts.”


Induction # 1: Men don't like to relate (they're from “Mars”). Women like to relate (they’re from “Venus”)


Induction # 2: Men tend to solve all their problems without involving others in their process while women are trained in society to talk out their problems and solutions.


The second phrasing is more ethically responsible because the second articulation opens the door to further inquiry (it doesn’t ESSENTIALIZE). Given the second generalization, it would seem logical to ask next: whose problem-solving technique is better? And how do we judge better and worse? Thus, further inquiry. The first articulation shuts inquiry down.


Inductive arguments can also be vitiated by language that smuggles in unfair or unfounded judgments. For example, let’s say someone argues that illegal aliens (or fat people or thin people or Southerners or…pick your category) complain a lot about being stereotyped. This may seem like a straight-ahead generalization based upon “facts” (examples known to the writer) but the main terms—“illegal aliens” (or “fat people”, etc) and “complain”—are LOADED TERMS; that is, they are words that are loaded down with presuppositions about the world. You could analyze these terms for how they influence beliefs in any number of ways:


  1. what feelings or images do they evoke? (illegal recalls bad people, people who shun rules and take what they want; complain evokes images of ingratitude, of spoiled brats)
  2. what binaries are they part of? (illegal/legal; home/alien; love of country/harping criticism and ingratitude)
  3. how are they figurative (metaphorical)? That is, what’s the equation? (certain immigrants are as strange and potentially dangerous as “aliens”)


In each of the above instances, you can interrogate the terms by asking simply: is there a factual basis for the association, binary, figuration? Is it true (an observable phenomenon) that in responding the world you either praise it or “complain”? If there isn’t some empirical basis for your distinction, then these terms are being used a part of “pathetic” appeal to the reader’s emotions and (implicit) values. This is rhetoric, perhaps, at its worst—rhetoric as trickery.


B. Deduction


When people make deductive arguments, like:


Teachers shouldn’t use new pedagogies because they make students uncomfortable.


The US has no basis for declaring way on Iraq. It is not in violation of UN resolutions any more than Israel is.


it’s pretty obvious that they are deductive because of the stated (or implied) because term. Whenever there’s an implied or stated “because,” it’s a deductive argument.


Granted, some arguments seem to be deductive because of the “because” but they are not really deductive:


I love you. Because I do.


The argument here is essentially a “tautology”: I love you because I love you. The mind that produced this “argument” did not travel far in reasoning; this is a mind “in love.”


Deductive arguments that condense the claim to one short declarative statement and the support to something equally short and declarative (and connect the two phrases with a “because”) are called “enthymemes,” which, as previously noted, are informal syllogisms. In everyday life, people often argue in enthymemes because they don’t need to take their audiences through every step of their reasoning process—that would be unnecessary, not to mention time-consuming. Moreover, most people (and many writers) only try to convince people who are like them and, thus, will probably share their assumptions. Some arguers do not realize, however, that their arguments hinge on unstated (perhaps unconscious) beliefs called “warrants” or “assumptions.” Some analysts prefer the term warrants because the missing premise warrants the movement from the initial premise to the conclusion.


PROBLEM-O: Not all deductive arguments can be readily identified (or reconstructed) as enthymemes. Take the following examples:


People should have less fat in their diet if they want to be healthy.


Good films address contemporary social problems; they don’t simply pander to audience’s fantasies of wealth and romance and omnipotence.


The first statement consists of an argument that is based on two unstated premises, but it is stated as if it’s a simple fact. The first phrase implies that health is a matter of diet and that fat is too large a component in most people’s diets. I could reconstruct it as the following syllogism:


Health is a matter of a healthy diet (All H are D)

All healthy diets are diets with little fat (All D are L)

Health is a matter of diets with little fat (All H are L)


Reconstructed as a syllogism, do you find the conclusion sound? It’s certainly valid, but are all the premises equally plausible? Health is probably more than a matter of diet.


The second statement above (about films) implies that films cannot BOTH address problems and be entertaining to people in the way films usually are (by offering a heroic character to identify with and by having that character’s life be changed for the better). This assumption—that films are either serious or frivolous—is debatable, perhaps even fallacious (see: the fallacy of the “false dilemma”).


Responding to the deductive reasoning in a piece of writing means essentially ferreting out its implicit assumptions—its unstated premises—and then evaluating whether or not they are compelling.


To do this, it is first necessary to summarize the argument as an enthymeme. Many times, though, what the acts of persuasion you encounter in everyday life can be understood (naively, perhaps…but conveniently) as mere reports or innocent explanations of phenomena so it can often be a challenge just to locate the arguable claim. Take for instance, the following statement:


Our business sells products (furniture) but we also see the service of interior design as something else we sell. Our store includes some mock kitchens, etc. but we need a new computer, something with imaging/interactive program capability, because it will make it easier for us to show customers who come into the store see what the products will look like when they’re set up. More understanding of how we earn our money will help customers get over their fear of buying a service because they will understand that not just anyone can put together a kitchen.


Much of this passage is taken up in reporting facts about the store and explaining how a fancy computer could demonstrate the art of interior design and justify the purchase of a consulting fee. To locate an argument, you’ll have to find a claim that is in doubt—a claim upon which something important turns. In the passage, it’s probably that a fast computer can improve our business. Once you’ve got hold of what you think is the main claim, then you simply sift back through the other statements looking for anything that justifies that claim or answers the question WHY? Well, because…..


because… computers allow people to see what before this technology they could only imagine.


(This argument rests on the assumption that the word-spun fantasy sells the product less well than the visual (simulated) reality, which may or may not be empirically true.)


One way to discover the arguable claim in an article is to do what philosopher Larry Wright calls the Headline Experiment. It goes as follows: you read the article once, narrowing down the two or three most important paragraphs (or sentences or chapters). Then, you pretend that you are newspaper editor and come up with a title for the text you’re reading (note: ignore its actual title) by


1. identifying the crucial subject and

2. articulating in a very condensed fashion what is said about it or what happens to it


If the text is simply a report, then it will probably read like this: Titanic Sinks. If the text is, or can be read as an argument, then it will read with a little twinge of implied controversy: Captain’s Negligence Sinks Ship


Once you’ve got one or two possible candidates for a headline (for what is essentially the MAIN CLAIM), go back to the text and see if there are any reasons or evidence given to support this claim. If you only find one piece of support, then it may be a good idea to experiment with other possible headlines because the very notion of a MAIN argument is that the majority of an article is given over to establishing that claim. The main claim is the entrée; everything else is a side dish. Students who can only find one paragraph of support for what they feel is the main claim may have only grasped a side order of fries when they were reaching for the Big Mac.


Deductive argument paraphrase: a description—in your own words—of a text’s main logical structure. Typically, in a paraphrase, the main claim (or point) is identified first, followed by the support, both given and implied. This order is NOT always the way the writer lays out the argument. S/he might begin with the givens (facts or premises) and then work up to the main point, or the main point may not ever be explicitly stated.


Deductive Argument Analysis: posing and answering questions (perhaps in writing) about the relative strengths and weaknesses of an argument.


[Note: To analyze the deductive reasoning in a piece writing, sometimes it’s valuable to first isolate the non-logical appeals: pathos (how the writer appeals to the reader’s emotions and values) and ethos (how the writer’s credibility is established). Analysts typically identify pathos and ethos just so they can avoid it when analyzing logos: the argument.]


Once you’ve got a paraphrase of the main argument, then you speculate about he assumptions the argument rests on. Here is a method for doing that:


Draw a visual schema of the main argument. Visualization can help you extrapolate the assumptions that allow (“warrant”) the writer to MOVE from her/his reason to the claim.


For example, take the case of the Cheeto Bag. It sports the following copy: MADE WITH REAL CHEESE! You might say that this bag has an implied deductive argument:


EAT CHEETOS because they’re made with real cheese.



The nice thing about doing argument analysis on advertisements is that the arguments are already really condensed. In most texts, you  might have to work at your paraphrase to boil it down sufficiently to make it manageable.


When analyzing and evaluating a deductive argument, your focus is either on the quality and relevance of the evidence offered to support the stated reason OR on how compelling the assumptions are. Assumptions are always generalizations so they’re hardly ever absolutely true or false. It’s up to the analyst to decide whether there are “counter-examples” (scenarios, situations, examples) that would seriously call the generalization into question.


As for “evidence,” there are several types to consider: examples, authoritative testimony, and “scientific” studies. Examples are usually offered as some instance of a general rule; see the discussion above for ways of raising questions about inductions. Authoritative testimony is basically someone’s opinion, but this ‘someone’ is someone who is expert in some matter. You have to always ask two questions when it comes to “experts:” how valid are their credentials and how much do their credentials matter when it comes to making a judgment about the thing being argued about. For example, if I said that a certain movie was bad because it endorsed awful values and the evidence I gave for this reason was that someone who has a great deal of credibility for me, Ralph Nader, said so, you might wonder two things: what are Ralph’s credentials as an expert in social commentary? Second, do his credentials prepare him to make good aesthetic judgments? 


Finally, there are “studies.” While many times studies can provide very rigorous, scientific and politically neutral observations and recommendations about social phenomena, they can also be misleading, false, or inconclusive. Studies done at big state universities tend to be less slanted than studies conducted by “think tanks.”


Studies can also be used by writers in misleading ways. For instance, sometimes the thing being studied is not really about the thing we’re talking about. For example, I could argue that SAT scores are valid measurements of intelligence because people who do well on them usually do well in college. This may be a misleading study because it only tells us about those kids who did well on the test. What about how the kids who did poorly on the SAT—how did they do in college? Being a good standardized test taker may be a necessary but not sufficient cause of college success, or it might be totally accidental.


Secondly, some studies are inconclusive. For instance, say we’re talking about spanking kids to correct ‘bad’ behavior and I argue parents shouldn’t. To support my claim, I quote a study done by a big university which found that kids who grew up in homes in which corporal punishment was NOT used to manage behavior-issues were more likely to socialize well with others. You could find my use of this study unconvincing on the issue of should parents spank because the study really doesn’t show whether the friendliness of kids depends upon whether they were spanked or some other factor the study neglected.


How to Discover A Warrant (It's not Easy!)


Maybe the best way to find a warrant in an argument is simply to think a lot about what assumptions are. Assumptions are inferences made without awareness; they are what writer or audience or both take for granted. However, Toulmin analysis cannot help a student unpack all the assumptions in a piece of rhetoric. For example, Toulmin cannot help interrogate a writer’s language/terms. The assumptions Toulmin analysis deals with are called warrants because they are special kinds of assumptions: they are the general principles (values, beliefs) that authorize the cognitive 'leap' from the Reason to Claim.


Thus, I often tell students that when you’re trying to write out an assumption, it is good to remind yourself of what you are looking for: a basic rule. You can begin with words like All, Any, None, Never, Always—words that sometimes begin rules.


We need to send ground troops into Bosnia. We need to give all our available support because its another Nazi Germany in there! We can’t sit on our hands again and let those atrocities happen like that.


The support given here for the main claim (send troops) is an analogy between Bosnia and the 3rd Reich. One of the assumptions here, which I would call empirical assumption, is that Bosnia is more like the 3rd Reich than it is unlike it. We’d have to know some history to judge this assumption good or bad, so that’s why I call it an empirical assumption. The assumption in the Cheetos example was more a evaluative claim—a claim about what is good or better or best. So, I would call that a value assumption. There are also definitional assumptions, as in the following example:


That’s a rad car! Steel rims! (the assumption is that what makes a great car is fancy rims)


Another thing about assumptions that could increase students' sensitivity to them is the fact that what we’re looking for is a crucial or key belief or value—one on which some important question turns. A “crucial” or key assumption tests the universality of an argument by identifying some belief that might be convincing for some people and unconvincing for others.


Sometimes when you’re trying to tease our assumptions, what you come up with as an assumption is really just another reason, or a restatement of the first reason given.


For example, in the argument I can’t lend you money b/c I’ve got bills to pay, some people might suggest that the assumption here is: I’ve got other responsibilities. That’s an implication and could be added to the argument as an additional reason why not money will be forked over. It’s not an assumption.


The key assumptions in this argument are: (1) paying bills will cause me to be broke  AND (2) paying bills is more important to me than helping you out.


To any assumption, you can ask: So What? Or Why?  This will help you better understand the assumption so you can start to determine whether it holds up—or whether the relevant audience will grant it. (But remember the earlier discussion of ethics: some assumptions, like some inductive generalizations, while they might be granted by an audience, are nevertheless irresponsible. There is, in other words, an ethical dimension to argument analysis. It is not simply—objectively—a matter of testing rigor).


So, let’s follow through on one of these assumptions. In the example above, you could ask of the first assumption: so what? The arguer obviously assumes that being broke is bad. He may also believe that being stingy with one’s brother is bad, but he may rank being broke above being stingy in the things in life he wishes to avoid. The point here is that sometimes to evaluate one assumption you must take into account the other assumptions and perhaps rank them in terms of importance.


Take another example: The US was wrong to use the Atomic bomb in WWII b/c the war would have ended anyway when the Soviets joined the Pacific campaign.


Some of my students have said that the assumption here is: the Soviet entrance into the Pacific war would end WWII by itself. Actually, this is just the reason restated.


A key assumption here is: the only reason to use the Atomic bomb is to end the war.


Some historians now argue that the bomb was useful to the US in ways other than ending the war with Japan. It ended the war quickly before the Soviets could enter it and, thus, prevented them from being another player in the post-war Asian territorial spoils. In other words, we have good reason to believe the assumption in the above argument is not a good one. Another ethical reflection: analyzing the assumptions as we have has revealed a potentially repugnant aspect of American foreign policy: it is possible that a weapon of mass destruction was used not to end killing but to reap greater spoils. Without physical evidence (a memo leaked from the Administration), it would be impossible to confirm whether spoils were a factor in the decision to drop the bombs. Nevertheless, because of the plausibility of greed being a factor, and because of the horrific implications of this for future foreign policy decisions, it is ethically imperative to not simply air this assumption but to research it. To give this question ample discussion rather than “sweep it under the rug.” This is another instance when a “key” assumption is one upon which something crucial turns.


Even if you have, at this point, a grasp of the general definition of a warrant and its basic types (empirical, evaluative, definitional), you may still have problems “finding” (conjuring) them because it is soooooooooo abstract, speculative….So….


Recapping the First Technique for Finding Assumptions


The first procedure I have for finding assumptions is the general rule or principle approach. The key to this method is being able to summarize an argument in a very condensed way, with very few terms. Since the controversial or arguably aspect of many issues is evaluative or purposive, in addition to doing the Headline Experiment you might simply prompt yourself with the question: are there any evaluation or proposal arguments being made here?


The difficulty, of course, is that few writers offer brief, condensed arguments, and not all contentious issues in a piece of writing fall into the categories of evaluative or proposal arguments (though a GREAT many do). Writers often sometimes repeat themselves; they often pack in a couple arguments into one sentence.


Take this (very difficult) example: Sexual harassment laws actually end up hurting women because employers don’t want to hire them because they’re afraid of being sued.


There are two “because” links here! So, what do you do? One thing you can do here is simply break the one argument into two arguments:


1. Sex Harassment Laws are bad for women b/c employers won’t hire women

Assumption: women want to be hired


2. Employers won’t want to hire women b/c employers will be afraid of being sued by women

Assumption 1: The liability of hiring women will outweigh the value of women in the food service industry.

Assumption 2: Employers don’t have other options …like complying with the new laws…to alleviate their fear of being sued.


The first argument reveals a dubious reason and the second argument really reveals dubious assumptions.



Another way of Finding Assumptions (though, a bit more complicated)


When it’s not possible to find an assumption one way, try another. The second method is called, after Larry Wright’s book on reasoning, the implicit-question approach. If you can think of your headline in your summary of an argument as the “answer,” the “implicit question” is the question that prompted the answer. Although Wright isn’t interested in assumptions, for me the implicit question exercise can help us generate possible assumptions by helping us think up rival answers/claims to the one the writer has given. “Rival answers/claims” must answer the implicit question, but in a way that is different from the reason already given by the writer. When we look at the two claims side by side, we will gain a perspective on the reasoning process the writer used and what s/he might have been assuming or taking for granted.


For example, take the following letter to the Editor of a local newspaper.


It is a crying shame that so many performances at our elegant new Arts Center play before a half-empty house. Why not give some of those seats to senior citizens living on social security? Why not give them to high school drama teachers to distribute as prizes for good students? Giving the unused tickets away will ensure that our Arts Center, partially paid for by taxpayers, will not go to waste. Furthermore, isn’t it better for the performers to play to a full house?


The Headline I came up with is this: Un-purchased Tickets  Should Go to Good Students ( a proposal argument)


The implicit question is: What should we do with un-purchased tickets?


Possible rival answers: 1. Sell them at discounted prices to people who should up at the door. 2. Give them to people who serve on juries. 3. Burn them.


These rival answers/claims suggest to me that in the argument: We should give unpurchased tickets to students because they go wasted otherwise, a key assumption is that students are more deserving or will profit more from free tickets than other possible recipients: bargain hunters, jury members, the homeless.


Another implicit question for this argument might be: What should we do about half-full attendance at the Arts Center?


Notice how that radically changes our focus.


Possible rival conclusions: 1. Hire a new advertising firm to promote productions. 2. Advise Artistic Director of Arts Center to find more relevant plays. 3. Use Arts Center for something other than plays.


These rival conclusions suggest to me that in the argument: We should give unpurchased tickets to students because they go wasted otherwise, a key assumption is that the cause of the unpurchased seats, or a lack of popularity of the Arts Center’s plays, has to do with an uncaring public. In other words, the writer of the argument about the tickets is assuming that the only thing we can do about the situation is to give the tickets away. Why don’t we figure out why the seats are not filled and solve the problem that way?



Another example.


Our teacher Mr. Jones is a bad teacher because he doesn’t present the course material in a way that’s interesting.


Headline: Jones Bad Teacher


Implicit question: What kind of teacher is Jones?


Possible rival answers: He’s a good teacher b/c he’s always prepared.

                                      He’s a good teacher b/c he cares about the students.


Key Assumption: Good teaching has more to do with engaging students than with being knowledgeable, prepared, or compassionate.





Another example:


Blue whales are the largest mammals ever to exist on earth. They are bigger than even the Tyrannosaurus rex. They can get as big as 90 feet long and weigh over 15 tons. Their communication is so complex scientists still haven’t figured it out yet. They have 36 distinct clicks and many variations of songs.


The complete summary here is:


Headline: Blue whales are amazing animals.

Because they’re the largest ever (reason)

Because they have a complex language (reason #2)

Evidence: 90 feet long, 15 tons; 36 clicks (that’s 32 more than me!)


Using the implicit question approach, I come up with this as my implicit question: What makes people interested in Whales?

Rival answers: 1. Because they’ve been around a long time. 2. Because their blubber can be used as candle oil.

Key Assumption: what makes an animal amazing/wonderful/interesting is its size and intelligence (rather than ancestry or commodity usefulness). Does this mean that amoebae  are not amazing? Well, yes, this seems to be the writer’s assumption. It seems that s/he is impressed by size and intelligence, qualities that the whale shares with humans. We are bigger than a lot of animals on the food chain. We also have a complex language. Is it any wonder the writer wonders at whales?


In any case, the contrast provided by the rival answers/claims allows us to evaluate how good the argument is by allowing us to speculate about key assumptions.


One last example that Sherlock Holmes would like.


A driver spun his car out of control and ended up stuck in a ditch. Luckily he was OK, though still unconscious when the police made out their preliminary report. The responding officers speculated that the accident could have happened because the driver feel asleep at the wheel  because he made no attempt to brake or steer back onto the road before spinning out of control. There were no skid marks on the road.


Claim: Driver lost control by falling asleep

Reason: there were no skid marks, which would indicate an attempt to steer back onto the pavement if a fully-conscious driver lost control of the car.


The implicit question here is: what caused the accident?

Rival answers/claims: 1. The driver’s knowledge that once you lose control of your car you shouldn’t try to brake hard or swerve. 2. An attempted suicide.  3. The steering and brakes failed simultaneously---foul play?. 4. DWI?


These rival conclusions help us figure out with the police’s assumption: if the driver didn’t brake or steer, he must have been asleep. The rival conclusions also give us three reasons to doubt the policeman’s assumption and that’s what’s good about the implicit question approach—it helps you interrogate key assumptions.


A Tricky One


Here’s an argument where the really crucial assumptions are not part of the deductive argument but rather the inductive one:


We should advertise our new line of shoes in the Houston Press and the Chronicle because it will bring in more business. I know of six other retail businesses that have used print media and done very well.


The deductive argument is: We should buy print advertising because print advertising will boost our sales.


Some assumptions: we have an advertising budget; we need to boost sales—that is, we need to spend money on pushing product rather than R&D or raises for salespeople or upkeep on our site.


The key assumption the whole piece would seem to be hidden in the inductive argument:


The inductive argument is:

(Conclusion) Advertising in print sources boosts sales of retail businesses

(Examples): 6 businesses.


Assumptions: those businesses are like ours—their product lines are similar to ours.






Toulmin Analysis is difficult because finding assumptions is difficult. However, it’s useful (if you can get the hang of it) because it allows you to draw on your own experiences when evaluating the logic in a piece of rhetoric and 2. it helps suggest possible research directions if you’re doing research on a topic from which the argument somehow stems. In the Death Penalty example, we may not feel up to judging the quality of the evidence presented, but we can always, always respond to the assumption given our own experiences with rules and “deterrence.” Assumptions convey the critical reader’s understanding of what a writer takes for granted. What the writer takes for granted is not necessarily compelling (or ethical) for everyone affected by the issue.


This is a profound point: ferreting out assumptions can help us understand the contingency and ethicality of arguments, including the position(s) that we hold.


If you were to use Toulmin to examine the argument that the Death Penalty is a good idea because it can be shown to deter homicide, you might not linger long on the evidence (who knows whether the statistics and studies are trustworthy?). You might focus, intead, on the assumption that Good Laws are Laws that deter crime. Certainly, the illegalization of cocaine is an attempt to be a good law in this sense. The more addicts, the more crime: this is almost a sociological maxim. But there are many laws (traffic laws, Bill of Rights) that do not exist to deter crime. In fact, good laws may be laws that protect civil liberties and promote public safety. Some laws, in fact, exist only to honor the past (national holidays, for instance).


So, this Death Penalty example is a case where, if a person could find an assumption, it could lead them to  reflect that what makes a good law for legislators is not necessarily what makes a good law for people—thus, the contingency of arguments. Your own feelings about and experiences of laws are relevant to your evaluation of the argument. Moreover, I will note here that in evaluating an argument we are not simply embroiled in some cerebral exercise; we are also per force positioning ourselves in relation to others—that is, positioning ourselves ethically. This is sometimes a difficult point to register: all arguments are contingent and analysis is not only interpretive and analytic but also ethical.


Arguments stand or fall depending on the facts, but also depending on logic and on your experience in the world, and how your interests and values align with the arguers, and finally what kind of ethical creature you are, or hope to be.


It’s a bit more complicated (and interesting) than a matter of “opinion” or the presence or absence of “facts” as some people initially believe when they think of argumentation as a social activity.




Questions: Answer True of False


1. A deductive argument is a conclusion that is missing one or more its premises.


2. An assumption is an unstated premise. Typically, assumptions are found in deductive reasoning, where they are called warrants, but there are assumptions are present as well in inductive arguments.


3 Toulmin analysis can help you find which claims are arguable.


4 Toulmin analysis can help you discover new avenues of inquiry in a debate.


5 Inductive generalizations are typically free of hidden assumptions.


6 Research involves summary and analysis of arguments as well as collecting relevant data (facts).