Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How to Make an Argument

One of the most useful things I learned in this last year studying philosophy was how to properly make an argument. The scholastics of the medieval period had a brilliant method for it. I thought I'd share the basics with you today.

Now, usually when you hear the word "argument" you think of an emotionally charged disagreement between two parties slapping each other with epithets and denouncing each other as hateful ignoramuses. One person says, "Janis Joplin is overrated as a singer," the other says, "You're a moron," and they don't talk to each other for days--most people would call that an argument. An exchange of that nature is not properly labeled an "argument," though. This is better classified as a "fight," or perhaps a "tandem temper tantrum" (I think I just made that up). If that's not an argument, what is?

We were on the right track at first. Someone makes a claim or states a proposition, e.g. "Janis Joplin is overrated as a singer." If we want to examine this claim, to see whether it holds any credence, we must do three things:

1. Define our terms.
2. Give supporting proof such as relevant facts and authoritative pronouncements.
3. Consider and address the arguments of the opposing view.

Let's take these one at a time.

1. Define your terms: This is the first step, and the most important, but all too often people skip it! It's absolutely crucial: how can you discuss a topic when you aren't even sure you're talking about the same thing? I heard a story once about a debate on the existence of God between an atheist and a priest. The priest said to the atheist, "Before we begin, would you describe to me this God you don't believe in?" The atheist replied, "Oh sure. God is an old man who lives in the sky and keeps a list of all the good and bad things we do, and if we've done more good than bad, he lets us into heaven when we die." The priest responded, "Oh good! I'm glad to see we're in agreement. I don't believe in that God either." They then were able to have a fruitful discussion on the existence of God. How much time would have been wasted had they debated for an hour not even talking about the same thing! So, in this example, one would want to define "overrated," or ask "what are the criteria by which we will evaluate or rate a singer?"

2. Give supporting proof: Once you determine by what criteria the question will be decided, you must introduce relevant support for your position. So, if you wanted to use record sales, you could point out that Janis Joplin hasn't sold nearly as many records as other people who aren't as highly regarded, and thus is overrated; or if you wanted to appeal to the opinions of music critics, you could show how so many of them love her voice and argue that she is not overrated. It would take too much time here to go into the issues of logical fallacies (the argument from authority is not a logical proof) and subjective vs. objective questions (isn't singing a matter of taste?), but the point is if you're going to discuss any issue, you need to agree on the criteria and support your argument according to those criteria.

3. Consider the opposing view: It's not enough to state your own case; you won't be able to defend your position unless you answer the strongest arguments from the other side. To be convincing, you have to show how the other side is mistaken in its facts, or misinterpreting an authority, or defining a term incorrectly, or focused on irrelevant matters, or something of that sort. You have to show not only that you're right, but that your opponent is wrong. This is the way that thinkers from Socrates to Aquinas to Abraham Lincoln have proceeded.

In the Middle Ages, a popular exercise in the schools was the disputatio, or "disputed question," which used these basic elements as the framework for a discussion. One of the masters would be presented with a thesis, e.g. "Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?" The master would present his case, defining the terms and presenting supporting evidence, then answer objections from the students, who would cite other authorities and make counter-arguments. These were often recorded and used in teaching texts such as St. Thomas' Summa Theologica.

Rather than give a Summa-style argument for our facetious question, I'll link you to this tongue-in-cheek Summa-style argument on whether St. Thomas is boring. Enjoy! And remember: next time you have a disagreement with someone, please argue, don't fight.

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