Sunday, March 04, 2007

Better Reasoning VII: Arguments in the Wild

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In earlier posts in this series, various valid argument forms have been introduced and the tricky issue of enthymemes has been discussed. However, even with this information, it can still be quite difficult to spot arguments when they appear in entirely natural environments. There are a number of reasons why this is the case.

When arguments are looked at in discussions such as these, the examples discussed are usually carefully chosen so that the salient features of the arguments are obvious. When people use arguments in more natural contexts, they do not do this. For instance, it is not uncommon for arguments to be mixed up with passages of text that do other things, such as describing and commenting. This mean that it is often necessary to disentangle arguments from the non-argumentative text. This is not always a straightforward process. Here a few tips for recovering the 'meat' of arguments will be offered.

It is worth briefly noting that these techniques are mostly focused upon written text. However, in theory at least, they should work just as well for spoken arguments. However, as spoken arguments are a little more tricky to work with, it is often useful to develop argument detection skills on written texts first. Once good skills are developed with this type of text, applying these skills in spoken cases often comes quite naturally.

When faced with a passage of text, the first thing that one needs to ask oneself is whether or not there is really an argument there at all. This might seem silly on the face of it, but it is important. There is little virtue in going to all the trouble of analysing a putative argument, if one then realises that there is no such thing present. It is also important to read the passage of text several times, to get a really clear idea of what is going on with it.

Arguably, the most important feature of a passage of argumentative text is that the text is trying to persuade the reader of something. This thing is the conclusion of the argument. Given the importance of the conclusion, one useful technique is to ask yourself what a passage under consideration is trying to persuade you of. If there does not seem to be any one thing in particular, then it may be the case that the text is not in fact an argument after all.

Conclusions to genuine arguments are often surprising, controversial, or counter-intuitive. This is a useful fact to know and keep in mind. When you think that you have found the conclusion to an argument, ask yourself whether the putative conclusion really has these features. If it does not, then that too is a clue that there may be something else going on in the passage. It is also worth keeping in mind that the main conclusion to an argument may not be explicitly stated in the argument. That is to say, the main conclusion can also be an enthymeme.

People sometimes have a bad time picking out conclusions when they are first starting out. Again there are a couple of useful tricks that can come in hand to help spot conclusions.

The first trick is to know that it is most common for the conclusion of an argument to appear either at the beginning, or the end of the argument. There are exceptions to this, but it is the most common situation.

Perhaps the most important clue to the conclusion of an argument can come from so-called 'conclusion indicator' words and phrases. Now, it is not always the case that arguers will use indicators, but when they do, this can be a great help. The following words and phrases are common conclusion indicators:

* therefore
* thus
* so
* hence
* it follows that
* it can be inferred that
* in conclusion
* accordingly
* for this reason
* on these grounds
* consequently
* proves that
* shows that
* indicates that
* we can conclude that
* we can infer that
* demonstrates that
* in consequence
* as a result
* which means that
* which entails that
* which implies that
* leads to the conclusion that


Once the conclusion of an argument has been detected, it is worth checking and making sure that one really has found the main conclusion.

It is reasonably common for complex real world arguments to contain sub-arguments. Sub-arguments are arguments that are embedded into larger arguments which offer arguments in support of premises of the main argument. Thus, the sub-conclusion of a sub-argument, will often be a premise in the larger argument. This can makes things, at least in theory, fairly complicated. There is no reason in principle why there could not be sub-sub-arguments and so on. Fortunately, these are seldom seen in practice. However, the presence of sub-arguments makes it possible to confuse a sub-conclusion with the main conclusion. This should be kept in mind when hunting for conclusions in real world situations.

Once the main conclusion of an argument has been found, it becomes easier to work out which other parts of the argument are functioning as premises. This in turn helps in the identification of the passages of text that do not really belong to the argument proper. Some people find it helpful to lightly strike through the irrelevant parts of the text, as they try and tease the argument out of the passage they are considering.

By following these strategies, looking for valid argument forms and keep an eye out for enthymemes, with some practice it can become relatively easy to dig arguments out from natural language passages. However, it is worth emphasising that doing this ils a skill and thus takes time to perfect. Practicing doing this little and often is usually the best strategy for honing this skill. It is worth making the effort, as this is a very important skill for improving one's reasoning.

The CP

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