Laying out an Argument

In my “How to Reason and Argue” course (week 2 of 12 — still time to join), Walter (our professor) is setting out by defining terms. And indeed, agreed definitions are crucial for effective communication.

“The beginning of wisdom, is the definition of terms.”
Socrates (quoted in my sidebar)

Contrary to a common illusion, words do not have “fixed” definitions — see my “Myth of Definitions“.  Instead, words have many varied uses and depend not only on context but also on the idiolect of the speaker.  Thus, “definitions” are merely a temporary, unwritten, and often unrecognized, explicit ‘contract’ between speakers. So, if the words used in a conversation aren’t working, then to make progress the two speakers are wise to acknowledge the unfixed nature of definitions and temporarily agree on some shared use of the words in their conversation and Walter is pre-empting this issue.

Levels of LanguageWalter wants us to agree on the word “argument“.  He wants us to understand, first, what sort of word it is and so starts the course describing different “Levels of Language” where “arguments” lie in that scheme (to the right).

Briefly, here are short definitions of the terms in his chart (no need to discuss them further, though):

  • Linguistic Act: a meaningful utterance
  • Speech Act: a linguistic act intended to bring about an effect
  • Conversation Act: a speech act that actually has a desired effect
  • Arguments: a certain type of conversation act.  See below.

Arguments have many uses. Our professor, building his definition of “argument” tells us that the main uses of arguments are to persuade, justify and explain — with any argument possibly fulfilling more than one of these at a time.  In another post, I will discuss this, but for now, those are fine. Remember, “argument” is used many ways in English and Walter is prescribing how he demands it is used in his course.  And for the most part, its seems, for his specific purposes, his definition is largely uncontroversial.

Arguments occur in everyday conversation, in newspapers, journal and blogs. But most arguments are not always obvious or  laid out clearly. To remedy this, Walter gives us the basic form that all arguments should take and I link it to his definition below:


On blogs it is often helpful to pause and agree on definitions. Further, taking time to dissect an argument and lay it out formally can prove to be the next important step. When dissected and formalized, the problems with an argument become much more clear. If our goal is mere persuasion, then such an exercise may actually be counter-productive, for that Machiavellian goal, hiding our weaknesses can be much more effective. But for the purpose of building understanding and growing knowledge, outlining an argument’s form is helpful.

So, let’s try to formalize my argument in the last paragraph:

(1) Arguments are a type of conversation
(2) Arguments are often not explicit
(3) You can make an argument explicit using the form above
(4) Once explicit, an argument’s vulnerabilities are more clear
(5) Making vulnerabilities more clear aids in the growth of knowledge though it may harm if one’s sole intent is to persuade.

 Spelling out an argument’s form aids growing knowledge

So if you disagree with my last paragraph, hopefully after formalizing it, you can now more easily engage in discussing your disagreement.

Exercise for readers: Write a short paragraph making some claim, then rewrite it using the form above (“formalize it”).

Note: to use the ∴ symbol, you may need to put it in a text file and then copy into WordPress or Blogger.  For more on the symbol, see here.  However, since that takes a lot of effort, I will be using two colons (::) to make my mark and then follow it by a “therefore” type word.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

10 responses to “Laying out an Argument

  1. TWF

    Concept-teaching books and college courses are often loquacious, trying to break down and explain everything into smaller, more easily understood chunks of knowledge, and providing several illustrations or applications to promote understanding. Reading such books and
    taking such courses can, therefore, require a considerable amount of time. Yet we each learn at different paces, and some concepts are easier to be understood than others. So summaries of those books or college courses, such as your post here, can effectively and efficiently communicate all of the pertinent information of the books or college courses for those who can easily grasp the concepts, thus saving them considerable time.

    (1) Conceptual books and college courses are often loquacious
    (2) The purpose of this excessive verbosity is to facilitate learning for a wide range of aptitude levels.


    ∴ (3) Reading concept-teaching books and taking college courses requires considerable time

    (4) Not everyone requires the extra explanations in those books and courses to understand the material.
    (5) Summaries, like this blog post, can contain enough pertinent information to understand the material.
    (6) Some people have the capacity to understand the material from the summarized form.


    ∴ Some people can save a considerable amount of time by reading summaries of the concept-teaching books or college courses, while still gaining the understanding the material taught within those concept-teaching books or college courses.

    Is that a better form of my argument for the value of summaries, Sabio? 😉

  2. LOL ! Does this simpler version do the same?

    (1) Loquacity can facilitate multiple learning styles
    (2) Loquacity requires too much time for some readers
    (3) Loquacity can be limited with good diagrams
    (4) Sabio makes good diagrams
    ∴ Sabio saves some readers from wasting time (thanx Sabio!)


  3. Drkshadow03

    I would think the problem with most arguments is not the arguments themselves, but the interpretation of facts.

  4. Drkshadow03

    How do you feel putting an argument into logical form assists in spotting vulnerabilities?

  5. @ Drkshadow:
    (1) sometimes paragraphs and such hide or mix premises.
    (2) numbering premises individually allows dialogue to be specific
    I am stumped as to why these aren’t more obvious for you. Maybe I did not make myself clear. Did that help?

  6. PS – Drk, when you comment, could you be sure not to link to a closed website please. I am deleting your previous links.

  7. TWF

    Ha! Indeed, Sabio. Indeed. 🙂 Though I would argue that not every concept lends itself to diagrams, they are very efficient means of communicating, and you do them quite well. Thanks Sabio!

  8. @ TWF: Indeed ! For if it is ever proven that all concepts of value are capturable in a diagram or a chart, I may become a believer in divine design! For what greater sign is there of an all loving universal sovereign.

  9. Drkshadow03

    But does simply numbering them help reveal their vulnerabilities?

    For starters, when you listed your premises you have five for one conclusion.

    (1) Arguments are a type of conversation
    (2) Arguments are often not explicit
    (3) You can make an argument explicit using the form above
    (4) Once explicit, an argument’s vulnerabilities are more clear
    (5) Making vulnerabilities more clear aids in the growth of knowledge though it may harm if one’s sole intent is to persuade.

    ∴ Spelling out an argument’s form aids growing knowledge

    I’ve heard in some places that you can have more than two premises, but other things I’ve read have suggested that you cannot have more than two premises and a conclusion in traditional syllogistic logic and going beyond that is an example of the Four Term Fallacy. What are your thoughts on this?

    Secondly, to critique your formulation a bit. Premise (1) doesn’t have anything to do with the conclusion really. (2) is an interesting background point, but again it doesn’t really lead directly to the conclusion.

    I see at least two possible renderings for what is left to make it work in formal form:

    (1)All arguments that adopt syllogistic form are explicit.
    (All S is E)
    (2)All explicit arguments help us grow knowledge by revealing argument’s vulnerabilities.
    (All E is G)
    (Conc): Therefore, all arguments that adopt syllogist form help us grow knowledge by revealing an arguments vulnerabilities.
    (All S is G)

    Another rendering might be:
    (1) All explicit arguments make their vulnerabilities more clear
    (All E is V)
    (2) All clear vulnerabilities aids in the growth of knowledge.
    (All V is G)
    (Conc.) Therefore, All explicit arguments aid in the growth of knowledge.
    (All E is G)

    Now getting back to what you said to me in your response, you could note that I was able to realize point (1) and (2) had little to do with the conclusion and therefore by numbering the premises I was able to recognize that, but otherwise with a little tweaking the rest of the premises seemed to lead to the conclusion.

    My biggest reservation about logic is that outside of recognizing fallacies I’ve had trouble discerning when it is practically useful in discussions and debates.

  10. Sorry, Dark, that is a bit long and hard to be clear on.
    I will give it one more read, but I will need simpler points made and sorted to be able to focus with you.

    (1) I haven’t heard of the “Four Term Fallacy” . I looked it up. As I can imagine, one would have to break an argument up many syllogisms and link them to obey some formalist rules. Interesting. I’m not really sure I get it, but then it is late.

    (2) I am not sure if you are really trying to get a point across or just be argumentative. [the later I won’t engage in — but I may be mistaken].

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