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.
Walter 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.