Saturday, February 27, 2010

For the Sake of Argument

I'm always fascinated by the misappropriation and subsequent dilution of words. One of the words I love is 'argument'. I (and a lot of ancient Greeks) believe that argument is one of the best forms of instruction available to us. To practice argument forces us to clarify our thoughts and to determine whether or not what we believe is valid. By becoming good at argument, we become people who can engage, evaluate and absorb diverse ideas and concepts; we become reasonable.

Unfortunately, when most people talk about argument, they don't refer to a great way to learn or a framework that facilitates shared understanding; instead, they refer to techniques of verbal assault or to heated exchanges in which the common thread is simply the outlandish expression of pent of emotion or the desire to 'win'.

Further, when it comes to logical argument, to say that most people are pretty terribly skilled is an insult to the terribly skilled. The combination of commonly held attitudes towards argument (i.e., it's a bad thing) and the lack of skill on the part of most of us causes us to avoid argument, thus missing out on any type of learning that requires rapid evolution of what we already know. However, if we embrace argument and learn to do it well, we can hone and sharpen one another.
As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.
Proverbs 27:17
Interestingly and humorously, the two verses prior to Proverbs 27:17 state:
A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping on a rainy day; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand.
Proverbs 27:15-16
So to be clear, we're talking about argument (think Plato and Socrates), not quarreling (think constant dripping).

Key Skills for Peer Review
As we embark upon the initiatives I outlined on Wednesday (thank you for all the encouraging emails and phone calls), I'd like to start with a grounding in formal argument. I want to ensure that everything we come up with has structural integrity (everything jibes with everything else) and does not fall prey to common fallacies in logic. So, let's start with some basic concepts regarding logical argument.

Simple Logic
Logical argument by its nature is simple. A basic form of logical argument involves three components: premise, inference, conclusion. Although you'll see these presented in various sequences in real-world arguments, let's look at these in the order outlined above.

Step 1: Premise
Within an argument, a premise is an agreed upon fact within the context of the argument. The premise need not be "true", just agreed upon.

If we were to start an argument with premises, you might hear phrases such as: "For the sake of argument, would you agree that... humans are mammals? ...dogs have ears? ...smelly feet are less appealing than non-smelly feet?"

Oftentimes a premise will follow other statements in the argument, in which case you might here it prefaced by words such as 'because' or 'since', e.g, Since all major league baseballs are made from cowhide... or Because fish can't breathe air...

Step 2: Inference
Once one or more premises have been established, additional premises may be proposed. These propositions are called inferences as they are inferred from the agreed upon premises. Inferences are usually preceded by words like 'infers' and 'therefore', e.g., All major league balls being made from cowhide infers that cowhide is required to make major league baseballs or Fish cannot breathe air, therefore, in order to breathe, fish must require some other substance.

As inferences are agreed to, they essentially become premises.

Step 3: Conclusion
Conclusion is the final stage of the argument. It represents the summary proposition inferred by the initial premises and any intermediate inferences. I borrowed the following example of premises and inferences leading to a conclusion from Virtual School.
  • Every event has a cause (premise)
  • The universe has a beginning (premise)
  • All beginnings involve an event (premise)
  • This implies that the beginning of the universe involved an event (inference)
  • Therefore the universe has a cause (inference and conclusion)
Brick by Brick
There are gazillions of ways in which arguments go awry; however, the most common is simply abandonment of the basic form. In building an argument, we are essentially moving towards agreement one step at a time. Imagine that we're laying a foundation for a building brick by brick. Before each brick is cemented into the foundation, we examine it to see whether or not it is flawed in any way. If so, we discard it and look for another brick that is not flawed. In the end, we trust the foundation because we know it has no flawed bricks.

Similarly, in building an argument, each potential building block of the argument (each proposition) is examined and either accepted (becoming a premise) or discarded. Without examination and acceptance of all the propositions, the argument is fundamentally flawed. Therefor, if we don't agree on a proposition, it makes no sense to proceed until we have either agreed to a replacement proposition or that we have determined that the proposition isn't necessary to the argument.

I can't tell you how many times people have become frustrated with me and accused me of "not listening" when, while presenting their case, I stopped them to say, "Wait, I don't agree with that proposition. It doesn't make any sense to continue with your presentation until we either agree or decide that what you said wasn't actually material to the case you're making."

Learning to Argue Constructively
Anyone can learn to construct and conduct logical and constructive arguments simply by remembering the following:
  1. The process of arguing is based on moving towards agreement
  2. If ever there is a disagreement on a proposition, it makes absolutely no sense to proceed until you have:
    - come to agreement on that proposition, or
    - determined a replacement proposition, or
    - discarded the proposition as not required by the argument
  3. Begin each argument by stating and gaining acceptance of your premises (your basic building blocks)
  4. Based upon your premises, assert propositions or inferences mutually accepting or discarding each. Step 2 applies to each inference.
  5. Based on a foundation in which all the building blocks have been agreed to by both (or all) parties as valid and flawless, assert your conclusion.
Pretty simple, huh? Attitudinally, we're always working towards agreement. Operationally, we're never sneaking in any flawed bricks and we never begin the next layer until the first layer is solid.

Flawed Bricks
Once you've got the above sequence down, the next step is to learn to identify flawed propositions or fallacies. There are many, many ways in which flawed propositions survive inspection. However, if you become aware of common fallacies, you'll learn to identify them easily. The following are some sites that provide information on argument and commonly employed fallacies.

- Constructing a Logical Argument (
- Fallacies (
- Fallacie (
There are many, many more.

Next Steps

If you find yourself frequently engaged in "arguments" that seem to lead nowhere or you are frustrated in talking with people who "always seem to win", then you may want to invest a bit of time in educating yourself on the basics of logical argument. Just google the words "logical argument fallacy" and you'll find hundreds of pages that are useful.

Step one is to read various explanations of argument and fallacy and then to explain the concepts and structure to someone else. Repeat the process until you feel that you have a good understanding of the basics.

Step two is to try it out. You might start with something that has been a longstanding disagreement between you and your partner. Begin with the attitude of moving towards agreement. Layout each of your premises and obtain agreement on them or throw them out. Build your foundation brick by brick never inserting any bogus or flawed bricks. With each brick, obtain agreement before moving to the next.

If you follow the process I've outlined, I imagine that you'll experience amazingly different results (even if you do nothing other than adopt an attitude of always be moving towards agreement.)

Happy Saturday!

1 comment:

  1. Gosh, Teflon, you're a true treasure. On reading this, I realize how basic and ubiquitous an activity argument is, yet we go through all our years of schooling with not one single lesson on it. If everybody had a basic grasp on how to 'do' argument effectively, we could probably cut in half all the conflict in the world.


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