How to Recognize an Argument, by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.


How to Recognize an Argument
by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

We all get into arguments. Sometimes these arguments can be heated and our emotions come into play. Sometimes arguments lead to quarrels. Arguments can, unfortunately, even break up longtime friendships and split apart families. This is a sad reflection on us as rational human beings.

When we use the word “argument” here, however, its use has nothing to do with quarreling, fighting, or breaking up relationships. For our purposes here, an argument is a piece of reasoning in which one or more statements are offered as support for some other statement. An argument is simply a set of statements, one of which is designated as a conclusion and the remaining statements, called premises, are asserted as being true and are offered as evidence that supports or implies the conclusion.


Arguments and Debates

An argument should be distinguished from a debate. A debate is really a series of arguments usually, but certainly not always, about a single topic or a set of related topics. Think of the famous “Presidential Debates” held every four years during the U.S. presidential campaign. The debate always consists of many arguments about many topics.

A debate may be a formal debate such as the presidential debate or the debate held between two scholastic debating teams. A debate may be an informal debate during, for instance, a dinner party or a public hearing where rules of debate are not enforced.

The first step in recognizing an argument for the purposes of understanding and evaluating the argument is to identify the premises and the conclusion which make up the argument. There are certain “indicator” words which may help.

Conclusions are commonly preceded by these words: thus, therefore, accordingly, it follows that, implies that, hence, consequently, so, we may infer that, we may conclude that, and in conclusion.

Premises are commonly preceded by these words: since, because, for, given that, due to, insofar as, inasmuch as, in view of, as shown by, can be inferred from, and on the ground that.

Some arguments may not contain indicator words and you will have to seek out the premises and conclusion within the context of the argument, seeking the relationship of the sentences in the argument to each other. It is helpful, in cases like this, to ask yourself questions like “What is being argued for in this argument?” or “What is this person trying to persuade me of?” This will help to point out the conclusion.

To find the premises in the argument, it is helpful to ask yourself questions like “What evidence is being provided to support the conclusion?” or “What reasons are being given as grounds for the conclusion?” or “What facts are cited as justification for the conclusion?”

Another thing to be aware of is that the conclusion and the premises in an argument do not necessarily occur in any particular order within the argument. It would be nice if in all arguments the conclusion was stated first with the premises following to support it or the premises stated first as support for the conclusion to follow. But, sometimes, arguments are not as orderly as we would like them to be, especially in oral discussions where the structure may be rather loose.

HINT: If this occurs in an argument you’re having with someone, ask them to slow down and organize what they’re saying, stating clearly what conclusion they’re trying to support and what evidence or reasons they’re presenting to support the conclusion.

Arguments presented in books and other written material, especially if offered by a seasoned writer, are usually well organized and easy to follow. The same tends to be true of experienced speakers who are presenting lectures.

One type of argument you may not normally consider an argument has to do with advertising. Many television commercials, as well as other forms of delivering advertisements, are actually arguments. An advertisement may contain a conclusion such as “This is the best product you can buy,” along with reasons (expressed as premises) why you should buy the product. Many advertisements, however, are guilty of committing what are called “logical fallacies.” You’ll learn a lot more about logical various fallacies as you continue on in this program.

REMEMBER: Critical thinkers must be able to recognize an argument when one is presented. Critical thinkers must also be able to identify the premises and conclusion of a complete argument.


Arguments and Non-Arguments

An argument is a set of statements containing a conclusion and one or more premises used to support that conclusion. The conclusion is a claim made by one of the parties in an argument for which that person provides evidence justifying the claim. The claim is supported by “reasons” and, therefore, the whole process is an act of reasoning.

If there is no conclusion supported by reasons, there is no argument. An announcement is not an argument. A command is not an argument. An apology is not an argument. A list of questions is not an argument.

For an argument to be present, there must be some claim, expressed as a conclusion, supported by evidence or reasons, expressed as premises. Anything else is a non-argument.

It can sometimes be difficult, however, to determine whether some passage in written or spoken material is a genuine argument. Some written or spoken material may offer explanations which look like arguments, but are not genuine arguments. There may even be “reasons” given to explain something.

The best way to deal with these is to ask yourself what the primary intention of the writer or speaker is. If the intention is simply to explain, it is probably not an argument. But if something is being asserted (a conclusion) and reasons are given to justify the assertion, then it is an argument.

Many times people fall into the trap of arguing over what are called value-claims. Value-claims must be distinguished from fact-claims. A conclusion that is a value-claim may appear like an ordinary conclusion in an ordinary argument, but it is not. A conclusion in a genuine argument is always a fact-claim. What is the difference between a value-claim and a fact-claim?

A value-claim never has the element of objective truth in it because it does not deal with a fact. It is a matter of taste, not of objective truth. For instance, if I prefer chocolate ice cream and you prefer strawberry ice cream, we are expressing matters of taste. It is useless to attempt to argue about our preferences regarding ice cream flavors. In fact, no real argument is possible.

A fact-claim has the element of objective truth or, as may be the case, it can be shown to be false. A fact-claim can be argued about. There is a way to determine whether a fact-claim is true or false, although sometimes we may not be entirely able to do so at a given point in time.

Ethical or moral claims present a special problem. And we probably spend a great deal of our time “arguing” over moral issues. The status of ethical “arguments” is controversial. Some authorities have argued that ethical and moral claims are merely a matter of “taste,” “personal preferences,” or “feelings.” Others have argued that at least some moral claims can be expressed as fact-claims.

The position I take is that moral “principles” are, indeed, fact-claims even though many moral “rules” may reflect value-claims. Rather than get into this controversial issue here, I refer the reader to my essays concerning ethics and moral philosophy.

REMEMBER: Critical thinkers can tell the difference between a genuine argument and a non-argument. Critical thinkers do not get into arguments over value-claims, but only over fact-claims.


Problems in Recognizing Arguments

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether a real argument is taking place. For instance, a set of statements may be asserted as true but no conclusion is offered or they may not provide support for a conclusion. What is presented here is not an argument but an exposition or simply an explanation.

Some of the indicator words given above may be present in some statements even though no argument is taking place. Some of these words have more than one meaning and do not always identify conclusions and premises. “It is raining because a storm is passing through” is not an argument even though the indicator word “because” is contained within the sentence.

A “conditional” statement may sometimes be mistaken for an argument when it is not. For instance: “If you get plenty of sleep (a conditional statement), you will wake up well-rested.” While this may be used as part of a genuine argument, it is not an argument itself. The only thing being asserted here is that a relationship exists between “plenty of sleep” and “well-rested.” It is not being argued that “If you get plenty of sleep” is either true or false.

Sometimes an argument is not fully stated. A conclusion or one or more of the premises may be left out. These arguments are called enthymemes. For example:

All human beings are mammals; therefore, Mr. Jones is a mammal.

Something is missing here and it is one of the premises: “Mr. Jones is a human being.” This premise fills the argument in and completes it.

When you come across an argument that seems to be missing one or more premises, or even a conclusion, a rule called the principle of charity suggests that you supply the missing premise, premises, or conclusion to make the argument as good as possible.

REMEMBER: Critical thinkers are aware of the problems involved in recognizing arguments and take their time to evaluate as to whether or not a genuine argument has been presented.


Kinds of Disagreements

A real disagreement occurs when the statements of one person’s position are logically inconsistent with the statements of the opposing person’s position. In other words, it is logically impossible for the statements of both positions to be true at the same time. For example:

  • Person 1 says: Mr. Jones weighs 200 pounds.
  • Person 2 says: Mr. Jones weighs 250 pounds.

Here there is a real disagreement. Both statements cannot be true at the same time.

An apparent disagreement (sometimes called a pseudo-disagreement) occurs when the statements of one person’s position are not logically inconsistent with the statements of the opposing person’s position. In other words, it is logically possible for the statements of both positions to be true at the same time. For example:

  • Person 1 says: I believe Mr. Jones weighs 200 pounds.
  • Person 2 says: I believe Mr. Jones weighs 250 pounds.

Here there is only an apparent disagreement. It may be true what each believes and each statement is logically possible.

In many arguments, a key word or phrase used by the opponents may be used with different meanings. Here we have merely a verbal disagreement. This is not a real disagreement, although it may appear to be so. It is really a type of pseudo-disagreement where the opponents are applying different meanings to the same word or phrase. For example:

  • Person 1 says: Mr. Jones is obese.
  • Person 2 says: Mr. Jones is not obese.

Here we have a merely verbal dispute. Person 1 considers anyone who weighs more than 150 pounds to be obese and Person 2 considers anyone who weighs more than 250 pounds to be obese. The word “obese” is not being used with the same meaning.

Upon closer examination, many so-called disputes are not arguments at all, but merely apparent disagreements or verbal disagreements.

REMEMBER: Critical thinkers know the difference between a real disagreement and a pseudo-disagreement and can respond appropriately. Critical thinkers must identify and label these pseudo-disagreements and refuse to engage in them. If the disagreement is merely verbal, discuss the meanings of the words involved in the discussion.


Types of Arguments

There are basically two types of argument. Deductive arguments are arguments in which the conclusion is presented as following from the premises with necessity. Inductive arguments are arguments in which the conclusion is presented as following from the premises only with probability.

Consider this classical deductive argument:

  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

The premises in this argument are the first two statements. The conclusion is the last statement. The conclusion follows by necessity from the two premises; the conclusion follows with certainty from the premises. It can’t be any other way. The premises fully support the conclusion.

Now consider this inductive argument:

  • Socrates is human and is mortal.
  • Plato is human and is mortal.
  • Aristotle is human and is mortal.
  • John Jones is human and is mortal.
  • Therefore, probably all humans are mortal.

The premises in this argument are the first four statements. The conclusion is the last statement. Note that the conclusion follows only with some degree of probability from the premises. The conclusion does not follow from the premises by necessity or with certainty.

The difference between deductive and inductive arguments can be seen by noting that all the information needed to reach the conclusion in the deductive argument above is contained in the premises. It is not necessary to go outside the argument for any additional information.

On the other hand, in the inductive argument above, the conclusion is not contained by necessity in the premises given. The conclusion requires us to go beyond the information contained in the premises. If at some later time a human being is discovered who is not mortal, the argument will have to be reevaluated. Inductive arguments do not give us absolute certainty because the premises cannot provide absolute support.

Of course, with some inductive arguments, we can get pretty darn close to certainty. For instance:

  • The sun has risen every morning since the beginning of time.
  • Therefore, the sun will rise tomorrow morning.

But as sure as we are that the conclusion is true, the conclusion does not follow logically from the premise. It is still only probable, although highly probable, that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Deductive arguments prove or fail to prove their conclusions with certainty. A deductive argument is either valid or invalid. In a valid deductive argument, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. It is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. The validity of a deductive argument is determined by its logical form, not by the content of the argument.

Inductive arguments are neither valid nor invalid as the terms are used in deductive arguments. Inductive arguments, since the conclusion is only probable, are said to be good or bad, strong or weak, or better or worse. It depends on the strength of the supporting premises.

It might be noted here that most of the arguments we run into in our daily lives are of the inductive type. Therefore, it is especially important to learn as much about the inductive method as you can.

REMEMBER: Critical thinkers can tell the difference between a deductive argument and an inductive argument. Critical thinkers know that a valid deductive argument gives certainty, while an inductive argument gives only probability.


The Criteria for Good Arguments

A good deductive argument, wherein the conclusion can be trusted to be true, is said to be sound. To be a sound deductive argument, three things are necessary:

  • the argument must be valid,
  • the truth of the premises must be reasonably well established, and
  • the argument must not be circular.

The validity of a deductive argument is determined by its form, not by the content of the argument.

The truth of the premises is of little concern for the logician as a logician. The logician is primarily interested in the form of the argument. But truth is important to people and ways of establishing truth are the subject of a philosophical discipline called epistemology, which deals with what is referred to as the “problem of knowledge.”

A circular argument is one wherein the conclusion is merely a restatement of one of the premises. In other words, the argument goes around in a “circle.” The fallacy here is sometimes called begging the question and you may already be familiar with it.

Inductive arguments are more difficult to evaluate than deductive arguments. Inductive arguments are not considered to be sound or unsound, valid or invalid. Recall that the premises of an inductive argument do not provide absolute support for the conclusion.

The truth of the premises of an inductive argument should, of course, be reasonably well established.

In any inductive argument we must consider the relative strength that the premises provide to support the conclusion. The stronger the support of the premises (assuming them to be true), the more probable the conclusion is true.

REMEMBER: Critical thinkers are aware of the general criteria for good deductive and inductive arguments.

Truth, Validity, and Soundness

There are three concepts which are commonly confused by a lot of people: truth, validity, and soundness. But taken together, these three concepts provide a solid foundation for evaluating any argument. While these concepts are considered in-depth later in this book, a brief discussion of them now will be valuable.

Truth is generally considered to be that which is in accord with a state of affairs. A statement is true if it is in accord with the facts. Truth is more concerned with the content of an argument, rather than with its form.

Validity refers to the correctness of the reasoning involved in an argument. A conclusion has been correctly inferred from the premises in an argument if the conclusion follows from them.

For the conclusion of an argument to be considered sound, we need to know that the premises are true, and we need to know that the inference made on the basis of the premises is valid, that is, the conclusion follows from the premises.

Consider the following four possibilities of interaction between the concepts of truth and validity:

  • Our premises in an argument are true. We have used them properly and our inference is valid. In this case our argument is valid and our conclusion is true. The argument is sound.
  • Our premises are true. But we have not used them properly and our reasoning is invalid. In this case our argument is invalid and the conclusion does not follow from the premises. The argument is unsound.
  • One or more of our premises is false. We do, however, make proper use of them and we reason validly. In this case, our argument will be valid. Our argument, however, will be unsound.
  • One or more of our premises is false. We also make improper use of them and our reasoning is invalid. In this case, our argument is both invalid and unsound.

The following chart may help in understanding these interactions.


REMEMBER: Critical thinkers know the difference between the concepts of truth, validity, and soundness. Critical thinkers can use these concepts to aid them in evaluating any argument.

The Moral Liberal recommends: Great Books of the Western World

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in 2011 -2013 © The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).

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