Identifying and Reconstructing Arguments

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In this skill, we’re going to begin by learning how to identify arguments. But this doesn’t mean we’ll be looking at things people disagree about. Although, in everyday speech, an argument usually means a disagreement, in philosophy and academic writing it means something much more specific and useful: an attempt to justify a particular conclusion using reasoning.

We’ll go on to distinguish arguments from other forms of writing and self-expression, including assertions, descriptions, summaries and opinions. All of these are also important when it comes to self-expression – but they lack the defining feature of arguments, which is the use of reasoning to justify a conclusion. As you’ll see, using reasoning to justify a particular conclusion (or to attempt to justify one) has a special status when it comes to learning and constructive debate because it entails looking into the reasons behind things – and trying to work out how far our own, and others’, actually make sense and describe the world accurately.

Building on this, we’ll then look at what’s known as ‘standard form’, which is a technique for spelling out the steps of reasoning involved in an argument as clearly as possible. Standard form allows us to clarify and analyse what’s being claimed by a particular argument – and to compare the relative strengths and weaknesses of different arguments.

Towards the end of this skill, we’ll also look at what’s known as the principle of charity. Despite its name, this isn’t about being nice to people: instead, it’s about trying to engage with their ideas and beliefs as thoroughly as possible, so that we’re able to learn as much as possible from them.

It’s a counter-intuitive idea with a great deal of power, partly because it gives us a chance to change or update our own beliefs in the light of new knowledge – and partly because it tends to be a much more constructive and persuasive way of engaging with others than simply dismissing what they say.

Ultimately, I hope this skill emphasises that reasoning is important not because it allows us to prove we are correct about everything, but because it allows us to get to grips with why we and others think something is the case – and with the limitations, uncertainties and begged questions wrapped up in our thinking. It is, in other words, most precious as a tool for communication and clarification, and for investigating alongside others what’s actually going on.

Pause for Thought

When was the last time you changed your mind about something? Why did you change your mind? How might you try to persuade someone else to change their mind?

Suggested Readings

  • The philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (Penguin, 2013) offers some fine practical guidance for clear thinking and debate.
  • Ian Leslie offers a smart, fresh perspective on constructive debate in Conflicted: Why Arguments Are Tearing Us Apart and How They Can Bring Us Together (Faber,2021).
  • For a free, handy online overview of reasoning and its importance, see A Guide to Good Reasoning: Cultivating Intellectual Virtues by David Carl Wilson.
  • The magician James Randi was for decades a fierce public advocate of the power of reason and dangers of irrationality: his TED talk is a great intro to his campaigning.
  • This 2014 article from the Smithsonian Magazine is a great intro to the life and work of Carl Sagan, another brilliant advocate for why evidence-based reasoning matters.