2. The argument
Critical reading strategies
2. The argument
What is an “argument”? People present arguments to persuade others to accept claims.
- Claim: a statement representing some event or idea about the way the world is or should be. You distinguish a claim from other statements if you can ask, “Is this statement true or false?”
- Premise: reasons/evidence to support a claim. Arguments can have 1 or more premises.
- Conclusion: the claim being defended by the reasons or evidence. (Do not confuse this with the other usage of ‘conclusion’ to mean the last part of an essay or presentation).
Therefore, an argument occurs when a claim is made and premises are put forward to justify a conclusion as true.
The arrangement for an argument is often (but not always) Premise 1 + Premise 2 + Premise 3 etc. → THEREFORE + Conclusion
What the difference between an argument and an explanation?
Explanation = claims are offered to make another claim understandable, i.e., to say why or how it is true.
For a practice exercise see The Argument.
An indicator word indicates the presence of an argument and helps us determine what role the statement plays in the argument, i.e., either premise or conclusion. Some indicator words come before the premise; others come before the conclusion. Indicator words are NOT part of the content, but serve to signal which statements are premises and which are conclusions. They indicate the direction of the reasons in the argument. Learning these words and their meanings will help you spot an argument more quickly.
For practice with indicator words, see The Argument: Indicator Words.
Degrees of Support (or degrees of validity)
Arguments must be valid which means the conclusion follows logically from the reasons given. Depending on the writer’s goal, differing degrees of validity are used to persuade the reader to support his/her argument. A critical reader needs to be aware to what extent the author is providing support for his/her argument.
Degrees of support/validity:
Nil. Even if all the given reasons are true, they would provide no justification whatsoever for the conclusion. (aka a faulty conclusion or non sequitur)
Weak. If the given reasons are true, they would provide a small amount of support for the conclusion, but certainly not enough to justify accepting the conclusion as true. In other words, the reasons are logical, but NOT compelling enough to make it ‘a good bet’.
Moderate. Between strong and weak. If the reasons are true, they do not establish the truth of the conclusion, but they make the truth of the conclusion a ‘live possibility’ worth further consideration and investigation.
Strong. If the reasons are true, then they make the truth of the conclusion extremely likely, but not totally guaranteed. In other words, you would stake something of great value on the truth of the conclusion.
Deductively valid. If the reasons are true, then there is no possible way in which the conclusion can be false.
Source: Allen, M. (1997). Smart thinking: skills for critical understanding and writing. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
For practice in distinguishing degrees of support see The Argument: Degrees of Support.