Chapter 31: What Is an "Argument"?
What does "Argument" mean in college and the
The Greeks, among others thousands of years ago,
recognized argument as one of the most important forms of thinking, speaking,
and writing. Argument is a difference of opinion: a communicative act in
which there is disagreement between at least two different sides. In
education and the professional world, it is a mental, intellectual, and/or
verbal event, with emotion or physical action supposedly nonexistent or, more
accurately, a secondary function: feelings may sometimes be strong, but in a
good educational or professional situation, people are--in theory, at
least--supposed to put aside their feelings sufficiently to arrive at the
Argument most commonly exists between two people,
two sides, or sometimes--especially in professional situations--as a problem and
a solution. However, there can be multiple people, sides, or solutions.
These are, however, just the external appearances of argument. The most
common form of argument, perhaps, is in our own thinking: we consider the pros
and cons, the problems and solutions, of many situations, needs, and beliefs in
our own thoughts from a relatively young age. It is a mark of our mental
and emotional maturity that as we grow older, we learn to be increasingly more
logical, balanced, and perceptive in gathering data and weighing each side
carefully when we are thinking our way through our choices. Thus argument
is at the heart of some of our best thinking as mature, intelligent adults.
common is argument?
Perhaps it is as old as modern human beings, as old
as the oldest culture, and one of the first types of thought voiced by our human
ancestors. Possibly it is an evolutionary outgrowth of physical fighting
or even of competing biological urges in our ancestors, drawing them toward two
opposite actions at once, such as the wish for the safety of the cave versus the
need to go out and find food in dangerous lands. Whatever its source,
argument is deeply embedded in our society, our individual selves, and our
cultural institutions. Our radios and newspapers constantly offer opinions
and facts to help us develop our own opinions. We vote, we decide our
futures, and we help decide the futures of others. We choose a path, pick
a side, offer an opinion, follow our beliefs, and ask questions to decide what
to do. In short, we are a very argumentative society. We like it
that way, too: there is plenty of evidence to suggest that argument is not only
acceptable, but also good for us in many forms. Our most important
political, cultural, and social institutions--democracy, our personal tastes,
the social groups we join--all encourage opinion, choice, and diversity.
It is probable that without argument, our entire society as we know it would
collapse, and we no longer could continue human advancement on many fronts into
the future. In short, in many ways, argument is us, and we are argument.
good to argue so much?
Just like many other things, argument in and of
itself is a neutral event or, rather, one capable of many forms. Some are
good and some bad. The kind of argument that tends to be good more often
is argument that is rational, carefully reasoned, thoughtful and inclusive, and
well supported. This is what we might call "intelligent argument":
The arguer attempts to be logical.
He/she avoids jumping easily to false conclusions.
Thoughtful and Inclusive:
He/she tries to see multiple sides of the issue.
He/she offers facts and other reliable
are many different ways to argue. Some of them
differ quite remarkably by culture. Here are just four differing examples
of how someone might write or speak the introduction to an argument that it is
good to learn the ways of different types of people. These methods are not
rigidly required or completely universal, but they are much more common in each
of their cultures than are other methods of arguing:
Four Culturally Different Styles for Arguing
A North American
should learn the ways of others. First, this is true simply
because we can gain much knowledge from others. Second, this is
true because we then can learn to interact better with others.
Third, this is true because the knowledge and friendship we gain can
help us better understand and appreciate cultures beyond us. The
following paper will prove each of these statements, step by step.
A Continental European
(analysis of an argument to determine its measure of truth)
it good to learn the ways of different types of people? First,
what does "good" mean? We must decide whether "good"
is ethical, practical, or spiritual. Having done that, we always
must answer the question of whether "ways of people" implies
everything others do, or only those patterns which are particular to
those "types" of human beings. Having settled that
question, we then might want to consider how or why we might observe
others so that we can learn from them. Even if we skip the issue
of observation, we still are left with the question of whether there
always is learning from all people, or only some learning from some
people. The following paper will answer all of these questions so
that we can arrive at a somewhat reasonable answer to the initial
(factual proofs that develop into a tentative opinion)
is a fact that like some mammals and even some insects, humans organize
themselves in groups. Such groups may be composed of pairs or of
larger groups. All such groups interact with each other in some
way. Such interaction is termed "communication."
Mammals, at least, and perhaps some insects, too, appear to learn from
such communication. "Learning" occurs when an individual
appears to pick up an ability or insight, one previously unknown to it,
from interaction with another individual. Such learning can, of
course, be either good or bad, whether in insects, mammals, or humans.
However, some such learning seems to be necessary, especially in the
rearing of a newborn individual. Such learning improves the
individual's odds of surviving and, often, the group's. Therefore,
it is arguable that some learning, at least, of the ways of others is
good. This paper will show proof of each of these factual steps.
A Traditional Native American Indian
Trickster Rabbit one day invited two friends to dinner. White Bear
came from the west, reared up on his hind legs, and growled. From
the north came Blue Cougar, who snarled and roared.
Trickster Rabbit welcomed each, and to each he taught his silly
Trickster dance, and thus each the west and north directions of the
compass learned to play tricks with the wind and triumph over everything
using humor. Let me tell you this story now....
In other words, people from
- the educational systems of North America
tend to be very up front: they tend to state a main argument immediately and
then prove it, point by point.
- continental European educational systems
tend to use what is sometimes called the "delayed thesis" method: they like to
develop a number of ideas, first, then then connect them, step by step, and
finally show how the connections prove an overall argumentative conclusion.
- Asian educational systems tend simply to
build facts upon facts until a conclusion seems inevitable.
- Native American Indian educational systems
tend to use storytelling to make a point--the story itself proves the point.
How can argument be useful to you?
One of the hallmarks of a college education is the
ability to see an issue from several different points of view, including the
ability to use logic to explore the reasons behind each side's position.
Another hallmark of a college education is the ability to carefully, thoroughly,
and concisely back up or support an argument you are making. Such support
also may include the ability to explain the opposing side's argument and to
explain why that side's reasons are insufficient. In the workplace, such
ability is highly valued: those who can be trusted to be logical, consistent,
and thorough in making a case for their point of view--and especially to
consider opposing points of view and, at times, be sufficiently flexible to be
convinced by others' arguments--are among the most valued members of a highly
functional workplace. Such people are more likely not only to receive
raises and promotions but also to be happier and more productive in their
In short, argument is at the heart of higher
education and the world of professionals. It also is considered the
single most important thinking skill to learn well in most college-level
composition courses in this country. Instructional methods for teaching
and using arguments may differ widely. Some instructors may teach argument
as a separate skill, while others may expect you to apply it specifically to
readings, literary texts, particular types of analysis that come to
argumentative conclusions, or to workplace situations. Their are many
methods of arguing, too, not all of which are represented in this section of the
Web site. However, you will be able to find the most common college-level
methods of arguing here.
Why are multiple viewpoints useful?
Allowing and encourage multiple viewpoints is a reflection of the ever continuing historical, democratic
debate among ideas. English-language theorist and educator Kurt Spellmeyer of
Rutgers University describes it thus:
If what you're after is to
be a better human being..., [w]hen
any real improvement takes place, it makes the mind more open to not-knowing
rather than more certain and well-grounded in tradition. First, you read a book
or adopt a new way of thinking, and, for a while, it explains everything. But
then you see that it doesn’t. Something’s been left out, or something’s
absolutely wrong. And then you read another book, and, for a while, it explains
everything. But then you see that it doesn’t either. Something’s been left out,
or something’s absolutely wrong. This process goes on and on, and, after a time,
you might come to regard the structures of knowledge as necessary but crippling,
redemptive but destructive, civilizing but barbaric. Then you might begin to
suspect that there’s no point at which this process will come to an end, and
you’ll finally be There. And, if you have that humbling experience, it’s just
possible that you might look at others with a little greater patience,
forbearing, and curiosity... (637). Modernity [i.e., being modern] is all
about...the search for connections to a universe more alive, diverse, and
mysterious than any cultural tradition has fully understood (639).*
Writing a paper that shows one or several competing
viewpoints is a small but very important part of this great
democratic tradition of trying out different ideas in the marketplace of
academic and professional thinking, weighing and judging, trying them out, and
then deciding upon one or another--or perhaps deciding on yet a different and
better way. As Spellmeyer points out in saying that then you will be
"There," the most important part of taking part in a dialogue of
argument--of competing opinions--is not the conclusion you come to
at any one time in life, but rather the process itself, and using it.
I recall a time near the end of high school when a friend decided that three of
us were going to discuss one of the great works of Western culture, Plato's
first three Dialogues, over a meal on the town. The three of us
together had never gone to an expensive restaurant. In fact, in our small-town
decades ago, just the idea of three guys (instead of a guy and a girl) having
dinner together in an expensive restaurant was pretty unusual. So, we read our Dialogues.
And then, to avoid being seen by our friends, we went
to dinner in small city fifty miles away. No one knew us. The
guy who wanted to have the discussion, David, started talking and inviting our
ideas. Mike, the second guy, participated somewhat, and they talked back
and forth for awhile. But I didn't say much because I thought the point of
the Dialogues was pretty obvious: Socrates died for his ideals, and those
who controlled his society were wrong to kill him. Period. When I
said as much, David kind of shook his head and said, somewhat lamely, "But we're
supposed to discuss it." At the time I just didn't get it, even
though I had gone through some tremendous intellectual changes already in the
previous three years--from fervent fundamentalist Christian to ardent Ayn Rand
young Republican and agnostic, and then to existential leap-of-faith liberal and
believer in "humanity."
And half a year later, sitting around the dorm in my
first term at famously intellectual Shimer College and its tradition of teaching
the great Western classics (a program initially developed by the University of
Chicago), the sophomores and juniors in my dorm wing kept talking about the
value of "bullshit sessions." At first I thought this meant "creative
lying." But when I asked them to define it, they said a bullshit session
meant that you sat around and talked, presenting all the possible ideas,
positions, and opinions you could think of. You didn't worry about what
you or someone else believed; instead, you presented opposing points of view as
logically and fairly as possible, without bias. Later, of course, you
could go back to your own beliefs. But for the time during the bullshit
session, you simply presented as many possibilities as people could think of.
This to me seemed an unusual idea.
Fortunately, though, I had grown enough to see the point of it: I had already
gone through so many changes that nothing seemed quite so certain anymore, so
why not explore a number of possibilities?
And gradually, during the next two years at Shimer,
I learned to "bullshit" well, even elegantly, offering a variety of opinions for
both teachers in class and friends in our rooms. However, it was in the
exchanging of opposing arguments--in the actual act of doing it--that I became
a firm believer in its value. Discussion using multiple potential
viewpoints or arguments didn't really change me
that much as a person, at least not my core values, especially as I began to
develop my own sense of self through experience, meditation, and thought.
What argumentative discussion did for me, though, was help me discover whole worlds
of other people's thoughts, actions, feelings, and motivations. As a
result, the world
opened up. Through offering a variety of possible arguments (what at
Shimer we called "bullshitting"), I saw not just the end product of what people
believed but, more importantly, the process of their thoughts and feelings that
made them what they were. And sometimes, just as importantly, it helped me
see how people justify their beliefs and actions.)
In short, learning to explore multiple points of
view helped me. I became more sensitive to individuals and more rational
in my own thinking (as I learned ever better to separate reason from excuse).
I also became more culturally diverse as I discovered the widely differing
experiences of people from ethnic, gender, income, and geographic groups other
than my own.
The world of arguing is very wide, running from
standard composition thesis papers to political speeches and to making
professional proposals. It also is capable of being both simple and deep,
from the most simple and basic short argument essay to deep, complex, and
thoroughly developed research papers that develop a point to scientific and
other recommendations that try to decide what is the best course of action to
take among many. Argument is, in academic and professional life, somewhat
like breathing when swimming: everyone has to do it, but when you learn the
specific patterns of how and when, you become much faster, surer, and more
For more on the nature of argument, see "Theory
for Students" in the "Advanced"
page of this section's chapter called "Dialogic/Dialectic."
*Spellmeyer, Kurt. "REVIEW: A Massive Failure
of Imagination." College English 70, No. 6, July 2008.
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