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PARTS & SECTIONS

Click on any  part or section below:

Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar 

   www.OnlineGrammar.org
 
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 Study Questions
     

 

                                                                 

Chapter 31: What Is an "Argument"?

                 
What does "Argument" mean in college and the professions?

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What is argument? 

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 truth. 

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.

How 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. 

Is it 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":

Intelligent Argument

Rational: 

The arguer attempts to be logical.

Careful: 

He/she avoids jumping easily to false conclusions.

Thoughtful and Inclusive: 

He/she tries to see multiple sides of the issue.

Well Supported: 

He/she offers facts and other reliable details.

There 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
(direct thesis)

          We 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)

          Is 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 question.

An Asian 
(factual proofs that develop into a tentative opinion)

          It 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 
(story example)

          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 professions.

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. 

Conclusion

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 confident.    

For more on the nature of argument, see "Theory for Students" in the "Advanced" page of this section's chapter called "Dialogic/Dialectic."

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*Spellmeyer, Kurt.  "REVIEW: A Massive Failure of Imagination."  College English 70, No. 6, July 2008.  633-43.

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Return to top.

 

                 

    

         

F. ARGUMENTS

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Chapters:

 31. What Is an "Argument"?

 32. Dialogic/Dialectic

 33. Thesis Worksheet

 34. Thesis Paper

 35. Tests & Other Args.

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Activities

                    

Related Chapters:

Researching

Disagreement w/Reading 

Literary Thesis

Professional Proposal

Recommendation Report

Magazine/Nwsltr. Article

IMRaD/Science Report

Case Study

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 Related Links in
OnlineGrammar.org:

12. Types of Papers

14. Online Readings

16. Research Writing

20. Major/Work Writing

 

                   

 

Updated 1 Aug.  2013

  

   

 

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