Critical reasoning/Readings/Reading 5
TOPIC 5: The use of arguments in different kinds of writing
Different kinds of writing
By now you should have a clear idea of how to analyse and evaluate the arguments of others. But this is only one aspect of your task as a critical reasoner. A second, and equally important task, is the construction of arguments — that is, the construction and defence of a philosophical argument of your own. Obviously, you should expect your own argument to meet the requirements that you demand of any other argument. Your argument must be coherently stated and its premises must supply sufficient and relevant reasons for the conclusion to be accepted.
Because critical reasoning is about arguments and argumentation, its primary focus is argumentative writing. However, it would be a mistake to think that argumentative writing is the only kind of writing. There is nothing new in telling you that writing can exist in different forms. Most likely we have all composed both a grocery list and a love letter at some point in our lives already, so we needn’t tell you the obvious. There is also descriptive writing, comparative writing and narrative writing. Although we are concerned only with argumentative writing in critical reasoning, we should know about other kinds of writing, because this will help us to better understand what argumentative writing entails.
Yes, there is. The best reason to write is the best reason to do anything: because it helps you grow and develop your potential. Writing is a terrific way to learn. When you write you discover whether you really understand something, or just think you do; and the very process of writing makes you think, and think hard. The process of writing pushes students toward the true goals of higher education: critical thinking, creativity, analysis, synthesis, and informed judgment. Therefore, writing is primarily about learning, not showing off what you already know. If writing an essay teaches you nothing, the assignment has been a failure. One common way to categorise writing is to distinguish between expressive and communicative writing.
Expressive writing is personal and informal, written to encourage comprehension and reflection on the part of the writer. Open-ended and creative, expressive writing is a good way to start learning about a topic. By contrast, communicative writing is analytical, formal and more or less impersonal. It presupposes that the writer already has considerable knowledge and understanding of the topic and is writing to inform a reader. It demands adherence to established conventions of tone, voice, diction, evidence, and citation; these conventions will vary according to discipline and type (e.g., laboratory report, history paper, business plan, legal brief).
Writing as learning begins with expressive writing. Consider what it’s like when you’re first learning about a topic. Everything is unfamiliar. It’s like being in a strange land where not only the terrain but even the signs and maps are unfamiliar, and the words themselves are foreign. That’s the situation students find themselves in when they begin studying a field like history or anthropology or biology
or business. Expressive writing gives students an opportunity to start to make sense of the world they find themselves in, to bring the myriad facts, definitions, rules, theories, and perspectives to life and impose some order on them.
There are many different kinds of expressive writing: one kind used in this course is journals.
Many educators rely on journals (also known as learning logs, idea notebooks, laboratory journals, or commonplace books) to encourage student thinking. Journals give students the chance to reflect on what they’re studying, to record thoughts, questions, ideas, hunches, or seemingly stray tangents.
Journals are easy to fit into any course – five or ten minutes of journal writing once or twice a week can be enough to keep a journal going (and spark better understanding of what you know and do not know). Even if a lecturer doesn’t require journals, you should consider keeping one. It can help you keep track of ideas you may wish to develop later on.
With communicative writing, logic and argumentation count a great deal. Communicative writing includes essays, final papers, laboratory reports, hand-outs accompanying student presentations, senior theses, and the like. Outside the classroom, communicative writing includes reports, plans, official documents of all sorts, letters of application, and so on. What all these kinds of writing have in common is the great weight they place on logic. University assignments like essays or laboratory reports give students practice in writing for others according to a strict format and fixed conventions. Writing assignments trains students to turn personal observations into impersonal prose, avoid value judgments unwelcome in the sciences, and write with economy and precision.
Other kinds of writing include:
• descriptive writing
• comparative and contrast writing
• narrative writing
• argumentative writing.
These kinds of writing can largely be classified as communicative writing. Go on line to learn the distinction between these kinds of writing and then attempt the following activity:
- (1) This text is an example of descriptive writing. The author describes the impact of the community on individuals’ attitudes. Note that the author is not telling a story, comparing phenomena, or engaging in an argument.
- (2) This kind of writing is narrative writing. Note that the text does not argue for or against a particular point of view. Rather, the text aims at unfolding a story.
- (3) This kind of writing is comparative writing. Here the author compares two different approaches to human rights: liberal and communitarian.
- (4) This text is an example of argumentative writing. It argues about the philosophical problem of absolute truth versus subjective truth.
You should now have a basic idea of what the various kinds of writing entail. Let us look for an opportunity to practise this basic competence by doing the following activity.
Writing argumentative essays
Good critical essays cannot be plucked out of the sky. They depend on a good knowledge of the issues and arguments dealt with in a particular topic. A good starting point when writing critical or argumentative essays is to apply the experience and competence you have gained from your critical reasoning studies. A careful reading of the suggested resources and other philosophy texts will give
you a good idea of how to write argumentative essays. Don’t worry if you have difficulty in understanding some of what you read. It is not easy to reach a full understanding of a complex philosophical text on an issue which has puzzled minds much greater than yours and mine. So you should not expect to understand such a text before you have read through it several times. All we expect is that you offer a reasonable interpretation. Keep in mind that the more you read, the easier you will find it to understand these texts.
Earlier on we have said that critical reasoning is concerned about argumentative writing. The aim of this section, then, is to introduce you to some key features of argumentative writing. This should enable you to start writing argumentative essays within the framework of an acceptable structure. As you become more skilled, you may want to change this method and organise your arguments differently. Until then, this method is useful to get you going and, by using it, you can be confident that you have adopted a sound approach.
When writing argumentative essays, we should keep the following key points in mind:
• Clearly state the thesis that you intend to defend in your essay.
• Analyse and explain the problem the thesis deals with.
• Use research material, documentation and referencing.
• Provide sufficient and relevant reasons to support the thesis.
• Define the key concepts used in your arguments.
• Consider/anticipate possible opposition (counterarguments) to the thesis.
• Reply to possible opposition.
• Use appropriate language and structure.
Below is a brief guide to writing argumentative essays. These hints will probably dovetail well with the key aspects of argumentative essay writing that you will explore in the suggested resources. Consider these hints together with the key aspects and do the activity that follows (Jordan-Henley 1988).
1. So, what do you write about? Pick a welldefined, controversial issue. (Spend some time with the latest copies of several news magazines, watch 60 minutes, or listen to National public Radio to generate ideas.) Readers should understand what the issue is and what is at stake. The issue must be arguable, as noted above. After stating your thesis, you will need to discuss the issue in depth so that your reader will understand the problem fully.
2. A clear position taken by the writer. In your thesis sentence, state what your position is. You do not need to say: “I believe that we should financially support the space station.” using the first person weakens your argument. Say “funding for the space station is imperative to maintain America’s competitive edge in the global economy.” The thesis can be modified elsewhere in the essay if you need to qualify your position, but avoid hedging in your thesis.
3. A convincing argument. An argumentative essay does not merely assert an opinion; it presents an argument, and that argument must be backed up by data that persuades readers that the opinion is valid. This data consists of facts, statistics, the testimony of others through personal interviews and questionnaires or through articles and books, and examples. The writer of an argumentative essay should seek to use educated sources that are nonbiased, and to use them fairly. It is therefore best to avoid using hate groups as a source, although you can use them briefly as an example of the seriousness of the problem. Talk shows fall into the same category as they are frequently opinionated or untrue.
4. A reasonable tone. Assume that your reader will disagree with you or be skeptical. It is important, therefore, that your tone be reasonable, professional, and trustworthy. By anticipating objections and making concessions, you inspire confidence and show your good will.
- (1) Explain the relevant problem/claim and say what it entails; then state the position you are going to defend (your thesis).
- (2) Argue your claim, by giving acceptable and adequate reasons for your standpoint.
- (3) Your discussion must be relevant. Make sure that you discuss the issues raised in the premises.
- (4) Illustrate and clarify the points you are making by giving examples.
- (5) Always consider the opposite viewpoint and discuss one or two possible counterarguments to your position.
- (6) Always include a bibliography, listing the sources that you have consulted and referred to in your essay.
Let us put some of these guidelines into practice and write brief notes on an argument that deals with abortion.
Let us say our thesis is the following:
The practice of abortion is morally permissible when the mother’s life is endangered by continued pregnancy.
One argument we might use here is that, since everyone has a right to self-defence and even the right to kill someone when this is the only way to save oneself, therefore a mother has the right to defendherself against a foetus whose continued existence clearly and unambiguously threatens her life. Here there is an appeal to a general principle that “everyone has a right to self-defence.” We might defend this by showing through examples how the principle fits in with what we take to be reasonable. For instance, could we morally blame someone who defended herself from a lethal attack from a man wielding a knife if she deliberately pushed her attacker over a cliff and this was the only way to save herself? Surely not. We may then go on to claim that a mother who requests an abortion when continued pregnancy is a clear danger to her life is doing nothing more than the victim in this example and, by parity of the same kind of reasoning, we should attach no moral blame to such actions. We may offer further arguments claiming that, since a foetus is not yet, properly speaking, a person (perhaps only a potential person), the rights of a mother (who is a person) should take precedence over the less important rights of the foetus. Here we would have to defend our definition of “person,” and show how being a person makes one a rights-bearer, and how some rights are more important than other rights. Our definition of a person may assume some factual claims about human abilities, such as the ability to reason and communicate, and these assumptions would have to be articulated and defended.
In general, whatever arguments we use, all the points that we made in the preceding topics (on awareness of fallacious reasoning and avoidance of fallacies, and on argument analysis and evaluation) should guide us in our defence of our thesis.
We should take care never to simply make an assertion but always back it up with reasons which we ourselves would accept as appropriate and well founded.
When we write an argumentative essay, our opinions carry more weight if we look at both sides of the issue. In other words, we acknowledge our opponents’ views but try to convince the reader that our own argument is stronger.
Our essay would be extremely dull if we used the words “supporters” and “opponents” all the way through. Similarly, it would be unimpressive if we only used the verb “say” to refer to people’s opinions. The tables are below and contain lists of useful alternatives. Study them and then do the gap-fill task that follows.
|those in favour of …||those opposed to …|
|defenders of …||critics of …|
|advocates of …||objectors|
|pro-… (eg pro-abortionists)||anti-… (eg anti-abortionists)|
|say that …|| argue |
The philosophical attitude
In all the sections of this course, you have been doing (or practising) philosophy. But what does it mean to “do philosophy”? It is not easy (perhaps not even desirable) to give a definition of philosophy. So, it is equally difficult to say exactly what we are doing when we engage in philosophical reasoning. Although it would be convenient to have a recipe, it would be contrary to the spirit of philosophical enterprise — which demands a critical and open attitude toward the ideas and beliefs of other people; a critical attitude and evaluation of our own beliefs and assumptions; and a critical, open attitude toward philosophy itself.
In the following few paragraphs we discuss some of the key features of a philosophical attitude to questions and problems. There is no recipe here: merely a few essential ingredients.
(1) Philosophers have an absolute regard for clear and rigorous reasoning and the clear and rigorous use of language.
Clarity in thought and language leaves few hiding places for prejudice and distortion. Clarity is therefore essential if we are to achieve an acceptable understanding of the fundamental questions which puzzle us and if we are to obtain the likely answers to these questions. This is not to say that philosophical writings are easy to understand (they seldom are), but rather
that the difficult and complex concepts and arguments employed should be articulated in a way which is precise and exact.
(2) The philosophical attitude requires tolerance of the opinions, thoughts, attitudes and arguments of others.
Philosophers should be swayed only by the cogency of an argument, not by preconceived ideas and prejudices. This calls for an openness to other viewpoints, however unpalatable these views may seem to us at first. This does not mean that a philosopher may not strongly and forcibly advocate a particular position (the best philosophers always do). What it does mean isthat a philosopher’s advocacy stands on a reasoned conviction that his or her arguments are sound, together with an openness to the possibility that he or she is mistaken.
Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it on something solid. (GK Chesterton)
(3) The philosophical attitude is a critical one.
The questions philosophers ask are important and they are aimed at the foundations of our thought about the world and our place in it. A critical attitude takes nothing as “given”. This may appear to the outsider as “nitpicking”, but there is no surer way of being led astray in thought than simply to assume that something is true. To allow one’s mind to glide over uncomfortable and difficult issues is the opposite of the philosophical attitude. However, having a critical approach does not mean that we argue merely for argument’s sake. Philosophers treat their questions seriously and treat arguments with respect.
(4) Finally, a philosophical attitude demands imagination.
The best philosophy invites us to look at our world in fresh and new ways. This requires an imaginative approach. To have an imaginative approach means to be creative about other possibilities, to imagine alternative scenarios and consider different options.
and emotional experiences. Fortunately, our worldviews are not static but they change as we go through life, encountering a variety of experiences. Reflecting on your own thinking about these issues might give you the opportunity to “dig a little deeper” to uncover your framework of basic beliefs and see how these beliefs influence your attitude and behaviour. A further point of this exercise is to share with you the idea that a critical attitude calls for an openness (which is not the same as blind acceptance) to the viewpoints of other people.
Allport, GW. 1954. The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Wesley.
Butterworth, J & Thwaites, G. 2005. Thinking skills, Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Bentham, J. 1970. Introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. London: Athlone.
Barnett, HA. 1997. Sourcebook on feminist jurisprudence. London: Cavendish.
Collins, BE. 1970. Social psychology. Emeryville: Calif: Addison-Wesley.
Cozic, CP & Petriken, J. 1995. The abortion controversy. San Diego, Calif: Greenhaven.
Descartes, R. 1986. Meditations on first philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Friedman, M. 2002. Social responsibility of business is to increase its profits, pp. 225â€“230, in Perspectives in business ethics, edited by LP Hartman. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Honderich, T (ed). 1995. The Oxford companion to philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University.
Jordan-Henley, J. 1988. A brief guide to writing argumentative essays. Available at http://www.rscc.cc.tn.us/ow/&writingcentre/OWL/Argument.html (accessed on 2009/07/03).
Kahane, H & Cavender, N. 2006. Logic and contemporary rhetoric. Belmont, Mass: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
LeGuin, U. 1992. The lefthand of darkness. London: Orbit.
Merleau-Ponty, M. 1964. Signs. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University.
Milgram, S. 1974. Obedience to authority: an experimental view. London: Tavistock.
Olen, J & Barry, V. 1999. Applying ethics: a text with readings. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth.
Plato. 1966. The Republic. London: Longmans.
Random House College Dictionary (The). 1975. Sv â€œhumanityâ€. Revised Edition. USA: Random House.
Sparks, AW. 1991. Talking philosophy: a wordbook. London: Routledge.
The Guardian, Wednesday 17 November 2004.
Teays, W. 2003. Second thoughts: critical thinking for a diverse society. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Van den Berg, MES. 2010. Critical reasoning and the art of argumentation. Pretoria: Unisa Press.
Van den Haag, E. 1998. On deterrence and the death penalty, pp. 47â€“58, in Capital punishment: a reader. Edited by Glen H. Stassen. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim.
Wasserstrom, RA. 1997. A defence of programs of preferential treatment, pp. 198â€“204, in Affirmative action: social justice or reverse discrimination? Edited by FJ Beckwith & TE Jones. Amherst, New York: Prometheus.
http://www.garlikov.com/philosophy/slope.htm (assessed on 12/03/2009, 13:00).
In the original South African version of this course, glossaries are provided also in Afrikaans, Zulu and N Sotho.
Ad hominem argument. An attack on the character, interests or circumstances of an opponent who is making a claim rather than challenging the claim itself.
Affirming the consequent fallacy. This fallacy is committed when the consequent in a conditional statement is affirmed and the antecedent is taken to be true on these grounds.
Analogy. Reasoning by analogy is based on comparison with similar cases. An argument based on analogy only succeeds when the similarities between the cases or entities are relevant.
Analysing arguments. The process of dismantling arguments in order to identify their premises and conclusions.
Antecedent. An antecedent is the condition that is claimed to lead to a certain effect (also called the consequent.
Appeal to force fallacy. This fallacy occurs when an arguer appeals to the threat of force or coercion to persuade an opponent to accept a point.
Appeal to the masses. Fallacious reasoning based on mass sentiment, popular feelings, or nationalism, rather than offering good reasons for accepting a conclusion.
Argument. An argument is a group of statements, one of which is called the conclusion, whose truth or acceptability the argument is intended to establish. The other statements are called premises, which are supposed to support the conclusion.
Argumentative writing. Argumentative writing argues for or against a particular point of view. It is concerned with arguments and the point of an argument is to convince the reader or the audience that a claim is true or acceptable.
Begging the question fallacy. This fallacy occurs when what is supposedly proved by the conclusion of an argument is already assumed to be true in the premises.
Cause-and-effect reasoning. A kind of inductive argument in which it is argued that a particular event or effect occurs on the basis of specific antecedent conditions or causal factors.
Comparative writing. A kind of writing that compares or contrasts two or more things, events or viewpoints by focusing on similarities and differences.
Complex question fallacy. This fallacy occurs when two or more questions are disguised as one question and it demands a â€œyesâ€ or â€œnoâ€ answer.
Conclusion. The main claim in an argument that the premises are intended to prove.
Conclusion indicator. A signal word or phrase that precedes a conclusion.
Consequent. A consequent is what is said to follow if the antecedent condition is assumed true.
Counterargument. This is an argument an arguer formulates in answer to another argument.
Counterexample. A counterexample is a specific example which defeats or runs counter to the claim made in an argument.
Critical reasoning. Critical reasoning involves the ability to actively and skilfully conceptualise, analyse, question and evaluate ideas and beliefs.
Critical self-reflection. Critical self-reflection is an act of examining oneâ€™s own thoughts and beliefs; related to self-knowledge and self-awareness.
Critical thinking. Synonym for â€œcritical reasoningâ€.
Deductive argument. An argument in which the premises are claimed to give sufficient support for the conclusion to follow.
Denying the antecedent fallacy. This type of fallacy occurs when someone argues that because the
antecedent doesnâ€™t happen, the consequent cannot happen.
Descriptive writing. A kind of writing that describes something or gives information about state of affairs or events.
Distraction fallacies. These fallacies occur when attention is distracted from the weak point of an argument.
Emotion fallacies. These fallacies confuse emotion with reason.
Empirical argument. An argument in which the premises assert that some empirically determinable facts apply.
Equivocation. The fallacy of equivocation occurs when a word or phrase is used in one sense in one part of an argument and in a different sense in another part of the same argument.
Evaluating arguments. The process of critically examining the plausibility of claims advanced in an argument; critically considering assumptions; and weighing possible solutions to issues.
Fallacy. A fallacy is a deceptive argument that tries to persuade us to accept the claim that is being advanced, but the reasons in support of the claim are irrelevant or inappropriate.
False appeal to authority. This fallacy is committed when someone cites an authoritative or famous person who is not an expert in the field under discussion.
False dilemma. A false dilemma is created when an arguer presents an either-or choice when, in fact, there are more than two alternatives.
Faulty analogy. The error of faulty analogy occurs when a comparison is drawn between two different cases or issues, and there are no relevant similarities between them.
Fallacious reasoning. Invalid reasoning that suppresses relevant evidence, or contains questionable premises.
Hasty generalisation. The fallacy of hasty generalisation occurs when a conclusion is drawn on the basis of ill-considered or insufficient evidence.
Inductive argument. An argument in which the conclusion is subject to probability, even if the premises are assumed to be true.
Invalid deductive argument. An argument in which the structure is invalid and the premises fail to give sufficient support to the conclusion.
Logical definition. This type of definition defines a term by selecting those properties that are shared by and confined to all the things that the term covers.
Narrative writing. A kind of writing that aims at unfolding a story or recounting a series of events.
Persuasive definition. A type of definition that aims at influencing the readerâ€™s attitude and thinking
by suggesting a new meaning for a term that is already in common use.
Preconceived idea. A preconceived idea is a societal assumption that decisively influence our thinking, but which we have not critically reflected upon.
Premise indicator. A signal word or phrase that precedes a premise.
Premise. A premise is a statement that serves as a reason in support of an argumentâ€™s conclusion.
Principle of charitable interpretation. This principle entails that when more than one interpretation of an argument is possible, the argument should be interpreted so that the premises provide the strongest support for the conclusion.
Slippery slope argument. A slippery slope argument leads one from seemingly unimportant and obviously true first premises to exaggerated consequences in the conclusion.
Social conditioning. Seeing only what we expect to see.
Sound. An argument is sound if it is valid and you accept that all its premises are true.
Soundness. Refers to the truth or strength of the premises of an argument.
Statement. A statement is an assertion that is either true or false.
Statistical extrapolation. A kind of inductive reasoning that refers to some statistical study or evidence. An inference is drawn about a target population on the basis of what is taken to be true of a sample group.
Stereotypes. Generalisations, or assumptions, that people make about the characteristics of all members of a group, based on an image (often wrong) about what people in that group are like.
Stipulative definition. A kind of definition that stipulates that a given term should be used in a particular way.
Straw man argument. A fallacious form of reasoning that consists of making oneâ€™s own position appear strong by misrepresenting, or ridiculing an opponentâ€™s position.
Structural fallacies. These fallacies contain flaws in reasoning because their form or structure is invalid.
Thesis. The conclusion of an extended argument.
Valid. A criterion of cogent reasoning that requires that the premises of an argument in fact support its conclusion, either deductively or inductively.
Valid deductive argument. An argument of which the structure is valid and the premises give sufficient support for the conclusion to follow.
Validity. Refers to the relationship between the premises and the conclusion of an argument.
Value argument. An argument that assets a claim of preference or a moral judgment about right and wrong, good and bad.