Arguments and Argumentation: Introductory Remarks and Definitions

Argument, in the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as follows: "A connected series of statements or reasons intended to establish a position (and, hence, to refute the opposite); a process of reasoning; argumentation." This is almost the very definition of argument the Monty Python troupe endeavored to establish in a famous Flying Circus skit:

Argument Clinic

As you'll notice in this skit, Michael Palin and John Cleese's characters are operating under different assumptions about just what an argument really is. As Michael Palin's character understands it, an argument is "a connected series of statements to establish a definite proposition." By contrast, and to very comic effect, John Cleese's character thinks it simply involves hearing what another person says and taking the "contrary position"even if that means willfully misunderstanding and mishandling what the other says. John Cleese is simply being perverse, not engaging in argument. The real comedy, of course, comes from the fact that Michael Palin is not supposed to be the expert here; John Cleese, as the go-to guy for "having an argument," should know better.

As this skit shows, argument is a word that suffers from wide misunderstanding. Popularly, the word is associated with ideas of being contrary, perverse, disagreeable. It conjures up images of shouting, flaring tempers, people talking right past each other without any regard for what the other says, and hurt feelings.

In the realm of academia, however, arguing and argumentation have no such negative connotations—certainly not primarily, anyhow!and, indeed, form the lifeblood of what we do. Argument is an "intellectual process" that makes what we do possible. Passions may certainly be involved, but hopefully in a way that conforms to civil discourse and the free exchange of ideas. John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, calls this the "liberty of thought and discussion." On the Texas A&M University-Commerce seal, the value for solid argumentation is implicit: "Ceaseless Industry, Fearless Investigation, Unfettered Thought." None of these "core values" may be realized without some understanding of how to argue, and argue well.

A simpler, more direct definition for argument is given by David Zarefsky, a professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University: "Making claims and providing reasons for those claims." That "and" part is crucial. Zarefsky defines argument over against assertion, which is the simple making of a claim without evidence (or reasons, grounds) for those claims. Assertions may not always be acceptable to audiences who do not share your views; learning how to explain how you arrived at the conclusion (claim) you havein other words, how to argueis therefore necessary in a world where people disagree.*

Levels of Argument

Some arguments, as we will discover, are better than others because they take place at different "levels." This "Argument Pyramid," found here online, nicely outlines this in graphic form. Consider this pyramid throughout the course.Argument_Pyramid.jpg

On the following pages, we will explore terms and concepts that are used often in the realm of differing opinions. These will guide us in our foray into argument and argumentation.

*Audiences who apply high standards to the arguments they appraise are lot like math teachers in one respect: they not only want to know your answer (claim) to the problem (controversy), but they also want you to "show your work" (your reasons/evidence).