Systematic Philosophy

to know what can be known

What Is An Argument?

In order to gain knowledge of most truths, arguments are critical. As a result, it is important for us to know everything we can about arguments. We need to know what they are, how to construct them, how to extract them from texts and conversation and how to assess them. Let’s being by looking at what arguments are.

What an argument is

What is an argument? Arguments have three components. First, every argument involves one or more propositions. Second, every argument has exactly one final conclusion. That final conclusion is one of the propositions. Third, every argument represents one or more of the propositions as entailing the final conclusion. It may or may not represent the other propositions as entailing or being entailed by one another.

That’s it. That’s all there is to an argument.

Two examples

Let’s look at some examples. First, we said that every argument involves one or more propositions. Here is a list of propositions:

<Socrates is a person>
<all people are mortal>
<Socrates is mortal>
<all mortal things have parts>
<Socrates has parts>
<all things that have parts are made of particles>
<Socrates is made of particles>

This list of propositions is not an argument. It is just a list. To make it into an argument, we still need to add two components. One of those components is a final conclusion. We said above that every argument has a single final conclusion and that that final conclusion had to be one of the propositions in the argument. So let’s select one of the propositions as a final conclusion:

Final Conclusion: <Socrates is made of particles>

We still do not have an argument yet. One component remains. In particular, as we said above, every argument must represent its final conclusion as being entailed by one or more of the propositions in the argument. The argument may or may not also represent other relations of entailment. Let’s add the following:

    • <Socrates is a person> and <all people are mortal> together are meant to entail <Socrates is mortal>
    • <Socrates is mortal> and <all mortal things have parts> together are meant to entail <Socrates has parts>
    • <Socrates has parts> and <all things that have parts are made of particles> together are meant to entail <Socrates is made of particles>

If we put these components together, we have an argument. There are various different ways to present arguments. This argument, for instance, presented in numbered format, looks like this:

  1. Socrates is a person.
  2. All people are mortal.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. [1,2]
  4. All mortal things have parts.
  5. Therefore, Socrates has parts. [3,4]
  6. All things that have parts are made of particles.
  7. Therefore, Socrates is made of particles. [5,6]

We have now given one example of an argument. We chose this example first in order to give an example of an argument that makes sense. But it is not necessary for an argument to make sense in order for it to be an argument. The following is an argument as well, presented in text format:

Rabbits are good. And squares are shapes. These two propositions entail our final conclusion, which is that pickles are bad.

Obviously, this is a terrible argument. Nevertheless, it is still an argument. It has one or more propositions. It has a single final conclusion, which is one of the propositions. It represents one or more of the propositions as entailing the final conclusion. This is all that is needed. It fits the description we gave above, so it is an argument.

Looks okay to me.

What an argument is not

Different people use the word “argument” in different ways. Some people use it to mean “fight”. Some people use it to mean “conversation in which people express opposing viewpoints”. Some people use it as we have described above.

All of these different uses are fine. People can use words however they want to. Since we have a particular purpose here, however, and because we want to speak with precision, we hereby stipulate that when we use the word “argument”, we mean only what we have indicated above.

As far as we’re concerned, this is not an argument.

This means that as far as we’re concerned, an argument is not a fight. It is not a discussion. It is not even a multi-person activity. It is not an activity at all. It is a collection of propositions with a final conclusion and some purported relations of entailment. The final conclusion must be one of the propositions. One of more of the propositions must be represented as entailing the final conclusion. That’s all.

Next up: Steps, Premises, Conclusions, Etc.

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Written by Geoff Anders

May 11, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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