How To Argue: What is Argumentation?
What is it that I mean when I talk about an argument? When I use this term in the technical sense, I refer not to quarrelsome bickering accompanied by much yelling and screaming, nor to a mere shadow of an argument where the contesting parties try to undermine the legitimacy of each others’ position without trying to reach some mutual understanding or settling anything.
When I say, “argument” I mean it in the context of any rational discussion with constructive intent.
I mean that the parties concerned act to offer reasons, premises, rationales, and justifications for the statements, claims, and ideas that they put forth and that they want others to accept on the basis of the reasons given, not upon the basis of simplistic agreement with the prejudices of those others, the biases of the audience being addressed, nor upon the use of mere legal or physical force, but by the free assent of an audience as though it were exercising critical judgement without being subject to whimsy or duress.
When I say argument in this sense, I mean in the sense of modern argumentation theory, a vibrant field of study, that of how we create and exchange messages with the intent of influencing others, by appealing to their willingness to cooperate, a situation which is essential for the conditions of a viable society, and without which society would not be possible.
A coherent social structure must involve some manner of influence between its members besides simply the arbitrary commands of an authority figure, or knee-jerk agreement with whatever whims one has at the moment.
Argumentation as a field of study crosses paths with three other areas of intellectual endeavor:
First, it converges with Logic, the broader study of the structures we use in all processes of reasoning, and this includes formal logic, such as mathematical reasoning and syllogistic logic where the conclusion of a valid argument must follow with certainty from the truth of the assumptions that support it.
But with argumentation theory, we concern ourselves more with informal logic, the everyday sort of reasoning we engage in within typical discussions, in which the statements we wish to support do not follow with certainty, only to a degree of probability depending on the soundness of the reasons we provide and the willingness of the audience to accept them.
In argumentation, even the notion of certainty depends on the audience addressed.
Language is important in informal reasoning, because informal argumentation depends heavily on the use of language, the verbal content of the argument.
Language is more than merely decorative window-dressing for an informal argument, but an essential part of the argument’s inherent meaning.
The language such an argument is cast in cannot be extracted from the argument itself without rendering it sterile and empty.
Second, argumentation converges with Rhetoric, originally one of the seven Liberal Arts, and this is more than just vacuous or bombastic and flowery ornamentation in speech as in the common usage, but in the technical sense it is the broader study of how people are influenced by messages they receive.
It is from Rhetoric that argumentation gets the concern with the requirements of an audience, though this is not to say that any claim is just as valid as any other, that anything goes, that whatever is the most convenient way to convince someone makes for a good argument, merely that to have a chance of winning the assent of an audience as though it were using critical judgment, its needs, disposition, and outlook must be considered by the arguer when he makes his case (please disregard my use of the male pronoun, I use it as a convenient shorthand in this post, not to disparage the equally effective feminine use of argumentation.).
Third, argumentation crosses over with dialectic, a term that most people associate with the concept of an opposition between grand historical influences, as with the struggle between capitalism and communism as depicted in Marxist social theory.
This concept has a different meaning, and actually dates at least since the Socratic method, such as in the dialogues of Plato, in which fictionalized persons are seen to engage in a sort of give and take exchange of questions and answers to resolve a dispute or reveal the truth of a matter.
This sort of questioning is similar to the use of cross-examination of witnesses in modern legal courts by the prosecuting attorneys in a case to uncover inconsistencies in testimony and reveal possibly questionable motives.
Argumentation is the meeting point of all of these fields, and with it, we can clarify our understanding of our positions, resolve disputes, reach sound decisions for group actions we may undertake, engage in formal and often productive debates, and with ourselves as the audience think through personal problems we may be faced with, even get ourselves out of a rut.
Argumentation as a process of giving reasons is one of the most important abilities we have as humans, and no matter our level of education, we can all benefit from the ability to arrive at better answers to questions and make more sound decisions than we otherwise might.
Argumentation isn’t just for egghead academics: Clear thinking and reasoning is for everyone.
Posted on Wednesday, 0:12, April 20, 2011, in Logic & Philosophy and tagged Argument, Argumentation theory, Informal Logic, Math, Philosophy, Reason, Rhetoric, Socratic method. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.