Project Logicality: Argumentation’s Basic Assumptions
This is the second re-release in my Project Logicality series, and it was posted in its original form in April of 2011. I’ve corrected and re-written this and reposted it here, hopefully clearer and to the point. May all your arguments be rational and all your disputes be resolved. ~ Troythulu
We persuade others through our arguments, to get them to accept the statements and claims we make as likely true of their own free choice, justified on the basis of the reasons we give rather than prove them absolutely. Argumentation contributes to healthy discussion and debate, to let those so arguing find common ground, and to make easier a willingness to compromise.
People argue daily, though seldom with skill, and in my view, argumentation as a well-honed tool of a functional democratic republic is needed more than ever with the increasing decay of social discourse, political polarization and interpersonal conflicts that ever more are seen as irreconcilable.
In this post, I’ll describe the basic assumptions and basic conditions that go into any attempt at constructive argument, and before I do, I’ll note as before that good argument is intellectual in force, not coercive or deceptive. It is an ethical means of influencing others, limiting their freedom of action without imposing on their freedom of will.
First, argument is carried out under conditions of uncertainty: We generally don’t argue about things we think certain, though that doesn’t prevent us from talking about them.
We argue about things because we think it important enough to convince others of them, and things may well turn out to be otherwise. If things were absolutely self-evident, they would be so to all, and there would be no need to convince anyone of them.
These differences may be implied and apparent to an analyst, concealed in the context of an argument, or explicit, obvious to an audience. Bear in mind that even the concept of certainty can depend on the audience addressed and the assumptions they bring to the table as to what it means.
Second, Argumentation must consider the needs of an audience. people argue about things that matter to them, attempting to resolve what they think are conflicting positions that cannot simply be settled by any non-argumentative means; appealing to common knowledge, or widely-shared empirical methods; things they consider to be non-trivial, matters important enough to need resolution.
This is not to pander to their biases, or to say that one claim is just as good as any other, it’s just that in being ethical, we must consider what is likely to persuade a given audience as if they were exercising their critical judgment on the merits of the arguments we give, and the soundness of the justifications we offer for our claims.
The audience is the final judge of whether an argument is strong or weak, justified or not, assenting to it if it is strong or justified, rejecting it if not.
Third, argumentation is both adversarial and cooperative. we make choices in arguments, choices in what arguments to select, and how to arrange and present them, based upon the audience we are addressing.
The adversarial components of argumentation help the rigor of the discussion; they help us avoid hasty generalizations; they reduce omission of important details. Skilled arguers seek first to find common ground which is itself the bedrock upon which they can meaningfully discuss their disagreement. Ultimately, these enhance our confidence of the outcome, a confidence pending better arguments to be made in future.
Fourth, argumentation involves restrained partisanship. It requires a cooperative effort between arguer and audience, despite the contentiousness often associated with everyday argument.
Arguers must share a common system of terms, assumptions, and meanings. This allows resolution of the dispute, and is needed to permit any meaningful argument at all.
Fifth, and finally, argument involves elements of risk. This is the risk of losing the argument, the risk of being shown wrong, the risk of having to alter one’s views and position, and in either case the emotional disruption of wounding one’s self-esteem or losing face with others.
But the cooperative aspect of argument means that in willingly accepting these risks, each arguer is respecting the rights and personhood of the other, and in so doing, claiming that same privilege of respect from the other for him or herself.
I think that these are good situational benchmarks, and are the optimal conditions, I would argue even necessary conditions, under which can be made any serious attempt to argue constructively, for the purpose of reaching the best possible conclusions given the means at hand.