This post was originally published in 2011, and since then I’ve decided to give it new life and clear up difficulties in the text. I decided to use it once for the pilot entry of my current Project Logicality. I hope it adds to the online discussion of the virtues of reason despite the decidedly unreasonable tendencies of the human species.
What is it that I mean when I say ‘argument?’ When I use this term, I don’t mean quarrelsome bickering accompanied by yelling and screaming, nor do I mean a mere shadow of an argument where debaters try to undermine the legitimacy of each others’ position without attempting to reach a real understanding or settling anything.
When I say, “argument” I mean it in the context of any rational discussion with constructive intent, not an attempt to thwart constructive ends through fallacious means.
Here, I mean that the parties involved act to offer reasons, premises, rationales, and justifications for the statements, the claims, and the ideas that they put forth. They want others to accept these, not merely by pandering to their prejudices or appealing to their biases, nor upon the use of legal or physical force, but by winning the free assent of that audience — an audience treated as though it were in principle intelligent, educated, and capable of exercising rigorous critical judgment.
I refer to argument in the sense of modern argumentation theory, a vibrant field of study involving the making and use of messages to influence others, by appealing to their willingness to cooperate — this is essential for the conditions of a viable free society.
Any coherent social structure, especially a functioning representative democracy with a large number of people needs some means of mutual influence between its members, of and for the viability of its governing system, however imperfect its governing body in practice. Perfection in matters of human endeavor is a chimera.
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 — this includes formal logic, mathematical and symbolic logic where the conclusion of a valid argument is alleged to be certainly true if the premises used to support it are also true.
But argumentation concerns itself more with informal logic, the everyday reasoning we engage in within typical discussions — in which the statements we wish to support do not follow with certainty, but to a degree of probability depending on the strength of our reasons and the willingness of the audience to accept them.
In argumentation, even the very idea of certainty depends on the audience addressed.
Language is important in informal logic, because informal argumentation depends heavily on the use of language as the 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 that an argument is cast in cannot be taken from the argument itself without rendering it sterile and empty.
Second, argumentation converges with Rhetoric, originally one of the seven Liberal Arts — it is more than just vacuous or bombastic and flowery ornamentation in speech as is commonly supposed, but in the technical sense it is the broader study of how people are influenced by messages.
It is from Rhetoric that argumentation gets the concern with the requirements of an audience — its needs, disposition, and outlook must be considered by the arguer in making their case.
Third, argumentation crosses over with dialectic, a term that many people still associate with the concept of an opposition between grand historical forces, like the opposition of capitalism and communism depicted in Marxist social theory.
This concept has a different meaning, and dates at least since the Socratic method, given in the dialogues of Plato, and others, 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 to 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 collective actions we may undertake, engage in formal and often productive debates, and, with ourselves as the audience, think through personal problems we may face or get out of a rut.
Argumentation as a process of giving reasons for our claims 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 having good reasons for what we believe and do are for everyone. As humans, we are not always rational, but we have a sense of reason, one that once nurtured and practiced can serve us and enfranchise us as informed, effective, and smart voters very well indeed.