Argument: Definition and Analysis in English Composition

Also Read

      Argument has been defined as that form of discourse the purpose of which is to convince the reader of the truth or falsity of a proposition. It is closely allied with exposition. To convince a person, it is first necessary that the proposition be explained to him. This is all that is necessary in many cases. Did men decide all matters without prejudice, and were they willing to accept the truth at any cost, even to discard the beliefs that have been to them the source of greatest happiness, the simple explanation would be sufficient. However, as men are not all-wise, and as they are not always “reasonable,” they are found to hold different opinions regarding the same subject; and one person often wishes to convince another of the error of his beliefs. Men continually use the words because and therefore; indeed, a great deal of writing has in it an element of argument.

Arguments have been classified as inductive and deductive. Induction includes arguments that proceed from individual cases to establish a general truth. Deduction comprises arguments that proceed from a general truth to establish the proposition in specific instances, or groups of instances.

      From the fact that argument and exposition are so nearly alike, it follows that they will be governed by much the same principles. As argument, in addition to explaining, seeks to convince, it is necessary, in addition to knowing how to explain, to know what is considered convincing,—what are proofs; and secondly, what is the best order in which to arrange proofs.

Induction and Deduction:
      Arguments have been classified as inductive and deductive. Induction includes arguments that proceed from individual cases to establish a general truth. Deduction comprises arguments that proceed from a general truth to establish the proposition in specific instances, or groups of instances.

      Premises. If one should say “Socrates is mortal because he is a man,” or “Socrates will die because all men are mortal,” or “Socrates is a man, therefore he will die,” by any of these he has expressed a truth which all men accept. In any of these expressions are bound up two propositions, called premises, from which a third proposition, called a conclusion, is derived. If expanded, the three propositions assume this form: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal. This is termed a syllogism. A syllogism consists of a major premise, a predication about all the members of a general class of objects; a minor premise, a predication that includes an individual or a group of individuals in the general class named by the major premise; and a conclusion, the proposition which is derived from the relation existing between the other two propositions. The propositions above would be classified as follows:—

 Major premise: All men are mortal, a predication about all men.

 Minor premise: Socrates is a man, including an individual in the general class.

 Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

      In every syllogism there are three terms,—major, minor, and middle. The middle term is found in both the premises, but not in the conclusion. It is the link connecting the major and minor terms. The major term is usually the predicate of the major premise and the predicate of the conclusion. The minor term is the subject of the minor premise and the subject of the conclusion. “Men” is the middle term, “are mortal” the major term, and “Socrates,” the minor term.

      It is rarely the case in literature that the syllogism is fully stated: generally one of the premises is omitted. Such a form of statement is termed an enthymeme. “Socrates will die because all men are mortal” is an enthymeme. The minor premise has been omitted. “Socrates is mortal because he is a man” is also an enthymeme, because the major premise which states that “all men are mortal” has been omitted.

      The conclusions arrived at by means of syllogisms are irresistible, provided the form be correct and the premises be true. It is impossible here to discuss the forms of syllogisms; they are too many. It will be of value, however, to call attention to a few of the commonest errors in syllogisms.

Definition of Terms:
      The first error arises from a misunderstanding of terms. It is often said that George Eliot is a poet; there are some who disagree. Certain it is that she wrote in verse form; and it is true that she has embodied noble thoughts in verse; but it is quite as true that she lacks “the bird-note.” If this were reduced to a syllogism, it would not be a discussion of whether George Eliot be a poet, but rather a discussion of what is a poet. Stated, it reads: All persons who embody noble thoughts in verse form are poets. George Eliot is a person who has embodied noble thoughts in verse form. Therefore George Eliot is a poet. If the major premise of this syllogism be granted, the conclusion is unquestionable. The terms should be defined at the beginning; then this error, springing from a misunderstanding of terms, perhaps the most common, would be avoided.

Undistributed Middle:
      The second error arises from the fact that the middle term is not “distributed;” that is, the major premise makes no statement about all the members of a class. The premises in the following are true, but the conclusion is nonsense.

 A horse is an animal.
 Man is an animal.
 Therefore, man is a horse.

      The middle term, in this case “animal,” must be “distributed;” some statement must be made of all animals. The following would be true: All animals have life; therefore man has life. The major premise predicates life of all animals.

False Premises:
      A third error in a syllogism is in the premises themselves. If either premise be false, the conclusion is not necessarily true. A parent might say to his son, “You are doing wrong, and you will pay the penalty for it soon.” Generally he would be right. However, if this were put into a syllogism, it would read as follows: All persons who do wrong pay the penalty soon. You are such a person. Therefore, etc. Admitting the son is breaking the law, the fact is that the major premise is not always true, and the conclusion holds the weakness of the weak premise. Again, supposing everybody accepted the general truth, “All unrepentant sinners will be punished.” The minister might then say to a young man, “You will certainly be punished, because all unrepentant sinners will be punished.” The young man might deny the suppressed minor premise, which is, “You are an unrepentant sinner.” Both premises must be true if they prove anything. The conclusion contains the weakness of either premise. In both of these examples note that the mistake is in the premise which does not appear. In an enthymeme, great care should be taken with the suppressed premise. Be sure it is true when you use this form of argument, and be sure to look for it and state it in full when examining another’s argument. It is a common way of hiding a weak point to cover it in the suppressed premise of an enthymeme.

Method of Induction:
      Induction, which proceeds directly opposite to the method of deduction, is the method by which all our ultimate knowledge has been obtained. By observing individual instances man has gathered a great store of general truths. There was a time when the first man would not have been justified in saying, “The sun will rise in the east to-morrow.” The general law had not been established. To-day it is practically certain that the sun will rise in the east to-morrow morning, because it has done so for thousands of years; the large number of instances establishes the general truth. Yet there may come a day when it will rise in the south, or not rise at all. Until every case has been tried and found to conform to the law, theoretically man cannot be absolutely certain of any general truth. There may come an exception to the general rule that all men must die. So far, however, there is no experience to justify any man in hoping to escape death. “As sure as death” means in practice absolutely sure, though this is not what is called a perfect induction; that is, an induction in which every possible case has been included. “All the other States are smaller than Texas” is a perfect induction, but it forms no basis for argument. All the cases must be known for a perfect induction; there is no unknown to argue to. This, then, is only a short statement of many individual truths, and has but little of value. Induction that is imperfect is more valuable; for with many cases the probability becomes so strong that it is a practical certainty. It is the method of science. More valuable for literature is another division of arguments into arguments from cause, arguments from sign, and arguments from example.

Arguments from Cause:
      Arguments from cause include those propositions which, if they were granted, would account for the fact or proposition maintained. The decisive test is to suppose the proposition to be true; then, if it will account for the condition, it is an argument from cause. A child holds its finger in a flame; therefore its finger is burned. If the first proposition be supposed to be true, it will account for a burned finger. It is an argument from cause, and it is conclusive. Again, if a man severs his carotid artery, he will die. If the first proposition be supposed to be true, it will account for the man’s subsequent death. Now, supposing a man takes strychnine, he will die. This is not quite so sure. If a stomach-pump were used or an antidote given, he might not die. The cause has been hindered in its action, or another cause has intervened to counterbalance the first. If, then, a cause be adequate to produce the effect, and if it act unhindered or unmodified, the effect will certainly follow the active cause. An argument that uses as a premise such a cause may predicate its effect as a conclusion with absolute certainty. Such an argument is conclusive.

      The argument from cause is used more frequently to establish a probability than to prove a fact or proposition. However strong the proofs of a statement may be, men hesitate to accept either the statement or the proofs if the proposition is not plausible, or, as people say, if “they do not understand it,” or if “it is not reasonable.” If a murder be done and circumstances all point to your friend, you do not believe your friend to be the criminal until some fact is produced sufficient to cause your friend to commit the crime,—until some motive is established. If it be shown that the friend hated the murdered man and would be benefited by his death, a motive is established,—the proposition is made plausible. A man could “understand how he came to do it.” The hatred and the benefit being granted, they would account for his deed. It is an argument from cause, used not as a proof, but to establish a probability. It makes the proposition ready for proof.

Arguments from Sign:
      The second class of arguments, arguments from sign, is most often used for proof. If two facts or conditions always occur together, the presence of one is a sign of the presence of the other. Cause and effect are so related that if either be observed, it is an indication of the other. No cause acts without a consequent effect; an effect is a sure sign of a preceding cause. Supposing one should say, “Because the flowers are dead, there was a frost,” or “If ice has formed on the river, it must have been cold,” in both instances the argument would be an argument from sign. Both also proceed from the effect to the cause. Only a low temperature forms ice on the river; the argument from effect to cause is conclusive. In the first case, the argument is not conclusive, because flowers may die from other causes. In a case like this, it is necessary to find all possible causes, and then by testing each in succession to determine which could not have acted and leave the one that is the only actual cause. A man is found dead; death has resulted from natural causes, from murder, or from suicide. Each possible cause would be tested; and by elimination of the other possible causes the one right cause would be left. This method of elimination is frequently employed in arguments from effect to cause. When this method is used the alternatives should be few, else it gives rise to confusion and to lack of attention caused by the tediousness of the discussion. And an enumeration of all possible causes must be made; for if one be omitted it may be the one that is in fact the right one.

      The relation between cause and effect is so intimate that the occurrence of one may be regarded as a sure sign of the presence of the other. If an effect is produced by only one cause, the presence of the effect is a certain indication of the cause. If several causes produce the same effect, some other methods must be used to determine the cause operating in this special case.

Sequence and Cause:
      In reasoning from effect to cause, one must be sure that he is dealing with a cause. As effect follows cause, there is danger that anything that follows another may be considered as caused by it. Because a man died just after eating, it would not be quite reasonable to connect eating and death as cause and effect. The fact is that death is surer to follow starvation. The glow at evening is generally followed by fair weather the next day; but the fair weather is not an effect of a clear sunset. Common sense must be used to determine whether the relation is one of cause and effect; something more than a simple sequence is necessary.

      Another argument from sign associates conditions that frequently occur together, though one is not the cause of the other. “James is near, because there is his blind father,” means that James always accompanies his father; where the father is, the son is too. If one had noticed that potatoes planted at the full of the moon grew well, and potatoes planted at other times did not thrive, he might say as a result of years of observation that a certain crop would be a failure because it was not planted at the right time. This argument might have weight with ignorant people, but intelligent persons do not consider it a sure sign. All signs belong to this class of arguments; they are of value or worthless as they come true more or less frequently. Every time there is an exception the argument is weakened; another case of its working strengthens it. Where there is no sure relation like cause and effect, the strength of the argument depends on the frequency of the recurrence of the associated conditions.

      A third argument from sign associates two effects of the same cause. A lad on waking exclaims, “The window is covered with frost; I can go skating to-day.” The frost on the window is not the cause of the ice on the river. Rather, both phenomena are results of the same cause. This kind of argument is not necessarily conclusive; yet with others it always strengthens a case.

      Testimony is usually called an argument from sign. The assertion by some one that a thing occurred is not sure proof; it is only a sign that it occurred. People have said that they have seen witches, ghosts, and sea serpents, and unquestionably believed it; men generally do not accept their testimony. In a criminal case, it would be difficult to accept the testimony of both sides. Though testimony seems a strong argument, it is or it is not, according to the conditions under which it is given. One would care little for the testimony of an ignorant man in a matter that called for wisdom; he would hesitate to accept the testimony of a man who claimed he saw, but upon cross-examination could not report what he saw; and he would not think it fair to be condemned upon the testimony of his enemies. Books have been written upon evidence, but three principles are all that are needed in ordinary arguments. First, the person giving testimony must be capable of observation; second, he must be able to report accurately what he has observed; third, he must have a desire to tell the exact truth.

Arguments from Example:
      The third large division comprises arguments from example. That is, if a truth be asserted of an individual, it can therefore be predicated of the class to which the individual belongs. For instance, if the first time a person saw a giraffe, he observed that it was eating grass, he would be justified in saying that giraffes are herbivorous. All gold is yellow, heavy, and not corroded by acid, though no one has tested it all. However, every giraffe does not have one ear brown and the other gray because the first one seen happened to be so marked; neither is all gold in the shape of ten-dollar gold pieces. Only common sense will serve to pick out essential qualities; but if essential and invariable qualities be selected, the argument from the example of an individual to all members of its class is very powerful.

Analogies resemble examples:
      In exposition they are used for illustration; in argument they are employed as proofs. Though two things belong to different classes of objects, they may have some qualities that are similar, and so an argument may be made from one to another. “Natural Law in the Spiritual World” is a book written to show how the physical laws hold true in the region of spirit. It is not because an enemy sowed tares in a neighbor’s field that there are wicked men in the world; nor is it because a lover of jewels will sell everything that he has to buy the pearl of greatest price that men devote everything they have to the kingdom of heaven. Analogies prove nothing. They clear up relations and often help the reader to appreciate other arguments. They are valuable when the likeness is broad and easily traced. They should never be used alone.

      These, then, are the principal forms of argument: deduction and induction; arguments from cause, from sign, and from example. Upon these men depend when they wish to convince of truth or error.

Selection of Material:
      In argument the material is selected with reference to its value as proof. Every particle of matter must be carefully tested. While a piece of material that could be omitted without loss to the explanation may sometimes find a place in exposition, such a thing must not occur in argument. As soon as a reader discovers that the writer is off the track, either he loses respect for the author’s words, or he suspects him of trying to hide the weakness of his position in a cloud of worthless and irrelevant matters. Every bit of material should advance the argument one step; it should fill its niche in the well-planned structure; it should contribute its part to the strength of the whole.

Plan called The Brief:
      When the material has been selected, it must be arranged. An argument is a demonstration. Each of its parts is the natural result of what has preceded, and, up to the last step, each part is the basis for the next step. As in geometry a demonstration that omits one step in its development, or, which comes to the same thing, puts the point out of its logical order, is worthless as a demonstration, so in argument not one essential step can be omitted, nor can it be misplaced. The plan in an argument may be more evident than in exposition. We are a little offended if the framework shows too plainly in exposition; but there is no offense in a well-articulated skeleton in an argument. It is quite the rule that the general plan and the main divisions of the argument are announced at the very beginning. Any device that will make the relation of the parts clearer should be used. Over and over again the writer should arrange the cards with the topics until he is certain that no other order is so good. The writing is a mere trifle compared with the outline, called in argument the brief.

      Though the brief is so essential, it is unfortunately a thing about which but few suggestions can be given. The circumstances under which arguments are written—especially whether written to defend a position or to attack it—are so various that rules cannot be given. Still a few general principles may be of value.

      Proofs should be arranged in a climax. This does not mean that the weakest argument should come first, and the next stronger should follow, and so on until the last and strongest is reached. It is necessary to begin with something that will catch the attention; and in argument it is frequently a proof strong enough to convince the reader that the writer knows what he is contending for, and that he can strike a hard blow. Then again, it is evident that in all arguments there are main points in the discussion that must be established by points of minor importance. The main points should be arranged in a logical climax, and the sub-topics which go to support one of the main divisions should have their climax. At the end of the whole should be the strongest and the most comprehensive argument. It should be a general advance of the whole line of argument, including all the propositions that have previously been called into action, sweeping everything before it.

Inductive precedes Deductive:
      To gain this climax what kind of arguments should precede? Of inductive and deductive, the inductive proofs generally go first. The advance from particular instances to general truths is the best suited to catch the attention, for men think with individual examples, and general truths make little appeal to them. Moreover, if one is addressing people of opposing views,—and in most cases he is, else why is he arguing?—it is unwise to begin with bald statements of unwelcome truths. They will be rejected without consideration. They can with advantage be delayed until they are reached in the regular development, and the reader has been prepared for their reception. General truths and their application by deductive arguments usually stand late in the brief.

Cause precedes Sign:
      Of arguments from cause, sign, or example, it is ordinarily wise to place arguments from cause first. A person does not listen to any explanation of an unknown truth until he knows that the explanation is plausible; that the cause assigned is adequate to produce the result. After one knows that the cause is sufficient and may have brought about the result, he is in a position to learn that it is the very cause that produced the effect. Arguments from cause are very rarely conclusive proofs of fact. They only establish a probability. And it would be unwise to prove that a thing might be a possibility after one had attempted to prove that it is a fact. It would be a long step backward, a retreat. Therefore arguments from cause, unless absolutely conclusive proof of fact, should not come last; but by other arguments,—by testimony, by example, by analogy,—the possibility, which has been reached by the argument from cause, may be established as a fact.

Example follows Sign:
      Of the two, sign and example, example generally follows sign. In arguments about human affairs, examples seldom prove anything; for under similar conditions one person may not act like another. Though this be true, the argument from example is one of the most effective—it is not at all conclusive—in that class of cases where oratory is combined with argument to convince and persuade. This is because men learn most readily from examples. To reason about matters of conduct on abstract principles of morality convinces but few; to point to a Lincoln or a Franklin has persuaded thousands. Examples are of most use in enforcing and illustrating and strengthening a point already established, and they generally follow arguments from sign.

      One other class of arguments finds a place in debate: namely, indirect arguments. It is often as much an advantage to a debater to dispose of objections as it is to establish his own case. This is because a question usually has two alternatives. If one can refute the arguments in favor of the opponent’s position, he has by that very process established his own. If the points of the refutation are of minor importance and are related to any division of his own direct argument, the refutation of such points should be taken up in connection with the related parts of the direct argument. If, however, it is an argument of some weight and should be considered separate and apart from the direct argument, it is generally wisest to proceed to its demolition at the end of the direct argument and before the conclusion of the whole. For then the whole weight of the direct argument will be thrown into the refutation and will render every word so much the more destructive. Again, if the opposing argument be very strong and have taken complete possession of the audience, it must be attacked and disposed of at the very beginning. Otherwise it is impossible for the direct argument to make any advance. From these suggestions one derives the general principle that each case must be considered by itself. There will be cases of conflict among the rules, and there must be a careful weighing of methods. Common sense and patient labor are the most valuable assistants in arranging a powerful argument.

      It hardly needs to be said that the suggestions made in the chapter on Exposition regarding Mass and Coherence should be observed here. In argument as in exposition, topics are emphasized by position, and by proportion in the scale of treatment. Here as there, matters that are closely related in thought should be connected in the discourse, and matters that are not related in thought should not be associated in the essay.

      It will be an advantage now to look through “Conciliation with the Colonies” and note its general plan of structure. Only the main divisions of this powerful oration can be given, as to make a full brief would deprive this piece of literature of half its value for study.

Analysis of Burke’s Oration:
      Mr. Burke begins by saying that it is “an awful subject or there is none this side of the grave.” He states that he has studied the question for years, and while Parliament has pursued a vacillating policy and one aggravating to the colonies, he has a fixed policy and one sure to restore “the former unsuspecting confidence in the Mother Country.” His policy is simple peace. This by way of introduction. He then divides the argument into two large divisions and proceeds.

      Notice first the introduction. It goes straight to the question. To tell a large opposition that it has vacillated on a great question is not calculated to win a kind hearing; yet this point, necessary to Burke’s argument, is so delicately handled that no one could be seriously offended, nor could any one charge him with weakness. The introduction serves its purpose; it gains the attention of the audience and it exactly states the proposition.

      He then divides the whole argument into two parts. The framework is visible, and with intent. These great divisions he takes up separately. First, that there may be a perfect understanding of the question, he explains “the true nature and the peculiar circumstances of the object which we have before us.” This illustrates the use of exposition in argument. The descent and education did not prove that the Americans had a fiery spirit; that was acknowledged and needed no proof. It simply sets forth the facts,—facts which he afterward uses as powerful instruments of conviction. As long as a man can use exposition, he can carry his readers with him; it is when he begins to argue, to force matters, that he raises opposition. So this use of exposition was fortunate. America was an English colony. Her strength and riches were England’s strength and wealth. It would be pleasing to all Englishmen to hear the recital of America’s prosperity. Up to the time he asks, “What, in the name of God, shall we do with it,” the oration is not essentially argument; it does nothing more than place “before you the object.”

      In the section marked “I. B,” Burke begins the real argument by the method of elimination. He asserts that there are only three ways of dealing with this fierce spirit of liberty. Then he conclusively proves the first impracticable and the second inexpedient. There is left but the one course, concession. This method of proof is absolutely conclusive if every possible contingency is stated and provided for. Notice that in this section “B” everything that was mentioned in the first section “A” is used, and the whole is one solid mass moving forward irresistibly to the conclusion of the first and the most important part of this argument.

      The second main division is devoted to the conclusion of the first. If you must concede,—the conclusion of the first half,—what will be the nature of your concession? A concession, to be a concession, must grant what the colonists wish, not what the ministry thinks would be good for them. Then by the history of England’s dealings with Ireland, Wales, Chester, and Durham, he proves that such a concession has been followed by peace. This makes the major premise of his syllogism, stated in “II. A.” The minor premise is a statement of the grievances of the colonies. The conclusion is in the resolutions for the redress of the grievances of the colonies. The second part is then one great syllogism, the premises of which are established by ample proof, the conclusion of which cannot well be disputed.

      “And here I should close,” says the orator; the direct argument is finished. There are some objections which demand dignified consideration. At this point, however, it is easy to refute any objections, for behind each word there is now the crushing weight of the whole argument.

      The conclusion recites the advantages of Burke’s plan over all others, and reasserts its value, now proven at every point. It is a powerful summary, and a skillful plea for the adoption of a policy of conciliation with the colonies of America.

      Every kind of argument is used in this oration. One would look long for a treasury better supplied with illustrations. The great conclusions are reached by the certain methods of elimination and deduction. In establishing the minor points Burke has used arguments from sign, cause, example, and induction. He calls in testimony; he quotes authority; he illustrates. Not any device of sound argument that a man honest in his search for truth may use has been omitted. It is worthy of patient study.

      In conclusion, the student of argument should learn well the value of different kinds of argument; he should exercise the most careful scrutiny in selecting his material, without any hesitation rejecting irrelevant matter; he should state the proposition so that it cannot be misunderstood; he must consider his readers, guiding his course wisely with regard for all the conditions under which he produces his argument; he should remember that the law in argument is climax, and that coherence should be sought with infinite pains. Above all, the man who takes up a debate must be fair and honest; only so will he win favor from his readers, and gain what is worth more than victory,—the distinction of being a servant of truth.

Previous Post Next Post