What are arguments?

“We’re not arguing, we’re having a discussion!” Many of us would have surely heard someone say this during a disagreement. This is because most of us view arguments as something to be avoided. However, this is based on a misunderstanding. When we say that someone is having an argument, what we are really saying is that they are having a fight. The images that will come to mind are yelling, name calling, etc. But this is not what arguments are. Arguments are something very specific, and are not something to be avoided. On the contrary, they are something to be encouraged.

Arguments are, roughly, when we use reasons to justify belief in a particular claim. If someone says we should buy a particular product, vote for a political party, or apply for a certain job, and we ask them ‘why?’, we are asking them to give an argument. Assertions on their own do not constitute an argument, they must be supported by reasons. In philosophy two terms are used to understand arguments. These terms are premises and conclusions. A premise, or premises, are the reasons used to justify belief in a claim. A conclusion is the claim that the premises are trying to justify. Consider the following argument:

All humans will eventually die. I am a human. So, I’ll eventually die.

The claim being made is that I’ll eventually die. So, this is the conclusion. The reasons for believing that I’ll eventually die is that all humans will eventually die and that I am a human. So, these are the premises. The way we can tell which are the premises and which is the conclusion is by the language being used. The language in this argument is the word so. This is what is called a conclusion indicator. This is because whatever follows this word is the argument’s conclusion. Other words that can act as conclusion indicators are hence, thus, it follows that… and therefore. Now consider the same argument but said slightly differently:

I’ll eventually die, because I am a human and all humans will eventually die.

This time, the language used is the word because. This is a premise indicator, because what ever follows this word is the argument’s premise. Other words that can act as a premise indicator are ‘since’, ‘given that’, ‘as indicated by…’ and ‘seeing that…’. Once the premises and conclusion are established, philosophers will list them in heirarchical order to make the argument more clear. This is called putting the argument in standard form. This is the previous argument in standard form:

  • 1. All humans will eventually die
  • 2. I am a human
  • Therefore,
  • 3. I’ll eventually die

As you can see, number 1 and 2 are the argument’s premises listed at the top, and the word therefore is put between the last premise and number 3, to indicate that number 3 is the conclusion. Now test yourself on the following arguments by attempting to put them into standard form like shown above:

1.It’s raining outside, so I should stay in today.

2. Every time I shop on Saturdays there is no more cake left. My friend’s birthday is on Saturday and he loves cake. Hence, I need to go to shopping before Saturday.

3. We should stop and pull over soon, because we have been in the car for over 2 hours.

4. I should vote for another political party, since the party I voted for last time didn’t keep any of their promises.

So, this how we understand what arguments are. There must always be premises that aim to justify a conclusion. The conclusion is the overall claim being made, and the premises are the reasons to believe that overall claim. We look at the language being used to understand what the premises are and what the conclusion is. After that, we can list them in standard form to see the argument more clearly. Now that we understand what arguments are, the next post will discuss the reasons why we argue.

If you wish to ask any questions, seek clarification, raise some objections, or check how you went on the test questions, please write them in the comments section and I will try respond as soon as I can.

I highly recommend purchasing the book ‘Understanding arguments’ by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, which is available for purchase in the link below. If you do purchase the book via this link, you are helping support this webpage. Thank you.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

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