In academic writing, the concept of argument has a very particular and technical meaning which is quite apart from the everyday usage of the term (of a disagreement or heated exchange). Here, an “argument” refers to a specific way of organising information so as to make logical connections between various claims. This method follows very specific rules, which are organised according to the conventions of logical reasoning. Argument, in this sense, then, is a philosophical concept which is applied by logicians. Of course, argument may also be employed in numerous other domains.
An academic argument in every instance will contain a set of propositions (statements expressing a concept which is either true or false) of which one, the conclusion, will necessarily follow from the others, the premisses (the propositions from which the conclusion derives). So, the premisses are presented as reasons for the conclusion.
This perhaps sounds somewhat complex, but it is actually quite straightforward. Let us break it down into simpler terms by exploring the practical example which follows.
Premise: If the student reads this article, they will better understand argumentation
Premise: The student has read this article.
Conclusion: Therefore the student now has a better understanding of argumentation.
Note how each constituent statement connects in logical order to the following one. Note, also, that the conclusion depends upon the premisses. That is, simply to say “therefore the student now has a better understanding of argumentation” is nonsensical without references to the preceding statements. These are the basic building blocks of an argument – and thus of an argumentative essay. An argument, as we can see, works to combine discrete pieces of information in a logical way.
There is an important distinction to be made when considering argumentation, and that is to do with valid as opposed to invalid arguments. This is a tricky subject so be cautious when dealing with it. In respect of argument (as a logical device) the concepts of validity and invalidity do not necessarily reflect on whether an argument is sound or unsound. Instead, they relate to the logical relationships between the premisses and the conclusion. So, an argument may well be properly structured, wherein the conclusion follows logically from the premisses, and yet still be unsound. We see this issue in the following argument:
If Dracula exists, then at least one vampire is real. Dracula exists. Therefore at least one vampire is real.
Now, the above argument is valid inasmuch as the respective statements relate to one another in a logical fashion. In other words, if both the premisses are true then the conclusion must also be true. This is what constitutes validity in argument. For, if Dracula did actually exist, then, indeed, logically speaking, at least one vampire must necessarily exist. However, Dracula does not exist; he is a fictional character invented by Bram Stoker. Accordingly, this argument is unsound: because one of the premisses is false (that Dracula exists). Nevertheless, the connection between the various parts of the argument is logical, thus the argument is valid – even though its premisses are false.
Do not worry if this seems confusing at first, it will begin to make sense with practice. As you start writing up your own argumentative essay, you will begin to discern the ways in which validity and invalidity shape an argument.
As another example, it is worth examining what an invalid argument looks like:
Dave owns a microphone. Singers own microphones. Therefore Dave must be a singer.
In this example, the argument is invalid because the premisses do not fit together logically with the conclusion. In other words, both premisses might be true and the conclusion could still be false. Just because Dave owns a microphone (as the first premise observes), it does not mean he is necessarily a singer. He might be a singer, but we cannot tell for sure simply from the content of this argument. If, however, the premise were to assert that “only singers” own microphones, then Dave, being a microphone-owner, would necessarily be a singer (thus the argument would be valid).
Again, the point is to look for logical relationships between the various statements which make up the argument. You need to be sure your arguments are both valid and sound; that they are logically constructed and do not contain false premisses.
A “fallacy” is a fancy word used by philosophers to denote a mistaken belief: in particular one based on unsound arguments. Fallacy is the enemy of good argumentation and needs to be guarded against. Philosophers have categorised a great variety of such fallacies, but space allows us only to examine a few. For example, the ad hominem (“to the man”) argument: this is where you attack the person delivering an idea as opposed to the idea itself. For instance, if we were to say the Chancellors Tax Credit scheme will not work because the Chancellor is a liar, we would be falling foul of the ad hominem fallacy. Another common fallacy is the “Argument from Authority”, where one bases one's truth claim on the status of the claimant (instead of the soundness of their argument). So, to suggest that “something is true because the Government says it is, and the Government would not lie” is an example of this fallacy. As we know Governments can, have and do lie all the time and about a good many things.
These are only two examples. An exhaustive list of fallacies can be found by following this link (http://www.logicalfallacies.info/). You do not need to memorise the list; but it is useful to be at least broadly aware of what fallacious reasoning is and how it functions.
When writing an essay, constructing a persuasive argument is indispensable to success. Good argument, as we have seen, is largely the result of following certain formulae. In many ways, making a sound argument is a paint-by-numbers kind of endeavour. You simply need to ensure that the premisses are true and that they connect logically to each other and the conclusion. Hence there is a highly systematic dimension to making an argument. Once you have mastered this method of organising information, you will be able to apply to just about any topic or phenomena you desire.
When making an argument, do so overtly. State in your essay what your premisses are, how they relate, and what this leads you to conclude (and why). In other words, bring the reader along on your thought process. This will position them on you vantage point, making them more likely to be convinced by you argument – which of course is the primary objective. If you follow the basic principles of argumentation set out above, then your reasoning will be water tight. This will make it very difficult to disagree with you position.
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