My son Ben has been studying critical thinking during lockdown. Today, he ties together a number of things he has been studying when he considers the importance of argumentation to a critical thinker.
To understand what an argument is or isn’t, the two most important things to know are: who it is the communication between, and what is the desired outcome. These might seem obvious, but if you know how to figure them out, you can quickly understand whether you’re listening to/participating in an argument or a fight, and also what kind of argument is taking place.
The difference between an argument and a fight is about everyone’s desired outcome. People having an argument want to find a solution, while opponents having a fight just want to win.
For instance, if you can deduce that an argument between you and a colleague has the desired outcome of finding a solution to gender neutral restrooms in your workplace, you know that your endeavor is collaborative rather than competitive. But if both sides just want to win and don’t care if anyone’s mind gets changed, you’re more likely having a fight.
Fights can involve physical violence, coercion or just use of statements that do little more than raise the temperature of the conversation. Using ethos in this context to get someone you’re debating with to feel comfortable with the tone of the conversation can be extremely valuable in ensuring argumentation and not fighting is occurring. As argument master Trevor Noah would say, “we’re just talking here.” Anytime the purpose of the argument is discarded from the sake of increased animosity, it becomes more and more of a fight.
Also, an argument doesn’t just have to be between two people. It could be a presentation of one-to-many, like a sermon where a preacher tries to convince a large group of people of something. In this case, one person is making an argument in which others do not have a chance to respond. An argument can also be many-to-one, like a petition where a group comes together to convince a single person or organization of something. An argument could also be made to an abstract and undefined group of people, like a thesis on the importance or unimportance of marriage as an institution that will be read by people the author may not know.
If you’re giving an argument, knowing who your real audience is allows you to focus on appealing to them. In a political debate, for example, an inexperienced politician might think that his goal is to convince his political opponent that he’s right, rather than gain votes from people viewing the debate (the real audience). If you’re on the receiving end of an argument, knowing who the real audience is can help you figure out if you’re being reasoned with or pandered to, or if you are really the intended audience at all.
Once you know the content of your argument, including the evidence you are using as premises and who the real audience is, you next need to figure out what kind of argument you’re actually having. Arguments can be broken down into three categories based on whether they deal with the past, present or future.
Arguments that deal primarily in the past are called forensic arguments where you uncover what has already occurred. These happen in places like courtrooms, police stations and, of course, Twitter. Forensic arguments aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In a courtroom, it makes sense to deal almost entirely with what happened, but in other situations only talking about the past robs everyone of their ability to move forward. If someone’s only argument against a presidential candidate is about their past behavior, for example, people who want to know what the future will be like if that candidate is elected might not be convinced.
Demonstrative arguments deal with the present. A demonstrative argument is a celebration, a denunciation, or merely a recognition of a present state. A speaker listing off a series of accolades at a graduation or a preacher speaking to his congregation about the horror of the current state of our nation are both making demonstrative arguments. But we usually discuss the present by talking about how we got there, or how we plan to go forward, so purely demonstrative arguments are rare.
Most important arguments are not about the past or present, but about the future. These are called deliberative arguments. A deliberative argument might mention things in the past and present, but it leans heavily on making suggestions that might solve a problem in the future. Since the goal of an argument is resolution, deliberative arguments over what to do in the future tend to be the most effective.
For example, on the timely topic of police brutality and violent protesting, a forensic argument might say something like “non-violent protesting has never solved any problem” while a demonstrative argument might list current injustices. But a deliberative argument, while not ignoring the past or present, would argue for ways to make the situation better, (through police procedural or prison reform for example).
Argumentation pulls together all the things I’ve been learning about, from how to create a logical argument that’s both valid and sound, to using modes of persuasion to make arguments compelling. Understanding your audience, understanding the type of arguments you are having, and distinguishing between an argument and a fight all impact how people will hear your arguments, and whether or not they will succeed.