24 August 2013

How to Structure an Argument

This post explores the structure for a basic argument. I plan to build upon this post in more detail in the future. For now, it is useful for readers to have a copy of the basic framework many others and I use to construct arguments. (The examples in this post are not legal; I do not want to complicate this simple framework with legal analysis. This approach may make the post vague, but it seems pertinent to start as simple as possible.)

1. What is an Argument?

An argument is a series of premises leading to a conclusion. Every element in the series is called a proposition. This becomes useful when arguments become more complex and require intermediate arguments to demonstrate a broader thesis, which is created in the overall product of an argument. There is no set number of steps in an argument, but without a minimum of two, the product may be illogical.

2. Thesis

Argument 1

  • Premise 1 = Proposition 1
  • Premise 2 = Proposition 2
  • Premise 3 = Proposition 3
  • Premise 4 = Proposition 4
  • Conclusion 1 = Proposition 5

Argument 2

  • Premise 1 = Proposition 6
  • Premise 2 = Proposition 7
  • Premise 3 = Proposition 8
  • Conclusion 2 = Proposition 9

Argument 3

  • Premise 1 = Proposition 10
  • Premise 2 = Proposition 11
  • Conclusion 3 = Proposition 12

Main Argument

Collecting the other conclusions…
  • Premise 1 = Argument 1 = Proposition 5 = Conclusion 1
  • Premise 2 = Argument 2 = Proposition 9 = Conclusion 2
  • Premise 3 = Argument 3 = Proposition 12 = Conclusion 3
  • Conclusion 4 = Proposition 13

3. Support Every Proposition

As I hope is evident in the above series, arguments are best when built with simple blocks that in turn may be used (themselves as simple blocks) to present a wider thesis. Each of these propositions must be supported, just as bricks must be cooked properly in a kiln and held together with suitable mortar.

The support in any essay may derive from preceding propositions' logic.

In law, however, support may also come from precedent. That is how law itself works: stare decisis validates propositions that have been asserted before. It is enough for most propositions simply to reference accurate precedent. Though a good argument will criticise the reference, suggest reform, or confirm the initial reasoning (especially in reference to and when applied to the instant argument).

4. Getting Propositions right

Propositions are strong or weak, depending on how much they claim. Imagine a scale between strong and weak. Good propositions are as close to 'strong' as possible, while close enough to 'weak' that they are not easily disputed. I explain this under three headings below.

4.1 Too Strong…

Imagine a premise which claims something about the bricks mentioned earlier: 'All bricks are perfect cuboids'. This is a strong claim--too strong, for the following reasons.
  1. If any brick in the world were a perfect cube, the claim is disproved.
  2. If a perfect cube were used for decoration for the same function as cuboid bricks (ie to build a house), the claim in the premise would not be consilient with that block's function. So the premise would be open to dispute.
  3. If a brick were found with rounded edges, it would still be a brick but not a perfect cuboid, and the premise would be disproved.
  4. The previous refutation holds true for bricks with chipped edges, too.
The premise's claim is too strong, therefore, because it is too easily disproved. When so much is claimed by a single premise, it is easy to find anomalies. Those anomalies destroy the premise's claim.

4.2 Too Weak…

Imagine another premise about the above mentioned bricks: 'Some bricks might have rectangular faces'. This premise is too weak because it does not say anything at all. It is trite. It is noncommittal.

Pointing to most houses in the UK will prove some bricks have rectangular faces. But the premise claims even less than this: 'might' implies the premise is true even if no bricks are found with rectangular faces.

This premise is therefore too weak because it does not claim enough. An argument will not develop or push forward if made from premises as weak as this. A series of such premises is not an argument but a series of flippant observations.

4.3 Just Right

Premises must be strong to ensure they actually make a claim worth making. But if they are too strong they are too easily disproved. Arguments made from strong premises but that do not commit to too much are best. For example 'All bricks in X architecture are proportionally rectangular'. This premise is strong because it claims something about certain bricks' shape and proportion. But the premise is weak enough because it only applies to a certain type of building, 'X architecture'.

In an argument about X architecture, if the premise is right it is brave enough to face potential criticisms and refutations; but the premise is not so trivial that no real claim is made. The premise here claims only as much as it needs to. That is what makes it just right.

5. Conclusions

I tried to show with easy-to-imagine examples how arguments are made from strong and weak premises. Premises may slide along the strong-weak scale, depending on their position in the argument. A respect for this structure will improve arguments in two clear ways.
  1. Arguments themselves are more persuasive when created with a good structure in mind.
  2. Arguments are stronger when they consider flaws and strengths in contrary arguments. This is possible when one knows others' arguments may be unpersuasive due to a reliance on too-strong or too-weak premises because one may specifically criticise those elements.
In future posts I will develop this framework to show how it is used in law to create persuasive arguments. I also intend to show how an argument may be created from scratch using this structure. These and other related posts will discuss other argumentation techniques such as syllogisms and logical fallacies.

6. Further Reading

The same reading from 'How to Write a Law Essay: Planning Time: Practical Steps' is relevant again, so I repeat it here with additions.

Bryan Greetham, How to Write Better Essays (3rd edn, Palgrave Macmillan 2013) contains good general advice.

Glanville Williams, Learning the Law (A.T.H. Smith (ed), 14th revised edn, Sweet & Maxwell 2010) contains good advice more relevant to law students.

Graham Priest, Logic: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2000) offers a pithy explanation of basic logic, as its title suggests.

A P Martinich, Philosophical Writing: An Introduction (3rd edn, Blackwell 2005). This is a brilliant book. One should aim to read it as early into one's higher or autodidactic education as possible. This book's method is applicable to law, philosophy, ethics, and other related arts, humanities, and social sciences, notwithstanding the title's narrowness.

The best type of further reading is simply good argument. Here are three contrasting examples from law-authors who disagree with each other but who each leave the reader persuaded the other two are wrong.
  1. Ronald Dworkin, Law's Empire (new edn, Hart 1998);
  2. HLA Hart, The Concept of Law (Leslie Green introduction, 3rd edn, OUP 2012);
  3. John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights (2nd edn, OUP 2011).

Created: 23 August 2013. Version 1.0.

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