Classical Rhetoric 101 – Basic Argument Structure

27 Sep

This is the first part of the series about classical rhetoric 101. I hope you will enjoy it and find some take aways. Let me know in the comments below.

Peter: Do you believe that dragons have ever lived?

Emily: Of course not. Do you?

Peter: Yes, of course.

Emily: How do you know that?

Peter: Because I just know.

Emily: But how do you know?

Peter: Because I believe it.

Emily: I don’t think they ever existed. Why should I be convinced by your believe?

Peter: Because I am right.

Emily: How do you know that?

Peter: Because I just know

I am sure you know that kind of conversation that is not going anywhere because one side believes in something, but that is no reason for the other side to believe in it as well. This is why the ability to formulate quality arguments that are able to convince others is very important. Good argumentation is one of the most fundamental skills you should develop and will highly affect your rhetorik and hence your ability to communicate your understanding of reality to other people.

When we bring forward arguments to support our believe we are connecting a series of statements, which we believe to be true, with the intent of formulating a proposition. Propositions can either be false or true. (questions and commands cannot be true or false) Just the answer to a questions can.

In order for these propositions to be understood and accepted by others they need to be cogent. Cogency is the highest quality of appealing to reason, hence cogent arguments make rational sense because they appeal to logic and not to e.g. hierarchical dominance. This is the reason why Peter’s argumentation fails to convince Emily.

But how can you formulate a cogent argument?

All cogent arguments follow this basic structure:

  1. Gather all information you know or think of as true about any given topic. The different bits of information you think of as true are called premises.
  2. Put together your information in a coherent way that leads to a conclusion. Order them in a way that makes sense
  3. End with a conclusion, that marks the end of the argument

This process is called interfering.

So with that knowledge, how would Emily’s and Peter’s conversation look like?

Peter: Do you believe that dragons have ever lived?

Emily: Of course not. Do you?

Peter: Yes, of course.

Emily: How do you know that?

Peter: Look, people write down things that they have experienced, and people have written

           about dragons. Therefore dragons must have existed at some point in history.

Emily: Well, that is an argument.

Even though Emily might not believe in dragons she can follow Peter’s line of argumentation and consider it because it sounds reasonable. You can see that Peter’s argument has two premises…

  1. people write down things that they have experienced
  2. people have written about dragons

and a conclusion:

  1. Therefore dragons must have existed at some point in history

However following this deductive structure doesn’t necessarily mean that you or your interlocutor have formulated a cogent argument. You must make sure that the path from premise to conclusion is a solid one.

 

Does the argument make sense in itself?

Does the conclusion come logically?

 

If you in fact agree that ‘people write down things that they have experienced, and people have written about dragons’, and that ‘therefore dragons must have existed at some point in history’, then Peter’s argument is valid.

If you think that the conclusion is not logical, then Peter’s argument is invalid.

 

But what if Peter’s premises are not true in the first place?

Even though his argument seems to be valid, his premises might not be true. Yes, people write about their experiences and yes people have written about dragons. But not everything people experience and write about is objectively true. So you could consider Peter’s premises as unsound, which means that the premises are untrue.

If you consider the premises on the other hand side to be true, then they are sound.

A cogent argument should have both, a sound premise and a valid conclusion and we should accept such arguments, even if we do not agree with them.

In the conversation between Emily and Peter, Peter’s argument seems to be valid, but his premises appear unsound. Therefore we shouldn’t agree with his argument even if it makes logical sense. It is not cogent.

 

But what about the daily life?

Most daily conversations with other people are not that well structured, and you probably don’t point out the fact that you are about to lay out your premises which will then be followed by a conclusion.

Everyday arguments often don’t even come in the form of a premise and conclusion. Sometimes the conclusion comes first followed by the premises.

Often times you may say things like ‘It is going to be warm and sunny today, because there are no clouds in the sky and the weather forecast for today was good.’

Your conclusion ‘It is going to be warm and sunny today: came first followed by your premises ‘there are no clouds in the sky’ and ‘the weather forecast for today was good’

But that is okay, as long as we can tell which are the premises and what is the conclusion.

Note the word ‘because’. Along with so, therefore, since, and other words they are good indicators that some kind of premise is going to be pointed out. They help to determine the structure – or lack of it – of an argument in a conversation.

Another indicator is when people ask you why you believe that something is true. These questions indicate that the one asking wants to hear your premises and how you got to the conclusion.

So just make a quick recap of what we have discussed.

In order for an argument to be understood and accepted by others it must be cogent, hence appeal to reason. It is a principle used to evaluate thinking. Cogency is achieved when the argument is valid, meaning that the connection of premises reaches a logical conclusion, and sound, that means the premises must be true. Premises and conclusions are certain types of sentences, which are called ‘propositions’. Propositions can either be true or false.

Easy isn’t it?

However this basic structure of argumentation is not as obvious in everyday conversation as in our example of Emily and Peter. Because, so, therefore, since, and other words are good indicators that some kind of premise is going to be pointed out and help to identify an argument in a conversation.

 

I hope you enjoyed this short article as much I enjoyed writing it.

I am excited to hear your thought, so please leave a comment!

 

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