Argument commentary

We have now completed our survey of our basic concepts and procedures of argument analysis. By 'argument analysis' we mean a two-stage process; comprising first the reconstruction, then the assessment of the argument. At this point, we need to say a bit more about the final product of this process. When the analysis of an argument is undertaken, you may sometimes want to produce a piece of written work which summarises the analysis you have made. This should consist of three parts:

1 The argument as originally expressed.

2 The argument expressed in standard form.

3 A commentary on the argument, written in ordinary prose.

Generating 2 out of 1 is the stage of argument reconstruction; most of what was said in the previous chapter of this book is addressed to various sorts of difficulties commonly encountered in making that step. The concepts discussed in Chapter 1 also bear upon the step from 1 to 2, because, as explained earlier, the Principle of Charity enjoins us to reconstruct the argument in the most favourable way, and we need those concepts in order to determine exactly what that means.

What we have not yet discussed is 3. What this comes to is simply a written piece of work that covers the following points:

(i) A discussion of how and why the standard-form reconstruction was derived as it was, focusing especially on any problems encountered in the process. If any implicit premises (or any implicit conclusions) have been added, it should be explained why. If the conclusion or any premises have been reworded, it should be explained why (for example, it should be explained why an ambiguous sentence has been rewritten). In general, this section should include everything necessary to justify the given reconstruction. You have to explain why you have reconstructed the argument in the way that you have (but there is no need to state points which are simply obvious). Frequently, this will have to make mention of the likely intentions of the author of the original argument, and the context in which the argument was given.

(ii) A discussion of the validity or degree of inductive force of the argument. You have first to pronounce whether or not the argument is deductively valid. If it is not, you should explain why it is not (here, for example, you might use the method of refutation by counter-example). And if it is not, you should pronounce and explain to what degree, if any, the argument is inductively forceful. If the argument commits a fallacy, then you may identify it at this point, especially if the fallacy is a formal one.

(iii) A discussion and verdict concerning the truth-values of the premises. If the argument is deductively valid or inductively forceful, this will amount to a verdict regarding the soundness of the argument. It should be explained in detail which premises are most debatable, and why. Except where it is more or less obvious, these explanations must be substantive; actual reasons for accepting or doubting particular premises must be given. If the argument commits a substantial fallacy, then you would explain this here.

(iv) In the case of an inductively sound argument, you should also say whether or not the argument is defeated for you. An argument's being defeated for you is a fact about your relation to the argument, not a fact directly about the argument itself. By contrast, an argument's validity or inductive force (or lack of it), and its soundness (or lack of it), are matters concerning which there is a single right answer, a fact about the argument which is independent of the state of knowledge of particular people. Nevertheless, when our ultimate concern is with the truth-value of the conclusion of an argument, it is obviously relevant, when the argument is defeated for you, to point this out in your argument commentary. In other cases, however, we may be interested, not so much in the truth of the conclusion, but in the merits of the argument as given by the arguer. For example, Napoleon may have advanced an inductively sound argument for the conclusion that his army would prevail at Waterloo. That argument would be defeated for us, since we know that his army did not win. But if our concern were to assess Napoleon's reasoning, then still we could not do so on the grounds that his argument is defeated for us. We would have to show that the argument was not rationally persuasive for him - or at least not sufficiently rationally persuasive to justify risking the battle.

Note that these instructions do not tell you to specify whether or not the argument is rationally persuasive for you. The reason is this. What you are trying to assess is the argument - the argument as given by the original arguer. When you assert that an argument is sound - deductively or inductively - the only way that you could make that assertion but not find the argument rationally persuasive is where an inductively sound argument is defeated for you. If it is not defeated for you, then if you confidently assert that an argument is sound - that is, if you know that it is sound and undefeated for you - then you are already showing that you find it rationally persuasive for you to a high degree. So it would be redundant for you to say that the argument is rationally persuasive for you.

However, in some cases your belief in the premises may not be strong enough for you to pronounce confidently that the argument is sound. Or you may have some suspicion that the argument is defeated for you, but not so much that you do not think the conclusion probable. In either of those cases, you would say that you think that the argument is probably sound, and believe it not to be defeated for you (in the case of an inductive argument). In these cases it would be appropriate for you to say that the argument is rationally persuasive for you, and to explain why, despite your lack of complete confidence, you hold the argument to be sound and not defeated.

In some cases we fail to have a belief either way with respect to an argument's premises. What we should do in such a case, rather than arbitrarily committing ourselves to a soundness verdict, is to say that we cannot determine it because we are ignorant of the truth-values of the premises (again, one is, in such a case, showing that one finds the argument rationally unpersuasive). We should also explain, if we can, what we would need to find out in order to alleviate that ignorance.

Ideally, it is helpful to keep the discussions (i)-(iv) separate. However, this is not always practical. For example, we may justify a given reconstruction on the grounds that it is inductively more forceful than another possible reconstruction (following the Principle of Charity). So we would be jumping ahead to (iii) in the midst of (i). That is all right. The main thing is to ensure that all three tasks are completed, with as much clarity as possible.

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