Part One: Reasoning and Arguments

Chapter Two: What Makes an Argument?

“An argument isn’t just contradiction.”
“Can be.”
“No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Yes it is.”

—Monty Python, The Argument Clinic

TOPICS

  • Statements: The Building Blocks of Arguments
  • Statements That Offer a Reason for Belief
  • Statements That Do Not Offer a Reason for Belief
  • Implicit Statements
  • Complex Arguments

The goal of this chapter is to look closely at arguments so that you will be able to identify them and to pick out their premises and conclusions. As we saw in Chapter 1, arguments are models of reasoning that allow reasoning to be examined and evaluated. They are important because good reasoning is the way to get good answers to the questions you care about.

According to the definition provided in Chapter 1, an argument is a series of statements in which at least one of the statements is offered as reason for belief in another. This definition applies to a ; later in this chapter we will cover complex arguments, which link simple arguments together into chains.

Any statement, whether explicit or implicit, that is offered as a reason is a (sometimes spelled premiss by the British). As we saw in Chapter 1, we can also refer to premises as evidence, warrant, justification, basis, grounds, or rationale. The statement for which the reason is offered is the . There must be at least one premise (but there is no upper limit) and, in a simple argument, there is exactly one conclusion.[1]

Let’s look more carefully at two pieces of the definition: what statements are, and what it is to offer a reason for belief.

2.1 STATEMENTS: THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF ARGUMENTS

are sentences that can be true or false.[2] Most of the sentences in this book and most of the sentences you speak are statements. Here are two concrete examples:

Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most prominent first ladies in history.
A water molecule is made up of two hydrogen and two oxygen atoms.

Both of these statements can be true or false. The first is true, while the second is false.

The following four sentences do not count as statements for our purposes:

Oh, to be at the beach this afternoon!
Speak into the microphone.
Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?
I promise to return the money on Tuesday.

Read each of these and ask yourself if it is true or false. You will see that they aren’t quite like the sentences about water molecules and Eleanor Roosevelt. The first of the four can be sincere or insincere; the second can be obeyed or disobeyed; the third can be answered yes or no; and the fourth can be kept or broken. But none of them can be true or false.

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (a)

For each of these four nonstatements, create a new sentence at least loosely about the same topic that is a statement. (There could be many correct answers for each sentence.)

Sample exercise. Oh, to be at the beach this afternoon!

Sample answer. The beach will be crowded this afternoon.

  1. Oh, to be at the beach this afternoon!
  2. Speak into the microphone.
  3. Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?
  4. I promise to return the money on Tuesday.

2.1.1 The Form and the Function of Statements and Other Sentences

Statements typically exhibit a certain form. The usual form of a statement includes a subject—such as water molecule—and a property, or a trait, attributed to that subject—such as being made up of two hydrogen and two oxygen atoms. (More rarely, statements assert an identity instead of attributing a property; that is, they assert that two different names pick out the same thing, as in the sentence Santa Claus is St. Nick.)

Statements, in addition, fulfill a certain function, namely the function of conveying information. The statement Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most prominent first ladies in history conveys information about a historical figure; as noted above, we can usually evaluate this information, depending on our store of knowledge or our commitment to researching it, as either true or false.

Sentences that are not statements serve a wide variety of other nondeclarative functions. Some sentences are —that is, they function to express strong and sudden emotion, as in the sentence:

Oh, to be at the beach this afternoon!

Some sentences are —that is, they direct others to action. The following sentence is imperative:

Speak into the microphone.

Others are —that is, they serve to ask a question. Consider, for example, the following:

Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?

Still other sentences serve a function; by asserting certain things under the right circumstances, they enable you thereby to do, or perform, those things. Examples include:

I promise to return the money on Tuesday.
I resign from this committee.
I apologize for what I said.
I categorically deny all allegations.

A single sentence can serve more than one function. This means that a sentence not in the form of a statement might nevertheless function as a statement. Note the following question:

Don’t you know that I love you?

It is not in the form of a statement, but of a question—its form, then is interrogative, not declarative. But in the right circumstances it can function both to ask and to tell. So it not only serves its explicit interrogative function, but it also serves a declarative function—that is, it also functions as a statement.

Here is a sentence that might be thought to serve all five functions:

For the last time I ask you to tell me your name!

On a fairly generous interpretation, you might find these functions:

Declarative, since it conveys the information that this is the last time.
Exclamatory, since it expresses strong emotion—exasperation, to be
specific.
Imperative, since it directs another person to action.
Interrogative, since it asks for your name.
Performative, since by virtue of asserting “I ask,” I do ask.

Often you need to know more about the context to determine whether a sentence is serving as a statement. It is often necessary to see a larger section of the passage in which it is written, or to hear a larger part of the conversation in which it is spoken, or to know more in general about the circumstances surrounding the expression of the sentence. Suppose, for example, you are asked, Is the beach pleasant this afternoon? Some possible answers might be:

Oh, to be at the beach this afternoon!
Is the beach pleasant this afternoon?
Whatever you do, go to the beach this afternoon.
Yes.

None of these sentences is cast in the form of a statement. And in other contexts each might function quite differently. In this context, however, each sentence is clearly intended to serve the same declarative function as the statement,

The beach is pleasant this afternoon.

For identifying arguments, what matters most is the function served by the sentences; so, in defining an argument as a series of statements, the term statement is meant to include sentences that function declaratively, whether they take that form or not.

Guideline.  For the purpose of identifying arguments, consider a sentence a statement if it serves a declarative function.

Five Functions Served by Sentences

  1. Declarative—conveys information.
  2. Exclamatory—expresses emotion.
  3. Imperative—directs others to action.
  4. Interrogative—asks a question.
  5. Performative—does things by virtue of saying them.

Only those sentences serving a declarative function count as statements.

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (b)

Identify the form and function of each of the sentences below. Where you can see more than one function, briefly explain each. Assume there is nothing unusual about the context.

Sample exercise. Please remember that this is a sonata for piano, not pianist.

—Mieczyslaw Horszowksi, rebuking one of his students.

Sample answer. Form is imperative. Function is imperative (telling to remember) and declarative (giving information about playing it).

  1. Didn’t you hear that class was canceled?
  2. I now pronounce you man and wife.
  3. How could he say that and expect us to believe him?
  4. Hooray for the Tigers!
  5. We ask that you keep your personal items below your seats during take-off.
  6. “Why don’t you just stop annoying people,” —George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life
  7. “This is the best story ever written.” —W.H.D. Rouse, in his preface to Homer’s Odyssey
  8. “All the news that’s fit to print.” —slogan of the New York Times
  9.  “Don’t live life without it.” —slogan of American Express
  10. “To succeed in this world, you have to change all the time.” —Sam Walton, Sam Walton: Made in America

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (c)

(i) Make up a sentence in each of these forms, then (ii) explain how it might be used to serve the declarative function.

Sample exercise. Performative.

Sample answer. (i) I promise to be home on time. (ii) Suppose you ask me, “Will you or will you not be home on time tonight?” I might reply “I promise to be home on time” in part to communicate the declarative I will be home on time.

  1. Interrogative
  2. Exclamatory
  3. Imperative
  4. Performative

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (d)

Consider the declarative sentence The price is too high. Provide four other sentences that are not in declarative form that serve the same declarative function. Use at least two different nondeclarative forms.

2.2 STATEMENTS THAT OFFER A REASON FOR BELIEF

2.2.1 The Reason Need Not Be Good

What matters in identifying an argument is not whether the premise succeeds in supporting the conclusion, but whether it is intended to support it—whether, as our definition puts it, a statement is offered as a reason to believe another statement. When the premise succeeds in supporting the conclusion, that can make it easier to see that it is an argument. But success is not what makes it an argument.

The story is told of a professor, walking across campus, who stops a student to ask, “Excuse me, in what direction am I headed?” When the bemused student replies, “North,” the professor smiles and says, “Ah, then I’ve had my lunch.” It is hard to see how the premise I am headed north supports the conclusion I have had my lunch, but he considers it a reason, and that makes the series of statements an argument.

Or consider the account of Denis Diderot, 18th century French intellectual and atheist, who in 1773 was staying at the Russian court in St. Petersburg, where he entertained and educated the nobility. Fearing that Diderot was undermining their religious faith, Catherine the Great commissioned Leonhard Euler, the most distinguished mathematician of the time, to debate him publicly. Euler, so the story goes, began with this argument.

A squared minus B squared equals A minus B times A plus B; therefore, God exists. Reply!

Diderot, we are told, left the court abruptly amid the laughter of the audience, confined himself to chambers, demanded safe conduct, and promptly returned to France. It is hard to see how Euler’s premise about A and B has any connection to the conclusion that God exists, but it is offered as a reason, and so we take the series of statements as an argument.

It may be that in the professor’s or Euler’s case there really is a worthwhile argument waiting to be appreciated once we figure out what the implicit premises are. Perhaps the professor’s routine is so invariable, and his autopilot so effective, that he feels confident in deducing his past action from his present direction. Perhaps Euler believes that mathematical truths cannot be true unless there is a God to make them true. But in other cases the argument is clearly beyond redemption. Members of the Israel Antiquities Authority were incensed when the Huntington Library in southern California decided to release to the public its photographs of the Dead Sea Scrolls, breaking the authority’s 40-year monopoly over the scrolls. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Bruce Zuckerman, the acting director of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center, said he was concerned that someone might depict the Dead Sea Scrolls on T-shirts. Because of such a disrespectful possibility, Zuckerman would preserve the secrecy imposed by the team of editors that has controlled access for the last 40 years.

Not only is the danger of disrespectful T-shirts a terrible reason for preserving secrecy (should we suppress photographs of Gandhi and Mother Theresa as well?), but also it is doubtful that it is Zuckerman’s real reason. Nevertheless, he offers it as a reason for believing his conclusion, and that is enough to count the series of statements as an argument.

Guideline.  Count it as an argument even if the reasons offered seem clearly to be bad ones.

2.2.2 Inference Indicators

Given the frequent absence of good reasons for belief, what tells us that an argument is even being offered? Perhaps the best sign of an argument is the presence of an , a term that frequently signifies the presence of an —that is, of movement from premises to conclusion. (An old-fashioned word for inference indicator, illative, comes from a form of the Latin word for infer.)

Note this hasty bit of reasoning by Christopher Hitchens in Harper’s:

Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.

The highlighted terms suggest that a reason for belief is being offered, and they help us to figure out where the premise is (after the word since) and where the conclusion is (after the words the . . . conclusion is).

Some other inference indicators that introduce a premise are highlighted in the sentences below:

Since you said it, it must be true.
Because he is being so sweet, you know he’s about to ask for money.
Spring is coming early, for the crocuses are already in bloom.
I can tell that she will accept the job offer; my reason is that I heard her talking to a moving company yesterday.
I think that the butler did it, on account of his fingerprints on the weapon.

A common pitfall in identifying indicators is to suppose that if is an inference indicator that introduces a premise. Suppose, for example, I say,

If the Dow Jones Industrial Average doubles this week, then you will be rich.

This looks a bit like an argument in which the premise is The Dow Jones Industrial Average doubles this week and the conclusion is You will be rich. But this argument—You will be rich, because the Dow Jones Industrial Average will double this week—expresses much more confidence about your imminent wealth than the sentence If the Dow Jones Industrial Average doubles this week, then you will be rich. Premises are held to be true by the arguer. But an arguer who uses if is not asserting that what comes between if and then is true but is only asking us to suppose for the moment that it is true. I am not offering you a reason to believe you will be rich (unless in a separate sentence, I do, without the if, state that the Dow will double this week). It is true that ifthen statements do occur often in arguments (Chapter 11 is devoted to such arguments), but these statements can be either premises or conclusions. So, if is not useful as an inference indicator that introduces a premise.

The following are examples of inference indicators that introduce the conclusion:

You said it, therefore it must be true.
He is being sweet; thus, you know he’s about to ask for money.
The crocuses are already in bloom; consequently, spring is coming early.
I heard her talking to a moving company yesterday; it follows that she will accept the job offer.
These are the butler’s fingerprints; hence the butler did it.

In addition, two old-fashioned inference indicators are left over from the days when Latin was the dominant European academic language. Ergo is the Latin term for therefore, as in the sentence You said it, ergo it must be true.  And Q.E.D. is the acronym for the Latin phrase quod erat demonstrandum (or, which was to be demonstrated); it is placed after the conclusion, as in, You said it. It is true. Q.E.D.

The list of inference indicators is seemingly endless; we have covered only a few of the most common ones. Note a less conventional one in this statement:

Rastafarians smoke the herb “ganga” or marijuana as part of their religious rites, citing Psalms 104:14: “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.”

Citing is the inference indicator here. What we cite is typically support, so the term indicates that the premise is coming up—the premise (true or false) that the Bible approves of the use of marijuana.

Guideline.  When possible, identify premises and conclusions by the location of inference indicators.

Some Inference Indicators

Before Premises Before Conclusions
Since Therefore
Because Thus
For Hence
My reason is So
On account of Consequently
The justification is What this justifies is
Is confirmed by Confirms
It follows from It follows that

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (e)

Construct a simple argument using each of the following inference indicators. State in each case whether it introduces a premise or a conclusion.

Sample exercise. is confirmed by.

Sample answer. That he is impractical is confirmed by the fact that he never bought car insurance. (It introduces a premise.)

  1. it follows that
  2. confirms
  3. the justification is
  4. on account of
  5. so
  6. for

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (f)

Identify the inference indicator in each of the following short passages and state whether it introduces the premise or the conclusion. Two of the passages do not have an inference indicator (these two are not arguments). Identify them as well.

Sample exercise. “I do not want war, but if it is forced upon me I will win because I have always won.” —Napoleon to the Russian ambassador

Sample answer. Because; introduces the premise.

  1. The gauge is low, so we’re low on gas.
  2. My sense that he doesn’t like me was confirmed by his refusal to talk to me at the party.
  3. The way he is dragging his feet shows that he isn’t in very good shape.
  4. The recent crime statistics in the newspaper are my reason for believing that my neighborhood is safe.
  5. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
  6. The church-burnings are intended to cripple the spiritual lives of thousands of blacks. But amid the destruction they persist, showing that a church exists in its people, not in a wooden frame or pulpit.
  7. “The saddening syllogism of Marshall Herff Applewhite and his followers seems to have gone like this: we think that an alien spaceship is trailing the comet; observation through a capable telescope shows no such spaceship; therefore, let’s get rid of the telescope.” —New Yorker
  8. “Because normal two- to four-celled embryos have no differentiated organs or nervous systems, they cannot be harmed by cloning or other research manipulations.” —John Robertson, Chronicle of Higher Education
  9. “Still obsessed by thoughts of death, I brood constantly. I keep wondering if there is an afterlife, and if there is will they be able to break a twenty.” —Woody Allen, Without Feathers
  10. “If you believe the doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe.” —Lord Salisbury, at the end of the 19th century
  11. “Fiercer far than the light which beats upon a throne is the light which beats on a presidential candidate, searching out all the recesses of his past life. Hence, when the choice is between a brilliant man and a safe man, the safe man is preferred.” —James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, 1888
  12. When asked how he could justify getting confessed murderers off, Texas criminal lawyer Percy Foreman said, in his rolling tones, “Mah fees are their punishment.” —Henry Rothblatt, That Damned Lawyer

2.2.3 When There Are No Inference Indicators

Arguers don’t always supply inference indicators to help you find your way around. This leaves you in the dark if the logic of the argument is bad—that is, if there is no plausible connection between premises and conclusion. But otherwise, you should still be able to make your way.

Bernie Smith, a train buff who manages a model railroad store in Kansas City, was asked about the possibility that cabooses might be eliminated from trains for economic reasons. He offered this argument:

I think they should keep the cabooses. What’s a train without a caboose? People are used to seeing a red caboose tagged on the end and someone waving at them.

Without inference indicators in Bernie Smith’s argument, how are you to find the premises and conclusion?

Here is a helpful, but not foolproof, suggestion. In the absence of inference indicators look for the most controversial statement in the argument; it is usually the conclusion. Then test it out either mentally or on a piece of paper by placing the word therefore in front of the statement. If it sounds right in this form, you’ve found the conclusion. This often works because arguments typically use the familiar as grounds for accepting the new. Premises are usually easier to accept than the conclusion, since the premises are not supposed to be what is in question; the conclusion is. The conclusion, presumably, becomes plausible because it follows from the already plausible premises.

This technique is easy to apply to Bernie Smith’s argument. There’s nothing surprising about this statement:

People are used to seeing a caboose at the end of the train.

But this one is less obviously true:

They should keep the cabooses.

And it sounds right if we insert therefore in front of it; it, then, is the conclusion.

Here’s another argument with no inference indicator, provided by an aide to the astronaut and American hero John Glenn when Glenn was running for president. The aide, speaking anonymously to reporter Morton Kondracke about whether Glenn would make a good president, said this:

It’s great to have Glenn with you. He’s indefatigable when he homes in on one issue. But he doesn’t see the forest or even the trees, only branches and twigs. He’s a responder and not a leader. He has no coherent vision. He would be a symbol, not a man of substance. He would not be a good president.

Our technique of looking for the most controversial statement is not as useful here. Because we have no knowledge of Glenn’s political capability, it is hard to tell whether any of the statements is substantially more controversial than the others. But arguments, as already noted, often occur in the context of answering questions. This suggests another technique: look in the wider context for the question being asked; the argument’s conclusion is usually a proposed answer to that question. In this case, the wider context is a media interview in which the aide was asked whether he believed that Glenn would be a good president. Glenn’s aide is giving reasons for his answer:

John Glenn would not be a good president.

And, again, inserting therefore in front of it does sound right. That statement is the conclusion.

Notice that the conclusion is the first sentence in the caboose example; in the John Glenn example, it is the last. First and last are the two places where a conclusion is most likely to be found, though it could, in principle, be found anywhere.

Guideline.  When there are no inference indicators, look for the most controversial statement in the argument; if one can be readily identified, it is usually the conclusion.
Guideline.  When there are no inference indicators, look in the wider context for the question being asked; the proposed answer to it is usually the conclusion.

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (g)

For each argument below, identify the conclusion. If there are inference indicators, identify them, and state whether they introduce premises or conclusions.

Sample exercise. Definitions cannot, by their very nature, be either true or false, only more useful or less so. For this reason it makes relatively little sense to argue over definitions. —Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy

Sample answer. Conclusion: It makes relatively little sense to argue over definitions. Inference indicator: for this reason (referring to the reason that has just been given), introduces the conclusion.

  1. You aren’t my real mother. Documents in the Hall of Records show that I was adopted.
  2. Everybody expects the band to come back on stage for an encore, since in their other concerts they have always saved their old hits for the finale.
  3. I’m sick of hearing my friends telling me to get a life and to spend my time somewhere besides escape rooms. Hey, I have a life. As long as I’m living, I have a life.
  4. What’s that shimmering on the highway? Well, there is no water in this desert. It’s got to be a mirage.
  5. Dade County, which includes Miami, is the best place in America to be a criminal. It has the nation’s worst crime rate and does the laziest job of putting criminals behind bars. —Miami Herald
  6. “We’re waste managers,” said the CEO of Chem Waste. “So, if the business moves to more services and processing, we’ll move with it.” —Forbes
  7. Those who oppose euthanasia buttress their case by pointing to the rare patients that have been given up for dead but inexplicably survived. —U.S. News and World Report (Note that this passage contains an argument, but does not advocate it—it merely reports on it.)
  8. “We are describing the first one of a new phylum,” Higgins says. “If Loricifera is not a new phylum, then it must be assigned elsewhere, and there is no satisfactory elsewhere for it.” —Science News
  9. “I believe in turning our attention to things of importance—to questions that may by some possibility be solved. It is of no importance to me whether God exists or not. I exist, and it is important to me to be happy while I exist. Therefore, I had better turn my attention to finding out the secret of happiness, instead of trying to ascertain the secret of the universe.” —Robert Ingersoll, Ingersoll: Immortal Infidel
  10. “I believe there will be a new crusade with Jesus Christ as the commander-in-chief who will bring our nation back to greatness,” he continued. Wickstrom, head of the fundamentalist and paramilitary group Posse Comitatus, went on to say that the targets of the crusade would be Jews, “so they better get the hell down to Brazil or anywhere else that will have them.” —Los Angeles Times

2.3 STATEMENTS THAT DO NOT OFFER A REASON FOR BELIEF

Now that we have determined what it is that makes an argument, let’s look at a few things that do not. We will here rule out three of the many kinds of statements that sometimes look as though they may be arguments, but are not: mere assertions, mere illustrations, and mere explanations.

2.3.1 Mere Assertions

Arguments are probably far more common than you have previously thought, but you should not expect now to find arguments in everything you hear or read. Most forms of communication are in part an attempt to influence beliefs, but they do not always use arguments to do so, nor should they. A journalist, for example, is not typically expected to argue that unemployment is down; a teacher does not normally argue that agricola is the Latin word for farmer; and I need not argue that I was born in California and did most of my growing up in Georgia. Merely asserting such things—just saying them—is usually good enough to get others to believe them.

In other cases, however, ideas are asserted without reasons—sometimes with great fervor—and it isn’t good enough. Note this passage from a speech by Robert Ingersoll, 19th century American orator and lawyer:

I do believe in the nobility of human nature. I believe in love and home, kindness and humanity. I believe in good fellowship and cheerfulness, in making wife and children happy. I believe in good nature, in giving to others all of the rights that you claim for yourself. I believe in free thought, in reason, observation, and experience. I believe in self-reliance and in expressing your honest thought. . . . Above all, I believe in liberty.

There is no argument here, no reason offered in support of the beliefs Ingersoll expresses. This does not mean that his beliefs are immune from evaluation; as we will see in Chapter 9, there is much to be said about how to evaluate statements that are not themselves argued for. But they are not to be evaluated as arguments.

Guideline.  If a series of statements is merely an attempt to influence belief without offering reasons, do not count it as an argument.

2.3.2 Mere Illustrations

Passages intended merely to illustrate a point might also look a bit like arguments. But they would normally be bad arguments; and, as we will see in the discussion of the principle of charity in Chapter 3, it is usually preferable to take them as good illustrations rather than as bad arguments. There are usually clues to mere illustrations, such as for example, for instance, and is illustrated by. I am providing a verbal picture, not making an argument, if I say, “Charlie Parker is a good example of the fine line between artistic genius and insanity.” Similarly, Mark Twain provides us with this in Pudd’nhead Wilson:

There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless. Observe the ass, for instance: his character is about perfect, he is the choicest spirit among all the humbler animals, yet see what ridicule has brought him to. Instead of feeling complimented when we are called an ass, we are left in doubt.

The ass is not trotted out as reason to believe the first sentence, but as a way of making its point more vivid. It is better to take the passage merely as an illustration, not as an argument. As the old Yiddish saying puts it, “For example is no proof.”

The distinction between mere illustration and argument is not always clear-cut. Suppose you overhear this remark:

White Southerners are racists. Take David Duke.

Is this an argument, generalizing from a premise about a single case, David Duke, to a conclusion about an entire population, white Southerners (an important sort of argument called inductive generalization that will be covered later in the book)? Or is it merely an illustration? There is no clear way in this case to tell. You could probably tell if you heard more of the conversation. If the listener, for example, had just said, “I don’t understand exactly what you mean. What sort of racism do you have in mind?” then it is clearly an illustration. But if the listener had just said, “Why should I accept such a sweeping indictment of a huge part of our population?” then it is clearly an argument. For this would make it clear that the speaker is offering a reason for belief.

Guideline.  Do not count a series of statements as an argument if it merely offers an attempt to make a statement easier to understand—that is, if it is a mere illustration. Terms like for example, for instance, and is illustrated by typically introduce mere illustrations.

2.3.3 Mere Explanations

Often reasons are given to provide a causal explanation of some state of affairs, not to offer reason for belief in some statement. If I point to my watch and angrily say, “Because you couldn’t read the darn map, we’re going to be late,” my statement is not providing a reason to believe we are late; we both already know that. I’m merely identifying the cause of our being late. Consider this explanation:

In the 19th century, British jurists sought to modify the laws permitting a husband to “chastise his wife with any reasonable instrument” by dictating that the instrument be “a rod not thicker than his thumb.” Hence the rule of thumb.

This passage points to the cause behind the existence of the phrase rule of thumb. It does not offer a reason to believe that such a phrase exists; it is a commonly used phrase and no fluent English speaker doubts its existence. The first sentence of the passage is not a premise; it refers to a cause. And the second sentence is not the conclusion; it refers to the effect. The passage is not an argument; it is a mere causal explanation.

Terms that serve as inference indicators can also occur in mere explanations (where they are no longer inference indicators). So and hence, for instance, are used in the two preceding examples not to indicate movement from premise to conclusion, but movement from cause to effect. The same goes for inference indicators that typically introduce premises. A psychologist, for example, asks this on a talk show:

Did you ever wonder why people are more likely to laugh out loud when they are with others than when they are alone? Because, among other things, laughing announces “I got it,” and in an empty room, they’d be announcing to nobody.

The psychologist is not providing us with a reason to believe that we more readily laugh out loud when we are with others; he assumes that we already know it or that we’ll recognize it by reflecting briefly on our own experience. When we do realize it, it strikes us as curious. Why would it make any difference whether the room is empty or not? This leads to the explanation offered in the passage, with because used to introduce a cause—the fact that laughter functions as a signal to others that a joke has been understood—not a premise.

There is one way in which premises in arguments are sometimes the opposite of the causes in mere causal explanations. In arguments, recall, the movement from premises to conclusion is typically from the familiar to the new. But in mere explanations, the movement from cause to effect is often from the new to the familiar—from, for example, the surprising and unfamiliar origin of a phrase in British law (the cause) to the well-known everyday phrase rule of thumb (the effect).

Guideline.  Do not count a series of statements as an argument if it offers merely a causal explanation of a state of affairs. If the statements show the familiar following from the new, and if the new is not offered as a reason to believe the familiar, it is probably a mere explanation.

Some Attempts to Influence Beliefs That Are Not Arguments

  1. Mere assertions
  2. Mere illustrations
  3. Mere explanations

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (h)

None of the passages below is an argument. Study each one, satisfy yourself that it is not an argument, and state which of the three it is: mere assertion, mere illustration, or mere explanation.

Sample exercise. “A recent report in Advertising Age tells how English-speaking visitors to Tokyo are amused by Pocket Wetty premoistened towelettes, Green Piles lawn fertilizer, Cow Brand shampoo, Shot Vision television sets, Kitchy soup mix, More Ran tea cakes, Trim Pecker trousers, and Creap, an artificial coffee creamer. Calpis is not bovine urine, but a soft drink. Nail Remover is actually a fingernail cleaner. The reason for the odd names is usually a lack of marketing research.” —Psychology Today

Sample answer. Mere explanation.

  1. The car wouldn’t start because it was out of gas.
  2. The first company to market a new product isn’t always the company that makes all the money. Kodak, for example, was first with digital photography.
  3. Year in and year out, the people who succeed are those who work the hardest, regardless of their talent. I urge this view upon you with all of my heart.
  4. “When a given name is in the long form, it is often set aside in social use for a less proper version, but it is rare that someone legally named Frank will go around calling himself Francis. This illustrates that formal names are often the starting point for shorter forms, but the reverse is not true.” —Daniel Dorff, Verbatim
  5. “Question to the UCLA Chancellor: The conference Board of Associated Research Councils has recently released its survey results which ranked UCLA in the top five universities in the country. What factors do you think contribute to this kind of academic success? Answer: The basic reason is the quality of the faculty. It is also a tribute to the support that the University has been given by the state of California, the people of California, and the Los Angeles community. This support has provided increased research teaching opportunities and facilities.” —UCLA Monthly
  6. “I don’t like depressing pictures. I don’t like pestholes. I don’t like pictures that are dirty. I don’t ever go out and pay money for studies in abnormality. I don’t have depressed moods and I don’t want to have any. I’m just happy, very happy.” —Walt Disney
  7. “As a general rule, when the truth of a theory is judged not with reference to the facts but according to the state of mind of some unique figure of authority, then what you have is not a discipline but a cult. This kind of authority-based theorizing is what typically turns academic fields into swamps of self-referential babble that have no meaning for those on the outside.” —Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth
  8. “Our capacity for identification and sympathy goes out most readily to non-human characters. Think of Bambi or the Little Engine That Could. Melville intended Moby-Dick to be the symbol of universal evil, and instead we find ourselves rooting for him against one-legged Captain Ahab.” —New Yorker
  9. “I don’t know where the thought came from or how it struck me, yet all at once I said to myself, ‘But God doesn’t exist!’ It’s quite certain that before this I must have had new ideas about God and that I had begun solving the problem for myself. But still, as I remember very well, it was on that day and in the form of a momentary intuition, that I said to myself ‘God doesn’t exist.’ It’s striking to reflect that I thought this at the age of eleven and that I never asked myself the question again until today, that is to say for sixty years.” —Simone de Beauvoir quoting Jean Paul Sartre, Harpers
  10. “My pedagogy is hard. What is weak must be hammered away. In my fortresses of the Teutonic Order, a young generation will grow up before which the world will tremble. I want the young to be violent, domineering, undismayed, cruel. There must be nothing weak or gentle about them. The free, splendid beast of prey must once again flash from their eyes. I want my young people strong and beautiful.” —Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (i)

Take the topic of taxes and construct statements of the following sort.

Sample exercise. Mere explanation.

Sample answer. Because the politicians cannot control their spending, taxes have to go higher and higher.

  1. Mere assertion
  2. Mere illustration
  3. Mere explanation
  4. Simple argument

2.3.4 Arguments and Explanations Sometimes Overlap

As we have seen, any series of statements could potentially be used as an argument if at least one of the statements were offered as reason to believe another. So even a series of statements offered as a causal explanation could at the same time be used as an argument—and thus would no longer be a mere causal explanation. The cause could be the premise, or the cause could be the conclusion. There is nothing tricky to worry about. The standard rule continues to apply: a statement is the conclusion if a reason is being offered to believe it. And the tips for identifying it are no different: it is probably the conclusion if it answers the question being asked in the broader passage; if it is the least familiar, most controversial, of the statements; or if clear inference indicators point to it.

Here is an example of a cause as a conclusion from Alan Abelson, a financial reporter for Barron’s, written on one of his more lighthearted days:

Very often a company comes to market with an initial public offering, boasting a classy record of earnings growth. Then, the very next year, profits take a strange tumble. Obviously, logic impels us to the conclusion that the reason profits took a tumble was because the company went public.

There is clearly a causal explanation here; the tumble in profits (the effect) results from the company’s going public (the cause). But there is also an argument; note the clear inference indicator logic impels us to the conclusion that. The conclusion—Profits often fall because companies go public—includes the cause. And the premises include the effects—Profits often fall the year after companies go public. The effects, Abelson suggests, give us evidence of a particular cause. Arguments of this sort—explanatory arguments—are quite common and will be covered in depth in Chapter 16.

On the other hand, here is an example of a cause as a premise, found in Manage, a magazine geared toward business executives:

Today’s doctors tell us that a hearty laugh is great exercise. When you emit an explosive guffaw, they say, your diaphragm descends deep into your body and your lungs expand, greatly increasing the amount of oxygen being taken into them. At the same time, as it expands sideways, the diaphragm gives your heart a gentle, rhythmic massage. That noble organ responds by beating faster and harder. Circulation speeds up. Liver, stomach, pancreas, spleen and gall bladder are all stimulated—your entire system gets an invigorating lift. All of which confirms what that sage old Greek, Aristotle, said about laughter more than 2,000 years ago: “It is a bodily exercise precious to health.”

This argument offers a reason to believe the conclusion,

Laughing is good exercise.

Note the inference indicator confirms, which precedes the conclusion. But at the same time the premises offer a causal explanation—of what causes laughter to be good exercise. (Even, apparently, in an empty room.) So this passage serves both as argument and explanation, with premises doubling as causes and conclusion as effect.

Use of cause as premise is most obvious when the effect being explained is itself a belief. Suppose I say the following:

I believed it was murder because the coroner’s report said so.

In a case like this, there seems to be hardly any difference between saying that the coroner’s report caused me to believe it was murder and saying that the statement The coroner’s report said so serves as a premise for the statement It was murder. It is both an argument and a causal explanation. It would be quite a different matter had I said:

I believed that it was murder because my enemies put me under a magic spell.

This explains what caused the belief, but makes no mention of any reason I had for believing it (presumably I had no reason). So it is merely a causal explanation, not an argument.

Guideline.  Count causal explanations as arguments when they also offer a reason for belief—whether the effect is offered as reason to believe the cause, or the cause is offered as reason to believe the effect. In such cases they are not mere explanations.

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (j)

Determine whether each of the following includes an argument or is a mere explanation. Defend your answers.

Sample exercise. I saw him treat person after person with respect. That forced me to change my mind, and to believe that he was a decent person after all.

Sample answer. Includes an argument, since his treatment of others is cited as a reason to believe he is a decent person.

  1. Pushing this button causes that red light to flash.
  2. You can tell that pushing this button causes that red light to flash, since—look—it flashes every time I push the button, but otherwise it is unlit.
  3. What caused all the dominoes to fall down? Well, the first domino hit the second one, the second hit the third, and so on—thus, all the dominoes fell down.
  4. Why should I believe that all of the dominoes will fall down? Well, the first one will hit the second one, the second will hit the third, and so on—thus, all the dominoes will fall down.

2.4 Implicit Statements

This chapter expands on the definition of a simple argument as a series of statements in which one of the statements is offered as reason for belief in another. We have seen how sentences not cast in the declarative form can still function as statements, hence as building blocks of arguments. Sometimes, too, arguments rely on , statements that are not spoken or written in any form but are implied or assumed. Note the following argument reported in the obituary of Roy Sullivan, who had killed himself with a shotgun:

Roy Sullivan, a retired forest ranger, was hit by lightning seven times and survived. He was baffled by his misfortune and speculated that the chemical makeup of his body in some way attracted lightning. “I don’t believe God is after me,” he told an interviewer. “If he was, the first bolt would have been enough.”

At the end of the passage, Sullivan offers an argument to rule out the explanation that God was after him. (Assume that he means what most people mean by God—that he is an all-powerful being.) His conclusion is this:

God is not after me.

And his stated reason—his premise—is this:

If God were after me, the first bolt of lightning would have killed me.

But there is another reason that must be combined with this one to get to the conclusion—an unexpressed and thus implicit premise—that Sullivan obviously assumes:

The first bolt of lightning did not kill me.

It would have been silly for him to state it—after all, Sullivan was alive when he offered the argument.

An arguer can have many reasons for leaving a premise or conclusion implicit. Sullivan’s is the most common one—he considers the premise so obvious that there is no need to express it, since it would be pedantic or insulting to do so. But this is not the only possible reason. The arguer may not have thought through the argument carefully enough to be aware of the assumption. Or the arguer, fully aware of the assumption, may be suppressing it to deceive you.

Burger King’s very first TV advertising campaign featured a jingle with these words:

The bigger the burger, the better the burger; the burgers are bigger at Burger King.

In this case it is the conclusion that is implicit:

The burgers are better at Burger King.

This is advertising, so a good guess is that a marketing motive lies behind it. Perhaps they think that if you help yourself to the conclusion, you’re more likely to help yourself to a Whopper.

An argument with an implicit premise or conclusion is called an . (This word comes from the Greek roots en for in and thymos for internal urge; an enthymeme, then, is an argument that leaves a premise or conclusion behind as the arguer’s mere unstated urge.) For the purpose of clarifying and evaluating, implicit statements should be considered just as much a part of an argument as explicit ones.

Guideline.  Consider any premise or conclusion that is assumed by the arguer, but not expressed, as part of the argument.

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (k)

Identify the implicit premise or conclusion in each of these arguments.

Sample exercise. “Every man who attacks my belief . . . makes me uneasy; and I am angry with him who makes me uneasy.” —spoken by Johnson in Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

  Premise: Every man who attacks my belief . . . makes me uneasy.

  Premise: I am angry with him who makes me uneasy.

  Conclusion: ?

Sample answer. I am angry with anyone who attacks my belief.

  1. Son to father: “Dad, the nicer the father the more generous he should be with allowances—and you’re the nicest father I know.”

    Premise: The nicer the father the more generous the father should be with allowances.

    Premise: You’re the nicest father I know.

    Conclusion: ?

  2. Daughter to father: “We’ve been waiting for a windy day to fly the kite. So we should go fly it right now.”

    Premise: We’ve been waiting for a windy day to fly the kite.

    Premise: ?

    Conclusion: We should go fly the kite right now.

  3. Geoffrey Hellman, a longtime writer for the New Yorker, tells of how he wrote many pieces on “spry oldsters” and was asked to write a second story on Charles C. Burlingham as Burlingham approached his hundredth birthday. As Hellman tells it, “I called him up, and he begged off. He said he didn’t care for publicity and that he was delighted that my previous article on him had not been published. ‘But it was,’ I said. ‘Sent you a proof and we ran it several years ago.’ ‘No, you didn’t,’ he said. ‘I tore it up and threw it in the scrap basket.’” —Brendan Gill, Here at the New Yorker

    Premise: Burlingham tore up the proof and threw it away.

    Premise: ?

    Conclusion: Burlingham prevented the first story from being published.

  4. “After Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace in 1973, there was much speculation about whom Richard Nixon would nominate as Agnew’s replacement. Gerald Ford had advance word that he was the man, but it was strictly confidential. As one reporter tells it, in the afternoon, Barber Conable had told Ford on the House floor that he was going back to Rochester that night to make a speech instead of going to the scheduled presentation of the new vice president. ‘You might want to be there, Barb,’ Ford said.
    “ ‘The only reason I’d go there is if it’s you,’ said Conable. . . . ‘I’ll only go if you ask me.’“
    ‘I’m asking you,’ Ford said.“
    ‘Can I draw any inference from that?’ Conable said with a smile.
    “Ford smiled back, ‘I’m asking you.’ ”
    —Richard Reeves, A Ford, not a Lincoln

    Premise: The only reason Ford would invite Conable was if Ford was the new vice president.

    Premise: Ford invited Conable.

    Conclusion: ?

  5. Musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock predicts that in a couple of centuries, the music of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland will still be listened to, but not the music of the original punk rock group, the Ramones. Hitchcock is quick to add that this is not a value judgment but a prediction based on a practical notion: “The Ramones can be listened to but the music cannot be performed except by the Ramones. Notated music—music that is written down—can always be performed.”

    Premise: Notated music can always be performed.

    Premise: ?

    Premise: ?

    Conclusion: In a couple of hundred years, the music of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland—but probably not of the Ramones—will still be performed.

  6. “If I were in my right mind, I would retire,” said said NFL Hall of Fame coach George Allen after losing a title game. “He hasn’t retired,” quipped a sportscaster.

    Premise: If George Allen were in his right mind, then he would retire.

    Premise: George Allen did not retire.

    Conclusion: ?

  7. According to HR Haldeman, what Richard Nixon said upon being told he needed to pay off the Watergate burglars to keep them quiet: “That would be wrong.” —Mother Jones

    Premise: : It would be wrong for Nixon to pay off the Watergate burglars.

    Premise: ?

    Conclusion: Nixon did not pay off the Watergate burglars.

  8. “Our ideas reach no farther than our experience: we have no experience of divine attributes and operations: I need not conclude my syllogism: you can draw the inference yourself.” —David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion

    Premise: We cannot have an idea of anything we do not experience.

    Premise: We do not have any experience of God.

    Conclusion: ?

2.5 Complex Arguments

So far our concern has been solely with simple arguments. link together simple arguments, so that the conclusion of one serves as a premise for the next. Judge, this man is a well-established member of the community, so he will not flee the country. Thus, you should release him on his own recognizance. Usually, the conclusion of the final simple argument—such as He should be released on his own recognizance—is the . Properly speaking, the main conclusion is the most important one, the one that answers the question being asked in the broader passage. Conclusions that provide a link between the simple arguments—such as He will not flee the country—are termed . Complex arguments can be made up of any number of simple arguments and thus may have any number of subconclusions.

In Of Property John Locke argues:

The materials of nature (air, earth, water) that remain untouched by human effort belong to no one and are not property. It follows that a thing can become someone’s private property only if he works and labors on it to change its natural state. From this I conclude that whatever a man improves by the labor of his hand and brain belongs to him, and to him only.

Pay special attention to the second sentence, which is italicized. It is a subconclusion, since it is offered both as a conclusion (it follows that indicates that the second sentence is supported by the first) and as a premise (from this I conclude comes immediately after it). The statement for which it is offered as a premise is the main conclusion of the complex argument.[3]

Complex arguments occur often, and we will look at examples from time to time, but simple arguments will be our major concern. If you know how to evaluate simple arguments, you know how to evaluate a series of simple arguments.

Guideline.  Count a series of statements as a complex argument when the conclusion of one simple argument serves as the premise for another simple argument.

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (l)

In the following complex arguments, identify the subconclusions and the main conclusion.

Sample exercise. Three brothers were arrested for disorderly conduct on Christmas Eve after they scuffled with the man posing as St. Nicholas at a children’s Mass. The brothers describe themselves as fundamentalist Roman Catholics. They said they objected to St. Nick’s presence because, “Santa is not real, therefore he is a lie. Therefore he does not belong in church.” —Associated Press

Sample answer. Subconclusion: Santa is a lie. Conclusion: Santa does not belong in church.

  1. Don’t be silly—you can never become president of the United States. Your official papers show that you were born in Russia. It follows from that, of course, that you were not born in the United States. But only those born in the United States can become president.
  2. Police officer to suspect: “Eyewitnesses place you at the scene of the crime. Therefore, you lied about your whereabouts at the time. I’m afraid that means that we must consider you a suspect.”
  3. Teacher to student: “Your work this term was very impressive. It convinces me that you are a prime candidate for our graduate program. And, since all of our graduate students are on full fellowships, you should expect to have funding for your schooling next year.”
  4. “I have been admitted to the bar in London. That makes me a lawyer. I am—in your terms—colored. So, there is at least one colored lawyer in South Africa.” —Mahatma Gandhi in the film Gandhi (replying to the challenge “There are no colored lawyers in South Africa.”)
  5. “Twain makes an odious parallel between Huck’s being ‘enslaved’ by a drunken father who keeps him locked in a cabin and Jim’s legal enslavement . . . [so] Twain does not take slavery, and, therefore, black people seriously.” —Julius Lester, Mark Twain Journal
  6. “Woman is incapable of forming clear judgments, so the distinction between true and false means nothing to her. Thus women are naturally, inescapably, untruthful. . . . On this account . . . they do not enter the moral realm at all. Woman simply has no standard of right or wrong. And, as she knows no moral or logical imperative, she cannot be said to have a soul, and this means she lacks free will. From this it follows that women have no ego, no individuality, and no character. Ethically, women are a lost cause.” —account of Otto Weininger’s views from Ray Monk, Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. (There are five or six subconclusions in this passage, depending on how you count them.)
  7. “But the power of Marxism cannot be explained solely by his theories; for these were at least partially limited by his 19th-century experience, and they have been superseded by the considerable development of the social science. The power of Marxism must therefore be located to a considerable degree in its religious impulse and its moral protest.” —Paul Kurtz, Free Inquiry
  8. “God, who prescribes forbearance and forgiveness of every fault, exercises none himself, but does exactly the opposite; for a punishment which comes at the end of all things, when the world is over and done with, cannot have for its object either to improve or to deter, and is
    therefore pure vengeance.” —Arthur, Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (m)

Each of the next two passages has two conclusions, but in each case they are conclusions to two different simple arguments (with shared premises), not a single complex argument. Identify the two conclusions.

  1. “There is a famous scene in the Confessions (Book IV) where Augustine saw Ambrose reading without speaking, without even moving his lips. Augustine was amazed! Two conclusions can be reached: by the fifth century a.d. literacy had worked its way into culture and this literacy was rare.” —D. M. Dombrowski, Teaching Philosophy
  2. “I got hooked on opera when I was 14. It is an addiction that I’ve never for a moment regretted. But, wholly unguided as I was, I developed some curious misapprehensions for which I’ve paid ever since. One of them was the notion that it takes superhuman brains and talent to write an opera. Ergo, operettas are composed by people with only average brain and talent who are unable to aspire to opera, and ‘musicals’ are written by brainless, talentless opportunists who cater to the most vulgar tastes.” —David Greene, Musical Heritage Review

EXERCISES Chapter 2, set (n)

Some of the following passages contain arguments; others do not. If a passage does not contain an argument, identify it either as a mere assertion, a mere illustration, or a mere explanation. If it does contain an argument, identify the conclusion.

  1. “Every pitcher should know, from the first day of spring, that after covering first base to take a throw, the next move is always to turn to the left quickly and face the infield. Why? So that if there’s a fast runner on second base he can’t score on a routine ground out.” —Thomas Boswell, How Life Imitates the World Series
  2. “One of the fundamental axioms of physics, embodied in what is known as Fourier’s law of heat conduction, is that heat flows from the warmer parts of a body to the cooler ones. It can therefore be inferred that since the temperature increases with depth in the earth’s crust, there is a flow of heat outward from the earth’s interior.” —Henry Pollack and David Chapman, Scientific American
  3. “Actually, I like convention food. I like it for the same reason I like airplane food; it’s made of real food, but it’s softer, shinier, and sweeter. Also, everybody gets the same thing and you never know what you’re having until it’s served, if then: the thrill of the unknown.” —David Owen, Harper’s
  4. Since Defense Secretary McNamara (who had become president of Ford just when the disastrous Edsel was being brought out) promoted inefficient ideas like the TFX airplane, slowed progress by halting LeMay’s B-70 bomber, analyzed everything for cost instead of charging ahead, and favored unilateral disarmament, he must have been responsible for the Edsel. Longtime political opponent Barry Goldwater glued the Edsel charge to McNamara’s back for life. — Deborah Shapley, Promise and Power: The Life and Times of Robert McNamara
  5. “Early dinosaur reconstructions were not terribly accurate. A horn put on the snout of Iguanodon in its earliest reconstructions, for example, was later shown to be a spike-like thumb bone.”[4]Science News
  6. “Of course, there are reasons why academics write in this barbarous way. If they were to use the language that is natural to them, and to express the thoughts and feelings that are really theirs, the result would be so stunningly banal that no one would dream of employing them in a university. It has become necessary to write gibberish to gain promotion.” —Roger Scruton
  7. “That beavers react aggressively to the presence of a trespasser’s scent mound was demonstrated in another experiment. D. Muller-Schwarze and fellow researchers introduced alien mounds into the territories of two beaver colonies. . . . As soon as the resident animals got a whiff of the foreign odors, they began hissing. . . . One of them summoned up courage to mount the bank and cancel out the unwanted scents with a blast of his or her own excretions.” —Hope Rydeh, Lily Pond: Four Years with a Family of Beavers
  8. “I am of the opinion that the Bible is the most remarkable book I have read in the English language. I am of the opinion that the authors and the editors of the Bible were the first nonreligionists: that the Bible has nothing to do with religion; that the religionists have purloined the camouflage used by the authors and have made of the camouflage the substance of their power over people.” —letter to
    the editor, Free Inquiry
  9. “I think robots appeal to us because we want slaves, and since people always want to be set free, we’ll settle for one that is made of polyurethane and whose brain is a silicon chip. That way we don’t get any complaints.” —Jack Smith, Los Angeles Times
  10. “If external circumstances determine behavior, then punishment is still needed to curb crime. A home-grown example of this principle is the small California ghetto community of East Palo Alto, which was once the ‘murder capital’ of the country in terms of its murder rate per capita. A year later, the murder rate was down drastically, as were other violent crimes. It put more cops on the streets and more criminals behind bars.” —Thomas Sowell, Forbes
  11. “The Western concepts embraced by the traditional liberal arts education made a tremendous contribution to intellectual history. Yet certainly their universality is compromised by ethnocentrism. It is only natural, for instance, that Western ideals should lead one to assume the cultural primacy of Europe over Asia, and such an assumption clearly lacks universal validity.” —Yasusuke Murakami, Japan Echo

2.6 Summary of Chapter Two

Sentences vary according to their forms and their functions. Statements—which are sentences that can be true or false—function to convey information. And their form is typically that of a subject and a trait attributed to that subject; an example is the statement The beach is pleasant today. Other types of sentences differ in their forms and functions in ways that mark them as imperative, interrogative, exclamatory, and performative. Sentences that are not in statement form might nevertheless function as statements—that is, they might communicate information; an example is the sentence Oh, to be at the beach this afternoon!

A simple argument is a series of statements in which at least one of the statements is offered as reason for belief in another. The statements offered as reasons are the premises. The statement for which the reasons are offered is the conclusion. Inference indicators are helpful in identifying the premises (e.g., because . . .) and the conclusion (e.g., therefore . . .). In the absence of inference indicators, the conclusion can usually be identified either by looking for the most controversial claim in the passage or by looking for the answer to the question being asked.

A series of statements can count as an argument even if some of the statements are implicit and even if the reasons are bad. On the other hand, statements merely asserted with conviction do not count as arguments, because they supply no reason to believe them. Nor do mere illustrations (which might make an idea easier to understand, but do not straightforwardly aim to convince us that we should believe it). Nor do mere causal explanations. In a mere explanation, a cause is often offered to explain an effect that is typically already believed to exist; this differs from an argument, in which a premise is offered to justify belief in a conclusion that may not already be believed to be true. Sometimes, however, explanations and arguments do overlap.

A complex argument is a series of connected simple arguments in which the conclusion of one simple argument serves as the premise of another and is thus a subconclusion.

2.7 Guidelines for Chapter Two

  • For the purpose of identifying arguments, consider a sentence a statement if it serves a declarative function.
  • Count it as an argument even if the reasons offered seem clearly to be bad ones.
  • When possible, identify premises and conclusions by the location of inference indicators.
  • When there are no inference indicators, look for the most controversial statement in the argument; if one can be readily identified, it is usually the conclusion.
  • When there are no inference indicators, look in the wider context for the question being asked; the proposed answer to it is usually the conclusion.
  • If a series of statements is merely an attempt to influence belief without offering reasons, do not count it as an argument.
  • Do not count a series of statements as an argument if it merely offers an attempt to make a statement easier to understand—that is, if it is a mere illustration. Terms like for example, for instance, and is illustrated by typically introduce mere illustrations.
  • Do not count a series of statements as an argument if it offers merely a causal explanation of a state of affairs. If the statements show the familiar following from the new, and if the new is not offered as a reason to believe the familiar, it is probably a mere explanation.
  • Count causal explanations as arguments when they also offer a reason for belief—whether the effect is offered as reason to believe the cause, or the cause is offered as reason to believe the effect. In such cases they are not mere explanations.
  • Consider any premise or conclusion that is assumed by the arguer, but not expressed, as part of the argument.
  • Count a series of statements as a complex argument when the conclusion for one simple argument serves as the premise for another simple argument.

2.8 Glossary for Chapter Two

Complex argument—a series of two or more simple arguments, in which the conclusion of one argument serves as a premise for the next. Complex arguments can be made up of any number of simple arguments, and thus may have any number of subconclusions.

Conclusion—the statement for which the reason is offered. Each simple argument has exactly one conclusion.

Declarative function—the function of conveying information. An example of a sentence with this function is Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the most influential first ladies in history.

Enthymeme—an argument with an implicit premise or conclusion. This word comes from the Greek roots en for in and and thymos for internal urge; an enthymeme, then, is an argument that leaves a premise or conclusion behind as the arguer’s mere unstated urge.  For the purposes of clarifying and evaluating, the implicit statements should be considered just as much a part of an enthymematic argument as the explicit ones.

Exclamatory function—the function of expressing emotion. An example of a sentence with this function is Oh, to be at the beach this afternoon!

Imperative function—the function of directing others to action. An example of a sentence with this function is Speak into the microphone.

Implicit statements—statements that are not spoken or written in any form, but are relied on by the arguer as a part of the argument.

Inference—movement from premises to conclusion. Also, sometimes simply a synonym for simple argument.

Inference indicator—a term that indicates movement from premise to conclusion. Also called an illative. Examples are because, which introduces premises, and therefore, which introduces conclusions.

Interrogative function—the function of asking a question. An example of a sentence with this function is Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?

Main conclusion—the most important conclusion of a complex argument, the one that answers the question being asked in the broader conversation.

Performative function—the function of doing, or performing, something by the very act of asserting it under the right circumstances. An example of a sentence with this function is I promise to return the money on
Tuesday.

Premise—any statement that is offered as a reason for belief in another statement. (Sometimes spelled premiss by the British.) We alternatively refer to premises as the evidence, warrant, justification, basis, grounds, or rationale. There must be at least one premise in an argument, but there is no upper limit.

Simple argument—a series of statements in which at least one of the statements is offered as reason for belief in another.

Statement—a sentence that can be true or false. It functions to convey information. Its form, typically, includes a subject and a trait that is attributed to the subject.

Subconclusion—in a complex argument, the conclusion of one simple argument that also serves as premise for the next simple argument.


  1. In formal logic, logicians include as a degenerate case one-line arguments, with no premise at all. For our concerns, which are practical, it is inappropriate to call them arguments.
  2. Philosophers debate what a statement, used in this sense, really is—that is, what it is that is true or false. Some say that it is a concrete object, namely, a sentence. Some say that it is an abstract object—the meaning of the sentence; this stays the same regardless of which actual sentence is used to concretely express it. And some say that it is an event—an utterance—the actual speaking or writing, the stating, of the statement. For practical purposes we are operating with the first definition.
  3. Some authors consider a cluster of independent arguments offered for the same conclusion to be complex arguments of another sort. If arguments are independent, however, they should be evaluated independently as simple arguments; these so-called convergent arguments, then, will not be a feature of this text. Likewise, some authors consider arguments with more than one conclusion to be complex arguments. But if the conclusions are indeed independent of one another, then the passage really contains two arguments—to different conclusions—that share the same premises. These, too, should be evaluated independently as simple arguments.
  4. This prompted paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson to write that “. . . the animal thus thumbed its nose at its first reconstructor.”

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