More on Arguments

Read this tutorial, which explains how to identify and argument by picking out its components. Complete the exercises and check your answers.

What is an argument?


A crucial part of critical thinking is to identify, construct, and evaluate arguments.

In everyday life, people often use "argument" to mean a quarrel between people. But in logic and critical thinking, an argument is a list of statements, one of which is the conclusion and the others are the premises or assumptions of the argument.

To give an argument is to provide a set of premises as reasons for accepting the conclusion. To give an argument is not necessarily to attack or criticize someone. Arguments can also be used to support other people's viewpoints.

Here is an example of an argument:

If you want to find a good job, you should work hard. You do want to find a good job. So you should work hard.

The first two sentences here are the premises of the argument, and the last sentence is the conclusion. To give this argument is to offer the premises as reasons for accepting the conclusion.

A few points to note:

    • Dogmatic people tend to make assertions without giving reasons. When they are criticized they often fail to give arguments to defend their own opinions.
    • To improve our critical thinking skills, we should develop the habit of giving good arguments to support our opinions.
    • To defend an opinion, think about whether you can give more than one argument to support it. Also, think about potential objections to your opinion, e.g. arguments against your opinion. A good thinker will consider the arguments on both sides of an issue.

Exercise #1

How to look for arguments

How do we identify arguments in real life? There are no easy mechanical rules, and we usually have to rely on the context in order to determine which are the premises and the conclusions. But sometimes the job can be made easier by the presence of certain premise or conclusion indicators. For example, if a person makes a statement, and then adds "this is because...", then it is quite likely that the first statement is presented as a conclusion, supported by the statements that come afterwards. Other words in English that might be used to indicate the premises to follow include:

    • since
    • firstly, secondly, ...
    • for, as, after all,
    • assuming that, in view of the fact that
    • follows from, as shown / indicated by
    • may be inferred / deduced / derived from

Of course whether such words are used to indicate premises or not depends on the context. For example, "since" has a very different function in a statement like "I have been here since noon", unlike "X is an even number since X is divisible by 4".

Conclusions, on the other hand, are often preceded by words like:

    • therefore, so, it follows that
    • hence, consequently
    • suggests / proves / demonstrates that
    • entails, implies

Here are some examples of passages that do not contain arguments:

When people sweat a lot they tend to drink more water. [Just a single statement, not enough to make an argument.]

Once upon a time there was a prince and a princess. They lived happily together and one day they decided to have a baby. But the baby grew up to be a nasty and cruel person and they regret it very much. [A chronological description of facts composed of statements but no premise or conclusion.]

Can you come to the meeting tomorrow? [A question that does not contain an argument.]


Exercise #2
Do these passages contain arguments? If so, what are their conclusions? Click the box for the answer.


Source: Joe Lau and Jonathan Chan, https://philosophy.hku.hk/think/arg/arg.php
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Last modified: Tuesday, June 22, 2021, 2:41 PM