Making Arguments: Reason in Context. Edmond H. Weiss
Reason in Context
Steven M. Weiss, Ph.D.
Professor of Communication Studies
Northern Kentucky University
Edmond H. Weiss, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Communication
Fordham Business Schools
Copyright © Edmond H Weiss & Steven M Weiss, 2012
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For Dana--my one … my only…
For our parents, Harry & Hilda Weiss
Cover art by Makayla Schultz
First things first. Yes, we are related. We’re brothers separated by a decade, but with a common love for rhetoric, argument, and jazz. And we both have advanced degrees in speech (rhetorical theory and argumentation). Between us we represent well over half a century of teaching people to make arguments—in speeches, debates, essays, proposals, and deliberative assemblies. From boardroom to classroom, we have experienced argument not only in a variety of settings, but also in a variety of forms. And based on this long and varied experience, we thought it was time to share what we have learned about arguments—designing them, strengthening them, making them, evaluating them, and, yes, winning them.
We entered this project knowing that there is already a library of books about argument. After all, argument was codified as a formal study in ancient Greece. It is even possible that the study of making arguments is the oldest formalized educational subject in Western Civilization. Originally simply called rhetoric, this branch of learning is now covered within many academic disciplines, including (informal) logic, critical thinking, philosophy, English composition and writing, public speaking, journalism, law, business communication, debate, and argumentation. Almost every discipline or profession includes the ability to argue convincingly within its repertoire of skills.
So what can we say about argument that has not already been said? Let’s examine, first, how argument is usually taught. Nearly all argumentation courses and textbooks tilt toward one of two extremes:
•Critical thinking/informal logic, in which the “laws” of reasoning are universal and not affected by audience or context
•Public speaking, in which adaptation to the audience and winning assent trumps logic and reasoning
At the first extreme are texts that stress flaws in arguments and how to discern them. Their focus tends to be on the logic (making deductive inferences and avoiding deductive mistakes or other errors of inference) and/or the recognition of fallacies (deficient or fake arguments). They also deal with the messy ambiguities of language. Generally, this approach omits the concept of an audience. And it does not explain how spotting the flaws in argumentative reasoning, or improving one’s reasoning, translates into the ability to make an effective argument. Further, it is not clear how to address audiences whose grasp of logic is shaky.
At the other extreme are books (especially public speaking textbooks) that err in the opposite direction. They are fixated on audience. As a result, their advice about how to argue is grounded in audience adaptation. In fact, the process of reasoning is nearly subordinated to such secondary considerations as style, delivery, and organization. And again, the connection between critical thinking/logic and audience is rarely examined.
In addition, there are other courses/texts that single out a particular argumentative facility, one thread in the weave:
•Many texts on writing have a rhetorical focus, where the skills of English composition are extended beyond formal style and organization to a consideration of writing with an audience in mind.
•Some textbooks on debate are, at their essence, bound by the rules and formats for an idiosyncratic way of arguing, the arbitrary rules for academic debates.
•A smattering of books considers argument as an entirely social process, and concentrate on the skills of listening, empathy, and leadership.
•Many small-group communication texts view argument as a process that needs controls placed on it, rules meant to prevent manipulation and intellectual dishonesty during discussions.
Don’t get us wrong. We believe that there are many fine methods for teaching and learning argument. We ourselves learned argument through those traditional means. But we wish to advance a newer understanding based on our reading of contemporary sources: to go beyond schema that can become nothing more than abstract formulas. Indeed, on the one hand, Aristotle already said most of what critical thinking texts say today about argument. And, on the other, ancient sophists and rhetoricians enunciated most of what audience-centered texts say.
In particular, we want to answer some questions that are seldom addressed in print. In particular,
•What is the starting point for augmentation? When do we even need to argue?
•When should one embrace, and when should one avoid, arguing?
•Why does the same argument work in one place and fail in another?
•Are most audiences capable of understanding a complex argument?
•With what authority can one make an argument—absent expertise in the field in which the argument takes place?
•Are there substantive differences between oral and written argument?
•What does it mean to “present” an argument?
•Can someone control the argumentative situation/context to the benefit of his/her position?
•How can argument educate and improve the arguer?
•Can we learn the “truth” by arguing?
In Making Arguments, we propose to consider argument at the nexus of invention and judgment, the two endpoints from which logic and public speaking examine argumentation, respectively. By looking at the “stuff” that comes between an argument’s design and its delivery, we hope to enrich the understanding and the study of argument, as both a theoretical and applied discipline.
If we consider the whole process of argumentation as a series of concatenated intellectual decisions involving how arguments are created, ordered, rendered, and produced—with judgment as the over-arching concern—we can completely re-invigorate the process of how argument is studied and learned. We can view organizing and stylizing arguments as strategies tied to the beginning and end points of argumentation.
Arguments are more than artifacts. For argument to be learned, the subject needs novelty and freshness. We feel education in argumentation needs to get away from the artifact model: long lists of fallacies with mostly Latin names, as well as cumbersome rules, derived primarily from symbolic logic. Similarly, we dislike seeing argument taught merely as a variant of persuasion, where the goal is just to impress an immediate and transitory audience. Nor do we wish to see argument calcified into formal rules and formats (often with arbitrary criteria), like those imposed on it by the rules of academic debate. Finally, while we applaud the rhetorical turn taken in the teaching of writing, we feel that teaching argument as argumentative writing misses