How to Spot an Argument

I’m studying Think Again I: How to Understand Arguments on Coursera. These are my revision notes for weeks 1.


The Nature of Argument

Why arguments matter

  • The course is going to focus on a particular type of thinking, namely reasoning.
  • Arguments are a way to express reasons.
  • If you can formulate good arguments, you can have good reasons for they ways that you think and behave.
  • If you can understand arguments, you can avoid mistakes. See the tricks that charlatans try and bamboozle you with, or others who try to get you to adopt their point of view and set of behaviours. e.g
    • Used car salesman
    • Prosecutor in court
    • Evangelist
    • Friends
  • Course structure:
    • How to analyse arguments
    • How to evaluate deductive arguments
    • How to evaluate inductive arguments
    • How to avoid fallacies

What is an Argument?

  • What is an argument? What is not an argument?
  • Monty Python knows, of course!
  • Arguments are not:
    • fighting, hitting people on the head
    • abuse (stupid git!)
    • complaining (expressing emotions)
    • a contradiction
    • to establish a proposition
  • Arguments are:
    • An intellectual process. Not just asserting your views, but actually giving reasons for your views
    • Monty Python: An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite preposition (arguments are made of language). Lecture disagrees about this! Some propositions are already true, and the argument is not to establish the proposition
    • Reasons why the propositions are true

Definition of an argument:

  • a series of sentences, statements or propositions,
  • where some are the premises
  • and there is one conclusion
  • where the premises are intended to give a reason for the conclusion

The Purposes of Arguments

What are Arguments Used For? Justification

  • To understand arguments, we need to understand the purposes for arguments
  • Persuading:
    • making people believe or do something that they would not otherwise believe or do.
    • Trying to bring around affect in the world.
    • Doesn’t necessarily rely on good reasons. Anything that brings a change in behaviour is acceptable (e.g. a car salesman trying to sell a car may give any number of bad reasons)
  • Justifying :
    • showing someone a reason to believe the conclusion.
    • It is not necessarily meant to change other people’s mind. Rather, it is intended to show why you yourself have a belief.
    • It is trying to show good reasons.
  • The difference between persuading and justifying is the purpose of the person giving the argument.

Questions to ask in understanding the purpose of an argument:

  1. Is the arguer trying to change someones mind? If so, the purpose is persuasion
  2. Is the arguer trying to give some kind of reason to believe something? If so, the purpose is justification

Strong Arguments Don’t Always Persuade Everyone

It’s not enough for an argument to be strong, valid and sound to be persuasive. You can have an argument for which every premise is genuinely true, and where every conceivable flaw in the argument is negated and still, not have it be persuasive. There will almost always be someone who either misunderstands the argument, or blindly believes the opposite of a premise, in face of facts. Human beings aren’t always logical and don’t always believe scientifically proven cause and effect. Religious and cultural beliefs can be too hard to overcome. So even the best arguments can have disbelievers.

Jessica Hyde

  • Arguments can have other goals, other than persuasion or justification.
  • A benchmark of success for many arguments is not complete persuasion, but how completely one is understood.
  • If we understand why we disagree, this can make people more considerate, and respect each other more.
  • Don’t set your sights too high. There will always be people who are not persuaded by your argument, no matter how good.

What Else are Argument Used For? Explanation

  • Explaining is giving a reason why something happened (why it is true)
  • When you explain something, both you and your audience assume the conclusion is true (e.g. sportsball team won the season)
  • The goal of explanation is to help people understand why something is true
  • Kinds of explanations (from Aristotle):
    • Causal: Why did the bridge collapse? The earthquake shook it.
    • Teleological (purpose): Why did Joe go to the grocery store? To buy milk
    • Formal: Why doesn’t this peg fit into the round whole? The peg is square.
    • Material: Why is this golf club light? It is made of graphite.
  • Forms of explanations:
    • Narrative explanations
    • Arguments
  • An explanation in the form of an argument:
    1. General principles or laws
    2. Initial conditions
    3. Therefore: phenomenon to be explained
  • E.g. why do objects fall?
    • When an object is suspended free in a medium when the medium is more dense than the object, the object rises
    • When an object is suspended free in a medium when the medium is less dense than the object, the object falls.
  • e.g. Bode’s Law
    • Show the relationship between the orbits of plans
    • Is not an explanation, though! It’s just an observation.
  • The goal of explanation is to fit a particular phenomenon into a general pattern.
  • This is useful because it makes things less strange and surprising, which can be comforting.

Explanation: An attempt to fit a particular phenomenon into a general pattern in order to increase understanding and remove bewilderment or surprise.

It is not persuasion, justification, generalisation or prediction.

The Materials of Arguments

What are Arguments Made of? Language

  • Argument are made of language
  • Arguments cannot be made without a sufficient grasp of language (sorry, other animals!)
  • Humans: the animal that argues.
  • Aristotle: the animal that reasons
  • We can understand arguments (and humans) better if we understand language better.
  • Language is:
    1. Important
      • It’s hard to live life without language
      • e.g. Helen Keller: unable to see or hear, and only learned language quite late. But after she learned language, she was able to communicate and give presentations around the country.
    2. Conventional
      • Grammar! You need to follow the rules to grammar to make sense
      • Conventions can vary – they have different meanings in different places (e.g. football)
    3. Representational
      • Language is used to represent facts about the world
      • Changing language doesn’t change the facts.
      • e.g. Abraham Lincoln: how many legs does a horse have? Even if you call a tail a leg, the horse still only has 4 legs.
    4. Social
      • Language is shared. By following the conventions of the language, it can be used to communicate with other people
  • Constraints on language:
    • Semantics: meanings of words
    • Physical production: volume, pronunciation, and so on
    • Structural combination: spelling and grammar
    • Etiquette
    • e.g. “Gimme pepperoni!”
  • Rules of language are not always obvious!
    • We don’t have to be conscious of the rules to follow them
    • e.g. “finger” (pronounced with hard “g”) versus “singer” (pronounced with soft “g”).


  • The meaning of words are important to our premises and conclusion.
  • What is meaning of words and sentences in language?
  • Referential and descriptive view of language
    • words refer to things (e.g. chair)
    • sentences refer to meaning (e.g I am sitting on the chair)
    • Not a good definition! It does not cover a lot of language which is extremely important.
  • Meaning is use (Ludwig Wittgenstien)
    • e.g. “Hello” is used to greet people
    • e.g. “and” is used to conjoin things.
      • Conjoining sentences: “I am sitting in the chair and I am in the office”)
      • Conjoining nouns: “Jan and Roberto went to Sao Paulo”
  • Levels of language
    • Linguistic act. A meaningful utterance. e.g. “You ought to floss your teeth every day”
    • Speech act. e.g. advising people to floss their teeth still has meaning, even if you don’t follow the advice
    • Conversational act. Bringing about change in behaviour or thought in other people (persuasion is an example of this)

Digression: reference is not the same as meaning!

  • e.g. the phrase “my car” does refer to the object that is my car, but the MEANING of the word or phrase is still not the same as the REFERENT or the object to which the word refers. The meaning is not my car. Here’s why: If the meaning and the referent were exactly the same, then the word would have no meaning when there is no referent or no object for the word to refer to. But then it would be meaningless to say “I do NOT own any car” when it is true that I do not own any car, because then there would be no car to refer to. However, this sentence—“I do not own any car”—is not meaningless when I do not own any car, because then it is true. Therefore, it has meaning without a referent, so reference is not the same as meaning.
  • The difference between REFERENCE and MEANING can also be shown by the fact that two phrases can have different meanings even if they refer to the same object. For example, the phrase “my car” and the phrase “the car parked over there” might refer to the very same car on one occasion when my car is parked over there. Nonetheless, these phrases do NOT have the same MEANING in general, because one phrase (“my car”) is about ownership, whereas the other phrase (“the car parked over there”) is about physical location. They describe different aspects of the same object. Moreover, even if both phrases do happen to refer to the same object on this one occasion, the phrases do NOT ALWAYS refer to the same object. They do not refer to the same object on other occasions, such as when your car is parked over there instead of mine. When cars move (or when I sell my car), these phrases still have the same meaning as before even though the phrases do not refer to the same objects as before. The point is that the meaning of the phrase does not vary whenever the object varies, so the meaning cannot be identical with the object. That is why the meaning of the phrase “my car” is NOT the object that is my car.


Levels of Language

Linguistic Acts

  • Linguistic level of language: the production of a meaning utterance
  • Follows the syntax and grammar of a language
  • Requirements of a linguistic act:
    • Meaningful words
      • humming to a song is not a linguistic act
      • “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in he wabe” is not a linguistic act
    • Grammatical structure
      • Grammatical: “my dog has fleas”
      • Not grammatical: “Dog fleas my has”
    • Meanings between ideas need to make sense
      • e.g. Noam Chomsky: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” does not make sense
  • Garden path sentences
    • You need to be able to carve the words of a sentence up into the correct units to make sense.
    • e.g. “The man who whistles tunes pianos”
    • e.g. “Buffalo buffalo buffalo”

Speech Acts

  • “You ain’t nothing until I say so!”. A baseball batter asking the umpire if he’s out or should walk.
  • “I now pronounce you husband and wife”. By uttering the words, the officiant made the groom and bride into husband and wife. The words change their relationship. “Thereby”: uttering the words was the trigger to the change.
  • The Thereby Test:
    • If I say “I ____”, then I thereby ____.
    • This will make sense by filling in some words into the blanks, but it will not make sense with other words
    • e.g. If I say “I apologise“, then I thereby apologise.
    • e.g. If I say “I pronounce you husband and wife“, then I thereby pronounce you husband and wife.
    • It it makes sense, the sentence is a speech act.
    • The formula takes you from the words (inside the quote marks) to the world (outside the quote marks)
  • The speech act only works in the appropriate circumstances
    • You can’t just walk up to someone and say “I now pronounce you husband and wife”, and expect that they are then married. The circumstances are wrong for that to be a marriage.
    • To allow for this, we can update the thereby test:
      • If I say “I ____” in the appropriate circumstances, then I thereby ____.
    • We can use this to test different utterances to see if they are a speech act.
      • e.g. promising, thanking, apologising, inviting are all speech acts
    • Arguing is a speech act.

Conversational Acts

  • We use language to bring about a change in the world
    • e.g. asking a friend “Could you loan me your car?”. Asking for a change in the world, including the physical location of the cars (in my hand), but also in the legal rights about the use of the vehicle.
    • e.g. saying “the moon is full” has the effect of changing the world by informing my friend
  • Speech acts are often associated with bringing about particular effects (that is, conversational acts). e.g.
    • Speech act => conversational act
    • Question => answer
    • Apology => forgiveness
    • Promise => reliance
    • Inform => enlighten

A conversational act is the bringing about of the intended effect, which is the standard effect for the kind of speech act that the speaker is performing.

  • The conversational act does not occur when the effect does not occur.
  • The type of act you perform depends upon the effect it has on the world.
  • How are we going to bring around these effects?
    • e.g. a baker: the are a lot of tricky rules about how to bring about the effect of a good cake. The baker bakes a cake by bringing together the right ingredients in the right amounts in the right order and bake for the right amount of time
  • What are the the rules of language which allow us to bring about conversational acts?
  • Conversational maxims on statements in a conversational context (Paul Grice):
    • Quantity: don’t say too much or too little
    • Quality: don’t say what you don’t believe or what you have no reason to believe
    • Relevance: be relevant. Tricky to apply, since you have to figure out what is relevant
    • Manner: be brief, be orderly, avoid obscurity, avoid ambiguity
  • People who are not cooperating or trying to deceive may violate these rules.
  • We can use the conversational maxims to understand what is going on in a lot of conversations.
  • Conversational implication. If you don’t mention something, then it is not relevant. e.g. waiter in restaurant: “You can have cake or ice cream”. He didn’t mention pie was available, so you assume that pie is not available (even if you wanted pie).
    • We use conversational maxims to infer facts about the world:
      • input: words uttered
      • mini-calculation: using conversational rules and background knowledge
      • output: belief about speaker’s beliefs
    • If you are not cooperating with someone, you can use the conversational maxims to mislead the other person by omitting a fact that was relevant (e.g. pie was actually available)
  • Conversational implication is not logical implication
    • Not mentioning something is not the same as lying
    • This helps us work out how to refute arguments
  • You have to be skilled at looking through the conversational implications to work out if the other person is leaving something out.
    • e.g. Politician: “I’m going to reduce crime by locking up all the criminals”
    • The politician implied that this was all the relevant facts, and we could achieve our goals by following his plan
    • The politician left out another relevant fact: many people who did not commit crimes will also go to prison.
    • This politician is violating the maxim of quantity. He said too little.

Week 2

My course notes from week 2: How to Untangle an Argument.

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