By the end of my first semester teaching Writing Arguments, I attempted to theorize argumentation from a writing studies perspective. Although the essay seems definitive and final, it represents more of a work-in-progress, a theory still undergoing revision and exploration. Soon, however, I’ll publish the fruit of this work as updated course materials for Writing Arguments, including a syllabus, bibliography, and assignment prompts [link forthcoming].
An argument is an invitation (Foss & Griffin) to change. It is usually composed of linguistic elements, verbal or textual. It relies on a form of discourse that 1) necessarily invokes an audience of at least one other, and 2) seeks, ultimately, to accomplish some collective purpose; it is, ideally, then, a goal-oriented, productive activity. True arguments (rather than, say, performances) allow for some degree of uncertainty and value sincere efforts at deliberation (Goodnight); they train their practitioners to balance the dispositions of open-mindedness and empiricism (Gardoqui), clarity of thought and precision in language, compassion, listening (Brit), and (even!) a willingness to be wrong. If arguments are invitations, arguments then suggest the need for goodwill, the stance of offering, and a recognition of the autonomy of its participants.
Arguments have long been considered the bread and butter of rhetoric (i.e., rhetoric is the “art” of “crafting arguments”), but the rhetorical perspective is just one way to understand arguments. The rhetorical perspective accounts primarily for the effects of arguments, holistically understood, at the sentence-level and all the way out to broader contexts (Selzer) of history, culture, circulation, uptake, and readership/reception (Edbauer). Rhetoric will always assert that arguments are processes (over products), they are situated in real contexts and communities, that they are contingent on their audiences, and that they can never be understood in a vacuum (Wenzel). As with gravity, I can live my entire life without understanding, or artfully/willfully participating in, rhetoric; alternatively, though, just as there are artful users of gravity (like astronauts and dancers), I can choose to be an artful user of rhetoric (Downs) and, by extension, argumentation.
In simple terms, arguments are composed of claims and evidence. On closer inspection, they could also be assessed for their claims, data, warrants, backing, qualifiers, and rebuttals (Toulmin). Some arguments are arrived at with deductive thinking (e.g., a syllogism), while others are arrived at with inductive thinking (e.g., analogies, examples, causal correlation). Sometimes, argumentative claims are explicit. Other times, the claims are implicit. Speech act theory is quite good at understanding this distinction (Ross & Rossen-Knill), maintaining always that language does things; by saying, we are always, also, doing. Perhaps, arguments have the potential for success when they engage eggs, not stones (Gearhart) — that is, those audiences with an internal basis for change, given the right communicative environment and elements — and when there is some common cause (Rogers), not one imposed unilaterally but mutually “arrived at” (Lassner).
Arguments typically make appeals to their interlocutors (Aristotle) and rely on framing (Greene). Rhetors (people who do rhetoric, i.e., all of us) might rely on inartistic proofs–things that exist outside of their invention, like contracts or witness testimony. Or, they might rely on artistic proofs–things that they create, or muster up, or assemble. The typical three are logos (appeals to reason), pathos (appeals to emotion), and ethos (appeals to character). A forgotten one is kairos, the appeal to timeliness. While the goal of argumentation has been long articulated as “agreement” — to get a real or imagined dissenter to agree, once and for all, either as conviction (belief) or persuasion (belief that leads to external action) — an alternative might be “adherence” — temporary, half-committed, ad hoc “going along” with the claim or proposal on the basis of invoked values (Perelman & Olbrects-Tyteca).
But, what about a poem? What about a picture? Are these arguments, or could they be? They certainly do not conform to the model of “claims” and “evidence.” But I’m going to posit that some, not all, poems or pictures could be an argument if I, the reader, can reasonably discern that there is some invitation for me to change. Visual arguments, for example, demand the use of an interpretative lens all their own (Birdsell & Groarke). While arguments are usually understood as acts of the mind — especially written arguments –, even written arguments can be interpreted for their bearing on affect, the body, and the non-rational aspects of ourselves (Brunner & Li, Brit).
What about numbers? While we often say casually or colloquially “The data speaks for itself,” it appears that numeric or quantitative figures do not, in fact, speak for themselves. They require interpretation, and a particular skill at interpretation (at that). Arguers would do well to be mindful of the biases in perception that may influence the way that figures are communicated and received, with honest consideration of the original contexts or analyses that give rise to such data (Butler, Merriam).
Argumentation has been practiced for many thousands of years in global civilizations, both East and West (Lu, Combs, Frank, Littlefield & Ball, Suzuki & van Eemeren). While some analysts try to map Aristotelian concepts onto settings outside of the Greco-Roman tradition, comparison only ever goes so far; comparison, too, tends persistently to center the Greco-Roman works at the expense of adequate attention to, or appreciation for, the broader array of equally as rich or compelling intellectual traditions (Lu). While some of these considerations may seem purely academic or even arcane, the conversation matters because of the just purposes that drive continued engagement with history, and also for the practical ways that intercultural communication continues to shape, and be shaped in, our world(s).
Today, argumentation has been in some ways carried on, but in many ways transformed, through the medium of the Internet. While early electronic media (like television) promised some degree of transformation (Aden)– in some ways, actually, a restoration to ancient understandings– the speed, reach, and interactivity of the Web add great complexity to the process of shared dialogue. While rhetoric has always been about the “masses,” the Internet has helpfully challenged an older belief that only certain people are rhetors, and that they argue in a transmission model (send → receive) to the ignorant or empty vessel of the public; we are able to see, more visibly, the multidimensional engagement of shared, distributed forms of knowledge, expertise, and agency.
Arguments also take on particular sizes and shapes when they inhabit disciplinary, interdisciplinary, or non-disciplinary spaces. At minimum, we have identified academic arguments, public arguments, political arguments, legal arguments, and technical and professional arguments as a few observable iterations in modern life, each with their particular tones, styles, genres, and methods of engagement. Among these, of course, there are many shades of gray. For example, in the category of “academic,” we’ve seen that scientists are engaging different questions than literary critics (not just in terms of what they are discussing, but how) (Fahnestock & Secor). We have also learned that calling attention to the stases– the questions asked– serves often as an inherently powerful tool for clarification and facility at furthering the conversation, beyond entrenched stalemates.
In the scholarly, professional, civic, and personal paths we travel, we would do well to pay attention to the strategic, relational, and material fabric (Druschke & McGreavy) of the arguments and advocacies we send and receive every day, to think critically about those included in the conversations we have (Wilson), and to never abandon the need to engage in conscientious and ethical research, broadly defined, with reflective thinking at every appropriate turn.