Contemporary Approaches to Academic Argument:
A Review, by Gary Jaeger, Ph. D.
Argument Broadly Construed
In universities and colleges, the word “argument” is used frequently and broadly in discussions about the writing that students and researchers, from all disciplines, do for course work and publication. Such extensive and expansive use of the term makes it difficult to settle on a definition or explanation that fits all contexts well. To better grasp how this difficulty can be handled, I reviewed several guidebooks and source anthologies. Some approach this difficulty bottom-up, looking first at a wide array of academic writing to see whether and how arguments were being made, and then offering general conclusions. Most, however, approached it top-down, beginning with a traditional model or technical definition, and then applying it to various examples.
Approaching Argument Top-Down
The top-down approach tends to begin with terms borrowed from Greek antiquity or formal logic. This is not surprising. If you aim to begin your explication of academic argument with a definition narrow enough to be quickly grasped, but authoritative enough to be widely relevant, you might look back in history for a common origin, or you might move up to a level of symbolic abstraction.
The historical approach appeals to broad audiences only when there is consensus about a common origin. The authors of the reviewed texts, if not their audience, seem to be in consensus that Aristotle is the origin of the contemporary academic argument. Nevertheless, the disparate portions of his corpus on which they focus reveal that discord about the definition and purpose of argument has always been a part of its history. Aristotle did not invent arguments, but he was the first to think systematically about them. He analyzes the rhetorical arguments that were part-and-parcel of Athenian Democracy, but he also criticizes them for being fallacious and manipulative. In their place, he presents a model of rational argumentation, which aims to discover truth and not merely to persuade.
In Discovering Arguments, Memering and Palmer focus on Aristotle’s Rhetoric and define argument as a means of persuasion. They claim, “reaching readers and getting them to respond requires control of all the elements of persuasive writers (13).” Following Aristotle’s tripartite division of those elements, their analyses of sample essays note the ways authors appeal to their readers’ minds (logos) and hearts (pathos), and the ways they establish their own credibility by demonstrating the wisdom and virtue of their character (ethos). They provide several sample essays that appeal to logos, pathos, and ethos, but offer little guidance on how to organize these elements into a structured paper. Because their examples are opinion essays, they would not serve as good models for writing research papers. Students in general composition courses appear to be the intended audience of this guidebook.
James and Merickel, in their Reading Literature and Writing Argument, along with Booth, in his Craft of Research, also discuss Aristotle’s Rhetoric and consider the way it can be used as a tool for analysis and composition.
Using Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals to examine several poems, we can appreciate the poems as argumentation, as well as deepen our understanding of the appeals as ways that writers connect with their readers. (James and Merickel, 12)
Some new researchers think their claims are most credible when they are stated most forcefully. But nothing damages your ethos more than arrogant certainty. As paradoxical as it seems, you make your argument stronger and more credible by modestly acknowledging its limits. (Booth, 127)
They do not stop at Rhetorical appeal, however. They consider structures of argumentation that have their roots in Aristotle’s logic. Along with Rottenberg and Winchell, in their The Structure of Argument, and Corbett and Eberly, in their Elements of Reasoning, they consider a model from Stephen Toulmin’s Uses of Argument, which adapts Aristotle’s basic form of the syllogism (see below) and suggests arguments are comprised of claims, evidence, and warrants.
Warrants are the assumptions, general principles, or commonly accepted beliefs that underlie an argument. According to Toulmin’s argument model, warrants link the evidence to the claim; they warrant the audience’s movement from evidence to claim (James and Merickel, 10)
Booth explains that warrant consists of a “general circumstance” and a “general conclusion” and if it is true, “then specific instances of that situation must also be true” (Booth, 153). To clarify what warrants are and why they are needed, he provides examples of claims that do not appear to follow from the stated evidence. For instance:
Russia faces a falling standard of living because its birthrate is only 1.17 and men’s life expectancy has dropped to about 58 years.
He then provides the general circumstance and consequence that warrant the claim’s inference:
When a nation’s labor force shrinks, its economic future is grim. (Booth, 155)
Booth also notes that if a writer is writing for a field of specialists who all share the same assumptions, it might not be necessary or even advisable to state how those assumptions warrant the writer’s claims (154). However, as Corbett and Eberly note, warrants may need further backing if they are not generally assumed (44).
Hinderer, in his Building Arguments, and Epstein, in The Pocket Guide to Critical Thinking, do not invoke Aristotle, per se, but do present some formal logic, which is part of Aristotle’s legacy.
For instance, they distinguish deductive arguments from inductive arguments, and note that successful exemplars of the former are valid and sound, while those of the latter are strong and cogent. The main benefit of beginning a discussion about argument with this distinction is that it allows one to naturally and quickly identify the elements of argument—namely, premises and a conclusion—and to then define those elements in terms of how they relate to each other. While the conclusion of a valid, deductive argument must be true if all of its premises are true, the conclusion of a strong inductive argument will be probable if all of its premises are probable. While a valid deductive argument is sound when all of its premises actually are true, a strong, inductive argument is cogent when all of its premises actually are true.
In Aristotle’s logic, at least one of the premises found within an argument must contain a quantifier (all, not all, some, none) that regulates which conclusions can or must follow from the premises it quantifies. Universal (“all”) and existential (“some”) quantifiers (and their negations) enable the propositions they quantify to cohere together into the paradigmatic form of an argument: the syllogism. The premises found within the arguments of propositional logic contain truth-functional operators (and, or, if-then, not) that regulate which conclusions can or must follow from those premises. Aristotle did not invent propositional logic, but his laws of the “excluded middle” and “non-contradiction” made way for the truth-values needed for it.
Consider the following Aristotelian syllogism and its equivalent in propositional logic.
The conclusions of both arguments must be true whenever the premises leading to each are true. Nevertheless, the reason why the first conclusion follows from its two premises differs from why the second follows from its. The conclusion of the Aristotelian syllogism follows from its premises because the second (minor) premise stands in a part-whole relationship with the first (major premise). In contrast, the conclusion of the truth-functional syllogism follows from its premises because the second stands in a conditional relationship with the first.
Attempting to teach students to write—especially within the context of philosophy courses that strive for the structure and rigor of formal logic—has shown me that formal introductions to academic argument can lead to mixed results. Some students who do not identify as natural writers are heartened to learn that writing can be approached systematically. Others take the formality to be arbitrary or irrelevant, at best, and constraining or oppressive, at worst. Some of their resistance, I think, is caused by suspicion of approaches that seem unnecessarily or unjustifiedly top-down.
Approaching Argument Bottom-Up
The texts reviewed above, in one way or another, attempt to show how traditional norms and practices of reasoning and rhetoric shape (and ought to shape) the way we think and write today. A smaller number of the texts I reviewed begin somewhat more inductively, first by considering samples of contemporary academic writing, and only then making general conclusions about which argumentative structures and strategies are most prevalent and effective.
In their They Say I say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, Graff and Birkenstein consider the ways that academic writers enter into a conversation with other researchers and writers, and offer templates of the types of moves made in these conversations (see Writing Studio Handout). Some of these templates show how writers introduce standard views, express disagreement or points of difference with those views, and present their own views as responses to those disagreements and differences. Borrowing terminology from Booth, I categorize these argumentative moves as stasis, destabilization, and resolution.
Focusing on the technical writing of science and engineering, the socio-linguist John Swales identifies similar argumentative moves and further subdivides these moves into steps.
- Move 1: Establishing a territory
- Claiming centrality
- Making topic generalizations
- Reviewing items of previous research
- Move 2: Establishing a niche
- Indicating a gap
- Continuing a tradition
- Move 3: Occupying the Niche
- Outlining purposes
- Announcing previous research
- Announcing principal findings
- Indicating research article structure
(Swales, Genre Analysis, 141)
In his Academic Writing for Graduate Students, Swales explains that Move 2 “is the hinge that connects Move 1 (what has been done) to Move 3 (what the present research is about). Move 2 is the motivation for the study” (257).
In his Writing Science, Joshua Schimel presents a variation of these three-move models that he calls OCAR, and contains the following parts.
In this model, the steps taken to resolve the challenge are discussed separately from their effects. This is an apt model for the arguments of research papers that have methods sections in addition to results and discussion sections.
In closing, it is worth observing that even these models of argumentation reached from a bottom-up approach closely resemble the dialogic refutations practiced by Socrates and inherited by Aristotle, which seek to question and disrupt commonly held views (endoxa) in order to arrive at the truth.
 In his Sophistical Refutations, Aristotle declares himself to be the first to have thought systematically about arguments and the standards of correctness that govern them. No earlier logical treatise is know to have existed in the West, and the six logical treatises written by Aristotle served as the basis for the logic taught in European universities from the middle ages until the nineteenth century. Moreover, Aristotle was a part of the Socratic tradition that took dogma to be an obstacle to learning, which could only be surmounted through reasoned argument.