In order to persuade a particular audience of a particular point, a writer makes decisions about how best to convince the reader. Aristotle recognized three basic appeals that a writer (or orator) should consider when presenting an argument: logos, ethos, and pathos.
Consider this hypothetical plea from Zach to his father: “Dad, could you loan me money for gas until I get my paycheck at the end of the week? If you do, I’ll be able to haul your junk pile to the dump as well as drive myself back and forth to work. I’ll pay you back as soon as I get my check!”
Logos, a Latin term referring to logic, appeals to the reader’s intellect. As readers, we test arguments for their soundness. Does the writer make false assumptions? Are there gaps in the argument? Does the writer leap to conclusions without sufficient evidence to back up his claims? As writers, it is our job to build a solid, well-explained, sufficiently supported argument. In academic texts, logos is usually considered the most important appeal since scholarly research is supposed to be objective and thus more dependent on logic than on emotion (pathos) or on the reputation of the scholar (ethos). What about Zach’s argument above? Essentially, he asserts that a loan from his father would benefit both Zach and his dad. Does the argument seem sound? We do not know why Zach is short on cash this week—his father may be aware that Zach spent most of last week’s check on the newest iPhone, so he does not have enough to cover his gas this week. Thus, there may be factors that undermine Zach’s implication that his request is motivated by responsibility. However, he does offer evidence that the loan will allow him to fulfill his obligations.
Logic is based on either inductive or deductive reasoning. Understanding these types of logic can help us test the soundness of arguments, both our own and those of others.
You likely use inductive reasoning every day. By this kind of logic, we form conclusions based on samples. Lab experiments, for example, must be repeatable in order for scientists to gather a convincing amount of data to prove a hypothesis. If a scientist hypothesizes that addiction to a particular drug causes a certain, predictable behavior, the experiment must be carefully controlled, and must be repeated hundreds of times in order to prove that the behavior is consistently associated with the addiction and that other possible causes of that behavior have been ruled out. If we observe enough examples of an event occurring under similar circumstances, we can employ inductive reasoning to draw a conclusion about the pattern. For example, if we pay less each time we buy apples at Supermart than when we purchase apples at Pete’s Grocery, we will likely conclude, inductively, that apples are less expensive at Supermart.
Literary argument is often based on inductive reasoning. Here are two illustrations of such reasoning:
- In Robert Frost’s sonnet “Design,” the color white is used ironically to suggest that only a devious designer would clothe the universe’s evil in so much beauty. The “dimpled spider, fat and white”; the “white heal-all” flower that “hold[s] up” the moth for the spider’s feast; and the rhyming of “blight” with “white” and “right” work together to generate the poem’s disturbing sense that the innocence implied in the whiteness of the natural scene is deceptive.
- As powerful evidence of the irreversible destruction of war, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises presents Jake Barnes’s struggles to overcome the damage incurred during his service as a soldier in World War I. Jake’s difficulty coping with his injury, his tendency to self-medicate with alcohol, his inability to pray, and his failure to sustain an intimate relationship with another person all exemplify the terrible destruction inflicted on him by the war.
When writing a literary analysis essay, such as the paper that might develop from the second argument above, you will need to provide enough examples to support your assertion that the pattern you observed in the text does, indeed, exist.
Deductive reasoning, on the other hand, is drawing a conclusion based on a logical equation. It can be argued that we see deduction in its purest form in the context of scientific or mathematical reasoning. A logical equation of this sort is based on a proven assumption and/or clearly and inflexibly-defined terms. Commonly manifesting these conditions, computer programs accomplish tasks through deductive logic. For example, Mary, an art major who has completed 24 credit hours, cannot register for English 4500. This statement is true because the university course enrollment system is governed by the following logic: Only English majors with 30 or more credit hours may register for English 4500. Students who have not officially declared as English majors and/or whose records do not exhibit completion of credit hours equal to or greater than 30 will be automatically prevented from registering for English 4500. Similarly, the following statement is based on deductive logic: Glyptol paint cannot be cleaned up with water only. This conclusion is based on the fact that Glyptol contains alkyds, which are not water soluble. Therefore, clean-up of any paint containing alkyds will require turpentine or another petroleum-based solvent.
Having examined deductive reasoning in its pure form, however, we can see that argument will rarely be required in such a context. Investigation may be required in order to determine the characteristic and/ or definition of a material, but once the facts are ascertained, scientists will not need to debate whether or not alkyds are water-soluble. Persuasion becomes relevant when the issue moves beyond proven facts. As we explore issues of ethics and values, logical reasoning can seem a bit mushy, yet rather than throw up their hands in abandonment of deductive reasoning, humanities scholars generally work hard to establish valid assumptions, or generally agreed-upon notions, that can be used to help humans move closer to reasonable, or logical, social and political beliefs and behaviors.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes is famous for employing deductive reasoning to solve mysteries. In “Five Orange Pips,” Holmes uses deductive reasoning to work as far as possible toward solving John Openshaw’s case, based on the facts Holmes and Watson have been given:
Now let us consider the situation and see what may be deduced from it. In the first place, we may start with a strong presumption that Colonel Openshaw had some very strong reason for leaving America. Men at his time of life do not change all their habits and exchange willingly the charming climate of Florida for the lonely life of an English provincial town. His extreme love of solitude in England suggests the idea that he was in fear of someone or something, so we may assume as a working hypothesis that it was fear of someone or something which drove him from America. As to what it was he feared, we can only deduce that by considering the formidable letters which were received by himself and his successors. Did you remark the postmarks of those letters?
Equations such as the ones being forwarded by Holmes, when seen in their complete form, comprise a three part logical statement called a syllogism.
The statement includes
- A general statement, or major premise: Middle-aged men do not readily embrace change.
- A minor premise: Colonel Openshaw is a middle-aged man.
- And a conclusion: Colonel Openshaw would not have changed his circumstances without a strong impetus.
Although some might argue that Holmes came to the major premise through inductive reasoning (observing the behavior of many, many middle-aged men), in the above passage, he asserts the major premise as the basis for his deductive logical equation proving that Colonel Openshaw must have had a strong impetus for leaving America. If we agree with Holmes’s premise, we are likely to trust his conclusion.
Here is a more questionable logical equation, considered by the characters of Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat”:
If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble. The whole affair is absurd.... But, no, she cannot mean to drown me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work.
The following syllogism reflects the men’s attitude:
- Major premise: The world is just and reasonable.
- Minor premise: All of the men in the life-boat are good men and are working hard to survive.
- Conclusion: All of the men should survive.
You can see in the latter example that some times syllogisms are flawed, or illogical. Most of us doubt, at least some of the time, that the universe is indeed just and reasonable, at least by human standards. If it is not just, then the men’s conclusion that they ought to survive may be incorrect.
The occurrence of flawed logic is most problematic when we find an equation in its incomplete form: an enthymeme. If we consider the major premise as the underlying assumption, and recognize that this premise often goes unstated, we see that the enthymeme is a type of elliptical statement that sometimes “leaps” to its conclusion unreasonably. Consider the following examples:
- Enthymeme: Sarah, don’t eat that beef; it came from Bob’s Café.
- Major premise: All food from Bob’s Café is bad.
- Minor premise: That beef came from Bob’s Café.
- Conclusion: That beef is bad.
- Enthymeme: Lisa Harmon would be a good hire for our company; she has a degree from Harvard University.
- Major premise: Anyone with a degree from Harvard University would be a good employee for our company.
- Minor premise: Lisa has a degree from Harvard University.
- Conclusion: Lisa would be a good employee for our company.
- Enthymeme: Kill Bill is a chick flick.
- Major premise: Any movie that features a female protagonist is a chick flick.
- Minor premise: Kill Bill features a female protagonist.
- Conclusion: Kill Bill is a chick flick.
As you test the major premises above, how do they fare? Are they true? If a writer asserted the above enthymemes, would you, as the reader, agree with the major premise of each? Why or why not? What is the danger of reading (or hearing) only the enthymeme and not testing the underlying (unspoken) assumption which would complete the syllogism?
Whether an assertion is based on inductive or deductive reasoning, when we test a claim, it helps to know about the following logical fallacies commonly found in weak arguments:
This claim encourages us to agree with a particular opinion because “everyone else agrees with it.” Frost’s “Design” implies an evil creator; several important critics agree that this is Frost’s message. Does the text itself support this theory?
This kind of argument suggests that a problem results from one particular cause when the causes may actually be complex and multiple: In The Great Gatsby, it is Gatsby’s decision to pursue a decadent woman like Daisy that leads to his downfall. Are there any other factors that might lay the groundwork for the tragic events of the novel?
This type of statement implies that there are only two options: Roethke’s poem “My Papa’s Waltz” either points to abuse, or it emphasizes the love between father and son. Is it possible for both to be true?
In this kind of argument, the writer warns that one step in the “wrong” direction will result in complete destruction: If the instructor curves the grade for this assignment, students will expect a curve on all assignments, and they will lose their motivation to work hard toward their own learning. Is the compromised course grade inevitable as the result of one curved assignment grade? A similar argument is the following: If the government gives welfare to poor citizens, those citizens will become permanently dependent on “handouts” and will lose their motivation to work for a living.
In this approach, the writer holds up an extreme and usually easyto-defeat example of the opposition as the general representative of that opposition instead of considering the opposition’s most reasonable arguments. Senator Jill Campbell was convicted of bribery, confirming that politicians can’t be trusted. Are there any ethical politicians? If so, this conclusion is logically flawed.
Here, the writer offers a cause that seems linked to the problem but does not actually establish the causal relationship. The university cut three class days due to snow, and now I’m failing history; therefore, the university should have added three extra days to the semester.
As you listen to and read arguments forwarded by others, test the claims carefully to ensure that you are not accepting an illogical line of thinking. Also, carefully review your own arguments to avoid forwarding faulty logic yourself!
Ethos, an appeal based on the credibility of the author, can affect a reader’s willingness to trust the writer. This credibility is often generated by the author’s apparent ethics. If the reader perceives that she shares important values with the writer, the door of communication opens wider than if the writer and reader seem to lack common values. Reflecting back to Zach’s request for a loan from his father, Zach does remind his father subtly that the loan will allow him to work, both at his job and at home. This respect for work is likely a value held by Zach’s father, so it becomes important common ground for the argument.
Consider again the previously presented thesis about Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:
As powerful evidence of the irreversible destruction of war, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises presents Jake Barnes’s struggles to overcome the damage incurred during his service as a soldier in World War I. Jake’s difficulty coping with his injury, his tendency to self-medicate with alcohol, his inability to pray, and his failure to sustain an intimate relationship with another person all exemplify the terrible destruction inflicted on him by the war.
Hopefully, the writer, let’s call him Bill, will go on to support, with evidence from the text, the claim that the portrayal of Jake’s struggles promotes anti-war sentiment. Beyond the logical soundness of the argument, however, the reader will inevitably react on a personal level to the values underlying the statement. Bill, in his decision to focus on this aspect of the text, seems to appreciate the anti-war stance he observes in the novel. If the reader is sympathetic to this position, she may be more open to Bill’s argument as a whole.
Aside from the writer’s ethics, ethos can also be generated by the author’s credibility, which is usually based on (1) the ability to forward a logical argument (hence, ethos can be affected by logos!), (2) thoroughness of significant research, and (3) credentials proving the writer’s expertise. If Bill is not an expert in the field of literary studies yet, but is a sophomore English Major, he may have no recognizable credentials to persuade the reader in his favor. But if he has been careful and thorough in his presentation of evidence (passages and examples from the text itself) and has considered (and possibly integrated) material from scholarly articles and books to help define and support his argument, his ethos is likely to be strong.
What about pathos, or the appeal to the reader’s emotions? Certainly, Zach’s father will be affected by his feelings for his son Zach as he considers whether to loan Zach the money for gas, but what about in a more academic or professional context? Even though the goal of an academic writer is to approach a research topic as objectively as possible, even scholars are people, and people are emotional creatures. Bill’s awareness of this fact leads him to choose some particularly poignant passages from Hemingway’s novel to support his point:
The damage caused by Jake’s war experience is not only physical but also psychological. For example, after looking in the mirror at the scar from his wound, he lies in bed unable to sleep:
I lay awake thinking and my mind jumping around. Then I couldn’t keep away from it, and I started to think about Brett and all the rest of it went away. I was thinking about Brett and my mind stopped jumping around and started to go in sort of smooth waves. Then all of a sudden I started to cry. Then after a while it was better and I lay in bed and listened to the heavy trams go by and way down the street, and then I went to sleep. (Hemingway 31)
Although Jake makes a convincing show in public of dealing with his trauma, this passage reveals the challenge he faces in trying to cope.
Although Bill’s readers will critically consider whether this passage logically supports Bill’s claim, it is likely that they will also react emotionally to Jake’s anguish, thus reinforcing the persuasive effectiveness of Bill’s argument.