Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

1.1: What is an Argument?

  • Page ID
    26800
  • This is an introductory textbook in logic and critical thinking. Both logic and critical thinking centrally involve the analysis and assessment of arguments. “Argument” is a word that has multiple distinct meanings, so it is important to be clear from the start about the sense of the word that is relevant to the study of logic. In one sense of the word, an argument is a heated exchange of differing views as in the following:

    This is an introductory textbook in logic and critical thinking. Both logic and critical thinking centrally involve the analysis and assessment of arguments. “Argument” is a word that has multiple distinct meanings, so it is important to be clear from the start about the sense of the word that is relevant to the study of logic. In one sense of the word, an argument is a heated exchange of differing views as in the following:

    Sally and Bob are having an argument in this exchange. That is, they are each expressing conflicting views in a heated manner. However, that is not the sense of “argument” with which logic is concerned. Logic concerns a different sense
    of the word “argument.” An argument, in this sense, is a reason for thinking that a statement, claim or idea is true. For example:

    Sally: Abortion is morally wrong because it is wrong to take the life of an
    innocent human being, and a fetus is an innocent human being.

    In this example Sally has given an argument against the moral permissibility of abortion. That is, she has given us a reason for thinking that abortion is morally wrong. The conclusion of the argument is the first four words, “abortion is morally wrong.” But whereas in the first example Sally was simply asserting that abortion is wrong (and then trying to put down those who support it), in this example she is offering a reason for why abortion is wrong.

    We can (and should) be more precise about our definition of an argument. But before we can do that, we need to introduce some further terminology that we will use in our definition. As I’ve already noted, the conclusion of Sally’s argument is that abortion is morally wrong. But the reason for thinking the conclusion is true is what we call the premise. So we have two parts of an argument: the premise and the conclusion. Typically, a conclusion will be supported by two or more premises. Both premises and conclusions are statements. A statement is a type of sentence that can be true or false and corresponds to the grammatical category of a “declarative sentence.” For example, the sentence,

    The Nile is a river in northeastern Africa

    is a statement. Why? Because it makes sense to inquire whether it is true or false. (In this case, it happens to be true.) But a sentence is still a statement even if it is false. For example, the sentence,

    The Yangtze is a river in Japan

    is still a statement; it is just a false statement (the Yangtze River is in China). In contrast, none of the following sentences are statements:

    Please help yourself to more casserole

    Don’t tell your mother about the surprise

    Do you like Vietnamese pho?

    The reason that none of these sentences are statements is that it doesn’t make sense to ask whether those sentences are true or false (rather, they are requests or commands, and questions, respectively).

    So, to reiterate: all arguments are composed of premises and conclusions, which are both types of statements. The premises of the argument provide a reason for thinking that the conclusion is true. And arguments typically involve more
    than one premise. A standard way of capturing the structure of an argument is by numbering the premises and conclusion. For example, recall Sally’s argument against abortion:

    Abortion is morally wrong because it is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being, and a fetus is an innocent human being.

    We could capture the structure of that argument like this:

    1. It is morally wrong to take the life of an innocent human being
    2. A fetus is an innocent human being
    3. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong

    By convention, the last numbered statement (also denoted by the “therefore”) is the conclusion and the earlier numbered statements are the premises. This is what we call putting an argument into standard argument form. We can now give a more precise definition of an argument. An argument is a set of statements, some of which (the premises) attempt to provide a reason for thinking that some other statement (the conclusion) is true. Although arguments are typically given in order to convince or persuade someone of the conclusion, the argument itself is independent of one’s attempt to use it to convince or persuade. For example, I have just given you this argument not in an attempt to convince you that abortion is morally wrong, but as an illustration of what an argument is. Later on in this chapter and in this book we will learn some techniques of evaluating arguments, but for now the goal is to learn to identify an argument, including its premises and conclusion(s). It is important to be able to identify arguments and understand their structure, whether or not you agree with conclusion of the argument. In the next section I will provide some techniques for being able to identify arguments.

    Exercise

    Which of the following sentences are statements and which are not?

    1. No one understands me but you.
    2. Alligators are on average larger than crocodiles.
    3. Is an alligator a reptile or a mammal?
    4. An alligator is either a reptile or a mammal.
    5. Don’t let any reptiles into the house.
    6. You may kill any reptile you see in the house.
    7. East Africans are not the best distance runners.
    8. Obama is not a Democrat.
    9. Some humans have wings.
    10. Some things with wings cannot fly.
    11. Was Obama born in Kenya or Hawaii?
    12. Oh no! A grizzly bear!
    13. Meet me in St. Louis.
    14. We met in St. Louis yesterday.
    15. I do not want to meet a grizzly bear in the wild.