Building an Argument

Presenting and handling opposing arguments is the most frequently neglected part of student critical arguments... it is the hardest part of the paper, and as such, it will be the most valuable component of your grade.


Appeals to emotion are extremely effective in swaying public opinion. Why else do you think so many inarticulate "TV personalities" and dim-witted supermodels become spokespersons for commercial products and political causes?  Many public relations campaigns are intelligent and well-researched, but marketers and politicians care about motivating a reader to do something -- buy this brand of soap, or vote this way on this issue.

As critical thinkers, however, we should be equipped with the necessary intellectual skills to test the strength of an argument to see where it collapses.  Critical thinking helps us build a complex case, especially in those situations where more than one answer is plausible.

The Structure of a Classical Argument [more]

  • Introduction: State your thesis.
    • Don't mistakenly provide a topic instead of a thesis.
      • Topic: "Public safety in Collegetown." (far too vague for a thesis)
      • Thesis: "The City of Collegetown should install additional lights on University Avenue."
    • Don't waste your reader's time by arguing an overly simple thesis.
      • "Drug abuse is a bad thing." (By definition, "abuse" is bad.)
      • "Just as student athletes must regularly submit to drug testing, student scholars should also prove that they are drug-free in order to enroll in college." (A much more complex  issue, and therefore a much more interesting argument.)
    • (The Greeks also used the "introduction" to gain the trust of the listeners... that was very important for oral arguments, such as the Greeks used, but it is less central to an academic paper.)
  • Narration: Think of this as "quick background."
    • Provide context or background information that lays the foundation for your argument.  What is at stake? Why are you bothering to argue it?
    • This section should be brief and subtle.
      • Do not treat this section as an opportunity to puff up the size of your paper.
      • If you overstate your case here, your reader will be more likely to reject your arguments.
  • Stating Your Thesis: Confirmation: Lay out the evidence that supports the position you wish to defend.
    • Assemble all the supporting evidence.
    • Divide your argument into main points and sub-points. Provide an overview to ensure the reader knows how you plan to proceed.
    • Present and defend each point in turn. Quote experts, cite facts, define criteria, analyze data, provide examples.
  • Handling the Opposition: Refutation and Concession. Present a thorough summary of opposing arguments that refute the claims you want to make.  If you are writing an academic paper, or if you simply want to be as thorough as you can, you should quote experts, cite facts, analyze trends, give examples, and, in short, work just as hard in this section as you did when laying out your supporting evidence.  .
    • State the opposing argument fairly and thoroughly.
    • It is not sufficient to spend two pages confirming your thesis, and then pretend to introduce an opposing argument by writing, "Some people hold a different opinion; however, those people are stupid/racist/sexist/anarchists/left-wingers/right-wingers/fence-sitters/brainwashed."
    • For each opposing point you raise, you must either refute or concede.
      • Refutation: You present enough additional evidence to counter the opposing claim.
      • Concession: You admit that the opposing claim is valid; however, you demonstrate how it is possible to accept it without rejecting your whole argument.
  • Summation: Not a simple repetition, but an amplification.
    • In the oral Greek culture, the summation was the message that the speaker wanted to linger in the listener's mind once the speech was over.
    • For an academic essay, you want your grader to finish a paper with a clear understanding of what you feel your paper has accomplished.
      • Please do not write, "Therefore, my paper has proved [original thesis]."
      • You should address the refutations and concessions you have made, showing how slight modifications in your original claim easily handle even the strongest opposition.
      • At the same time, you show that your thesis, as you originally proposed it, is really the best solution to the problem.

If You Change Your Mind While Writing

If, during the course of your writing, you find your opinion changing (intensifying, lessening, or even flip-flopping), wonderful! It means you are employing the principles of Hegelian dialectics, also known as the "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" method.

Other Argumentation Models

Formal Logic
Reduces an argument to a series of equations: "Socrates is a man; all men are mortal; therefore, Socrates is mortal." This style presumes that anything worth arguing can be turned into such an equation.
Rogerian Argument

Less confrontational; focuses more on locating common ground, rather than disproving the other side. Useful when dealing with values and ethics, when polarized emotions threaten to cloud an issue (for example, abortion, racial politics, sexual politics, or religion). In order to work, you must not merely tolerate, but embrace the opposing viewpoint, putting yourself in the mind of the other person, in order to determine whether there is an underlying problem that both sides could work to support.
  • For example, you might start with "pro-abortion vs. anti-abortion" or "Right to Life vs. Right to Choose."  The neutral,  parallel phrasing is important (helping your reader to understand whether you think the core issue is abortion or rights).  A Rogerian argument, or indeed any fair argument, should never skew the issue thus: "baby killers vs. protectors of the innocent unborn" or "heroic women's healthcare advocates vs. misogynist Bible-thumping fascists").  Further, no group identifies itself as "Anti-Choice" or "Pro-Babykilling." To use such biased terms is to stack the deck unfairly (and to miss the whole point of logic).  A politician wants to "win" and will stretch logic in order to do so; as a scholar, you're supposed to demonstrate that you won't let your emotions cloud your understanding of the issue; you're supposed to prove you can use evidence to support a non-obvous position on a complex topic.
  • A Rogerian thesis does not incite conflict, but rather emphasizes shared values: "Regardless of whether the fetus is entitled to legal protection, society as a whole will benefit if we treat a high abortion rate as symptomatic of a greater social illness. Identifying and addressing that illness will do more practical good than endlessly pitting the rights of a woman against the rights of her fetus."
Toulmin Argument
This one is a bit complex.  Whereas classical formal logic depends upon equations (Socrates = man; man = mortal; therefore Socrates = mortal), Toulmin logic zooms in on that final "=", and examines the "therefore" as well. [more]


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