Philosophy Tutor: Constructing the Argument

Posted by Enoch Lambert on 3/5/14 8:42 AM

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That's one way to build an argument.

Welcome back to our Philosophy Tutor series!  Today, our resident Rousseau breaks down the best way to structure a written argument.


In January I wrote about how the first step in writing a good philosophical essay was deciding on a single, pointed claim and properly formulating it.  As the good philosophy students you all are, I’m sure you all have clear, concise theses ready to defend.  Today I’ll begin to talk about the next step in the process, defending your claims by constructing arguments for them. 

Before I talk about arguments, however, let me be clear about something.  I am not offering writing advice on how to compose your essays, yet.  Rather, I’m telling you about the necessary thinking, including writing, that needs to happen prior to writing your paper in its final form.  It is best to think about the process of writing a philosophy paper as constructing a skeleton and then putting the flesh on.  Your primary claim and supporting argument are the backbone of the skeleton: that which structures and gives form to everything else.  Your finished product will include bells and whistles aimed at effectively communicating your argument.  Long before that, though, you need to figure out what the nuts and bolts of it are.  

Let’s begin by thinking about what an argument is or does.  Arguments for a claim aim at providing good reasons for believing it.  Ideally an argument would provide conclusive reason to believe the claim it is offered in support of.  But usually we have to settle for something less: an argument showing that the balance of reasons favors the claim being argued for.  Let me illustrate.  

Consider the following claim: Michael Jordan was the best basketball player ever.  As opposed to the claim that I, Enoch Lambert, am the best basketball player ever, there is actually a compelling argument to be made for the former.  But not a conclusive one.  A conclusive argument might be one for the Pythagorean theorem where you showed me that it follows deductively from basic points about geometry that were self-evident to me.

On the other hand, there is no such argument for who the best basketball player ever is.  This is so for a few reasons.  First, while there may be some general principles for what makes someone a truly exceptional basketball player, there is probably not a specification of all the criteria necessary to uniquely pick out a single player as the best which everyone would agree on.  For example, suppose that we were able to decide who the best point guard and center of all time were.  On what basis would we decide whether the best point guard was a better basketball player, in general, than the best center?  Or consider the problem of comparing players from different eras.  How would we choose between two point guards (let alone players of two different positions) one of which was much more dominant in a much less competitive era?  Whether it is Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Bill Russell, or Bill Murray in Space Jam, if we have no deciding criteria to determine a single best player, then there will be no conclusive argument for any one player being the best.  


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Of course, the debate is purely academic; obviously the answer is Bill Murray. The answer is always Bill Murray.

I hope you saw what I did just there.  I constructed a brief argument (certainly non-conclusive!) for the claim that there cannot be a conclusive argument in favor of Michael Jordan being the best basketball player ever (especially when you factor in Bill Murray).  And I did it by offering reasons that are supposed to tell in favor of the claim.  The reasons were meant to cast doubt on the idea that we could determine universally agreed upon principles that would decide between genuinely great players.  The last thing was accomplished by asking you to imagine possible scenarios where hard decisions between great players might actually have to be made.  I, somewhat rhetorically, suggested that we can’t really imagine what principles we would call upon to decide in such cases and then further suggested that this is evidence that there are none.  (Bye the way, I definitely do not recommend argumentation by means of rhetorical questions for anything other than a short blog post.  In a proper philosophical essay on the topic, I would turn those rhetorical questions into further steps in the argument).  

There are many ways to make an argument in philosophy and no one formula for constructing one.  But I think the dialectic in the argument that I gave above can be used as a model for how to think about how your own argument will go.  In your own work, you will be making some claim, C.  Convincing people that C is true may be thought of, for our purposes, as equivalent to convincing them that the negation of C is false.  To come up with good reasons for C, then, it can be useful to think about why someone wouldn’t or shouldn’t accept not-C.  Above I tried to think of best case scenarios in which we might get close to establishing who the best basketball player ever is.  And then I tried to cast doubt on our ability to do so even in those situations.  

Here’s another way to think about it.  As I did above, philosophers are constantly coming up with thought experiments to think about possible cases and what those possible cases mean for the issue under examination.  Have you ever wondered why?  Well, think about what an argument is in real life.  Usually it involves two people with differing opinions about one and the same claim.  Or, two different people, one of whom believes that C and one of whom believes that not-C.  The way to resolve an argument is to seek out some general principle(s) that could tell you whether C is true or not.  And one way of doing that is to think of different possible cases that aren’t the actual one under dispute (since you already know you don’t agree on it), but that may be relevantly similar.  From hypothetical cases, then, it may be possible to formulate a general principle which will apply to, and decide, the case under dispute.  

In thinking about how your argument for some claim will go, I can think of no better way to start than by thinking of your claim in this dialectical way and then beginning to think of hypothetical examples and general principles that tell in favor of your claim. 

Tags: philosophy, expository writing