Skip to main content

FAQ Arguments and Argument Analysis

What is an argument?

An argument is a succession of statements such that some of these statements (the premises) imply another (the conclusion).

What is the purpose of arguments?

Arguments may be used for various purposes. They may, for instance, be used to draw conclusions, to give reasons for our beliefs and decisions, to jointly search for the truth, to convince someone, or to explain an event. Whether or not an argument is fit for such purposes depends on whether or not it is good.

What is a good argument?

We may distinguish between the following questions:

  1. Are the premises true?
  2. Is the conclusion true?
  3. Is the transition from the premises to the conclusion legitimate?

Usually, a good argument is one for which the third question is answered affirmatively. Here, one can distinguish between deductive and non-deductive criteria. In a deductively valid argument, the conclusion follows from the premises, i.e. it is impossible for the conclusion to be false, while the premises are true. The validity of an argument only concerns the transition, not the actual truth or falsity of the premises. Nevertheless, we are usually interested in arguments that contain true premises. An argument that is deductively valid and only contains true premises is often called "sound." In a non-deductive strong argument, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. It can, however, still be a good argument, if the premises give good reasons for the truth of the conclusion.

What is an argument reconstruction?

Arguments are often presented in an incomplete, perhaps incomprehensible, and sometimes misleading way. In order to make an argument comprehensible and to evaluate it, it is often necessary to "reconstruct" it. Given a sketchy and incomplete argumentative text, an argument reconstruction presents the entire argument in a standardardized form. In this standard form, all and only the necessary premises and the conclusion are formulated in complete sentences so that the transition between the premises and the conclusion is transparent. This transition can be displayed in different ways, such as by "therefore" or "from this is follows", with a horizontal line, or sometimes simply by marking the premises and the conclusion as such.

What is the purpose of an argument reconstruction?

The main purpose of an argument reconstruction is to display an argument in its entirety, and to evaluate it regarding its validity (in the case of a deductive argument), its strength (in the case of a non-deductive argument), and its soundness. An argument reconstruction is an interpretation of a text or speech.

How to reconstruct an argument?

It is best to begin an argument reconstruction by identifying the conclusion, that is, by answering the question: What is argued for? Then one can examine how the argument for this conclusion works, i.e. what premises are used. In some circumstances it might be necessary to reformulate existing sentences in a substantial way or to add to them. If the argument is incomplete, one has to add the missing premises. As soon as the first version of the argument is finished, one has to check whether one really has used all necessary premises in the reconstruction. One thus has to ask two questions: Are all of these premises necessary? Are all of the necessary premises included?

The exact formulation of the statements might require strong skills of interpretation. One should further abide by the principle of charity. That is, one should not unneccesarily attribute false beliefs to the author, and one should reconstruct the argument, if possible, in a valid or inductively strong way. It should be noted that there is often more than one possible reconstruction of an argument and that the differences might be taken as a starting point for further discussions regarding interpretation.

Where to find more about argument reconstructions?

Further literature regarding argument reconstructions can be found in these German books:

  • Brun, Georg/ Hirsch Hadorn, Gertrude (2009): Textanalyse in den Wissenschaften. Inhalte und Argumente analysieren und verstehen. Stuttgart: UTB.
  • Pfister, Jonas (2013): Werkzeuge des Philosophierens. Stuttgart: Reclam.
  • Tetens, Holm (2006): Philosophisches Argumentieren. Eine Einführung. 2. durchgesehene Auflage, München: Beck.

and in these English books:

  • Bowell, Tracy/ Kemp, Gary (2002): Critical Thinking: A concise guide. London/ New York: Routledge.
  • Feldman, Richard (2014): Reason and Argument. Harlow: Pearson.

Recommended Websites:

  • Critical Thinking Web – with more than 100 exercises in critical thinking.
  • Argdown – an easy syntax for the presentation and visualization of complex argumentation.