In conventional terms we think of arguments as verbal fights, e.g., “yesterday my boyfriend and I had an argument because he thinks the Detroit Lions suck.” But in philosophy the term argument has a much more specific and technical meaning. To put it in the simplest terms, in philosophy an argument is a list of reasons to believe something is the case.
Philosophically-speaking, an argument is made up of at least two declarative statements, and there are two kinds of declarative statements in an argument.
Let’s say I want argue that the Detroit Lions will win the Super Bowl in the next five years. Standing by itself, this is just my opinion. But let’s say I want to make an argument for this statement. Since this is the statement I am arguing for, this statement is known as the argument’s conclusion.
Now I have to give you at least one reason for why you should believe this conclusion. Let’s say I argue that you should believe this because the Lions are getting new owners who are serious about spending enough money to finally make the team a serious contender. Since this is a statement offered to support the conclusion, it is known at the argument’s premise.
To boil all this down to its essence: any time you answer the why question in reference to an opinion you’ve expressed, or give reasons for why you think someone else’s opinion is wrong, you’re making an argument. In other words, we make arguments all the time.
Of course, you can add premises to strengthen your argument, and it helps if all of your premises are true. It also helps if your conclusion follows from the premises presented. In other words, the two basic ways an argument can fail is if the premise(s) are false, and/or if the conclusion does not follow from the premises.
In fact, there is an entire science of argumentation that is a major subfield of philosophy called logic, which is deployed to arrive at the truth not only in philosophy but in every rational attempt to know the world. If you’re interested in learning more about the science of logic, you should consider taking either Critical Thinking or Symbolic Logic, both of which are offered by the philosophy department every year.
But for present purposes our simple definition of argument (“a list of reasons to believe something is the case”) will suffice. Bear in mind that when we’re reading the assigned texts for this course we’ll be focusing on the arguments the authors are making for their positions. At the same time, you will be asked to justify the opinions you express about these texts by making an argument for them.
© D. R. Koukal