3. Arguments and Non-arguments

For greater appreciation of what an argument is and what it does, it is useful to contrast the entire category of arguments with things that are not arguments. What other kinds of things do we typically do with words, in passages of text or in speeches, conversations, etc.?

We might just tell, or pass along, facts (or apparent facts) about a situation, pointing out some event or some feature of a situation. We could call such doings “reports.”

Or we might be saying how we feel about some person or state of affairs. We could call this “stating an opinion.”

Or we might talk about what we believe to be the case with respect to a given situation. That sounds like the word “belief” might capture the idea.

(Now, even though I just presented opinion and belief as two categories, for the purpose of this course, I’m going to suggest we not concern ourselves with insisting on their difference. In my view, they have more in common, and that’s what’s important: they are both expressions of a claim, made without supporting evidence. The difference (that one seems to express a personal feeling, while the other expresses what someone thinks is true) is less important, from the point of view of logic, than is the fact that if you add another statement, and a conclusion or premise indicating word, you’ll get an argument from them both.)

Often what we do is something like telling others what they ought to do (or what they ought not to do!) or how they ought to do it. On the positive side, this would be advice; viewed a little more negatively, you might call it a “warning.”

In none of those five cases are we providing an argument, because in none of them are we giving reasons to support what we are conveying. (But that last sentence was an argument: It proposed a reason why you should believe that none of the others were arguments. Hopefully, you noticed “because” functioning as a premise indicator.)

Reporting, advising, warning, stating your belief about something or expressing your opinion about something –these are all very commonplace everyday things we do with words. Being able to identify and name cases of them as they occur –around us and within us–is a matter of a tiny little skill at observing, paying attention, and categorizing. In Philosophy in general, and in Logic in particular, that kind of skill is quite important to cultivate.

Let’s move on to some other kinds of things that we do with words. These are a little more sophisticated perhaps.

You might claim something is true (that’s stating a belief), but then give an example of it to help make the point you’re trying to convey more clear. Giving an example is what we’ll call an “illustration.” “If it’s not obvious enough what I mean, let me draw you a picture!” one might say. And with that, I have provided an illustration of what “illustration” means.

 

Conditionals

You might claim that something is true on condition that something else is true. This is not the same thing as merely expressing a belief, because in this case, the believed thing is presented as dependent on some other thing, which is presented as hypothetical. To illustrate, consider this:

“If the Pope is a Nazi, I’m a monkey’s uncle.”

Strange enough proposal, you might think. And you might immediately realize that the point of it is that whoever said it wanted whoever heard it to reject as utter nonsense the notion that the Pope is a Nazi. We will call such things “conditional statements.” At first glance, it could seem that a conditional statement is making an argument: is it not proposing that something is true as a result of something else?

The answer to this question is “No.” What a conditional statement is doing is saying that one thing is the case if something else is the case. But it is not claiming that either of them actually is the case. The conditional is one single claim, not a series of claims; the word “if” brings this about.

A conditional statement has two parts. The “if” clause is known as the antecedent, and the “then” clause is known as the consequent. You’ll want to get those terms into your vocabulary if you don’t already use them. Conditionals are a very central topic in Logic, and we’ll be talking about the relations between antecedents and consequents quite a lot later on. For now, it is worth pointing out that “if” and “then” are paradigmatic ways to express conditionals in English, but not the only ways. “Then” need not be said; “if” can do all the work. Also, “if” can be expressed by other words, such as “given that,” or “provided that,” or “on condition that.” Also, in ordinary everyday language, the order in which antecedent and consequent come makes no difference:

If it rains, you’ll wish you had an umbrella.

You’ll wish you had an umbrella if it rains.

It doesn’t hurt to point out –since we’re on the topic–that there are two kinds of conditions, and that their location in a conditional statement is quite predictable. A necessary condition is a state of affairs that has to be met in order that something else happen, such as rain being necessary for plant life, or gas in the tank being necessary for the car to run.

But more than gas is needed for the car to run; it may be necessary, but it’s not all that’s needed –that is, it is not sufficient. It would require quite a lengthy list of necessary conditions to constitute the sufficient condition for a car to run.

But, if the car is already running, there is something we can be quite sure of, isn’t there? Namely that there is gas in the tank! If all we have to know is that the car is running, in order for us to know that there is gas in the tank, then the car running is a sufficient condition of there being gas in the tank.

If we try to capture this in a conditional statement, it’s going to be this one: If the car is running, there’s gas in the tank.

Now, we just saw that

a) Gas in the tank is necessary for the car to run.

and

b) The car is running is sufficient for there being gas in the tank.

This conditional statement says both these things, because the antecedent of a conditional expresses a sufficient condition (for the consequent), and the consequent expresses a necessary condition (for the antecedent).

Being a mammal is necessary for being a cat, so it makes sense to say “If Socrates is a cat, then he’s a mammal.”

And it also makes sense to say this because being a cat is sufficient for being a mammal.

Being 21 is old enough to buy a drink: that doesn’t mean that if you are 21, you can buy a drink; it means that if you can buy a drink, you’re 21. Being 21 is a necessary condition for buying a drink; it is not sufficient (you also need money, for instance).

 

Explanations

A final example for our purposes here in telling arguments apart from non-arguments is the case of explanations. In fact, there are two kinds of explanations, so this will give us two categories to distinguish between.

In everyday life we use “explanation” and “explain” to talk about a) making the meaning of something more clear or evident, as well as b) why things happen the way they do. For instance (illustration), if, in talking about Descartes’ Meditations, I mention his version of the ontological argument for God’s existence in the 5th Meditation, you might raise your hand and say “Can you explain why that’s an ‘ontological’ argument?” Probably, what you’re asking for is what “ontological” means in that context, i.e., you want to have some insight into the meaning of that word and its relevance. What I would offer would be an explanation in the sense of an explication: exhibiting and clarifying meaning (the meaning of a word or phrase).

But there is another perfectly standard meaning of “explanation” which is not focused on the meanings of words or actions, but on the causes of events. “What is the explanation of poverty?” asks for an account of why poverty exists, not what it is.  Of course, if you put “poverty” in quotation marks, and ask “What is the explanation of ‘poverty’?,” by this shift from use to mention, you have shifted the meaning of “explanation” from “causal account” to “clarification of meaning.”  Now you’re not asking what causes poverty, you’re asking what the word itself means.

Some textbooks in Logic use “expository passage” to refer to what I’m thinking of as an explication. That makes sense too, since in an expository passage, one is exposing, at some length, the meaning or significance of some claim. But I think it’s a bit more narrow than “explication,” and I think it’s not as clear, in part because there is no acknowledgement that in everyday life we use “explanation” in both senses, and it is perfectly legitimate to do so. I’ll follow the standard, however, and say that we are going to use “explanation” to mean “a causal account of why something is the way it is.” In addition, I’ll introduce “explication” (you can interchange it with “exposition” if you like) to mean “a clarification of the meaning of something.”

 

The distinction between arguments and explanations is quite important, and there can be cases where it is difficult to make it with complete confidence. Another way to say this is:

Words like “because” have a logical sense as well as a causal sense.

We saw at the outset of this course that “because” is a very common word for signaling a premise: whenever you encounter “A because B” you can be sure that A is the conclusion and B is the premise. Well, now we have to admit that that’s the case only if we are talking about an argument. If I replace “A” with “The lights are on” and “B” with “Someone forgot to turn them off,” then this is not an argument, but rather, an explanation. “The lights are on” is what’s called an explanandum (the thing to be explained), and “Someone left them on” is called an explanans (the thing that explains it). Pardon my Latin.

With very minor paraphrasing, we can turn this explanation into an argument (actually we don’t even need the paraphrasing; it is a matter of a shift in attention):

No one turned the lights off, therefore they are on.

What accounts for the difference?

In the one case, I know the lights are on, but I don’t know why they are. What I am given is an explanation. In the other, I don’t know they are on, but I am wondering about it, and I am given a reason to believe they are on — an argument.

When someone says “It’s going to rain because the WUSA meteorologist said so,” is this an argument or an explanation? How about “Dr. Ackermann is here today because a student saw him”?

Both are arguments. To understand them as explanations would be to say that the student’s vision had the power to hallucinate Dr. Ackermann into existence, and that the weather forecaster has the ability to make it rain, by calling for it. It just takes a second to realize that that’s not the right interpretation of either.

Now, the rest of this chapter is simply three sets of exercises, selections of passages you can read over. Decide whether they are arguments or not. And if you think they are not, then draw on this list of non-arguments to see how it makes best sense to categorize them. They come from a range of sources, and this is the beginning of a phase in your thinking/ reading such that you should try to be mindful, and be on the lookout, as you read papers, websites, articles, etc., for these various things we do with words.

Here’s a brief audio recording that reviews these distinctions:

 

Here is a list of the seven kinds of non-arguments we’re identifying for the purposes of this class:

Advice/ warning,

Report,

Opinion/belief,

Conditional,

Illustration,

Explication,

Explanation.

It’s the first of several lists that you’ll need to commit to memory for the duration of this course (and beyond).

This link will open a Powerpoint that reviews this material:

2-nonarguments rev

 

Below you’ll find a first set of exercises to test yourself on making these distinctions and being able to provide an account of them. These come from Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014)

 

Identify what kind of passage each is: an argument or one of the seven non-arguments. If it’s an argument, spell out its premises and conclusion. If it’s something else, say why it is what it is. For instance (illustration) if you say it’s an explanation, say what it purports to explain (the explanandum) and how it purports to explain it (the explanans). If it’s a conditional, spell out its antecedent and consequent, etc.  The answers are provided after the set of exercises.

 

  1. When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. (1)
  2. The concrete physical reality of inequality is visible to the naked eye and naturally inspires sharp but contradictory political judgments. Peasant and noble, worker and factory owner, waiter and banker: each has his or her own unique vantage point and sees important aspects of how other people live and what relations of power and domination exist between social groups, and these observations shape each person’s judgment of what is and is not just. Hence there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate. (2)
  3. By the time Marx published the first volume of Capital in 1867, exactly one half century after the publication of Ricardo’s Principles, economic and social realities had changed profoundly: the question was no longer whether farmers could feed a growing population or land prices would rise sky high but rather how to understand the dynamics of industrial capitalism, now in full blossom. (7)
  4. “The development of Modern Industry cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers, Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” (Marx, quoted on p. 8)
  5. Marx’s dark prophecy came no closer to being realized than Ricardo’s. In the last third of the 19th century, wages finally began to increase: the improvement in the purchasing power of workers spread everywhere, and this changed the situation radically, even if extreme inequalities persisted and in some respects continued to increase until WW I. (9)
  6. One should be wary of any economic determinism in regard to inequalities of wealth and income. The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms. In particular, the reduction of inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war. Similarly the resurgence of inequality after 1980 is due largely to the political shifts of the past several decades, especially in regard to taxation and finance. (20)
  7. In slowly growing economies, past wealth naturally takes on disproportionate importance, because it takes only a small flow of new savings to increase the stock of wealth steadily and substantially. (25)
  8. If, moreover, the rate of return on capital remains significantly above the growth rate for an extended period of time, then the risk of divergence in the distribution of wealth is very high. Ibid.
  9. The French Revolution did not create a just or ideal society, but it did make it possible to observe the structure of wealth in unprecedented detail. (29)
  10. The system established in the 1790s for recording wealth in land, buildings, and financial assets was astonishingly modern and comprehensive for its time. The Revolution is the reason why French estate records are probably the richest in the world over the long run. Ibid
  11. In a way the French Revolution was more ambitious [than the American]. It abolished all legal privileges and sought to create a political and social order based entirely on equality of rights and opportunities. The Civil Code guaranteed absolute equality before the laws of property as well as freedom of contract (for men, at any rate). (30)
  12. I have no interest in denouncing inequality or capitalism per se –especially since social inequalities are not in themselves a problem as long as they are justified. p.31
  13. In France, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence, they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and the absurd claim they make to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything. Ibid. , p. 32
  14. Economics should never have sought to divorce itself from the other social sciences and can advance only in conjunction with them. Ibid.
  15. The discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation. Ibid.
  16. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. Ibid.
  17. Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. Ibid p. 35

 

 

 

 

Answers

1.When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. (1)

This seems to be a report, although it implicitly is saying that the inequalities are produced by the greater rate of return on capital (over the rate of growth), which would be an explanation of the inequalities.

 

2.The concrete physical reality of inequality is visible to the naked eye and naturally inspires sharp but contradictory political judgments. Peasant and noble, worker and factory owner, waiter and banker: each has his or her own unique vantage point and sees important aspects of how other people live and what relations of power and domination exist between social groups, and these observations shape each person’s judgment of what is and is not just. Hence there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate. (2)

“Hence” is a clear indicator that an argument is present. So here, even if you get lost in the length of the passage, you should sense that “hence” is an anchor to cling to. The conclusion is that inequality is fundamentally a political issue, not simply a “scientific” issue of Economics.

  1. By the time Marx published the first volume of Capital in 1867, exactly one half century after the publication of Ricardo’s Principles, economic and social realities had changed profoundly: the question was no longer whether farmers could feed a growing population or land prices would rise sky high but rather how to understand the dynamics of industrial capitalism, now in full blossom. (7)

This seems like a report, but it makes sense to see an illustration here as well. Instead of just saying that things had changed, the passage gives a clear example, after the colon.

 

  1. “The development of Modern Industry cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” (Marx, quoted on p. 8)

This is an argument. The conclusion is that the downfall of capitalism is inevitable.

  1. Marx’s dark prophecy came no closer to being realized than Ricardo’s. In the last third of the 19th century, wages finally began to increase: the improvement in the purchasing power of workers spread everywhere, and this changed the situation radically, even if extreme inequalities persisted and in some respects continued to increase until WW I. (9)

This clarifies, explains, or explicates the opening statement. “Explication” is the best answer.

  1. One should be wary of any economic determinism in regard to inequalities of wealth and income. The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms. In particular, the reduction of inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war. Similarly the resurgence of inequality after 1980 is due largely to the political shifts of the past several decades, especially in regard to taxation and finance. (20)

As often happens in a long passage, the first sentence states the conclusion, and the premises follow it.

Premise: the reduction of inequality between 1950 and 1980 was due to policies enacted in response to wars.

Premise: the increase in inequality since 1980 is due largely to policies on taxation and finance.

Conclusion: inequality is not a matter of economic determinism but of political realities.

  1. In slowly growing economies, past wealth naturally takes on disproportionate importance, because it takes only a small flow of new savings to increase the stock of wealth steadily and substantially. (25)

This could be read as an argument or as an explanation. The latter seems the stronger case: this is answering the question “Why does past wealth take on such importance in slow growing economies.”

  1. If, moreover, the rate of return on capital remains significantly above the growth rate for an extended period of time, then the risk of divergence in the distribution of wealth is very high. Ibid.

This is a conditional statement. The antecedent is “the rate of return on capital remains significantly above the growth rate for an extended period of time.”

 

  1. The French Revolution did not create a just or ideal society, but it did make it possible to observe the structure of wealth in unprecedented detail. (29)

Report

10.The system established in the 1790s for recording wealth in land, buildings, and financial assets was astonishingly modern and comprehensive for its time. The Revolution is the reason why French estate records are probably the richest in the world over the long run. Ibid

Explanation of why French economic records are so important. But this could be read or construed as making an argument for that point as well.

11. In a way the French Revolution was more ambitious [than the American]. It abolished all legal privileges and sought to create a political and social order based entirely on equality of rights and opportunities. The Civil Code guaranteed absolute equality before the laws of property as well as freedom of contract (for men, at any rate). (30)

 

This is an argument for why you should believe that the French Revolution was more ambitious than the American Revolution.

Premise: The French Revolution guaranteed absolute equality before the laws as well as freedom of contract (and the American Revolution did not) –at least for men.

Premise: The French Revolution abolished all legal privileges (and the American did not) –at least for men.

Conclusion: The French Revolution was more ambitious than the American Revolution.

12. I have no interest in denouncing inequality or capitalism per se –especially since social inequalities are not in themselves a problem as long as they are justified. p.31

“Since” is either introducing a premise (a reason to believe that he has no interest in denouncing inequality or capitalism) or else an explanans (the reason why he has no such interest).  Which do you think it is?

13. In France, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence, they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and the absurd claim they make to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything. Ibid. , p. 32

“Hence” is a conclusion indicator.

14.  Economics should never have sought to divorce itself from the other social sciences and can advance only in conjunction with them. Ibid.

Either a report (if this seems like a matter of fact) or an opinion (what he believes, and for which he here offers no support).

15.  The discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation. Ibid.

This seems more an opinion than just relaying some facts, because of the use of “childish.”

16.  Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. Ibid.

This seems more an opinion than just relaying some facts, because of the use of “petty.”

17.  Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. Ibid p. 35

Is this explaining why the usefulness of these lessons cannot be assessed today?  Or is it arguing that they cannot be assessed today?  At any rate, “since” is the key word.

 

 

 

 

 Now go on to 3.1 and other sets of exercises to continue practicing this ability to tell arguments from non-arguments. It’s fundamental to the course to be able to avoid confusing them.

 

 

 

 

3 Responses to 3. Arguments and Non-arguments

  1. Adolf Logic says:

    you are sick!

  2. alloanne says:

    thank you for posting this =)

  3. alloanne says:

    very informative

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