3. Arguments and Non-arguments: Doing things with words

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.



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.

This claim requires that we be very literal, and of course, in everyday life we seldom are. Consider the following conditional statement, one of the most consequential perhaps, of 2019, from Robert Mueller’s press conference on the day he resigned from the Justice Department: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” Literally this is just a single statement. But it is hard not to hear “and we did not say so, so we do not have confidence that the president did not commit a crime.” In context, single statements can have more force than they have on their own, decontextualized. As you will see later in the course, this conditional statement is the first premise in a formal argument pattern called “Modus Tollens.”

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.


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).



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,







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



An Impeachment Example

On January 7, 2020, the Washington Post published this quote from a statement made by John Bolton (Trump’s former National Security Adviser, who did not appear before the House of Representatives during the Impeachment Inquiry):

“It now falls to the Senate to fulfill its Constitutional obligation to try impeachments, and it does not appear possible that a final judicial resolution of the still-unanswered Constitutional questions can be obtained before the Senate acts. Accordingly, since my testimony is once again at issue, I have had to resolve the serious competing issues as best I could, based on careful consideration and study. I have concluded that, if the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify.”

Five of our distinctions of things done with words can be applied to explicate what is going on in this passage. See if you can spell them out as clearly as you can before you read any further.

The first statement is a Report. The second statement (the second part of the first sentence) is an Opinion or Belief. The second sentence is an Conclusion based on the report and belief (note “Accordingly”). The conclusion is really “I have had to resolve this the best I could” which is presented here as the explanandum of an Explanation: the “since” is causal, not logical. The final statement looks like a conclusion, but I think it’s more accurate to say this is a Report of a conclusion, since he does not really give any information as to how he arrived at it (except “study and consideration”). And this report of a conclusion is in the form of a Conditional Statement.

Thank you Mr. Bolton, for a great and up-to-date example!

 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.




11 Responses to 3. Arguments and Non-arguments: Doing things with words

  1. Jvlianvs Flavivs Clavdivs says:

    This is my argument: you are NOT a philosopher, AND you are a political activist (claim)
    P1. A philosopher is a fact /truth seeker
    P2. Facts do exist: the earth is approx. a sphere, the ratio between any circle’s circumference and its diameter is Pi, you need to breathe oxygen to be alive, etc.
    P3. Despite an unprecedented effort by CIA,FBI, mass & social media, tycoons, senate & congress to discredit Mr Trump as if he had colluded with Russia against the US, no shred of evidence has been produced, ever.
    P4. Certainly he was banned from facebook and Twitter, showing conclusively the lack of freedom of expression in the US
    P5. Mr Trump was the object of an incessant campaign of hatred /denigration, such as calling him racist, despite lack of any evidence of him discriminating against non whites
    P6. The Hunter Biden disc demonstrating major wrong doing by him and his father, current US president, has been swept under the carpet by CNN, all major TV stations, NYT, WP etc.
    P7. Despite a very massive “bias” by the CIA, FBI, media etc. not a shrink of data has emerged to even remotely suggest that Mr Trump ever colluded with Russia.
    Therefore I may conclude logically that Mr Trump’s presidency was sabotaged from before he took office
    Given however my almost inexistent interest in the person of Mr Trump, I’d rather propose the more important conclusion: the author of this page is a non-philosopher (he changes facts to stick to his ideas, instead of sticking to facts and changing his ideas). Another way to put it: those who have a mind can change it, those like the author who don’t have one, cannot.

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  4. Fritz says:

    “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.”

    This is a bit confusing to me. This supposes that when you have a statement that contains a fact (an established fact, something you know, it already is like that) it can’t be part of an argument. In my opinion you can have an argument about the causes of things, which means you use arguments. For instance, the ‘trickle down’ theory of Donald Trump. The economy is doing well because the rich are getting richer. Is this an explanation or an argument? In a way the difference is given as being a matter of form, but the aspect of the knowing (the light is on) is not about form. I know the economy is doing well, so this is not an argument? In a way it seems what is NOT an argument is defined well, but what it IS, is not.

  5. Fitsum Ayele says:

    I need introductory supportive materials to understand philosophy.

  6. Cholda Techamani says:

    I found your course via a google search and have been reviewing your lessons for quite some time now as I find the course interesting and practical. Can I take this course online without getting a degree in Philosophy? I looked up the UMW’s website and can’t seem to find such info. Thanks so much

  7. Philip Müller says:

    This is an absolute brilliant course in logic, I’m very thankful for the material. One little thing I spotted: there might be a problem with the use/mention distinction on the first “advice” word highlighted in bold. It uses the word, but from my understanding it should mention the word instead.

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