Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Arguments and Persuasion

John Holbo has an interesting post on the difficulty of teaching students to build arguments. He rightly recognizes that the difficulty is actually not related to the intelligence of the students; and rightly recognizes that what gets called 'informal logic' is useless for addressing the problem when it occurs; and interestingly suggests that students are using the "makessense" stopping rule -- they judge whether everything's good in argument-land by glancing over things and seeing that everything 'makes sense', and then stopping. And it's certainly the case that whenever I ask students what makes something a good argument, they will explicitly say that it makes sense -- I ask it every term I teach Intro, and every term it is both one of the first and one of the most popular answers. In practice they are judging things by plausibility of content, not by structure or technique; the standard is not quality of argument but quality of interpretation of experience. This sort of thing is not exclusive to students; in fact, if you read the comments thread on Holbo's post with a sharp eye, you'll see instances of people who clearly think they are building arguments doing exactly the sort of thing Holbo's students are doing. Argument-building is not an instinctive practice, and cannot be a continual one, but is instead an occasional and deliberate one, and it requires even then a habit of seeing one's reasoning as something crafted as well as expressed.

In any case, one of my pet peeves arises in the comments: the view that the primary purpose of argument is to persuade. This is a useless response to the problem Holbo himself is considering (as Holbo himself briefly notes in the comments), because what most typically persuades people is exactly what the students are doing, and this is probably partly why the students are doing it. If anything the problem is that students are shortcircuiting argument-building in favor of what they think has more effect. But more than that, it is simply false. There are legions of purposes that arguments in practice fulfill -- clarify points, state reasons, raise ideas or questions or problems, provide occasions for refutation, show that one has a possible answer to a refutation, show that there are alternative approaches, and so forth -- and most arguments simply don't persuade. What is more, persuasion is clearly an extrinsic feature of argument that depends less on the features of the argument than on the attitudes and assumptions of the people dealing with it; whether any given argument persuades will depend utterly on the context, so it is not and cannot be a stable feature of argument. It's not even clear that persuasion can be an end of argument at all, as opposed to an end (sometimes) of communicating an argument, which is a distinct matter.

This is not new. There is in philosophy a very old name for the view that the point of argument is to persuade; it's 'sophistry'. One of the old Platonic points is that if you take argument to be primarily for the purpose of persuading people to its conclusion, what you are really saying is that reasoning is primarily a way to impose one's will. Someone who has this view is taking their own reason to be merely an instrument for gaining power and manipulating people. In healthy argument, the ends of argument are many, and persuasion is at best merely one of them, or, perhaps, at best merely one of the reasons why you might put arguments forward to someone else.

It's not surprising that it's such a common view. As social creatures we are very invested in persuading people. Further, a lot of our vocabulary and first approximations for handling even technical features of arguments comes from experience in building cases in forensic contexts, where persuasion is certainly a goal. We are also naturally invested in our own reasoning capabilities, so I don't think we can rule out the motivation of liking the taste of victory that comes when someone else ends up having to agree with us because we outmaneuvered them. It is an experience that has considerable salience, making it easy to overlook much quieter purposes of argument.

But I think it is, in fact, one of the most dangerous possible views. It never fails to lead people astray.


  1. Wade McKenzie11:34 PM

    Brandon: This is an especially interesting piece to me, given my recent exchange with you and a few others over at James Chastek's blog. What happened to me over there wasn't so much that I was persuaded as such, but that I was enabled to see another point of view. That might sound mundane, given that we live in a society that constantly trumpets the virtue of seeing other points of view (though doesn't actually do much of it), but when it really happens it's rather profound. Namely, I was enabled to see two views of the wise man--one where he is infallibly wise (rather like Jesus or, say, Socrates) and one where he is fallibly wise (even possibly Adam). I really couldn't see the latter point of view and it's given me much food for thought.

    I'm very interested in your notion that to argue with the primary intent of persuading another is to engage in sophistry, a notion that you refer back to Plato. I'd be very keen to learn how you would characterize by contrast the argumentation of Socrates (and perhaps other figures, such as the Eleatic stranger) in the Platonic dialogues. Or, for that matter, the overarching argumentation of the dialogues themselves.

    And I may I say as well--your poetry is lovely. I'd like to hold a volume of it, an actual book, in my hands.

  2. It's interesting: a good number of the 'ends' you mention for arguments (e.g. raising ideas/questions/problems, providing occasions for refutation etc.) are also ends that good rhetorical (persuasive) skill can be put to. (Not surprising, of course, given the similarities between argument and persuasion. Relatedly, one of my old teachers mentioned to me one time that Aristotle somewhere classifies reasoning, rhetoric and poietic as all different modes/species of a common mental activity whereby we *move* from one judgment to another). It would be interesting to teach rhetoric and logic alongside one another, or even as part of a single course. It might help students see the differences between the two as well as the commonalities: both can and ought to be oriented towards the pursuit of truth.

  3. branemrys8:27 AM

    Hi, Wade,

    'Food for thought' is, I think, one of the most important functions an argument can have.

    Plato always presents Socratic argument as concerned more with understanding (or recognizing our lack of it) than persuasion; this can involve the sort of thing we might call persuasion, but it has different features: Socrates is not trying to make people believe, but drawing out ideas they were committed to. He's a midwife; the midwife doesn't give you the baby, she helps you give birth to it on your own.

  4. branemrys8:29 AM

    I'm actually a very big fan of the old idea of the traditional Organon, in which rhetoric and poetics were treated as logical texts. It has the advantage of, as you say, giving rhetoric more ends to serve, and of giving logic in general a scope that more closely matches the scope of human reason itself.

  5. James Chastek10:37 AM

    The attempt to redefine persuasion in opposition to the Sophists seems to be a central theme in Plato. The opening line of Apology makes this redefinition of persuasion very clear (and it makes sense to take Apology as an introduction to his whole philosophy), and the whole idea of Crito seems to be that persuasion is exhausted by presenting the truth, irrespective whether anyone is drawn to it. The structure of the argument in Crito seems to point to Socrates claiming that he has persuaded the Athenian jury, a claim which, in context, seems flatly absurd, but points to an attempt to redefine just what counts as persuasion.

  6. branemrys11:21 AM

    It does seem to be a major theme. I'll have to re-read the Crito in particular in this light.

  7. Timotheos7:51 PM

    So basically, persuasion becomes teaching to Socrates. In fact, this seems like what argument is; teaching of some sort.

  8. branemrys7:58 PM

    And that's pretty much what's suggested directly by the argument of the Gorgias.

  9. Enbrethiliel10:43 AM


    Is there a specific Dialogue in which Plato (through Socrates) makes that point about argument and persuasion?

  10. branemrys11:19 AM

    I'd say it's most obvious in the Gorgias, although similar ideas come up elsewhere -- the beginning of the Apology, the first book of the Republic, parts of the Protagoras, and so forth.


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