One of my favorite shows is “Get Up” on ESPN. I watch it pretty much every day because I like the main man and he has some interesting former athletes each day who provide us with pithy comments and even some provocative insights into the inner-workings of sports. Not all the guests are equally adept at such things as speaking, of course, but they all have opinions and are ready to share those with us — whether we want to hear them or not.

The problem is that the “discussions” among the guests (several of whom are regular and thus familiar to those who watch even a few times) frequently degenerate into shouting matches which we mistake for genuine arguments — complete with interruptions, or course. In fact, television seems to have gone in that direction because (I assume) that’s what viewers want to watch. Not this viewer. I tire of it quickly.

Recently, after the Super Bowl, three of the guests went after one another on the topic of whether it was the San Fransisco coach who lost the game or the quarterback. On the one side were two guests who insisted that the coach was at fault because the strength of San Fransisco’s football team all year has been its running game and they abandoned it late in the game when they could have run out the clock and kept the “magic man” Patrick Mahomes off the field. Not an unreasonable position since the “magic man” won the game for the Kansas City Chiefs. But the third guest — who tends to get louder as he becomes more frustrated when others do not agree with him — insisted that the coach called excellent plays but the quarterback failed to execute the plays. He called a number of passing plays late in the game and they failed to connect. If they had the coach would have been seen as a genius.

I may not be doing either of those positions justice, but you get the picture. These people were not arguing, they were bickering. The two are not the same. An argument has evidence which we call the “premises,” and that evidence supports the conclusion. The conclusion is only as strong as the evidence that supports it. The way to attack an argument is to attack the evidence — not the conclusion. But these folks were simply stating their opinions (again and again) without any attempt to support those opinions with evidence.

And, given the nature of their claims, evidence would probably not be forthcoming. This is because the claims themselves (the opinions) were of a counter-factual nature. IF certain things had happened THEN other things would inevitably happen. There is no way to support such an argument because the antecedent is counter to fact. The San Fransisco coach did not call running pays so we have no idea what would have happened if he did. And the San Fransisco quarterback did not complete his passes and we can only speculate what would have happened if he had. So the “argument” simply goes around in circles with no outcome possible.

The best we can hope for in such cases is that the claim is “plausible” based on previous experience. In this instance the case for the coach losing the game is more compelling because it is true that the strength of the San Fransisco team was its running game. But we have no idea how they would have done against the Kansas City defense at the end of the game.

The only way to settle such disagreements, heated as they were, would be for one person to reach across the table and throttle this opponent. And one of the guests was a former lineman of considerable size and my money would be on him to win that “argument.” But I speculate because the man did not reach across the table — even though he mentioned that his opponent was starting to “piss him off.” And we can only guess what might have happened he had actually done so.

And viewers like this?? The point is that we are subjected to such displays every day and the result is that we have no idea what a sound argument is and what might make it weak. To begin with there must be an argument. It must have a conclusion and there must be an attempt to support that conclusion with evidence. The conclusion is often (though not always) preceded by words such as “therefore,” or “thus.” Or followed by such words as “because.” These are called “indicator terms” and they may or may not be there. But if there is an argument present we can determine what the conclusion and the support are by providing the indicator terms ourselves. We can say “there will be much celebration in Kansas City this week: their team won the Super Bowl.” It is easy to see that the latter statement supports the former and we could simply provide an indicator term “There will be celebrating because their team won.” And in this case the evidence, or premise, in indisputable.

The point of all this is that with an argument it is possible to attack or defend it by considering the support. Without support (or premises) there is no argument. There is just disagreement — sometimes heated, but always pointless.


4 thoughts on “Arguments

  1. Hugh, well said. This is a metaphor for many talk shows. They are speaking to be heard, not heeded. Bart Starr, who died recently, was the quarterback of the successful Green Bay Packers. Since he played most of his career before the Super Bowls started, it is lost on many that he won five championships as QB. He was also accountable. His quote was “If we win, it is a team victory. If we lose, it is the quarterback’s fault.” That is overgenerous, but you reminded me of that quote. Keith

  2. Dr. Curtler,

    Once again, you make an important and well-stated point.

    It took me much time and effort to learn the difference between argumentation and bickering. You were among the first to instruct me in this matter. Learning this important distinction changed my life — all for the better, I would suggest.

    I also came to learn that argumentation is only possible when two or more parties to the argument– as you have defined it — have at least a working agreement about the ground rules that will apply to the argument. The agreement may be implicit, but it is crucial.

    These ground rules include pre-definitions of what constitutes evidence, a focus on the argument itself rather than the person making the argument, an agreement about the importance of logical reasoning, a willingness to take seriously another’s point of view for purposes of discussion, avoidance of logical contradiction, and so forth.

    In restating the obvious, I arrive again at your point: It is impossible to have a rational argument with someone who refuses to engage in rational argumentation in the first place. Without a prior commitment, formal or informal, to a process of rational argumentation, then argumentation itself becomes impossible. What is left if that occurs are merely differences in volume or power.

    In addition to a personal disposition to learn and to engage in rational argumentation, I also think that the context of the discussion must also be supportive of that process.

    Both individual dispositions and supportive social contexts, like a university’s humanities and social science divisions and departments (ideally) can be created and nurtured. They can be destroyed, as well.

    My greatest fear is that, even for those whose disposition is open to learning the importance and methods of rational argument, colleges and universities are increasingly organizing themselves against such contexts of argumentation in the first place. A focus on vocational and technical training at the expense of humanities and social sciences will accomplish this very thing.

    As a practical matter, if colleges and universities do not vigorously nurture and protect a context of rational inquiry and argument, then where will such a context be found?

    Having fought tooth and nail against the industrialization of higher learning whenever and wherever I could, I cannot help feeling that I was using thimbles to bail out sinking vessels. Your book, Recalling Education, resonated with my experiences, as well one might imagine.

    Maybe I just need more coffee today…

    Regards and respects,

    Jerry Stark

    • Reading your comments is always a breath of fresh air! Many thanks. You put it well:
      My greatest fear is that, even for those whose disposition is open to learning the importance and methods of rational argument, colleges and universities are increasingly organizing themselves against such contexts of argumentation in the first place. A focus on vocational and technical training at the expense of humanities and social sciences will accomplish this very thing.

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