Arguments in Philosophy

argument |?ärgy?m?nt|noun

1 an exchange of diverging or opposite views, typically a heated or angry one : I’ve had an argument with my father | heated arguments over public spending | there was some argument about the decision.

2 a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong : there is a strong argument for submitting a formal appeal | [with clause ] he rejected the argument that keeping the facility would be costly.

So arguments are a bad thing, right? That would certainly seem an uncontroversial claim. And argumentative people are just angry or annoying? Probably fairly safe again though, like it or not, there seem to be a lot of people out there who just love arguing. And perhaps there is a perception out there that these people, if they don’t fancy a career in law, might do well to look at philosophy as a possible alternative.

The problem is that when philosophers use the ‘a’ word, they aren’t talking about people shouting abuse at each other, the mean something quite different. David Hume, the most famous British philosopher, once said:

Truth springs from argument amongst friends.

This seems strange to us, as we don’t tend to think of argument and friendship as going easily together. But David Hume is talking about the philosophers’ meaning of argument. And from what he says we get a bit of a clue to what they mean…

In philosophy arguments have something to do with ‘truth’. In fact most philosophers would agree (in at least some sense) with Hume that truth is discovered through logical argument. Now the hard bit… New truths are arrived at by using (lots of) other things that we think are true (reasons) and by using these we can arrive at other truths. That’s confusing, so philosophers try and make it more clear by using lots of new big words!

Philosophers call the initial ‘facts’ you use ‘Premises‘. And they call the thing you think you have proved the ‘Conclusion‘. So our picture (using the posh words) now looks like this:

Now. For all this to work premises have to be statements, which just means that they are capable of being true or false. ‘What time is it?’ cannot be true or false, and would be of no use in convincing anyone of anything, so questions are not statements. ‘My dog’s name is Jester.’ can be true or false, so it is a statement. If this is too confusing don’t worry – the end is in sight. Finally, an argument is a group of these ‘premise’ statements, designed to convince you something is true (the conclusion). Something like this:

Unfortunately not all writers set out their arguments like this when they are trying to convince you of something. And quite often that is because they are trying to hide some rather obvious bad reasoning from you. To avoid getting confused by this diversion philosophers put arguments into an arrangement that makes them easy to analyse. They call this standard form. And it looks something like this:

Premise 1. Cat’s have whiskers, tails and like cream.

Premise 2. That thing has whiskers, a tail and likes cream.

Conclusion: That thing is a cat.

Despite this being a bad argument, it is still an argument nonetheless. The rest of this unit, will look at how we spot these bad arguments in real life and in philosophy too.

One final point to make is that statements are the only sorts of sentences that can work as premises in an argument. Sentences that are questions, or commands, or something else are not statements and so don’t contribute or help prove the conclusion. This does make sense when you think about it. We have said that philosophers are using arguments to try and find or demonstrate new truths. Now because questions – for example – can’t be true or false in the same way statements can, they don’t help to ‘build up’ towards a true conclusion. For this reason, philosophers don’t include these ‘other’ types of sentences, when they put an argument into standard form.

Continue on with:

Moving on with Arguments Part 1 ( Higher / IB Philosophy )

Moving on with Arguments Part 2 ( Higher / IB Philosophy )

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