Premise Definition and Examples in Arguments

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

monks debating - premises of arguments
Buddhist monks at a monastery in central Bhutan debate what they have learned during their monastic studies. (Kristen Elsby/Getty Images)

A premise is a proposition upon which an argument is based or from which a conclusion is drawn.

A premise may be either the major or the minor proposition of a syllogism in a deductive argument.

"A deductive argument," says Manuel Velasquez, "is one that is supposed to show that if its premises are true then its conclusion necessarily has to be true. An inductive argument is one that is supposed to show that if its premises are true then its conclusion is probably true" (Philosophy: A Text with Readings, 2017).

From Medieval Latin, "things mentioned before"

Examples and Observations

"Logic is the study of argument. As used in this sense, the word means not a quarrel (as when we 'get into an argument') but a piece of reasoning in which one or more statements are offered as support for some other statement. The statement being supported is the conclusion of the argument. The reasons given in support of the conclusion are called premises. We may say, 'This is so (conclusion) because that is so (premise).' Or, 'This is so and this is so (premises), therefore that is so (conclusion).' Premises are generally preceded by such words as because, for, since, on the ground that, and the like." (S. Morris Engel, With Good Reason: An Introduction to Informal Fallacies, 3rd ed., St. Martin's, 1986)

The Nature/Nurture Issue

"Consider the following simple example of reasoning:

Identical twins often have different IQ test scores. Yet such twins inherit the same genes. So environment must play some part in determining IQ.

Logicians call this kind of reasoning an argument. But they don't have in mind shouting and fighting. Rather, their concern is arguing for or presenting reasons for a conclusion. In this case, the argument consists of three statements:

  1. Identical twins often have different IQ scoeres.
  2. Identical twins inherit the same genes.
  1. So environment must play some part in determing IQ.

The first two statements in this argument give reasons for accepting the third. In logic terms, they are said to be premises of the argument, and the third statement is called the argument's conclusion."
(Alan Hausman, Howard Kahane, and Paul Tidman, Logic and Philosophy: A Modern Introduction, 12th ed. Wadworth, Cengage, 2013) 

The Bradley Effect

"Here's another example of an argument. In fall 2008, before Barack Obama was elected US president, he was far ahead in the polls. But some thought he'd be defeated by the 'Bradley effect,' whereby many whites say they'll vote for a black candidate but in fact don't. Barack's wife Michelle, in a CNN interview with Larry King (October 8), argued that there wouldn't be a Bradley effect:

Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee.
If there was going to be a Bradley effect, Barack wouldn't be the nominee [because the effect would have shown up in the primary elections]
[Therefore] There isn't going to be a Bradley effect.

Once she gives this argument, we can't just say, 'Well, my opinion is that there will be a Bradley effect.' Instead, we have to respond to her reasoning. It's clearly valid—the conclusion follows from the premises.

Are the premises true? The first premise was undeniable. To dispute the second premise, we'd have to argue that the Bradley effect would appear in the final election but not in the primaries, but it's unclear how one might defend this. So an argument like this changes the nature of the discussion. (By the way, there was no Bradley effect when the general election took place a month later.)" (Harry Gensler, Introduction to Logic, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2010)

The Relevance Principle

"The premises of a good argument must be relevant to the truth or merit of the conclusion. There is no reason to waste time assessing the truth or acceptability of a premise if it is not even relevant to the truth of the conclusion. A premise is relevant if its acceptance provides some reason to believe, counts in favor of, or has some bearing on the truth or merit of the conclusion.

A premise is irrelevant if its acceptance has no bearing on, provides no evidence for, or has no connection to the truth or merit of the conclusion. . . .

"Arguments fail to conform to the relevance principle in a number of ways. Some arguments use irrelevant appeals, such as an appeal to common opinion or tradition, and others use irrelevant premises, such as drawing the wrong conclusion from the premises or using the wrong premises to support the conclusion." (T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments, 6th ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2009)

Pronunciation: PREM-iss