Premise Definition and Examples in Arguments

A Proposition Upon Which an Argument Is Based

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A premise is a proposition upon which an argument is based or from which a conclusion is drawn. Put another way, a premise includes the reasons and evidence behind a conclusion, says Study.com.

A premise may be either the major or the minor proposition of a syllogism—an argument in which two premises are made and a logical conclusion is drawn from them—in a deductive argument. Merriam-Webster gives this example of a major and minor premise (and conclusion):

"All mammals are warmblooded [major premise]; whales are mammals [minor premise]; therefore, whales are warmblooded [conclusion]."

The term premise comes from medieval Latin, meaning "things mentioned before." In philosophy as well as fiction and nonfiction writing, the premise follows largely the same pattern as that defined in Merriam-Webster. The premise—the thing or things that came before—lead (or fail to lead) to a logical resolution in an argument or story.

Premises in Philosophy

To understand what a premise is in philosophy, it helps to understand how the field defines an argument, says Joshua May, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. In philosophy, an argument is not concerned with disputes among people; it is a set of propositions that contain premises offered to support a conclusion, he says, adding:

"A premise is a proposition one offers in support of a conclusion. That is, one offers a premise as evidence for the truth of the conclusion, as justification for or a reason to believe the conclusion."

May offers this example of a major and minor premise, as well as a conclusion, that echoes the example from Merriam-Webster:

  1. All humans are mortal. [major premise]
  2. G.W. Bush is a human. [minor premise]
  3. Therefore, G.W. Bush is mortal. [conclusion]

May notes that the validity of an argument in philosophy (and in general) depends on the accuracy and truth of the premise or premises.

For example, May gives this example of a bad (or inaccurate) premise:

  1. All women are Republican. [major premise: false]
  2. Hilary Clinton is a woman. [minor premise: true]
  3. Therefore, Hilary Clinton is a Republican. [conclusion: false]

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that an argument can be valid if it follows logically from its premises, but the conclusion can still be wrong if the premises are incorrect:

"However, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is also true, as a matter of logic."​​

In philosophy, then, the process of creating premises and carrying them through to a conclusion involves logic and deductive reasoning. Other areas provide a similar, but slightly different, take when defining and explaining premises.

Premises in Writing

For nonfiction writing, the term premise carries largely the same definition as in philosophy. Purdue OWL notes that a premise or premises are integral parts of constructing an argument. Indeed, says the language website operated by Purdue University, the very definition of an argument is that it is an "assertion of a conclusion based on logical premises."

Nonfiction writing uses the same terminology as in philosophy, such as syllogism, which Purdue OWL describes as the "simplest sequence of logical premises and conclusions."

Nonfiction writers use a premise or premises as the backbone of a piece such as an editorial, opinion article, or even a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Premises are also useful for developing and writing an outline for a debate. Purdue gives this example:

  • Nonrenewable resources do not exist in infinite supply. [premise 1]
  • Coal is a nonrenewable resource. [premise 2]
  • Coal does not exist in infinite supply. [conclusion]

The only difference in nonfiction writing versus the use of premises in philosophy is that nonfiction writing generally does not distinguish between major and minor premises.

Fiction writing also uses the concept of a premise but in a different way, and not one connected with making an argument. James M. Frey, as quoted on Writer's Digest, notes:

"The premise is the foundation of your story—that single core statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of a story.”

The writing website gives the example of the story "The Three Little Pigs," noting that the premise is: “Foolishness leads to death, and wisdom leads to happiness.” The well-known story does not seek to create an argument, as is the case in philosophy and nonfiction writing. Instead, the story itself is the argument, showing how and why the premise is accurate, says Writer's Digest:

"If you can establish what your premise is at the beginning of your project, you will have an easier time writing your story. That's because the fundamental concept you create in advance will drive the actions of your characters."

It's the characters—and to some degree the plot—that prove or disprove the premise of the story.

Other Examples

The use of premises is not limited to philosophy and writing. The concept can also be useful in science, such as in the study of genetics or biology versus environment, which is also known as the nature-versus-nurture debate. Alan Hausman, Howard Kahane, and Paul Tidman, in "Logic and Philosophy: A Modern Introduction," give this example:

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

In this case, the argument consists of three statements:

  1. Identical twins often have different IQ scores. [premise]
  2. Identical twins inherit the same genes. [premise]
  3. The environment must play some part in determining IQ. [conclusion]

The use of the premise even reaches into religion and theological arguments.

 Michigan State University (MSU) gives this example:

  • God exists, for the world is an organized system and all organized systems must have a creator. The creator of the world is God.

The statements provide reasons why God exists, says MSU. The argument of the statements can be organized into premises and a conclusion.

  • Premise 1: The world is an organized system.
  • Premise 2: Every organized system must have a creator.
  • Conclusion: The creator of the world is God.

Consider the Conclusion

You can use the concept of the premise in countless areas, so long as each premise is true and relevant to the topic. The key to laying out a premise or premises (in essence, constructing an argument) is to remember that premises are assertions that, when joined together, will lead the reader or listener to a given conclusion, says the San Jose State University Writing Center, adding:

"The most important part of any premise is that your audience will accept it as true. If your audience rejects even one of your premises, they will likely also reject your conclusion, and your entire argument will fall apart.​"

Consider the following assertion: “Because greenhouse gases are causing the atmosphere to warm at a rapid rate...” The San Jose State writing lab notes that whether this is a solid premise depends on your audience:

"If your readers are members of an environmental group, they will accept this premise without qualms. If your readers are oil company executives, they may reject this premise and your conclusions."

When developing one or more premises, consider the rationales and beliefs not just of your audience but also of your opponents, says San Jose State. After all, your whole point in making an argument is not just to preach to a like-minded audience but to convince others of the correctness of your point of view.

Determine what "givens” you accept that your opponents do not, as well as where two sides of an argument can find common ground. That point is where you will find effective premises to reach your conclusion, the writing lab notes.