What is an Argument?

Understanding Premises, Inferences, and Conclusions

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When people create and critique arguments, it's helpful to understand what an argument is and is not. Sometimes an argument is seen as a verbal fight, but that is not what is meant in these discussions. Sometimes a person thinks they are offering an argument when they are only providing assertions.

Perhaps the simplest explanation of what an argument is comes from Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch:

  • An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition. ...an argument is an intellectual process... contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

This may have been a comedy sketch, but it highlights a common misunderstanding: to offer an argument, you cannot simply make a claim or gainsay what others claim.

An argument is a deliberate attempt to move beyond just making an assertion. When offering an argument, you are offering a series of related statements which represent an attempt to support that assertion — to give others good reasons to believe that what you are asserting is true rather than false.

Here are examples of assertions:

1. Shakespeare wrote the play Hamlet.
2. The Civil War was caused by disagreements over slavery.
3. God exists.
4. Prostitution is immoral.

Sometimes you hear such statements referred to as propositions.

Technically speaking, a proposition is the informational content of any statement or assertion. To qualify as a proposition, a statement must be capable of being either true or false.

The above represent positions people hold, but which others may disagree with. Merely making the above statements does not constitute an argument, no matter how often one repeats the assertions.

To create an argument, the person making the claims must offer further statements which, at least in theory, support the claims. If the claim is supported, the argument is successful; if the claim is not supported, the argument fails.

This is the purpose of an argument: to offer reasons and evidence for the purpose of establishing the truth value of a proposition, which can mean either establishing that the proposition is true or establishing that the proposition is false. If a series of statements does not do this, it isn’t an argument.

Another aspect of understanding arguments is to examine the parts. An argument can be broken down into three major components: premises, inferences, and a conclusion.

Premises are statements of (assumed) fact which are supposed to set forth the reasons and/or evidence for believing a claim. The claim, in turn, is the conclusion: what you finish with at the end of an argument. When an argument is simple, you may just have a couple of premises and a conclusion:

1. Doctors earn a lot of money. (premise)
2. I want to earn a lot of money. (premise)
3. I should become a doctor. (conclusion)

Inferences are the reasoning parts of an argument. Conclusions are a type of inference, but always the final inference.

Usually, an argument will be complicated enough to require inferences linking the premises with the final conclusion:

1. Doctors earn a lot of money. (premise)
2. With a lot of money, a person can travel a lot. (premise)
3. Doctors can travel a lot. (inference, from 1 and 2)
4. I want to travel a lot. (premise)
5. I should become a doctor. (from 3 and 4)

Here we see two different types of claims which can occur in an argument. The first is a factual claim, and this purports to offer evidence. The first two premises above are factual claims and usually not much time is spent on them — either they are true or they are not.

The second type is an inferential claim — it expresses the idea that some matter of fact is related to the sought-after conclusion. This is the attempt to link the factual claim to the conclusion in such a way as to support the conclusion.

The third statement above is an inferential claim because it infers from the previous two statements that doctors can travel a lot.

Without an inferential claim, there would be no clear connection between the premises and the conclusion. It is rare to have an argument where inferential claims play no role. Sometimes you will come across an argument where inferential claims are needed, but missing — you won’t be able to see the connection from factual claims to conclusion and will have to ask for them.

Assuming such inferential claims really are there, you will be spending most of your time on them when evaluating and critiquing an argument. If the factual claims are true, it is with the inferences that an argument will stand or fall, and it is here where you will find fallacies committed.

Unfortunately, most arguments aren’t presented in such a logical and clear manner as the above examples, making them difficult to decipher sometimes. But every argument which really is an argument should be capable of being reformulated in such a manner. If you cannot do that, then it is reasonable to suspect that something is wrong.