An argument consists of two parts:
Some statements of fact or opinion; the point of what’s being said; this point is usually called the conclusion.
Support for the Claim
Evidence or reasons related to the claim in such a way as to endorse it or make it acceptable; these supporting lines of reasoning are usually called premises.
Argument: Premises Conclusion
Unlike high school, college is not mandatory. And you don’t really want to be here. So you should just quit.
The premises are “College is not mandatory” and “You don’t really want to be here.” The conclusion is “You should quit.” Do you see how the first two statements lead to the last statement?
The premises lead to or support, the conclusion.
Generally, the structure of the sentences are fit together in a “this, therefore that” format.
Consider this statement:
He’s armed, and he’s dangerous.
Compare it to this statement:
He’s armed, so he’s dangerous.
The first one merely presents two separate claims: “he’s armed” and “he’s dangerous.” However, the second one is an argument because of the “so”—that connects the two claims in such a way as to make the first claim the reason for believing the second claim.
The word “conclusion” is being used as the logical consequence of what’s been said—so it’s clearly something further to what’s been said, not just a review of what’s been said.
When you’re trying to identify the conclusion of an argument, it might help to pay attention to words that can indicate a conclusion: so, consequently, thus, therefore, it follows that, hence, shows that, and proves that, accordingly, indicates that.
But don’t depend on those words being there, and don’t depend on them indicating a conclusion (not everyone uses their words carefully).
As for “premises,” what counts as support will depend on the nature of the claim.
For example, historical claims require different support than literary claims.
What would support a claim about what actually happened in the past? Letters, written at the time by credible people attesting to the fact that such and such happened, financial records in accordance with the supposed event, and so on.
Those who become historians learn what counts as evidence for historical claims.
When you’re trying to identify the premises of an argument, ask yourself “What are the reasons or the evidence given in support of the conclusion?”
In the first example above, you might ask “Why does the speaker think you should quit?” It might also help to pay attention to words that can indicate a premise: because, since, given that, as shown by, as indicated by, due to.
Premises themselves often require support, so strongly supported premises are better than weakly supported or unsupported premises, making the whole argument stronger.
Recognizing premises and conclusions
Each of the following is an argument. In each case, identify the premises and conclusions.
- Compared to the rest of the world, our kids are simply not very smart. I mean, look, on proficiency tests conducted in 30 countries, our 15-year-old scored 25th on the math proficiency test, 18th on reading proficiency, and 21st on science proficiency.
- Studies have shown that children in single-parent families are far more likely to have psychological problems than children in two-parent families. They are also more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant, become a drug-user, and become criminals. This is all which goes in the support of how important it is to have a father, a male figure in the family.
- Mostly, burglars avoid the house known to have guns in them. And people have a right to defend what’s theirs. Therefore, we had better legalize guns; that is the way, we may defend ourselves against burglars.
Practice articulating implied conclusions
Each of the following is intended to make an argument, and articulate what the implied conclusion might be. Put the argument in standard form.
Astrology is both descriptive in that it purports to describe a person’s personality based on time of birth and predictive in that it purports to foretell what sort of day, week, month, or year a person is going to have. However, consider a hundred people who were born at exactly the same time: surely they do not all have the same personality—they have not had the same life experiences. Further, given their differing personalities and given their differing life experiences, surely they will not all have the same sort of day, week, month, or year!
Figuring out unstated premises is usually a little more difficult than figuring out the unstated conclusions.
Sometimes this is because they’re so obvious, they go without saying; which is exactly what the person making the argument probably thought!
That’s why they’re often called assumptions or presuppositions or even presumptions, rather than unstated premises.
They’re even called hidden assumptions, but this suggests a sort of intentional deception on the part of the person making the argument, when it’s more likely the person is either unaware of the premises s/he is using, or the assumption is so unquestionable, as to be taken for granted.
Maybe they should be called unknown premises instead. Whatever they are, they’re still unstated (not articulated in the argument as presented), and they’re still premises (required to make the argument complete).
The full argument, in standard form, would be this:
- You don’t have to be at college. (University is not mandatory.)
- You don’t want to be at college.
- People should not do what they don’t want to do.
Therefore, so you should quit.
When we see a building, we actually seldom see a building: usually, we see one or two walls, and we assume there is a third and a fourth, and therefore a building. And that’s generally a useful assumption.