A Rulebook for Arguments Paperback – 1 Jan 2000
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This is where this book by Weston comes in most handy. Weston's 'A Rulebook for Arguments' is a concise, accessible and very practical book for anyone looking to write or craft persuasive, coherent and consistent lines of reasoning. The first chapter gives seven basic principles that anyone who wishes to convince or persuade should know, whether they be arguing before a judge, a debating panel, a teacher, or even in a friendly pub conversation -- principles such as using natural order of argumentation, avoiding loaded language, being consistent in terminology, and starting from realistic and reliable premises.
From these basic and reasonable pieces, Weston develops more formal systems for argumentation -- Arguments by Example, by Analogy, from Authority, about Causes, and Deductive Arguments. Each of these systems are useful in and of themselves, as well as in relation to each other, but all have specific rules for application. What constitutes an Argument from Authority, for example? Who or what is authoritative? What are the limitations on this type of argument? One thinks immediately of the family-based Argument from Authority, 'because I'm the mommy, that's why.' Perhaps it is just as well the average grade schooler won't be purchasing this book!
In all, there are 30 primary rules for argumentation. These are adapted into 14 primary steps for developing an argument in writing.
There are three chapters specifically devoted to composing an argumentative essay, focusing upon research into the issues being argued, developing the key points of the argument, and finally writing the narrative of the text of the argument. These are basic steps to be followed whether one is putting together a two-page persuasive essay for an introductory politics class or a 200-page dissertation for a doctorate in philosophy. Key points such as definition, outlines according to natural flow, and consistency reflect the seven principles from the simplest arguments shown above.
the final chapter looks at fallacies -- how do we know if an argument fails itself? The two most common fallacies -- generalising from incomplete information and overlooking alternatives are the most important problems with argumentation. The argument 'the streets are wet, so it must be raining,' fails because of both fallacies; the streets could be wet because of water pipes having burst, or because people are washing their cars and there is run-off -- the information is incomplete, and the alternatives are not explored. There are twenty-two fallacies named in all, lots of ways for arguments to go astray.
There are longer books on critical thinking; there are other texts on rhetoric and writing. Many of these are useful and worthwhile, however, for clarity and concise information, Weston's book is superb and a very present help for those in a time-crunch.
Whilst the book is quite short, it gives ample information to allow readers to tackle the meatier books on the subject and is easy to read with good examples. A great starting point.
As the title implies, Weston's approach is not intended to be definitive. Brevity is one of the book's virtues, and he takes seriously his own rule 4: "Be concrete and concise". Good reasoning is so important, mastery of the basics so elusive, that focusing on a few fundamentals is a worthwhile strategy. The trouble is, most of us imagine we are well-enough equipped already, so why bother with a book like this? That it's always the other person who is not being reasonable should give us pause: could we ever be that "other person"? Given how often even these few rules are broken in everyday life, and given how easy it is to remain unaware of their transgression, the answer is of course yes. Equally obviously, those most in need of a dose of logical thinking will be among the least likely to pick up a book like this.
"Start from reliable premises', "Avoid loaded language", "Stick to one meaning for each term" hardly seem worth spelling out, and yet how many of us have never tried to rest a conclusion on a weak premise, or used emotive words, or been guilty of equivocation? After these general rules, Weston goes on to discuss several common types of argument - by example, by analogy, from authority, about causes - before ending with chapters on deductive arguments, composing an argumentative essay and fallacies.
Arguments by example are often more anecdote than argument. Beware of the "person who" formula - "I know a person who smoked fifty a day and lived to be a hundred" - and always check: Are the examples representative or biased? Have counterexamples been considered? Is too much weight being placed on a single vivid example?
For arguments by analogy, check for relevant similarities. Just as we can infer the existence of an architect or carpenter when we see a beautiful and well-built house, one such argument goes, so can we infer the existence of a creator from the order and beauty of the world. But the universe is not relevantly similar to a house. "The world is different from a house in at least this: A house is part of a larger whole, the world, while the world itself (the universe) is the largest of wholes." Weston concludes that this analogy "makes a poor argument" that does not establish the existence of a creator.
In discussing this particular argument Weston refers to David Hume, someone who might be considered an authority. In so doing he sets a good example of how we should treat any authority. He doesn't just appeal to this philosopher's preeminence, saying that because Hume said so it must be true, and he doesn't just make a vague reference. He makes sure he understands what Hume is claiming, he quotes Hume's words and cites the source, so we can look it up if we like. Most important, he does not assume that Hume is infallible. Relying on others can be a risky business. "Everyone has their biases. Supposed authorities may mislead us, or may be misled themselves, or may miss key parts of the big picture." Or they may claim to know what they could not possibly know: "religious moralists often have declared that certain practices are wrong because they are contrary to the will of God". It is one thing to believe there is such a thing as God's will, another to separate its contents from each and every personal prejudice and cognitive bias.
Arguments about causes crop up regularly in our personal and professional lives, and in public policy at all levels. The human mind is very good at detecting causal patterns in the world, so good in fact that it often sees a cause where there is only coincidence: "mere correlation, by itself, does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship" and neither does it establish the direction of causality. And where a causal relationship does exist, the causes may be complex and irreducible to a snappy headline.
Unusually for a highly recommended and rewarding book, I can almost guarantee this will also cause a good deal of intellectual pain, such are the irrationalist tendencies of our time. You won't have to wait very long to come across someone breaking one or more of these rules. When that happens, we still have an argument, only it is a misleading argument, a fallacy. The final chapter covers a few classical fallacies, including perhaps the two most common temptations: drawing conclusions from too little evidence, and overlooking alternatives.
Rulebooks are not supposed to be the most readable of works, but Anthony Weston's easygoing style and judicious use of examples make the logical medicine slip down. He keeps the jargon to a minimum, and shows us what happens when rhetoric wins out over reason. He reminds us that it is not a mistake to have strong views. "The mistake is to have nothing else." Above all, a good argument "offers reasons and evidence so that other people can make up their minds for themselves". Argument is essential if you value inquiry over revelation and if you value truth over deception.
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