Arguments, Broadly Discussed Part III: Actions

This series of posts has been discussing how an argument is an assertion based on reasons, and its first two posts were about how speech acts and thoughts are arguments. This post will discuss actions.

An Example of an Actions as an Argument
Let’s say I’m sitting on a bench playing the piano, and my stomach growls. So, I go into the kitchen and make myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Then I eat it.

It’s not a peanut butter sandwich, but he is eating.

Am I making an argument here? At first glance, we’ll be tempted to say, “No, of course not! How on earth can eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich–as good as they are–how can this be an argument?” I certainly haven’t said anything out loud by my actions. I haven’t spoken any words, but I have “said” something by acting. Let’s analyze this action and see if it’s an assertion based on reasons.

While we could summarize the story by saying, “I ate because I was hungry,” an argument that follows the enthymematic form from Aristotle, the statement, “I ate because I was hungry,” is an argument because we’ve already discussed the argumentative nature of statements in our first post on this subject. And we’re not here to talk about statements in this post, but actions. We’re here to talk about eating, and that means that we can only talk about the act of eating.

So, to say that eating is an argument is to say that eating

  1. is an assertion
  2. is based on reasons

To make the following discussion easier, let’s break the analysis up into these two parts. We’ll first talk about number 2, the reasons for eating, and then we’ll talk about number 1, eating as an assertion. Once we’ve done that, we’ll see that eating is an argument. When that’s over, we’ll talk about why we should care in the first place.

Reasons for Eating
The most obvious reason for eating is because I am hungry. But there are other reasons for eating, for just because I am eating does not mean that I am hungry. In the above story, I eat because I am hungry–assuming, of course, that my stomach growling is the same thing as being hungry. But we might also eat because we like the taste of food. Maybe we’re in the mood for a snack. Or perhaps we are stressed and have our own sort of comfort food that makes us feel good. Maybe we have an eating disorder and eating (or not eating) does something to our mental functions and behaviors. Or perhaps everybody around us is eating, and, since we want to fit in, we eat. These are some reasons for eating even if we are not hungry. But usually, we eat because we are hungry.

Eating as an Assertion
To eat something means to place something into my mouth, chew it up, and swallow it. So, when I eat, I assert a whole bunch of things, the simplest and most general of which is the fact that I am the kind of being that has the capacity to eat.  And by eating, I assert that I have the ability, the power, the faculty to do these things: I have a mouth, a jaw, a throat, and a stomach. I can control my lips and jaw, making them open and close at will, and I can bite, chew, grind, and masticate (now there’s a word we don’t often use) my food. A tongue may not be absolutely necessary, but it does help to move the food around in my mouth. It also, thanks to those taste buds, allows me to taste my food, which is a reason why I choose to eat some foods over (and instead of) others. I believe eating asserts all these things, including and perhaps especially the fact that I am an embodied creature.

Let’s go one more further. Besides the fact that I am eating asserts that I have the capacity to carry out the act, it also asserts, in most cases, that I have the will to carry out the act. And after I have finished eating, I may say, “I ate.” My evidence for my statement is an act in the past tense.

Last point about eating. Note that the act is made up of smaller actions just as assertions are made up of smaller assertions as we noted in Part I. It isn’t hard to see the common ground acts, speech, and arguments have with one another. And speech is a type or a subset of action.1

Actions as Arguments, Generally
Acting asserts that I am a certain kind of being. It asserts that I have the capacity to do whatever it is I am doing. I am capable because I do. Then, after I’ve done something, I am capable because I did. From this last statement, my being capable now becomes a new assertion, with my past action as the evidence. And there we have a nested argument.

What else? Action is embodied. And the reasons for my actions include appetites, desires, passions, emotions, and expectations. I act in a certain way because I choose to, and I choose to because I believe it is good for me to do.

So wait. Why should we care? I wrote about eating as an argument not to show only that eating is an argument, but, more importantly, that actions are arguments. Eating is one example of any other action we could have analyzed. We can use the same logic we’ve used in this post on any other action because acting asserts that I am a being that has the capacity to act. We could do this same analysis with anything. Playing the piano. Driving to work. Sitting down to watch a movie. Washing clothes or dishes. We could go on, but I don’t think there’s a need for it.

From the cover of The Essential Wayne Booth

Wayne Booth, a literary critic and philosopher, wrote something that applies here. He said,

“Would you not agree, friends of truth that you are, that reality, although it appears to us in diverse forms, is all somehow unified? Discriminate realities as you will, you must finally admit that everything is related to everything else, really related, in some important sense, and that it is thus more important to work on recognizing new similarities beneath differences than to make distinctions where none were before” (Critical Understanding 94).

I believe this information is valuable because knowing what arguments our actions make help us to know who we are. They also help us to know who others are. Philosopher Robert Solomon writes about emotions, but what he says applies to our actions (he did, after all, believe that emotions were actions, but that’s another post for another day). He wrote that it is “a reflection of one’s self. It shows or betrays who one is” (True to our Feelings 218-219).

But I feel like now I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Could we go one step further and say that my very being also asserts the “statement,” “I did,” because my being is capable? (That’s a mouthful of a sentence.) In other words, can things make arguments?

That will be the subject of the next post.

1. See Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology.

2. The picture of Booth comes from the cover of The Essential Wayne Booth, Ed. Walter Jost.

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