An argument is an assertion based on reasons. It is when a speaker asserts a belief in a and provides supporting evidence b, c, d, etc. for that assertion.
From this perspective, we argue with one another all the time–we say things and we back up what we have said with evidence. Teachers assert to students and give evidence for their assertions; lawyers assert and back those assertions up with evidence. It happens all over the place.
Let me be clear. By argue and arguing I do not mean that two (or more) people are yelling at one another at the top of their lungs. That is not (necessarily) an argument. An argument is not about bickering or fighting. It is about asserting something and backing that something up with reasons, and I do not write about the word as if it had a negative connotation.1
I’m suddenly reminded of this video:
Okay. But so what?
Well, I think there’s something deeper going on here that we don’t always notice. And this something deeper is important to understand because it will help explain many of the nuances in the world around us. When we see this something deeper, we’ll start to see arguments–assertions–all over the place, which, beside the fact that it’s really cool, will help us understand who we are as human beings, how and why we understand and misunderstand one another, and why we do the things we do.
This post is the first of a 4-part series about the usefulness of broadly defining arguments to include things such as speech, thought, and action (and perhaps even objects?–I’m still figuring out this last one). This particular post will discuss arguments in terms of speech. So let’s check it out.
An argument is an assertion or belief that is supported by evidence. So, even everyday statements like, “I appreciated what she said to me because it made me feel happy,” or “May I please cut in front of you because I am in a hurry?” are arguments.
So, the statement, “I appreciated what she said to me because it made me feel happy” asserts that the speaker “appreciated what she said to me,” and the reason for that assertion was whatever was said “made me feel happy.” Okay.
We could also talk speech in commercials and how the people who write commercials try to persuade us to buy their product. They give us reasons why we should buy the product, such as this product will make you popular, it will make your life easier, or it will taste good. We could go on, but let’s stop and talk about something more interesting and less obvious. Let’s talk about statements that don’t seem like arguments but that actually are arguments.
So what about the statement, “It made me happy”? Is that an argument? Are assertions (and hence arguments) nested and recursive?
If they are, then the reasons that we use to back up our assertions are actually assertions with reasons behind them. And those reasons are further assertions, etc. Just for fun, let’s assume that reasons are also assertions and see what we come up with.
So, in the above example, the reason, which is whatever was said “made me feel happy,” is also an argument. This assertion’s assertion is that something was said to make me feel happy. But what is the reason of the assertion’s assertion? This is where things get interesting: the reason is not stated, but it still exists–in the mind of the speaker.
So what might be the reason? Or are we assuming too much in that last sentence by using the word the and the singular form of the word reason? In other words, there might be multiple reasons behind a single assertion. Some of those reasons are stated, while others exist unstated in the mind of the speaker.
But how on earth can an unstated reason actually be a reason for a stated assertion? Well, we can start from the fact that the words were spoken by someone in the first place. In other words, why do we even say anything?
The things we say reflect our individual capacity to choose: I say things in a certain way because I choose to speak, I choose to speak about something, and I choose how I will say what I want to say. Furthermore: we say things because we want to. The things we say and the way we say them are a reflection of our desires, appetites, attitudes, and emotions. The things we say are a reflection of states that we feel in our bodies.
So, going back to the above example, by asserting that something someone else said made me happy, I’m also asserting several of my own unstated beliefs.
I assert my belief
1. that it is desirable to speak about things that make me happy.
2. that it is, in this case, a desirable thing to share information (especially positive information) with other people.
3. in being loyal to my hearers and sharing personal information with them.
In fact, depending on the context, the subject about which I’m speaking, my own emotional state of mind, who my audience is, and what that audience desires, there could be a whole bunch of other things we could have listed that will influence my assertions and my reasons–in short, my arguments. There’s a lot going on when we say something. And we’re usually not paying attention to everything that’s going on.
So where are we?
1. An argument is an assertion with attached reasons, and we make arguments when we speak.
2. Our reasons behind our assertions are also themselves assertions with reasons.
Next step: I’d go so far as to say that we’re always making arguments when we speak. Not only that, but our assertions (arguments) are so nuanced that we make multiple arguments and assertions whenever we speak and at the same time.
My grounds for that assertion come from my earlier-stated belief that the things we say and how we say them reflect our own capacity to choose. When I speak I make judgments about what is good and not good, and I try to the best of my ability to choose what is good–hopefully to choose what is better over what is good and what is best over what is better. I don’t always choose the best or the better or even perhaps the good, but I try. And the more I try the better I get at it.
Let’s look at another example, an example that would not seem like an argument because it is such a casual occurrence, but an example that nevertheless reveals a speaker’s judgments.
Let’s say I’m passing you on the sidewalk and I say, “Good morning.” Is this statement an argument? It seems like it isn’t, but from what we’ve discussed above, I believe that it is. So how do I back up that claim? What assertions does a simple, “Good morning,” make?
Obviously, by saying, “Good morning,” I am asserting that the morning is good. But what about the reasons? Do I as a speaker have evidence to back up my claim? Does my assertion that the morning is good have reasons? These reasons are certainly unstated, but they do exist–in my own mind, for I would not have said, “Good morning” if I did not have reasons for thinking that it indeed was a good morning.
So perhaps to me it is a good morning. Maybe I had sausage and an omelet for breakfast and washed it down with some orange juice, and maybe I hit all the green lights on the way to work. I have reasons to back up my claim, and I desire to share my good morning with other people by wishing someone I have not met a good morning.
I am also asserting that I am the kind of person that says, “Good morning” to a person he passes on the sidewalk. Some people don’t say anything, some only make eye contact and nod, and others avoid eye contact altogether. Not only that, but saying, “Good morning,” asserts that I am the kind of person that says, “Good morning,” in this particular situation instead of any of the other things I could have said, or not said: instead of “Good morning,” I could have said, “Hello,” “Greetings,” or “Wassup?” My act of choosing to say one thing over something else asserts that I am the kind of person who has chosen one thing over other things in this particular situation. My choice is an assertion, and my assertion is backed up by reasons.
But enough of speech. Let’s move on to thoughts.
[Thoughts will be discussed in the next post.]
1. Sometimes, such as in logic and philosophy, an argument is defined as a form of persuasion based on reasons. Since an assertion based on reasons is also a form of persuasion, “a form of persuasion based on reasons” contains in germ the phrase “an assertion based on reasons.” I only discuss an argument as an assertion based on reasons instead of as a form of persuasion based on reasons in this post.