Argument Analysis: The Basic Method (2010 Version)

Contact: Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised date: August 14, 2010

To PHIL 103 Students

It is important for students of philosophy, even at the introductory level, to begin to develop the ability to pick out an argument when they come across it in a philosophical text (or elsewhere). To familiarize yourself with the basic concepts of argument detection and analysis, I recommend that you read the following immediately at least as far as the header "The Goal of Argument Analysis." (You may be held responsible for understanding the most basic terms.) In a few days you should read the whole thing and begin to think about how it might apply to parts of the texts we are reading.

Basic Terms

Let's get clear on some basic terms regarding reasoning.

Truth values: true, false.

Statement: a unambiguous declarative sentence (more technically: what is expressed by such a sentence); statements have truth-value (they are true or false), although, for a given statement, we may not know its truth-value.

Here are examples of relatively simple statements, technically called "atomic" statements):

Socrates died from drinking hemlock.
My mind contains unclear ideas.
All humans are mortal animals.
No gods are mortals.
Here are examples of less simple statements (technically called compound statements):
If I pass this course, then I will be done with my Gen. Ed. requirements.
Justice is a type of action or [justice is] a quality of a person's soul.
All just persons are courageous and [all just persons are] wise.
It is not the case that Socrates is a fool.

The underscored terms are "logical connectives." Obviously, they are used to connect simpler statements or (in the case of the last example, a negation) to "operate on" simpler statements.

Important Warning to Students Doing Argument Analysis

(Simple) Argument: a set of statements, one of which is the conclusion, the others of which are premises meant as support for the conclusion.

(You can picture an argument as a claim that the premises, imagined as concrete slabs, are capable of holding up another concrete slab that rests upon them. Or you can picture an argument as a claim that the premises, imagined as devices attached to the ceiling, are connected to other items by a strong cord so that the latter do not fall to the floor. The conclusion de-pends on, or hangs from, the premises.)


The gods have all the very best qualities. (Premise)
Intelligence is one of the very best qualities. (Premise)
Therefore the gods are intelligent. (Conclusion)
This argument might be informally expressed in this way: "We know that the gods are intelligent because the gods have all the very best qualities and intelligence is one of those qualities."

See Warning #3 Below.

(Complex) Argument: a set of statements, one of which is the final conclusion, the others of which are intermediate conclusions or ultimate premises meant as support of the final conclusion.

Informal Example:

Hear me now and believe me later. The stars are gods, for whatever is everlasting, intelligent and beneficial must be a god. And the stars have all three qualities. They don't seem to change, as anyone can observe. So they must be everlasting. They move in perfectly patterned ways, and whatever moves in perfectly patterned way displays intelligence. So they must be intelligent. What's more, the stars are beneficial because we are able to tell time accurately thanks to stellar movement.

In order to study this argument carefully, we need some vocabulary:

Logical indicator terms: words or phrases that give us information about how the statements in an argument are related to one another, which statements are ultimate premises and which statements are conclusions. See below for definition of "ultimate premise" and "conclusion."

Indicator terms include "for," "because," "since," "inasmuch as," "for the reason that," "therefore," "thus," "hence," and "so," but it's important to remember that they do not always function as logical indicators, nor do these eight exhaust the list of logical indicators.

Conclusion: the statement that is supposedly supported by the premises (reasons or grounds) in an argument.

Premise: a statement that is presented as support for a conclusion.

Intermediate step: a conclusion that is meant to serve as a premise for a later conclusion (possibly the final conclusion of a complex argument).

Ultimate premise: within a complex argument, a premise that is not presented as supported by still other premises.

Final conclusion: the conclusion of a complex argument, a conclusion that does not serve as a premise for any other conclusion in the same argument.

The Goal of Argument Analysis

The first part of argument analysis is not concerned with whether the argument is a good one. It is not concerned with whether the premises are true or whether the argument is strong or valid, i.e., whether the premises actually support the conclusion as the author intends them to do. It is concerned only with understanding the reasoning process of the author. It aims to pick out the ultimate premises, the final conclusion, and any intermediate steps. Once we have taken apart such an argument and laid its structure out so that we can clearly see it, we can ask whether the premises are true and whether they really provide (probable or necessary) support for the intermediate or final conclusions.

A Suggested Procedure

1. Pick out the conclusion of the argument, the statement that is supposedly supported by other parts of the argument. (You may reword the text but make sure you don't alter the meaning.)

Sometimes you can tell a conclusion (intermediate step or final conclusion) by the occurrence of key words. For instance, "so" and "therefore" frequently introduce a conclusion.
2. Then pick out the premises (or reasons) given in support of this conclusion. You may find that some statements supporting the final conclusion are meant to be supported by other statements. These are intermediate conclusions.
Sometimes you can tell a premise by the occurrence of key words: "For" (used as a conjunction, not as a preposition) introduces one or more premises (and typically follows a conclusion). "Because" and "since" often introduce one or more premises in an argument.
3. These logical indicator words are not part of the premises, conclusion, or intermediate steps themselves, but they are important when they help us discover the function of the statements to which they are attached, and which conclusions are attached to which premises.

4. Sometimes there is a long chain of reasoning, with intermediate conclusions supporting other intermediate conclusions. If this is the case, try to show awareness of the ways in which a particular intermediate step depends on particular premises and is designed as support for further particular conclusions.

5. Be alert for implied (unstated) steps.

Sometimes the author assumes a premise without stating it, usually because he believes all his listeners or readers will automatically supply the premise. Sometimes there are implied intermediate conclusions or even implied final conclusions. If you detect an implied premise, intermediate conclusion, or conclusion, make it explicit. Sometimes doing so will reveal the weak point in an argument.

The sample argument that the stars are gods has an unstated premise, namely:

"Whatever helps us tell time accurately is beneficial." (In this case the fact that the premise is unstated is relatively harmless.)
6. Sometimes, words or sentences within a passage of text that contains an argument will play no logical role at all. You can set those aside when you analyze an argument.
"Hear me now and believe me later" in the prose argument does no logical work at all. The phrase "What's more" is useful for indicating a new set of reasons in support of the ultimate conclusion, but it serves more as a grammatical divider than as a logical indicator.

Analysis of "The Gods Are Stars" Argument

This argument is a bit artificial. It's made for easy analysis. The argument indicator terms (premise and conclusion indicators) are the common ones, FOR, BECAUSE (premise indicators), and SO (conclusion indicator).

Note that I have used a dark red font to distinguish statements being discussed from the things being said about those statements. It is not necessary for you to do this. But when you are discussing a statement (as distinct from merely stating something--using a statement to express your point), it is important to set the statement being discussed off from the rest of the writing, if not by a special color, then by quotation or paragraph indent.

The stars are gods is a conclusion relative to

whatever is everlasting, intelligent and beneficial must be [=is (here)] a god
which is either a premise or an intermediate step.

The stars have all three qualities is a premise relative to the same conclusion because it occurs close by the other premise and is obviously needed, together with the whatever is . . . premise, to support the stars are gods.

They [the stars] don't seem to change is a premise in relation to

the stars are everlasting beings
which in turn seems like support for
The stars have all three qualities
one of which is being everlasting (Keep in mind that the other two are intelligence and being beneficial).

Since the stars are everlasting operates as both a conclusion and a premise, it must be an intermediate step. The same thing is true regarding the stars have all three qualities.

The statement

They [the stars] must be intelligent.
also seems to be a premise relative to the stars have all three qualities.

Since the passage generally tries to support The stars have all three qualities and that statement in turn is presented as support for The stars are gods, it looks like the stars have all three qualities is an intermediate step.

But They must be intelligent is also an intermediate step because it is not only used as a premise; it is also (allegedly) supported by

They move in perfectly patterned ways, and
Whatever moves in perfectly patterned ways displays intelligence.

Moreover, They are beneficial must be an intermediate step because it is not only used as a premise to support The stars have all three qualities but it is also allegedly supported by

We can tell time accurately thanks to stellar movement
(and the unstated premise whatever helps us tell time accurately is beneficial.)

The stars are gods is not only a conclusion, it is the final conclusion. It is the only conclusion (allegedly) supported, directly or indirectly, by all the other statements in the argument and it does not serve as a premise for any further conclusion.

The ultimate premises, that is, the only premises that are not in turn allegedly supported by other premises seem to be:

The stars don't seem to change.
The stars move in perfectly patterned ways.
Whatever moves in perfectly patterned ways displays intelligence.
Whatever is everlasting, intelligent, and beneficial must be a god.
The unstated premise is also an ultimate premise:
Whatever helps us tell time is beneficial.

Critical Evaluation

Were we to go beyond argument analysis to critical evaluation, which is not part of the argument analysis assignment as such, we could proceed in either of the following ways:

1. Try to show that the ultimate premises are false. (For instance, construct a persuasive argument whose conclusion is that one such premise is false.)

2. Try to show that even if true, the premise (or set of premises) would not support the conclusion it (or they) is claimed to support. (For instance, give an example in which the set of premises alleged to directly support a conclusion are all true and yet the conclusion is false.)

Warnings about Mistakes to Avoid Regarding Statements

1. Questions do not clearly express statements, though some (such as rhetorical questions) can be reworded as declarative sentences in order to do so.

2. A set of two or more declarative sentences do not normally express a single statement. The exception occurs when they mean exactly the same thing, but nothing is gained by including two such sentences in an argument analysis, unless you want to indicate that you are aware of their equivalence.

Of course, there are compound sentences, of the form "if p then q," "p and q," "p or q," etc., and they do express compound statements that do not have to be broken up and assigned to multiple steps when you are representing them in an argument analysis. However, if you have a compound statement as one of your steps, you might also have one of its components as an additional premise or a conclusion (since one can logically derive, for example, "p" from "p and q," and "q" from "p" together with "if p then q").

3. An argument (often indicated by the presence of words like "because," "since," "hence," "therefore") is not a statement, but two or more statements. It should be broken up into separate steps.

4. Sometimes the words "because" or "since" indicate not an argument but an explanation and the explanation is part of an argument from effect to cause. In some such contexts, a sentence containing "because" or "since" can be reworded as a statement that has the structure "The explanation for p's being true is that q is." (In a complete reconstruction of an effect-to-cause argument, there would be another premise that p and a conclusion that q.)