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Why “Argument in the Headlines”?

posted: 9.19.14 by Donna Winchell

Although Elements of Argument and Structure of Argument are grounded primarily in the theories of Stephen Toulmin, Annette Rottenberg and I have tried to illustrate how the theories of Aristotle and of Carl Rogers can provide additional means of analyzing an argument. The approaches are not contradictory but complementary.
Aristotle gives us the terminology to think of an argument as a combination of logical and emotional appeals affected by our assumptions about the speaker or writer making the argument. He also emphasizes the syllogism as a model for logical thought. His major premise, minor premise, and conclusion in Toulmin’s model become warrant, support, and claim. Rogers’s ideas are most useful in looking at those controversial subjects where those with differing opinions are so far apart in their thinking that the most one can hope for is common ground followed by compromise.

This fall, as usual, I will be looking at today’s headlines with Aristotle, Rogers, and particularly Toulmin as my guides. Everything from the significance of defining key terms to considering the warrant behind a line of reasoning can be illustrated by looking at and listening to the news. Obama’s recent speech on America’s response to the beheading of two American journalists raised the issue whether or not our country’s involvement is really at war. Some in the Obama administration use the term “war” for our involvement, but not John Kerry, who speaks instead of “a very significant counterterrorism operation.” There is even disagreement as to whom we are at war with, if we are—the ISIS or the ISIL.

Students can easily practice identifying an argument’s claim—or, in Aristotle’s terminology, its conclusion—by summing up in one sentence what each of two opposing sides in an argument is trying to prove: Oscar Pistorius intentionally killed Reeva Steenkamp, or he accidentally killed her. Behind those claims are the broader assumptions, or the warrants, on which each is based: A man awakened in a locked bedroom with his girlfriend would not fire four shots into the bathroom door without checking to see where his girlfriend was, or in a neighborhood plagued by burglaries, a man might assume a noise in the middle of the night was caused by burglars. What constitutes support for the claims on both sides of the argument that has torn apart the town of Ferguson, Missouri, for over a month? What evidence is there to support each claim? Are the witnesses ethical men or not?

Classroom discussions of controversial recent events can degenerate into the worst kind of unsupported arguments if ideas are tossed around at random. What can structure a useful discussion of those events is to force the students to use the terminology taught in the argument course to explain both their positions and others’. Throughout the year, I will be using this column to offer examples.

[Photo The Purpose of Argument by jon collier on Flikr]

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