Critical Inquiry

The Process of Argument


By Michael Boylan

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This informative book is a necessary companion for anyone seeking to uncover the secret of successful persuasion: to organize, construct, and communicate arguments. It is at once comprehensive and accessible, an authoritative guide to logical thinking and effective communication. First, the text defines the nature and uses of argument, explaining how to read argument carefully. Such analysis then requires the student to reconstruct arguments in his or her own words. Finally, the reader is taught how to create a critical, reasoned response, thus constructing his or her own argument. To increase its accessibility and expand its range of application, Critical Inquiry uses (in addition to textual examples) advertisements from print media as “texts” for applying its principles to subjects outside the traditional mode of academic presentation. Throughout, carefully selected reading questions and exercises pace the reader and ensure that the material is securely grasped and successfully applied.


This book is dedicated to my children:
Arianne, Seán, and Éamon.

This book is in one way the second edition of The Process of Argument (Prentice Hall, 1988). However, it is more than just a second edition, but an entirely revised project that is supported by a new publisher, Westview. The first book was designed to be an informal logic text with the intent that it would be used in classes centered around critical thinking—then a nascent field. In fact, the American Association for Higher Education had a session on critical thinking shortly after publication and featured The Process of Argument among a few others as examples of how this new field might develop.
After twenty years of continual classroom adoptions, it seems to me that there is good reason to update and reorient the book. The new emphasis is upon how to read and respond critically to argumentative texts. In this way the text has transformed into one that emphasizes critical inquiry through the three r’s of reading, reconstructing, and responding to argumentative texts. This is an important skill that is necessary in many courses in the curriculum. For example, in philosophy all the texts presented are argumentative so that this book can instruct the student in achieving the requisite skills needed to read and analyze texts. But these skills are not confined to philosophy. In literature classes, it is commonplace to teach two sorts of essays: (a) the expository (or research) essay and (b) the argumentative essay. This book would be useful for courses in the latter domain. It might also be useful for upper-level literature courses that want to incorporate critical theory. This is because the bounds of critical theory are the logically acceptable categories of deductive and inductive reasoning (both represented here). Students of composition classes as well as upper-level theory classes could profit from exposure to a succinct handbook on argument—including rules on understanding, reconstructing, and responding to the same.
Other classes in the curriculum such as politics, eco nomics, and business also require facility in confronting argument successfully. The crossover between disciplines respecting argument is very high. For fourteen years I have led a faculty seminar on ethics and logical argument to professors across the disciplines. This book reflects my experiences. I have also used this method of teaching argument when I was first an English literature teacher in 1976 and later, a philosophy teacher from 1979 onward. So this book also represents thirty-two years of classroom experience.
The presentation is divided into three parts: reading the text, reconstructing the text, and responding to the text (the three r’s). In reading the text students are presented with critical tools so that they might not simply accept the text as given. Instead, students are encouraged to go through some self-examination that will enable them to understand their own critical standpoint. This is essential in order that they might be able to ascertain what the speaker is saying and subsequently whether the presentation is correct. I should point out that in the first two sections of the book there is a presentation of how to confront media claims as well as those from the traditional written word.
In reconstructing the text the student is presented with a self-contained system of informal logic. The rules are few and focused on the practical outcomes of enabling the student to confront an argumentative text and to reconstruct the important arguments contained within. These reconstructed arguments are formally presented according to the rules of the system. By making students go through this process, they are forced to give an interpretation of the logical argument contained within. This constitutes another level of understanding that will facilitate better critical inquiry.
Finally, there is the level of responding to the text. In this case the student is enjoined to write a clear pro or con essay. The point of making this clear decision is to promote straightforward argumentative thinking. This is always best achieved when students must make difficult choices. Many students want to be fence-sitters and avoid taking a stance. But this mars their ability to create clear arguments.
This text thus sees itself as promoting the three r’s: reading, reconstructing, and responding to the text. If this book can better facilitate student outcomes in creating argumentative essays, then it will be a success. I welcome teacher feedback for the next edition of this book, which can be sent to Key features of this book include:
• Guidance on how to read a text through self-analysis and social criticism
• Tools on how to reconstruct logical argument in a structured manner
• A step-by-step procedure to move from reading to a reflective packet that allows the student to be in the position to write an argumentative essay
• Guidelines on how to structure an argumentative, pro or con essay
It is the intention of this book to assist the student in this process from the point of opening the book to the time when he or she turns in their essay.

Critical inquiry begins by recognizing argument.
Argument—what is it? Does it mean someone is angry with someone else? Is it something to avoid? Many people are unacquainted with argument as the logical means of persuasion.
It is obvious to everyone that the power of persuasion is valuable. In ancient Greece people spent large sums of money to possess this rare commodity; with the power of persuasion, they felt they could become successful. Other, less mercenary philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, extended the study of argument, developing it from an art into a science.
Indeed, today similar attitudes toward persuasion exist. Executive seminars offer training in the art of leadership, sales, and positive thinking. These really amount to methods of getting your ideas across to someone else. The motivation for these seminars is success and financial gain.
Likewise, in our universities, the disinterested study of persuasion proceeds under the titles of philosophy, rhetoric, and composition. Both their practical and intellectual exercises have one point in common: They both aspire to construct rules whereby one can properly persuade others.
A full-scale treatment of this topic is beyond the scope of this volume. Instead, this text will act as an initiation that will supplement and enrich various courses of instruction. Be that as it may, a few things should be noted about the methodology adopted for this present volume and how it intends to aid the student in acquiring the skill of analytic reading and reasoned evaluation.
The first point is that the purpose of argument, persuasion , is not a commodity that exists in isolation. One seeks to persuade within a context. This context can be described by the following elements:
Point of Contention
Common Body of Knowledge
An example of all these elements working together follows:
Sam wants to persuade Kathy to go to the movies. Kathy smiles but doesn’t reply. So Sam lists the great reviews and modestly hints at the advantages of going with him. After all, they’re both in the same English class, love literature, and could have so much to talk about!
In this example the speaker is Sam, the audience is Kathy, and the point of contention is “Kathy going to the movie with Sam.” The argument addresses both the movie’s quality and the scenario of a good time; the common body of knowledge is their shared aesthetic value system.
The reader is encouraged to identify these same elements within the context of arguments he or she may encounter. Familiarity with their separate roles is useful for acquiring competence in the process of argument.
Several points about argument can be made using the simple structure outlined above. Perhaps the most difficult of these five elements to understand is the common body of knowledge. This is because this element consists of a collection of facts and shared assumptions about what counts as a proper way to relate facts to each other and to commonly held social norms. These assumptions form a set of logical rules or procedures, and without them, no conclusions can be drawn from the facts. To show some of the difficulties that can occur in even the simplest cases, let us examine the following three examples of common facts:
1. John is six feet tall.
2. It is uncomfortably hot outside today.
3. General Electric is ripe for a corporate takeover.
4. Big oil companies are evil because they gouge the public for excess profits.
The above examples differ in several respects. In the first one, presumably, we have an objective fact. But what makes it objective? It is because (1) we have an agreed-upon unit of measurement, and (2) John is set against this standard. The first statement refers to an agreed-upon standard by which measurements can be made. This is generally un-problematic, but disagreements are possible even at this level. For example, someone who opted for the metric system might disagree that measurements should be taken in the English system of weights and measures. (Some awkward cases have arisen over just this issue between the United States and the International Track and Field Federation concerning standards of measurement and world records in the high jump and pole vault.) Conversion tables are available, of course, but the point is that even with very straightforward cases, one must make certain assumptions that, themselves, are not subject to dispute. Without these assumptions, no resolution is possible.
The second statement refers to the use of the measurement standard. Suppose we agree to the English system of weights and measures. Then (2) is about the actual measuring of John against a calibrated yardstick. Again, this seems uncomplicated, but problems can arise. It is possible to set up an agreed-upon standard and yet disagree about whether the object in question is most appropriately subsumed under it. Such disputes are not uncommon. For example, legal authorities often are at a loss to decide under which statute to try a criminal. Although the law is clear, its application is not.
Thus, even in such straightforward examples as the first common fact above, there are some possible grounds for disagreement. In order to analyze the dispute, we need to make exact distinctions that can point to where the disagreement lies. Once this is known, a reasoned response and dialogue are possible.
In the second common fact, there is an added factor to be considered: the value judgment of what constitutes “uncomfortably hot.” One might agree to a temperature scale and how to read it and still disagree about when to judge a day to be uncomfortably hot. To some this may be seventy-five degrees, while to others it may be ninety degrees. In other words, various theories of what constitutes temperature and how to measure it might be agreed upon, but a value judgment about these facts may also be required. In this case agreement must be reached before the argument may continue.
The first two examples refer to theory. Theories contain standards and often sanction judgments connected to these standards.
The third example adds one more level to our model. We may agree about what constitutes a corporate takeover, how to measure the circumstances (as in the first example), and when, in theory, this is a good course of action (the judgment entailed in the second example), but still disagree on whether or not General Electric is in such a position at present. Thus, the judgment necessary to put a theory into practice constitutes the third stage of accepted common facts. This stage deals in particulars because it is directed toward judgments to act. These judgments cannot be considered apart from real circumstances, because the circumstances, together with the relevant theory, are necessary to determine what is to be done.
The fourth example confronts the normative element in the common body of knowledge. A theory of distributive justice is introduced (implicitly). It suggests some range of what is an appropriate and an inappropriate level of corporate profit within the social realm—especially in the case of the economically crucial commodity of oil. One might imagine various communities reacting differently to this example. A laissez-faire capitalist group might believe that there is no such thing as too much profit so long as no laws were broken. A socially concerned capitalist, on the other hand, might demur by saying that the community interests are not advanced by allowing too much profit to go to one company when there are others in the society who are in want.
This fourth example is the most robust of all in demonstrating how all the various layers of the shared community worldview might work together.1
All four stages work together sequentially to describe the environmental context of the argument. It is hoped that these brief illustrations will inspire the reader’s appreciation of the importance of these stages in the process of argument.
A second important area of inquiry concerns the internal structure of the argument itself. One aspect of this structure is the interdependence between the point of contention and the premises. The argument’s entire existence—indeed, its reason for being—is solely to put forth the point of contention (called the conclusion when it stands in a finished argument). Because of this singular mission, the argument’s character must mirror closely that of the point of contention. This creates a mutual dependence between the two so that knowledge of the argument will allow us to know the point of contention, and knowledge of the point of contention will aid us in discovering the argument.
It is true that for any point of contention several arguments may be constructed that will demonstrate that point, but this does not alter the fact that, as stated, the relationship between the two is very close. One way to explain this is that the argument’s premises and the point of contention mutually imply each other as cause and effect. Such causes have to do with the form or structure of the argument (what the philosopher Aristotle called the “formal cause”).
For example, if one wished to make a claim about the all-time best hitter in baseball, one might put forward the following point of contention: “Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby were the all-time best hitters in American baseball.” The premises to prove this point cannot have an arbitrary character. They must establish criteria upon which one can judge a hitter to be the best hitter. In this way the genesis of the premises is an effect arising from the point of contention.
We began with “Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby were the all-time best hitters in American baseball.” In order to be accepted, this point of contention needs sentences that logically support it. These sentences are called premises. These premises come to be in order to prove some point of contention (also called a conclusion). Whatever comes to be for the sake of something else, in one sense, can be said to be caused by its originator. The order of genesis refers to the mode through which something comes to be.
In this order the point of contention (conclusion) causes the premises.
To set out a simplified example of such an argument we need to establish a standard first. Obviously, as we have seen, setting such standards is controversial. Let us say that the Triple Crown leader is the most adequate test of an all-around hitter. The Triple Crown measures the three primary categories of hitting: batting average, runs batted in, and home runs. Only two players have ever won the Triple Crown in their leagues more than once: Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby.
The argument could be set down as displayed in Figure 0.1. Premises 1 through 3 come about from our search to prove point 4 (conclusion). However, seen from the perspective of the finished argument, point 4 is itself the effect of premises 1 through 3.2 That is, if we assent to premises 1 through 3, we must agree with point 4. The conclusion is the effect of premises 1 through 3 being true.
Thus, in the order of logical presentation the conclusion is the effect and the premises are the cause. This arrangement is just the opposite of the order of genesis. This relationship is set out in Figure 0.2. The consequence of this is that the premises and the point of contention (conclusion) are seen to be interdependent so that each affects the character of the other. Thus, the argument in Figure 0.1, “Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby are the all-time best hitters in American baseball,” and the three premises that precede it can influence each other as cause and effect in the manner suggested in Figure 0.2. The direction of this influence depends upon what perspective we take: from the order of genesis or from the order of logical presentation.
FIGURE 0.1: Sample Baseball Argument
Argumentpremise1. The Triple Crown title is the best measure of all-around hitting in American baseball.
premise2. Whoever, over a career, wins the Triple Crown the most times is the best all-time hitter in American baseball.
premise3. Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby are the only players to win the Triple Crown more than once in their careers.
conclusion4. Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby are the best all-time hitters in American baseball.
When we construct our own arguments, we are most concerned with the order of genesis. We begin with a statement we’re trying to prove and then create premises that will prove it. However, when we are reading or listening to another’s argument, then the order of logical presentation is primary. Keeping these purposes and relationships in mind may help later when we try to engage in each process.
The third point is a caution: Sometimes people try to persuade without employing logical argument. For these individuals, logical argument is supplanted by logical fallacy. The difference between logical argument and logical fallacy is the use of illicit means of persuasion. Now why would one wish to do this? In the first place, it is often more successful in persuading large numbers of people in a shorter time than logical argument. Thus, if one is selling either advertising time on television or space within a magazine, he may receive a quicker return on each dollar by employing logical fallacy rather than logical argument. This need not be the case; advertising can pictorially embody logical argument (see exercises in Chapters 3 and 6).
The trouble with fallacies is that they depend upon tricks and illusions. They persuade illegitimately. This does not mean that everyone who employs a fallacy could not have constructed a persuasive message using logical argument. In most cases, the use of fallacy merely indicates the rhetorician’s preference.
Thus, Acme Widgets may try to persuade the public to purchase their product by placing it between a pair of attractive male and female models attired in evening clothes. The force of the persuasion is the fact that everyone wants to be young, rich, and attractive. The Acme Widget is associated with this pleasing picture by the advertiser, who wants
FIGURE 0.2: The Relationship Between the Elements of Logical Persuasion
us to think that we can become young, rich, and attractive by purchasing the Acme Widget.
However, anyone who was pointedly questioned about this connection would surely demur, because no natural, scientific connection can be found between the two. Everyone would agree to this. But still the ads are successful. Why? Because people often do not consciously question what they are seeing. If they did, they would feel insulted that the Acme Company thinks it can sell its widgets without telling us relevant information, such as how its product’s features compare with those of its competitors.
It is this unthinking, subliminal reaction that proponents of logical fallacy depend upon. When we fall into their trap, we become slaves to their tricks. Fortunately, there is a way out. The tool is logic. The power is the mind. One of the beneficial by-products of learning the skills set forth in this book is that you will be less likely to be hoodwinked by such illogical shenanigans. By applying reason properly we acquire a power of self-determination. This free autonomy is inherently desirable—and yet it does not come without some training of our natural mental faculties. This will be discussed further in Chapter 2.
The fourth point concerns a further incentive for understanding the structure of argument. We all wish, at times, to offer opinions on various questions. Someone sets down an argument such as the one I did on baseball batters. Perhaps you disagree with the argument. What response are you to make? One thing you might say is, “That’s all wrong!” or “You’re crazy!” But such responses don’t convey any specific content other than the fact that, upon hearing the argument, you were put into a negative state of mind.
But unless we can get beyond that point, no discourse is possible. Also, it may be that there is no real disagreement at all, but merely a problem in the way the sentence was expressed.
The tool that allows one to make real progress is logical analysis. Analysis literally means “to break up.” Therefore, when presented with a composite whole, one must isolate the various parts: speaker, audience, point of contention, argument, and common body of knowledge.


  • “[An] excellent and practical introduction to critical thinking … Boylan doesn’t limit his analysis to academic writings but instead includes examples of critical inquiry to evaluate the arguments and claims in advertising, the media, and phishing emails. … Although the intended audience is students who need to write and understand argumentative essays, anyone interested in understanding and responding to claims they encounter through the media will find it highly rewarding.” - Library Journal

On Sale
Aug 11, 2009
Page Count
224 pages

Michael Boylan

About the Author

Michael Boylan received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is professor of philosophy at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including Philosophy: An Innovative Introduction (with Charles Johnson) and Critical Inquiry: The Process of Argument, both published by Westview Press.

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