Posted in All things 301, Extracurricular, Intern advice, Written by Tom

How not to make an argument

Do you struggle to think of an argument when you’re writing an essay or reviewing your research?  Has your tutor told you that your work hasn’t involved enough critical thinking about your topic? Then you should consider coming to our workshops on Critical Thinking and Writing, and Developing an Academic Argument which you can book on our website now!

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But as a philosophy student, I make arguments all the time. I won’t go into all the ins and outs of these topics because you’ll find out all about them in the workshop. Rather, I’ll give you a taste of some of the stuff involved. I’ll give you a couple of examples of how not to make an argument. Even if you don’t use this kind of reasoning in your subject, hopefully this will give you some food for thought, and you might be able to apply this to when other people make arguments in real life.

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So, you need a statement to support your argument. You will thus actively search for a source or think about something which will prove it.

But are you also ignoring sources and argument which reject your claims? You might include a source or two which does show the other side, only to easily reject it with additions to your original argument.

But is this oversimplifying the other argument?

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There is an official term for when you oversimplify another person’s argument. It is called ‘reduction ad absurdum’.

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It’s a bit of a mouthful I know, but its a Latin term for oversimplifying an argument, to ignore the reasoning behind an argument because you have exaggerated it beyond it’s original meaning. It is a rhetorical device, meaning people use it in their arguments to convince them despite it having no logical basis. If you’re a philosophy student you have to be careful not to do this, or else you will be deducted marks.

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Let’s give an example.

If somebody were to argue that the government should better redistribute wealth between the rich and poor, but you were to denounce that statement as that sounds like communism which has historically lead to the deaths of millions of people, that would be using reductio ad absurdum.

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This is because the other person was not saying that communism should be implemented, but simply that there should be a greater redistribution of wealth. This could simply mean more social funding or increasing wages. It does not automatically mean the person is advocating communism, which is an extreme redistribution. But you have made it so that it seems like they are, which can be easily attacked.

Another similar thing to do is to make a straw man argument. This is very similar to reductio ad absurdum, apart from the fact that you make an argument which is set up to fail, rather than responding to another person’s argument.

For example, you believe communism is bad and so no one will want it. So you set up an argument which denounces what you believe to be a communist agenda – the redistribution of wealth. You make the argument “We should not redistribute wealth because that will only lead to communism”. You have framed your argument so that it follows the narrative of communism being bad. But redistribution of wealth does not entail communism. You have set up your argument to fail on a bad premise, therefore you have created a straw man argument.

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There are many other rhetorical devices which I will not go into here. You might find out a few more in our workshops, but they are more focused on the theory behind arguments as a whole. It is worth looking into rhetorical devices because they are used a lot in everyday life, and when you can point them out, it means you will never be fooled!

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Overall, have a second think about what your overall argument is saying. But, as a final thought, don’t think that you must be constantly presenting strong arguments or sources which question your own. You of course only have a set word count and want your own argument to seem as strong as possible. Just show that you have critically thought about your own argument and other arguments too – you aren’t just presenting a simplified conclusion.

Go forth and prosper my argumentative Padawans.

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We are 301 Academic Skills Centre and we give academic skills advice to our students at the University of Sheffield. We offer workshops and 1:1 appointments.

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