John RamsayThe Structure of Sound Arguments


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What is a Sound Academic Argument?

In your written work you should always be trying to construct sound arguments. Unsound arguments will attract poor grades from assessors. Learning in Higher Education involves not just the memorisation of large amounts of information and its subsequent accurate regurgitation during examinations or in assignments. In many subjects the process of assessment involves taking information and assembling, synthesising and re-arranging it into new patterns that both form sound arguments and solve the problems set in assignments titles and examination questions.

If you go back to Aristotle you can find the classical logical argument structure of:

Example

Major Premise All residents of Fenton are untrustworthy
Minor Premise Wayne lives in Fenton
Conclusion Wayne is untrustworthy

A Premise is merely a stated proposition. The conclusion of an argument must be based upon, and supported by one or more acceptable/accurate/logical premises or reasons. Unlikely as it might seem, most student answers to examination questions or assignment topics consist of groups of arguments of this shape. Of course, many arguments have more than two premises, and some have more than one conclusion, but the component parts of most arguments fit this basic pattern.

The persuasive power of... [an] argument depends on two conditions that are basic criteria for the evaluation of arguments. First the reasons [premises] must be accepted. Second the conclusion must be adequately supported by the reasons [premises]. Provided that both conditions are satisfied, an argument is sound.

Phelan and Reynolds, (1996), p. 13

One of your objectives in formally assessed written work is to persuade the marker that your arguments are not only reasonable and accurate but also solve the problem posed in the examination question or assignment task. Consequently your premises must be acceptable to the reader/assessor and your conclusions must be supported by the premises you offer. Many of the argument faults described below result from a failure to satisfy one or other of these two requirements.

The Nature of Arguments

The purpose of this section is to provide some more detail on the structure of arguments, and to suggest some further readings for those who would like to become expert in the use of arguments and logic.

Premises may also be called 'reasons' or 'claims' as you can see in the following extract describing the underlying structure of arguments taken from Phelan and Reynold's (1996) recent book:

One method of making a case is to persuade others that its claim is rational because it is sound. A claim is a challengeable assertion; for instance, that 'nuclear power stations are dangerous'. An argument is a set of at least two claims which are connected in a precise way. It is not a mere list of assertions. The connection, called an inference, involves a movement from one or more claims presented as reasons, R, to the claim argued for and designated the conclusion, C. For example, it is said that 'nuclear powers stations are dangerous because they discharge radiation into the environment'. Two different claims are made in this assertion. First , that 'nuclear powers stations are dangerous' and second, that 'nuclear power stations discharge radiation into the environment'. Since the second is offered as a reason for the first, the dual claim is an argument.

Appreciation of arguments is facilitated by some recognised procedures. Inferences can be signified using a symbol and the argument can be set out thus:

R C

More precisely, with logical words to depict the role of each claim, the argument reads as follows:

Example 2.1

Because,
R Nuclear power stations discharge radiation into the environment.
Therefore,
C Nuclear power stations are dangerous.

.....The extent to which reasons support a conclusion depends on how arguments are evaluated. Methods are needed to measure the strength of the connection between reasons [premises] and conclusions. At one extreme reasons entail a conclusion [This is true of the Aristotelian major, minor premise and conclusion example concerning Wayne the salesman shown ion the introduction to this paper]...At the other extreme, arguments are worthless when no support is offered for a conclusion, because for instance, the reasons are irrelevant.

Reynolds and Phelan, (1996), pp. 12-14

In between these two extremes there are a range of other positions where the premises used offer varying amounts of support to the conclusions drawn. The degree to which your premises will be acceptable to your assessors depends upon a whole variety of factors, including the quality of the evidence you offer -published statistics, supportive quotations from a number of authorities in the subject area and so on. The precise type of evidence you can offer will depend upon the nature of the topic upon which you are working, the depth and breadth of material available in the University library and the like.

Further Reading

If you are interested in learning how to think more critically, and particularly in acquiring a technique for extracting and evaluating arguments in the work of others, then I would recommend Alec Fisher's 1988 text. Walton's book deals with the application of these ideas in verbal rather than written argumentation. Fairbairn and Winch's book includes good sections on applying the ideas discussed above about the nature of sound arguments to the processes of thinking and writing. Phelan and Reynold's text, in addition to dealing comprehensively with the topics of evidence and validity, also covers probability theory and understanding the application of statistical techniques to the construction of sound arguments.

References

Fairbairn, G. J. & Winch, C., (1991), Reading, Writing and Reasoning: a guide for students, SRHE and OUP, Buckingham
Fisher, A., (1988), The logic of real arguments, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Phelan, P. & Reynolds, P., (1996), Argument and Evidence: critical analysis for the social sciences, Routledge, London
Walton, D. N., (1989), Informal Logic: A handbook for critical argumentation', Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

If you would like some more guidance on the process of improving your reasoning skills you might like to have a look at this site which is on an American University site:

Helping students to assess their thinking