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The Nature of Argument

Why Davidson Expects You to Argue Well

By argument we do not mean a dispute over a loud party in a residence hall room, or even the kind of agonistic debate one typically hears on the Senate floor. In college, an argument is something more deliberative, more reasoned, and more systematic. It is a set of statements coherently arranged to offer three things that experienced readers expect in essays that they judge to be thoughtful:

  • They expect to see a claim that would encourage them to say, “That’s interesting. I’d like to know more.”
  • They expect to see evidence, reasons for your claim, evidence that would encourage them to agree with your claim, or at least to think it plausible.
  • They expect to see that you’ve thought about limits and objections to your claim. Almost by definition, an interesting claim is one that can be reasonably challenged. Readers look for answers to questions like “But what about. . . ?” and “Have you considered. .  .?”

This kind of argument is less like wrangling or bullying, and more like an amiable and lively conversation with a person who also identifies as a member of the intellectual community, someone  you respect and who respects you; someone who is interested in what you have to say, but will not agree with your claims just because you assert them; someone who wants to hear your reasons for believing your claims and also wants to hear answers to their questions.  Some students ask why they should be required to convince anyone of anything. “After all,” they say, “we are entitled to our opinions, so all we should have to do is express them clearly. Here’s my opinion. Take it or leave it.” This point of view both misunderstands the nature of written argument and ignores its greatest value.

It is true that we are all entitled to our opinions and that we have no duty to defend them. But universities and colleges hold as their highest value not just the pursuit of new knowledge and better understanding but also showing why others might agree (or disagree) with such knowledge and understanding and the larger implications of those positions. We also know that whatever it is we think, it is never the entire truth. Our conclusions are partial, incomplete, anchored in particular cultural and epistemic contexts, and always subject to challenge. Intellectual readers expect claims to be contestable  and anticipate the fact that reasonable persons may choose to disagree. So we write in a way that allows others to test our reasoning: we present our best thinking as a series of responses to imagined challenges so that readers can see not only what we think, but whether they ought to agree.

And that’s essentially what an argument is: not wrangling or bargaining, but a serious and focused conversation among people who are intensely interested in getting to the bottom of things cooperatively.

Though disagreement outside the academy is at times feared as an uncomfortable or defensive affair, scholars value disagreement as an important and nearly inevitable part of intellectual life. But if disagreement is to be productive, the participants in debates must do something other than attempt to shout one another down. Though a rather complicated mix of sensibilities, preferences, and practices are brought to scenes of productive disagreement, participants in academic discourse typically:

  • expect that strong thinkers will arrive at contestable conclusions about their objects of study
  • refrain from tendentious summaries of one another’s arguments
  • inquire into the (sometimes competing) assumptions that anchor one another’s perspectives
  • suspend final judgments until each participant has had his/her say

Those values are also an integral part of your education in college. For four years, you are asked to read, do research, gather data, analyze it, think about it, and then communicate to readers in a form which enables them to assess it and use it. You are asked to do this not because we expect you all to become professional scholars, but because in just about any profession you pursue, and in your life as a citizen, you will read and research, think about what you find, make decisions about complex matters, and then explain those decisions—often in writing or speech—to others who have a stake in your decisions being sound ones. In the digital world, where information is plentiful, what most professionals do is research, think, and make arguments. And part of the value of doing your own thinking and writing is that it makes you much better at evaluating the thinking and writing of others. We want to help you to become both creative and critical in sophisticated ways.  

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