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Critical Thinking By Example

 Chapter 10: Advanced Standardizing
  Quiz 10.1 Quiz 10.2


Material covered in this chapter

  • 10.1 Identifying arguments

  • 10.2 Individuating propositions

  • 10.3 Counter considerations and counter arguments


10.1 Identifying Arguments

Thus far, we have primarily looked at arguments, but of course we use language to do more than argue. We use language to describe, to command, explain, tell jokes, to promise, and so on. This presents a problem, since people rarely explicitly announce their intention to argue. So one of the first tasks we face in applying our critical thinking skills to some piece of text or speech is to determine whether something is an argument or not.

We know that arguments are attempts to persuade us to accept a conclusion on the basis of reasons. This tells us that if we think some passage or speech is an argument we should be able to identify at least one premise and one conclusion. If we can’t, then we should revise our estimation that we are dealing with an argument. But this is not sufficient for identifying an argument. We must also be sure that the author’s intention is to argue. Consider this passage: “Mark said that all humans are immortal, so Socrates is not human”. The author of this passage is not making an argument, but describing an argument made by Mark.

Arguments are easily confused with explanations. To help us understand explanations, it will be helpful to have a little bit of vocabulary. Like arguments, explanations can be divided into two components. The explicandum is the thing being explained, and the explanans is the thing that does the explaining. So, in the passage, “The tide goes in and out because of the gravitational pull of the moon”, the explicandum is “the tide goes in and out” and the explanans is “the gravitational pull of the moon.” The pull of the moon explains why the tide goes in and out.

The primary difference between arguments and explanations is the speaker’s intentions. In arguments the intention is to persuade. With explanations, the intention is to make understandable why something is the case. We can exploit this difference to help us think about tricky cases where a passage might be interpreted as either an argument or an explanation. Consider this example:  “Car engines get hot because there is exploding gas inside.”  Understood as an explanation, the explicandum is “Car engines get hot”. The explanans is “There is exploding gas inside”. Understood as an argument, the premise “There is exploding gas inside” is offered in support of the conclusion, “Car engines get hot.” Imagine a child asking why car engines get hot. If we think of the parent saying the above in response, then we should understand the passage as an explanation. The parent is not attempting to persuade that car engines are hot, but trying to make understandable why they are. Suppose a parent was trying to convince a child that things other than the stove get hot. The parent asserts the premise, “There is exploding gas inside” to support the conclusion, “Car engines get hot”.

Often a passage will contain several different uses of language, e.g., a single paragraph might contain a description, an explanation and an argument. I’m afraid that there is no easy decision-rule for deciding on any particular passage how it is best identified. In general, we should try to be as charitable as possible: we should look for a reconstruction that makes the most sense. As noted, this will involve correctly interpreting the author’s intentions—and this is not easy. We have all had the experience of misunderstanding someone’s joke as a serious statement.  

10.2 Individuating Propositions

Standardizing requires identifying individual premises and conclusions. In this subsection we learn how to individuate, how to “chop up”, a passage into individual premises and conclusions. Many of the examples above provided the individuation of premises and conclusions, e.g., sometimes numbers were assigned to individual premises and conclusions in a passage. Obviously, rarely will authors number or otherwise “chop up” the premises and conclusions for you. Hence, this is an important skill to learn.

Each premise and conclusion we may think of as a ‘proposition’: the smallest unit of argumentation suitable for logical reconstruction. It will help to clarify propositions by contrasting them with sentences.

Some propositions are not presented as declarative sentences.  For example, a rhetorical question is a declarative statement in disguise.  Thus in the example “We should go to the concert tonight. Who wouldn’t want to see the greatest rock and roll band ever?” the second sentence has the surface appearance of being a question, but clearly the author intends to communicate the idea that everyone wants to see the greatest rock and roll band ever. So, for the purposes of standardization, we would rewrite the argument thus:

P1: Everyone wants to see the greatest rock and roll band ever.

C: We should go to the concert tonight.

Sometimes sentences and propositions are one and the same thing. Consider this argument once again: “All humans are mortal. Socrates is human. Socrates is mortal.” This argument contains three sentences, and each is a proposition.

Sometimes a single sentence contains two or more propositions. There are two cases we should consider. The first is where a sentence contains both a premise and a conclusion. Thus, the single sentence, “You should go to class today since there is a quiz today”, contains two propositions, “You should go to class today”, and “There is a quiz today.” The second serves as a premise for the first. The second case where a sentence contains more than one proposition is when there are two premises in a single sentence. Consider this example: “It is likely that Karl Marx did not own a factory. He was poor, and a communist.” The sentence “He was poor and a communist can be broken down into two separate premises and standardized thus:

P1: Karl Marx was a communist.

P2: Karl Marx was poor.

C: It is unlikely that he owned a factory.

The reason the sentence can be broken down in this way is that in saying “P and Q” we are committed to the truth of both P and Q.

The same cannot be said for conditional sentences or disjunctive sentences (sentences with an ‘or’). If I say, “If it is rainy, then it is cloudy”, this cannot be broken down into two propositions “It is rainy” and “It is cloudy”. This would have the absurd consequence that every time I assert the conditional “If it is rainy, then it is cloudy” I am committed to it being rainy and cloudy. This is clearly false. Imagine a beautiful sunny summer day. When I say, “If it is rainy, then it is cloudy”, I am saying something true even though it is perfectly sunny outside. As we saw in Chapter 3, a conditional merely asserts that the antecedent is sufficient for the consequent, and the consequent necessary for the antecedent; not that the antecedent and the consequent are true.

Similar remarks apply to sentences with an ‘or’. If I say, “He is flying to London on Friday or Saturday”, this cannot be broken down into, “He is flying to London on Friday”, and “He is flying to London on Saturday.” For our purposes, conditional and disjunctive propositions cannot be broken down further.

10.3 Counter Considerations and Counter Arguments

Counter considerations are claims provided by an author that provide reasons not to believe the argument. Here is an example.


Example 10.1 Example with counter considerations

Although Senator Smith got caught having affairs, and despite the fact that he is drunk half the time, you should still vote for him. He is a member of the Labor Party, and this country needs every Labor senator it can get.


The author is attempting to persuade us that we should vote for Smith. The author begins with two counter considerations (CC): claims that work against this conclusion:

CC1: Senator Smith got caught having affairs.

CC2: Senator Smith is drunk half the time.

The words ‘although’ and ‘despite’ indicate that these claims are acknowledged by the author to count against the argument. It is a good idea to put the counter considerations at the beginning to keep track of their role in the argument. A complete standardization of the above passage is as follows:

CC1: Senator Smith got caught having affairs.

CC2: Senator Smith is drunk half the time.

MP1: The counter considerations do not outweigh the main argument.

P2: Senator Smith is a member of the Labor Party.

P3: This country needs every Labor senator it can get.

C: You should vote for Senator Smith.

It is clear a charitable understanding of the argument says that the author does not believe that the counter considerations outweigh the strength of the main argument, hence the missing premise (MP1). Any argument that puts forward counter considerations will have a premise (either stated or missing) to the effect that the counter considerations do not outweigh the main argument.

A counter argument is an argument that concludes that some other argument is defective.


Example 10.2: An example of a counter argument

I can’t believe you think we should vote for Senator Smith. The man is a moral degenerate: you admit he is a drunk and a philanderer. We should not have moral degenerates in parliament.


This argument challenges the previous argument. Specifically, it questions the missing premise: it argues that drunkenness and philandering are sufficient reason not to vote for the candidate.

It can be confusing when an author states both the argument and the counterargument in a single place. For example:


Example 10.3: Argument and Counter argument in a single passage

Some say that we should not vote for Smith because he is a moral degenerate. I agree that he is a moral degenerate, but parliament members are supposed to represent all types of people: men, women, tall, short, able-bodied, disabled, all skin colors and moral degenerates. So, drunks and philanders also need a voice in Parliament, and Smith is just the representative for them.


In standardizing this we must be careful to separate out the argument and the counterargument.


P1: Smith is a moral degenerate.

C: We should not vote for Smith.



P1: All types of people should have representatives in parliament.

P2: Being a philanderer and a drunk is to be a type of person.

P3: Smith is a philanderer and a drunk.

C: We should vote for Smith.