Argument is a word I use a lot, but I’m very aware of the ways in which it might be confusing. I like to ask students – and colleagues, and myself, anyone writing academically – to describe the structure of their argument, or to tell me the conclusion which their argument supports, or to show me the steps in their argument. But the kind of argument which I’m asking about in those enquires follows a different pattern of use for the word ‘argument’ to the most common way of using the word. Here an argument is a collection of points which are logically connected in such a way as to build from premises to a conclusion, rather than a quarrel, row, barney, ding-dong, verbal fight, debate, or shouting match.
Sometimes it can help to use other images as well. I might think of a piece of writing, even nonfiction writing, as having a story: a beginning, middle, and end, through which the writer leads the reader. One difficulty with that is that academic writing loves spoilers and hates surprises: academic readers, unlike film viewers, want to know exactly what to expect at the end, right from the beginning. They want to know what conclusion you are going to reach before you lay out the steps by which you got there.
Further away from writing, we might imagine the process of constructing an argument as akin to another creative project. I’ve sometimes used the image of a building, so that one builds the argument from a set of foundations, up through different layers, to a (hopefully well-supported) conclusion. (I used this image, complete with silly MS Paint diagram, in a post last year about the book I was writing.) I find this image helpful because it gives a sense of how the later pieces of an argument depend on the earlier ones – everyone can imagine the house built on sand, or the castle built in a bog, which just sinks. The lesson for the academic writer is obvious – pay attention to the foundations!
The image of an argument as a building can also help us see how we can use the same foundations for different conclusions. Starting from the same base – picture a LEGO board, for example – and using the same set of building blocks, it’s possible to produce a wide range of different buildings. Which you want will depend on your assessment criteria: a cosy house, a stylish block of flats, or (given that LEGO can be very flexible!) maybe you’ll end up with a rather blocky self-portrait or a banana.
This metaphor might not draw enough attention to other parts of the process, though. At the risk of confusing the philosophical use of the word ‘argument’ – the structure of connected claims leading to a conclusion – with the ordinary sense of ‘argument’ – where two people are in a more or less angry debate – we might prefer to think of the process of constructing an argument as more like having a conversation than erecting a building. Rather than building blocks, we have dialogue partners. These might not be people we know personally (although some of them could be), but they are the people who produced or improved the ideas that we’re working with.
In writing an academic text, we cite the people who have worked on the question before us, both anyone who agrees and a range of people who don’t. Previous work becomes the foundation, and then new materials can be brought in – perhaps from related disciplines, but maybe from further afield – to help with the creation of new ideas and approaches. We might have source material which is new, data or texts or whatever, and we need to show how we’ve produced this. All of these forms of material are referenced and become part of an ongoing discussion process, a conversation between texts and people as we, as a community of scholars, try to work out what’s going on.
In this post, my argument is that we need to think about what an argument is before we try and give one. What’s your argument?