Tag Archives: metaphors

What is an argument?

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.

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Margaret Fell greets George Fox at LEGO Swarthmoor Hall. She found his argument convincing!

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?

Reading Quaker faith & practice: Chapter 21

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Personal journey: reading Qf&p on the train

Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting have been invited, by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group of which I am a member, to read and get to know our current Book of Discipline –¬†Quaker faith & practice –¬†before deciding whether or not it is time to revise it.

We are beginning with Chapter 21, Personal journey. This chapter contains selections of extracts about youth, age, living a full life, creativity, and death; these are partly arranged in a chronological way, with youth first and death towards the end, and partly not – some could be part of life at any age, and by ending the chapter with ‘Suffering and healing’, rather than death, reading it as a whole is not as bleak as it could be.

One thing that struck me about the chapter as a whole is the metaphor of journey for life. This is a familiar and much used one – we talk about spiritual journeys often, for example, and the image of travel underlies talk about finding Quakerism being like coming home. However, it isn’t always a helpful image. Many of us only set out to travel physically when we have an aim n mind, and the spiritual search does not always or even often work like that. Many of us find travel uncomfortable, something to be endured until we can arrive, and but this is not at all the attitude to life I find in these extracts. It’s all very well to say that the journey is more important than the destination, but that’s very rarely been my experience of actual travel. (In the picture at the top of this post, I’m travelling to work; I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be going if the destination weren’t important to me.)

Doubts about the title asides, this chapter contains some of my favourite passages. I can’t possibly pick out every one, so here are three which I find myself especially treasuring at the moment.

21.01. This passage by Rufus Jones speaks about how he came to learn Quakerism in a Quaker household. He talks, not of being taught, although words were involved, but of being shown, of the religion of his family being something they did together. It’s clear that there was teaching – including Bible reading every day – but that, in memory at least, it was also centrally about experience.

21.19. Dorothy Nimmo’s story is, as she says in the passage, a classic one, and it’s a classic for a reason. This passage reminds me of a debate I sometimes have with my friends about whether I am a ¬†Slytherin. (I am.) It also describes an experience I have had, and I’m sure many others have had, of coming to Meeting with nothing to offer except a need. “Whatever you have.” As someone who has been reprimanded in other settings for being too needy and demanding, I find the idea that I can come to Meeting with nothing but a need very freeing.

21.68. This passage by Iain Law speaks about suffering and death, and how the particular circumstances of Andrew’s death made it difficult to talk about among Friends. The specifics of this passage arise from a historical moment which deserves to be remembered as such; but it also speaks to a broader issues, to the problems which can arise when we are fearful of the reactions of Friends and hold back in ministry. I’ve done this myself – or at other times, not held back, and been met with confused, upset, confusing and upsetting responses.

Before finishing this post, I want to take a moment to address two questions that are asked in the introduction to the Reading Qf&p project: one about the history and development of Quakerism, and one about the authority of the text.

One big issue in the development of Quaker thought is discussed in this chapter – attitudes to creativity and especially to music. This chapter is clear that although early Friends were opposed to music, Friends today are not – indeed, we are broadly in favour of the arts even as we choose to use them not at all or only very sparingly in our worship. There are hints, however, of another shift – Quakers may not officially celebrate Christmas but in 21.25 we can pray for spiritual gifts to be in our Christmas stockings.

What authority does this text have? It inspires and suggests. This chapter doesn’t give instructions but recounts personal responses to situations which we may recognise echoed in our own lives. This chapter can’t have the authority f command because of the subject matter it deals with – too personal, too emotional – but perhaps it can have an authority of guidance: when you are in situations like these, here are some recommendations, some suggestions, some previous experiences to reflect on and, at least, know that you are not alone.