On Arguments (Part 4)

An interesting exchange with a student during office hours. The student brought a draft of a to-be-submitted essay for me to read. After reading the essay, I turned to her and asked, “what do you think about it? Has it succeeded in what it sets out to do?”

The student said, “No, I don’t think it is successful. But I enjoyed writing it.”

Recall the A-not-B task, something at which children below a certain age fail. Some have argued that the children’s failure is not because of cognitive inability, but because of an inability to inhibit an action. An overly specific (and not flexible) action has become associated with completing the task, despite the recognition that the action is inappropriate.

Reading and writing partly aim at completing specific goals, like finishing a course assignment. But they also aims at educating our senses. This includes educating our sense of enjoyment. It is our aim to cultivate the capacity to enjoy writing good essays; it is our aim to reach a place where fulfilling a writing goal, including the promises we make at the outset of an essay, is viscerally satisfying.

Being guided by this insight means not fully trusting our sense of comfort and the easy “enjoyment” that comes with finishing early drafts. It means finding new guiding principles, new standards of form. It means finding new writing goals. Goals that we take seriously. It means not being lazy. Rather than hoping the teacher wouldn’t find the weaknesses that we (the students) ourselves can detect, why not go back and keep working on the essay?

On Arguments (Part 3)

In the first post in this series, I wrote, “a shopping list is not an argument”. This is a useful point of reference for us in understanding arguments, and the practice of argumentation. Now in this post we want to imagine a way in which a shopping list can turn into an argument. Or, at least, we want to see how a shopping list can begin to resemble an argument.

Think of a concrete shopping list. Imagine someone has given you a list of items to buy, including for instance, “eggs”, “milk”, “baking powder”, “butter”, “flour”, “chips”, etc.

Notice the relationship you can have with the list. In one sense, the list is offering instructions, simple and clear. In another sense, the motive behind the list is unknown to you. You don’t know how each item is going to be used. You don’t know which item is essential, for example, and which is optional. You don’t have access to the motives that have produced the list.

Now imagine one additional note at the end of the list. The creator of the list has added, “I am baking blueberry muffins. Get all the ingredients“. With this simple addition, something else is revealed about the list and its motives. No new item is added to the list. No concrete action or instruction is requested. But the list now shows something about its organization, and we now see that the “flour” and the “baking powder” are essential, and both have to be purchased. On the other hand, the “chips” are probably low in priority.

The second list is organized, similar to how an argument is organized. The second list has something of an overarching aim, similar to how an argument is driven and organized by an overarching aim. In addition, and this point is more crucial for me, the two lists relate to you (the reader of the list) differently.

The first list uses you as a tool, as a mindless instrument of obtaining the items. By obtaining the items, you’d be enacting the agency of the person who created the list, without knowing why. The second list, by contrast, acknowledges your capacity to understand reasons. The second list informs you about the reason. In doing that, the second list treats you more as an autonomous agent, as an equal, compared to the first list.

The differences between the two lists (1. coherence, organization; 2. treating the recipient as an autonomous agent), are related to why I emphasize argumentation in my teaching. They are related to why I value to practice of building arguments far more than the practice of memorization. Argumentation is an exercise in reasoning, but it is also an exercise in responding to an ethical demand–the ethical demand that comes with understanding the dignity and autonomy of others.

On Arguments (Part 2)

It was the winter of 2010. My thesis supervisor and I were walking along Otonobee river on the beautiful Trent University campus. The campus looks more beautiful and more dreamy now in my memories, and I am sure its beauty has increased with our distance in time.

I told him about my plan for post-graduate studies. He thought I was joking. “What about philosophy?”, he asked. I don’t remember what I said, and I don’t remember having a good answer. I still don’t.

He said studying visual attention in the style of Michael Posner would be like studying Newtonian physics. I didn’t know what he meant. Old-fashioned? Limited in its theoretical scope? I get his point now. I see what he saw. At the same time, and saying this might surprise you, I cannot imagine an argument that could have changed my mind in 2010. It wasn’t a matter of abstract reasons and detached persuasion. It was a matter of seeing. And seeing takes time. It might even take pain, at least in my case (and I am quite sure in his case, as well). Seeing requires experience.

Now that my best students express interest in graduate work in perception science at some hot-shot lab, I sometimes wonder whether I could change their mind. “What about philosophy?”. I don’t try. Not even as much as my teacher tried, back in the winter of 2010. And he barely tried. What came out of him in that brief moment was the outcome of his visceral reaction to my decision, rather than a purposeful argument. Arguments require common ground, and there was nothing common between my na├»ve ambition and the wisdom of his experience.

On Arguments (Part 1)

For the past three and a half years, I have been trying ways of teaching my students about argumentative writing. How should we distinguish an argument from a non-argument? Why is it useful to practice writing arguments?

Sometimes students challenge me: “What you consider to be an argument isn’t the only possible form of argument.” Usually, this happens after someone submits a very well-done literature review, expecting a good grade. It can also happen when a student gets attached or very comfortable with a non-argumentative style of writing (e.g., listing a set of facts). What if what they are doing is actually a form of argument? Perhaps I could see it, if I were just open-minded enough.

Fair point. But I don’t want to fall into the position of saying, “Anything and everything can be an argument.” There is a big distance between, “maybe X is also an argument,” and saying “who knows what an argument is. Therefore, anything goes!” We should remain open-minded about the former, while avoiding the latter (i.e., we shouldn’t let go of standards of good argumentation).

I found myself saying to the students, “A shopping list isn’t an argument.” Can we agree on this? A list of instructions (step-by-step bullet points) is also not an argument. It is important to find a type of writing that we can claim (with certainty) is not an argument. This is our common ground. Our starting point. In addition, we can begin to explore why a shopping list or an instruction manual is not an argument. What is it that these forms of writing lack? Let’s leave that for the next post.