Week 3 – The Purpose of Argument (How to Be Wrong)

Because people don’t always agree on what is right or reasonable, appropriately constructed argument helps us arrive at what is fair or true. It is used to settle disputes and discover truth. Instructors assign argumentative writing so students can learn to examine their own and other’s ideas in a careful, methodical way. Argument teaches us how to evaluate conflicting claims and judge evidence and methods of investigation. Argument helps us learn to clarify our thoughts and articulate them honestly and accurately and to consider the ideas of others in a respectful and critical manner.

But there are several other purposes to argument as well. Sometimes they are constructed to simply entertain. Other times they are constructed to convince. And still others are constructed to help clarify ideas and facilitate meaningful collaboration with those who have different ideas. Not all arguments are about winning and losing. And some, if you can believe it, are structured to help us lose, and thus learn.

Why do we argue with one another? What is the intention? How do we know when we have “won” or “lost” an argument? What happens then? In this unit, we explore the functions and purposes of argument to reveal the deeper reasons we engage in this complex, frequently stressful activity and what we can gain by having an enhanced perspective on it.

Argument is not in itself an end or a purpose of communication. It is rather a means of discourse, a way of developing what we have to say. We can identify four primary aims or purposes that argument helps us accomplish:

Arguing to Inquire: Forming our opinions or questioning those we already have.

The ancient Greeks used the word dialectic to identify an argument as inquiry; a more common term might be dialogue or conversation. Arguing to inquire helps us accomplish the following:

  • to form opinions
  • to question opinions
  • to reason our way through conflicts or contradictions

It requires an attitude of patient questioning under non-threatening circumstances, usually done alone or among trusted friends and associates. The primary purpose is a search for the truth. The primary audience is often the writer and fellow inquirers concerned with the same issues.

  • Examples: Classroom discussions; journal writing; exploratory essays; letters; late-night bull sessions in a dorm.
Arguing to Convince: Gaining assent from others through case-making.

While some inquiry may be never-ending, the goal of most inquiry is to reach a conclusion, a conviction. We seek an earned opinion, achieved through careful thought, research, and discussion. And then we usually want others to share this conviction, to secure the assent of an audience by means of reason rather than by force.

  • Arguing to inquire centers on asking questions: we want to expose and examine what we think.
  • Arguing to convince requires us to make a case, to get others to agree with what we think. While inquiry is a cooperative use of argument, convincing is competitive. We put our case against the case of others in an effort to win the assent of readers.
  • Examples: a lawyer’s brief; newspaper editorials; case studies; most academic writing
Arguing to Persuade: Moving others to action through rational, emotional, personal, and stylistic appeals.

While arguing to convince seeks to earn the assent of readers or listeners, arguing to persuade attempts to influence their behavior, to move them to act upon the conviction. Persuasion aims to close the gap between assent and action. To convince focuses on the logic of an argument; to persuade will often rely on the personal appeal of the writer (what Aristotle called ethos) and involve an appeal to an audience’s emotions (pathos). In addition to these personal and emotional appeals, persuasion exploits the resources of language more fully than convincing does.

  • In general, the more academic the audience or the more purely intellectual the issue, the more likely that the writing task involves an argument to convince rather than to persuade. In most philosophy or science assignments, for example, the writer would usually focus on conviction rather than persuasion, confining the argument primarily to thesis, reasons, and evidence. But when you are working with public issues, with matters of policy or questions of right and wrong, persuasion’s fuller range of appeal is usually appropriate.
  • Persuasion begins with difference and, when it works, ends with identity.  We expect that before reading our argument, readers will differ from us in beliefs, attitudes, and/or desires. A successful persuasive argument brings readers and writer together, creating a sense of connection between parties.
  • Examples: Political speeches, sermons, advertising
Arguing to Negotiate: Exploring differences of opinion in the hope of reaching agreement and/or cooperation.

If efforts to convince and/or persuade the audience have failed, the participants must often turn to negotiation, resolving the conflict in order to maintain a satisfactory working relationship.

  • Each side must listen closely to understand the other side’s case and the emotional commitments and values that support that case. The aim of negotiation is to build consensus, usually by making and asking for concessions. Dialogue plays a key role, bringing us full circle back to argument as inquiry. Negotiation often depends on collaborative problem-solving.
  • Examples: Diplomatic negotiations, labor relations, documents in organizational decision-making; essays seeking resolution of conflict between competing parties; also frequent in private life when dealing with disagreements among friends and family members.

The Importance of Being Wrong

In this module, you are reading articles and watching videos that explore the science and logic of why we argue and why being wrong is not something we should try to avoid at all costs or view as “losing.” Collaboration and clarification of ideas are the highest pursuits of argumentative communication and when we are proven wrong, we are given the opportunity to learn, to grow and to enhance our understanding of the complex and vibrant world we inhabit.

Both of these talks (above) address the dangers of being too close to our own ideas. They offer examples and insights that show what can go wrong when we would rather “feel” right than “be” right. They also address the opportunities that open up to us when we allow ourselves to be detached enough from our ideas to create the space for growth, doubt, investigation and eventually increased understanding and awareness. When we believe we are right about everything all of the time, we miss the opportunities to learn from one another and from each new perspective we encounter. The following articles address the scientific basis for what embracing being “wrong” can actually offer our individual and collective ways of knowing.


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Critical Thinking by Andrew Gurevich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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