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What is an argument?

As we said earlier, as we work, we’re going to sharpen up some everyday terms and concepts. That is, we’ll provide definitions of them which are more precise and specific than they have in their everyday uses. Here’s what we’re going to mean by ‘argument’:

  • An argument is a collection of claims made up of premises and a conclusion.

An argument (as we’ll use the term) can have any number of premises (from zero to indefinitely many—that is, there is no upper limit to the number of premises) but an argument (as we’ll use the term) can only have one conclusion. Here’s a very simple example:

  • (P1) If bottle B contains ethanol, we can use its contents to clean our hands.

  • (P2) Bottle B does contain ethanol.

  • So, (C) we can use its contents to clean our hands.

Here (P1) and (P2) are the premises and (C) is the conclusion.

When we lay out arguments in this course, we’ll typically highlight which claim is the intended conclusion by using ‘So’ or ‘Therefore’ or (sometimes) the ‘therefore’ symbol, ‘∴’. When people put forward arguments in everyday life they don’t always do this. So, if you’re thinking about someone’s argument you might need to look at what’s said and think carefully about which claim is the intended conclusion.

Some key points about arguments

First, an argument will just be the claims we explicitly pick out. Sometimes, when we consider the cases that people make for conclusions, we take for granted claims that they don’t bother to say out loud or state explicitly. To keep things clear and precise in what follows, however, an argument will include only the claims that are explicitly listed.

Secondly, our definition identifies as arguments even those collections of claims (divided into premises and conclusion) that no one has ever put forward—and perhaps never will put forward. Any collection of claims will do (suitably divided into premises and conclusion). We can consider any such collection and evaluate it.

There are several reasons we want to be able to consider arguments no one has made (yet), including: (1) we want our account of good arguments to be as general as possible; and, (2) when we’re reasoning, we’ll want to try out and test arguments to see if they’re good and worth actually making seriously.

Finally: You might be puzzled about including arguments with no (zero) premises. We’ll come back to this toward the end of the course.

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This article is from the free online course:

Logic: The Language of Truth

University of York