Argument Concepts

What is the author's argument?

What arguments does the author make that may be challenged?

If you wanted to challenge this author, how would you go about it?

Two important concepts:

  1. The "valid" argument: an argument structured such that, given that the premises are correct, the conclusion must be correct. In the following argument, the premises are not correct, but the argument is still valid, for its logic is correct:

p1: Martha Ballard was a midwife
p2: All midwives had professional educations
c: Therefore Martha Ballard had a professional education

  1. The "sound" argument: a valid argument with true premises. The preceding argument is valid but not sound, for not all of its premises are true (p2 is false).
  2. This argument is invalid, and hence unsound (despite that its premises are correct):

p1: Martha Ballard was a midwife
p2: Martha Ballard caught over fifty babies
c: All midwives caught over fifty babies

p1: Martha Ballard was a midwife
p2: All midwives catch babies
c: Martha Ballard caught babies

A very important thing to remember: Very often, we confuse good or possible arguments with the arguments a scholar actually made. In evaluating a scholarly argument, you are making claims about what an author has stated. You do not have the freedom to put arguments in authors' mouths; you must be able to back up every claim you make (about an author's argument) through reference to the text. There is a distinction between what an author might have argued and what the author did argue. If it's not in the text, the author did not argue it -- even if it would have made a good argument. It is vital to imagine possible arguments, but remember -- that enterprise is not the same as determining what the author actually argued.