6 A Dialogic Exercise

This chapter is written in a favourite form of mine, that of the philosophical dialogue. I continue to enjoy writing philosophical dialogues; most of these are either about social issues (revenge, tolerance, offensive speech) or the views of historical philosophers (Kant, Condorcet, Diderot, Locke). Looking back, I find myself rather amazed that I used this form for this material. Prima facie, the fit would seem poor. The participants explore two perspectives on argument analysis. Charmides takes the view that its point, even when one is focused on a particular argument, is to discover whether the conclusion of that argument is true. If one is inquiring into that subject, further claims, evidence, and inferences are relevant to one’s inquiry; one will therefore feel free to augment a particular argument so as to improve it and provide stronger reasons for the conclusion. From that perspective, strong charity may be defended; one seeks a strong case to explore the best support for the conclusion whose truth one is investigating. Charmides is defending what some have more recently called ‘steelmanning.’ Reconstruction should be generous and can be ambitious. The second perspective, that of Lysis, is narrower: one attends to a particular argument to consider its merits as an argument put forward by a particular arguer. One is exploring how well the proffered premises support the proffered conclusion in this argument by this arguer. The arguer’s likely knowledge and beliefs should be taken into account when one seeks to understand the argument; understanding it is a necessary prelude to assessing it. Lysis urges against Charmides that a person evaluating an argument should not assume an obligation to fix up the argument first, especially given that she is likely to fix it up according to her own standards and thereby distort the original.

In this dialogue, I sought balance between the two perspectives. My own perspective is closer to that of Lysis, a fact which may emerge in the dialogue itself and which surely emerges in subsequent chapters here and in the various editions of my textbook, A Practical Study of Argument.

Reading this dialogue again, my thoughts turn naturally to a question not explicitly raised here; that concerns dialogue models of argument. These models are popular and have been endorsed by Frans van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst, Erik Krabbe, Douglas Walton and many others. They have been challenged by some, including J. Anthony Blair and myself. Blair, in “The Limits of the Dialogue Model of Argument,” (1997) points out that there are plenty of arguments that are not put forward in dialogue settings. A person, solo, presents a case in a book, scholarly article, or letter to the editor. In expressing his case, this person should ideally consider how others may respond to it, and may seek to consider possible objections to it. But he and he alone, working solo, has the power to construct and select possible objections; there is no one else with whom he is interacting and responding. Argument should be dialectical in the sense that likely or potential doubts and disagreements are taken into account in constructing the argument. But that is not to say that they are dialogical in the sense of being a turn-taking exchanges. Blair urges that we draw a clear distinction between ‘dialogical’ and ‘dialectical’. I agree.

Blair does not emphasize, as I would myself, that those who favour dialogue models typically construct the dialogue themselves. The supposed opponent is not real; often the proponent is not either. The dialogue is a constructed model and one that does not reflect that real context of many real arguments. In “When They Can’t Talk Back” (1999), I argued that the dialogue model is distorting for the many cases in which arguments are put forward in contexts where interaction between the arguer and her critics is impossible.

In the present dialogue, one may say that the only real arguers are the authors whose arguments are quoted and subject to analysis by the characters Charmides and Lysis – that is to say F. Chatelet, Hugh Lafollette, R.L. Gregory and J.G. Wallace, C.S. Peirce, C.W. Lewis, and Janet Keeping; their arguments provide data examined here. The constructed characters Lysis and Charmides analyze and evaluate that data (first level arguments). Their accounts, being about the first level arguments, are on a second level. Lysis and Charmides discuss their style and principles of argument analysis and evaluation. The dialogue itself is about their accounts and is thus on a third level. Accordingly, you might call this a meta-meta-discussion. No one is genuinely in dialogue, in the sense in which being in dialogue means being engaged and interacting with another person with opposed views. The exercise has all been constructed, solo, by a single author: myself. This absent personage has selected all the data and has constructed the norms and claims of both of the perspectives that are portrayed as having interacted (though they never really did). At this point reader’s eyes may glaze and heads may ache, as the mind starts to ponder post-modernism and its themes. I assure readers that I knew nothing of post-modernism when I wrote this (fictional) dialogue.

As mentioned, my own textbook is written from a perspective close to that of Lysis. In contrast, a recently successful book Reason in the Balance (first edition 2010) by Sharon Bailin and Mark Battersby proceeds from a perspective similar to that of Charmides. Bailin and Battersby urge that students learn to carefully examine an issue in order to come to a reasoned judgment about that issue. Students will be enabled to go beyond analysis of individual arguments, though fairly standard material of argument analysis and evaluation is provided in the work. One’s goal when reflecting on the merits of arguments is to find out whether conclusions (about a given issue) are true or not. Students’ attention is directed not to the question of what this or that person may have claimed and reasoned in her presented argument, but rather to the question of whether her proffered conclusion is true. The authors urge that students should employ a constructive, open-minded, yet disciplined inquiry toward that end. Dialogues presented in the work are realistic, though not real. As in the solo case, persons constructing the dialogues retain the freedom to consider those objections and counter-proposals that they select.

I hope the unorthodox form of this chapter does not make it difficult to read, and I urge readers to consider some emerging questions. Is it desirable that participant and spectator roles of argument assessment presume the same norms? Is it more charitable to attribute problematic premises than questionable inferences to an arguer? And inside every poor reasoner, is there a good reasoner struggling to get out?

LYSIS: What’s this all about, Charmides?

CHARMIDES: What’s what all about, Lysis?

LYSIS: This business of trying to analyze and evaluate other people’s arguments? What do we do this for, anyway?

CHARMIDES: The answer should be painfully obvious. We study arguments with a view to finding out whether their conclusions are true. In many contexts it is really important to know what is true or probable. A very basic way of showing that a claim is true or probably true is to justify it using a good argument. We study arguments because we seek the truth.

LYSIS: Do you really think so? My idea is that we evaluate other people’s arguments to see whether they have given good reasons, enough to convince us of their views. We aren’t just looking to see whether their conclusion is true or not. We want to see how well the conclusion has been supported. After all, we sometimes find poor arguments for conclusions we know to be true and even, occasionally, good arguments for conclusions we know to be false. Anyway, if our primary concern were to discover whether a conclusion were true, I think that analyzing other people’s arguments would be a pretty indirect way of doing this.

CHARMIDES: No it wouldn’t. What’s your model of directness anyway? There’s no way of directly investigating a hard question all by yourself. You have to approach the truth by looking at what other people have to say. You look at their arguments and by appraising these, you can get the best estimation of whether the conclusions they state are true or not.

CHARMIDES: Well really, Lysis, this is all beneath discussion. Of course that’s what I try to do, and that what any rational person would do. You have to use charity when you interpret an argument, especially when people don’t say all they have to say. You will often find arguments that are not very good or that seem incomplete or unclear in some way. And then you can fix these up, by adding a premise or several premises that are true, and plausible, and will improve the argument. Then you should add these, interpreting the arguments so as to make them as sensible as you can. All this is obvious and necessary because you are seeking truth. By reconstructing an argument you can best determine whether its conclusion is true.

LYSIS: I don’t understand why you find this all so obvious. To me it is just false. You see, I study arguments to see whether there are good grounds given for the conclusion. I don’t keep my attention fixed on the general question of whether the conclusion is true or could be shown true by some argument other than the one I am studying. I focus on the direct and immediate question of how well the conclusion is supported in the actual argument I am considering, the argument that has been stated.

You know, this makes argument analysis a much more viable and manageable task than it is on your view. You see, if someone omits considerations pertinent to his case, or relies on an inference that is hasty or unclear, then on my view that person has offered an argument which is inadequate. The argument should not rationally persuade anybody, because the reasons given don’t fully support the conclusion. That is the end of the story, so far as the analysis of this particular argument is concerned.

Now if you want to go further, and ask whether the conclusion might be true for some further reason, not given by the arguer, or whether some new information could be added to the original reasons, and would justify the conclusion, you can of course do this. Nobody is stopping you. But why say it’s argument analysis? You are not evaluating the original argument any more. Instead, you are embarking on an independent quest for knowledge. It just confuses things if you try to identify this task with that of argument interpretation and appraisal.

I like to keep life lean, spartan, and simple. If someone gives me a good argument, fine. If he doesn’t, I look at what’s there, find the holes in it, and state my reasons for seeing it as unsatisfactory. None of these fancy charitable fillings for me!

CHARMIDES: But really, this is too uncharitable to be correct! Don’t you think that extra filling is ever necessary? Why would we even mention the problem of missing premises if there were no missing premises? People do, after all, omit necessary steps from their arguments, sometimes because the arguer deems these truths too obvious to be worth stating, sometimes because they are so controversial the arguer would rather you didn’t notice them, and sometimes because the arguer does not realize they are required. Or sometimes out of sheer carelessness. When we do this, it is our moral responsibility as critics to fill in these gaps. Your kind of criticism will amount to nothing but hasty nit-picking. You won’t get even to the stage of understanding other people’s arguments, much less criticizing them, unless you add the required connecting links.

LYSIS: But, my charitable friend, how charitable are you being right now? Why do you not fill in some plausible intermediary steps in my case, if you think it fails to hold up? Practice what you preach, I’d say. Seriously, though, I do agree that occasionally arguments have missing premises. We need to supplement sometimes, but this is only legitimate when we have some basis for believing that the missing premises are, or would have been, accepted by the author of the argument. After all, you know, the discovery of missing premises is not like the discovery of early human fossils. Missing premises are not buried logical objects. Sometimes I think they are more like frustrated expectations. They are found not in any logical earth, but in the active mind of a critic.

CHARMIDES: So, the ontology of discourse – quite the metaphysical theme! And these are quite the metaphors! But really, you know, we already to have to read in a very considerable amount of background information just to understand words and grammatical relations, and the point of the argument, and the significance of facts. People are always active when they understand what is written or spoken, and they always have to bring in information that is not explicitly stated. Given that this is necessary all the time, I can’t see why you suddenly want to be so literal-minded so far as missing premises are concerned. Of course we often need to fill in people’s arguments, in order to make them sensible and plausible. This is charitable, reasonable interpretation, and it’s done in the interests of the fair and efficient pursuit of truth.

LYSIS: Well, I do agree that we sometimes have to resort to supplementing an argument with additional premises. What really bothers me about your view is not the idea that premises could be missing but the fact that it is charity which will provide some guidance on when to add premises and which ones to add. Your approach seems to ignore the very obvious fact that there are often differences between an arguer’s ideas and beliefs and those of the critic. When you say the critic should be charitable, this all sounds very nice, but the critic may well read in things that he thinks are improvements and by doing so, change the original argument so that it is more his own than that of the author. Surely we should only add premises the arguer would have agreed with, or at least only those that he is logically committed to. A fringe benefit of my approach is that it saves an awful lot of work.

Fundamentally, though, the reason for it is that it keeps us from taking flights of fancy on the wings of other people’s thoughts. Call your own arguments your own. Don’t go reading them into the work of everybody else. This is misplaced charity and won’t help you understand anyone.

CHARMIDES: My good friend, this approach seems most pedantic. What matters, fundamentally, is our quest for truth. What is pertinent to the truth is not whether this or that arguer in fact held this or that belief or used these exact words or some slightly different ones. It is not the arguer and his or her beliefs at all. It is the argument. Even though every argument is put forward by some person or other, it does not follow that every argument is inseparable from its author, bound to him or her forever by logical ties of ownership. The argument, once given, is a set of statements in the public domain, and for the purposes of systematic rational thought, it is this argument which is interesting. Who cares what its particular author might have happened to believe? Usually he or she is far away, and quite often they’re even dead.

LYSIS: You started out as though you, and not I, were the charitable, sympathetic critic. You, not I, were the one who would seek the most sympathetic and careful interpretation of what people have to say. Yet now you are telling me to forget about the arguer, who put forward the argument in the first place, and push relentlessly ahead toward some abstraction called ‘the truth’. You seem to be saying that one can best appraise other people’s reasoning by forgetting the other people. One can ignore these people and ignore their beliefs. I say, when it comes right down to it, this approach of yours is thoroughly disrespectful. And it is incoherent as well. If there are reasons to attend to the arguments other people present, then attend to those arguments that those people present. If there is no reason to attend to those arguments, just ignore them, or take their premises as data to be added to your general pool of information. You proceed and make up your own arguments. In a curious way, I think my hard line approach actually shows more respect for the ideas of others than your approach. Better to have been understood and rejected than never to have been understood at all.

CHARMIDES: You are begging the question, my friend. You say that you understand a person’s reasoning if you stick very closely to his or her stated premises, and you only add premises if you can give good evidence that the arguer either believed them or is logically committed to them. You imply that I do not understand that reasoning, when I add material, in order to fill out what is explicitly there. But this is just the issue, isn’t it? What is it to really understand someone’s arguments? That is the issue. It’s completely tendentious for you to insist that what you do gives genuine understanding and what I do does not. Arguers usually intend to give good rational support for their conclusions, and any arguer would be pleased to have plausible or true supplementary premises added to an argument by the critic.

LYSIS: Well maybe I did beg the question, but you just equivocated. Of course it’s true that most arguers intend to offer a good argument, but what this means is that when they do offer some specific argument, they regard this specific argument as a good one. What it doesn’t mean is that they intend to offer just that argument which you regard as a good one. What they offer they see as rationally adequate but they don’t necessarily intend to offer that which you see as rationally adequate. I won’t say you created an intentional confusion here, but you are surely confused about intentions.

CHARMIDES: We don’t seem to be getting very far in this dispute. I guess our two approaches would differ most for what, on the face of it, look like bad arguments. Here I would be inclined to charitably add, and you would be inclined to reject.

LYSIS: Right. When both these approaches are so easy to rationalize you can see why people disagree so much about fallacies.

CHARMIDES: I suppose. But that’s another problem. Why don’t we both do the best we can to construct a policy on missing premises and then we can apply our policies to the same examples? We can see what results we get, and then we can continue our discussion in a more concrete way.

LYSIS: All right. But where will these examples come from? Will we know enough about all the subjects to be able to appraise them sensibly?

CHARMIDES: It’s strange, but I have this feeling that we are being guided by an external force. When we are made aware of them, we will at the same time be told enough about the immediate contexts in which they were used. Thus we will be able to understand them.

LYSIS: Goodness, that is peculiar. Well, I hope you are right. We shall work for a week and then meet again to compare our results. I’m sure you’ll see that my policy is much more streamlined and efficient than yours, and much more true to arguers’ actual reasoning.

CHARMIDES: And I’m sure you’ll see that mine is much more fair and leads more quickly to the truth.

LYSIS: See you in a week then.

1. Charmides‘ Proposal on Missing Premises

  1. To say that an argument has missing premises is to say that it has inference gaps. The conclusion does not emerge from the stated premises as it should in the type of argument given.

  2. When we find such an inference gap in an argument, we should try to fill it. The original arguer could not have intended the argument to work as stated, because human reason does not aspire to create gappy arguments.

  3. Gaps should not be filled by statements of general methodological principles, because that just means a gap has been misidentified. Nor should they be filled by a statement of the conditional associated with the argument, or a generalization of that conditional. Those would be reiterative and useless additions.

  4. The main point in adding premises is to improve the original argument. Missing premises should be selected so as to fill identified inference gaps and so as to be either true or plausible.

  5. Since not all good arguments are deductive arguments, proper addition of premises will not necessarily make a reconstructed argument deductively valid. It will, however, make it an inferentially correct argument of some type. With proper reconstruction, there are no fallacies in the sense of arguments involving inference errors, though there are many nondeductive arguments.

2. Lysis‘ Policy on Missing Premises

  1. To say that an argument has missing premises is to presume that it has inference gaps. That is to say, the inferences we need to make in order to reason correctly from the premises to the conclusion do not go through as they should.

  2. When we find a gap in an argument we may, under some conditions, attempt to fill it by inserting extra premises. However, we should not always do this when we find a gap, and we should not be too confident in doing it. The original arguer may have intended the inference to go through just as the argument is stated, and he or she may have different standards for inference than ours. Adding may distort the original argument that was put forward.

  3. There are critically useless ways of filling gaps and these should not be employed even when we do decide that gaps have to be filled somehow. It is redundant to fill gaps with statements of general methodological principles. It is reiterative and critically useless to fill them with the associated conditional, a statement with the conjunction of the premises as its antecedent and the conclusion as its consequent. Nor should we use a generalization of the associated conditional.

  4. It is the author’s beliefs, intentions, and logical commitments as expressed in the discourse in which the argument appears that give proper guidance for missing premises. If we are to insert any missing premise, we must be able to give good reasons to show that the arguer accepted this claim when the argument was made or that he or she was logically committed to it by other things actually stated. No premises should be inserted that are inconsistent with stated premises or with the conclusion, and none should be added which make any stated premises redundant from a logical point of view.

3. Results of the Exercise

Case One

. . if the perception of wax appeared to me more precise and distinct, after that not only sight and touch, but many other cases besides, rendered it manifest to my apprehension, with how much greater distinctness must I know myself, since all the reasons that contribute to the knowledge of the nature of wax, or of any body whatever, manifest still better the nature of my mind?  (Descartes, from Meditation ll; as quoted in The Rationalists (New York: Anchor Books, 1974), pp. 126 – 7. Translation by John Veitch.)

(Here Descartes is trying to show that, contrary to popular opinion, the mind is better known than physical things. He has just claimed that any judgment that a physical thing such as a piece of wax, exists, commits the subject to a judgment that he himself exists, and that this judgment about his mind is known with greater truth and certitude than the judgment about the physical object.)


Stated Premises and Conclusion

  1. Sight and touch and many other things make wax manifest to my apprehension when I perceive it.

  2. All the reasons that contribute to the knowledge of wax or any other body contribute even better to the knowledge of my mind.

  3. Even if I appear to know a body such a wax precisely and distinctly, I know my mind much more distinctly.

LYSIS: I know that this man Rene Descartes acquired a great reputation, and that he worked out some marvellous theories. But even though this feeling is working in me, I can’t see this particular argument as a very good one. First of all, premise (2) is quite implausible. Secondly, there is an inference gap because this premise speaks of contributing to the knowledge of the mind, whereas the conclusion is about the distinctness with which the mind is known. Knowing more facts about the mind wouldn’t necessarily mean knowing the mind with greater distinctness, because distinctness is a matter of differentiation, and when the facts in question are to come from the mind’s knowledge of other things, there is no obvious way they could contribute to this differentiation. There isn’t really any basis in Descartes for filling in this gap. So we should just recognize that the gap exists and that he has given us a poor argument, with both a very implausible premise and an inference gap.

CHARMIDES: I differ. This fascinating argument must have been part of something very important. As it stands, it isn’t very clear, but it can be filled out so that the conclusion will be strongly supported inferentially by fairly plausible premises. There is an inference gap in the argument. We need to relate the greater number of contributions to knowledge that we have regarding the mind, according to premise (2) to the greater distinctness alleged for knowledge of the mind in the conclusion. What we need to do is construct a missing premise which will be as plausible as possible and will connect (1) and (2) with (3) in the most logically acceptable way. Descartes himself may have been a deductivist, but I still think that the most plausible link is going to be less than deductive. Having a greater number of facts about an item does not mean knowing it with greater distinctness. It is most reasonable to say that it will generally go along with knowing it with greater distinctness. Because there could be exceptions – as when if a thing had one and only one feature which defined it uniquely and you could know it with absolute distinctness by knowing only this one thing. The argument has a missing premise. It is:

MP1: In having more contributions to knowledge about one thing than another, I generally know that thing with more distinctness than I would know the other.

When this extra premise is read into the argument, we can see that there is some inductive reason for Descartes’ conclusion, granting of course his original premises. There is still a problem: the problem that the second premise needs defense, and a thorough reconstruction would add more reasons to support that as well. But we are only working on inference gaps right now, we are not supposed to do anything about the need for subarguments to support premises.

Case Two

Our degree is not recognized, but we have more students than ever. They come because they think they might learn something. Sure there are idiots. And I have given them credits. There are bigger idiots in the Government. Is it up to me to be more rigorous than the electorate? (Francois Chatelet, as quoted in the Canadian Association of University Teachers Bulletin for September, 1978.)

Chatelet was defending university professors in France against charges of irresponsibility and incompetence.


Stated Premises and Conclusion

  1. Idiots have been given credits by faculty members teaching in universities.

  2. There are even bigger idiots in the government.Therefore,

  3. University faculty are not to be criticized for giving credits to idiots.

LYSIS: This person can’t have been nearly so famous as Rene Descartes, even though he seems to have the same nationality. This example is a straightforward instance of a fallacy of relevance. It seems to be a case of ‘two wrongs make a right’ reasoning. The author cites a deplorable fact in the second premise. He tries to infer from the claim that the so-called idiots in the government are even stupider than the so-called idiots in universities that university faculty should not be criticized. This is irrelevant reasoning, because standards for government officials have nothing to do with standards for universities. University faculty are supposed to pass and fail students according to proper judgments of those students’ competence in their areas of study. Government officials’ stupidity, even if it exists, has nothing to do with this. The argument is a gross non sequitur.

CHARMIDES: Now here is an argument which requires extensive supplementation. It is stated only briefly. Somehow the author believes that standards of competence indicated by the electorate are relevant to standards for credit given out by faculty members at universities. The problem is that we have to find a manner of supplementing the argument in order to express this intended connection in a plausible way, and we have to do this, making not only the inference link but the connecting statements plausible. Without such supplementations, the argument would look like a non sequitur. But from the very fact that it was given, we know the author thought government competence was relevant to the allotment of student credits. We have to make the connection. The whole argument may be set out like this:

  1. Idiots have been given credits by faculty members teaching in universities.

  2. There are even bigger idiots in government.

    MPl: The electorate, in tolerating these bigger idiots in government, indicates that community standards are tolerant of idiots.

    MP2: University faculty, in giving credits to idiots, indicate that they are tolerant of idiots.

    MP3: It is not the obligation of university faculty to be more rigorous in their standards than is the electorate.

  3. University faculty should not be criticized for giving credits to idiots.

The argument has three missing premises and should be reconstructed accordingly. The third missing premise is suggested by the rhetorical question in the original argument. The first and second missing premises are read in to make the stated material cogent. The argument has no fallacy, but its premises are controversial, especially MP3. We can surely judge that this premise is false. Faculty are awarding specialized degrees for which special qualifications are necessary. In addition, the second missing premise is not plausible, because even if it is a fact that government people turn out to be idiots, that does not show that people were willing to tolerate idiots when they first elected them. The argument is rather weak, because of these problems with its premises, but it is not a non sequitur or fallacy of any kind when it is properly filled in.

Case Three

Our society normally regulates a certain range of activities; it is illegal to perform these activities unless one has received prior permission to do so. We require automobile operators to have licenses. We forbid people from practicing medicine, law, pharmacy, or psychiatry unless they have satisfied certain licensing requirements.

Society’s decision to regulate just these activities is not ad hoc. The decision to restrict admission to certain vocations and to forbid some people from driving is based on an eminently plausible, though not often explicitly formulated, rationale. We require drivers to be licensed because driving an auto is an activity which is potentially harmful to others, safe performance of the activity requires a certain competence, and we have a moderately reliable procedure for determining that competence. The potential harm is obvious: incompetent drivers can and do maim and kill people. The best way we have of limiting this harm without sacrificing the benefits of automobile travel is to require that all drivers demonstrate at least minimal competence. We likewise license doctors, lawyers, and psychologists because they perform activities which can harm others. Obviously they must be proficient if they are to perform these activities properly, and we have a moderately reliable procedure for determining proficiency. Imagine a world in which everyone could legally drive a car, in which everyone could legally perform surgery, prescribe medications, dispense drugs, or offer legal advice. Such a world would hardly be desirable.

Consequently, any activity that is potentially harmful to others and requires certain demonstrated competence for its safe performance, is subject to regulation – that is, it is theoretically desirable that we regulate it. If someone has the requisite competence, then the action is not only subject to regulation but ought, all things considered, to be regulated. (From Hugh LaFollette, ‘Licensing Parents’, in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1980.)

LaFollette uses this argument to introduce his major theme, namely that people should be licensed in order to become biological parents.


Stated Premises and Conclusion

  1. Driving is licensed because it is potentially harmful and requires a testable competence.

  2. Doctors, lawyers, and psychologists are licensed because they perform

  3. A world in which anyone at all could drive, operate, prescribe drugs, or offer legal advice, would be very undesirable.

  4. Any potentially harmful activity requiring testable competence should be regulated, in the sense that regulating it is theoretically desirable.

LYSIS: This argument is a kind of hasty generalization. The premises provide an insufficient range of cases on which to base the conclusion, which is a universal one. The author seeks to ground a universal conclusion on a considerations of four kinds of activities. He fails to consider that these four may not be fully representative. In the context of his later use of the argument, this failure is very significant. The author uses this argument later to defend his idea that the biological parents of children should be licensed. But considerations of privacy, the human instinct to reproduce, and the harmfulness to individuals’ lives of any failure in society’s administration of judgments affect this case far differently than those cases cited by the author.

The argument as it stands fails, and not in such a way that it would require supplementary premises to back it up. The direction of the argument is clear. There is no inference gap: we can understand how we are supposed to connect the stated premises with the conclusion. Furthermore, there is nothing in the existing premises or surrounding text that could be used to construct any satisfactory missing premise even if we set out to look for one. The conclusion might be true, but the argument in support of it is hasty and weak.

CHARMIDES: There is a gap in this argument between the premises, as explicitly stated, and the conclusion. In order to support the conclusion with these premises, we have to make an additional supposition about the activities cited. It is a rather difficult matter to construct a plausible version of that supposition, since it is hard to see just what we need to assume about driving, doctoring, giving legal counsel, and giving psychological advice which makes these activities license a conclusion about all potentially harmful activities which require testable competence. We might add something like ‘Other activities that are potentially harmful and require testable competence are relevantly similar to these’. This is still a bit too open-ended and will be hard to verify, but we need something like this in order to fill the logical gap between the cases cited and the universal generalization. The argument becomes deductively valid when this premise is added, and its merits will depend on our appraisal of the added premise.

Case Four

…throughout Hebb argues that the position in the child is basically similar to that of the adult whose vision is restored at operation. Is this a tenable assumption? The adult, after all, has developed a ‘touch world’ which has served him well for many years, and which has become accepted as the principal vehicle of his occupational and social adaptation. The child, on the other hand, is concerned to develop a ‘visual world’ ab initio, and although tactile and motor activities contribute in an important way to its evolution, it is difficult to think of the two cases as in any real sense similar (From R.L. Gregory and J.G. Wallace, ‘Recovery from Early Blindness: a Case Study’, in Paul Tibbets (editor), Perception, (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969), p. 385.)

Gregory and Wallace are arguing that it is a mistake to assimilate the case of an adult with a tactile-motor world but no visual world until an operation restoring sight with that of a child who is simultaneously constructing a visual world and a tactile-motor world on the basis of perceptual experience.


Stated Premises and Conclusion

  1. An adult who recovers vision after years of blindness has had a touch world which has served him well for many years.

  2. An adult who recovers vision after years of blindness has had a touch world which has become accepted as the principal vehicle of his occupational and social adaptation.

  3. A child beginning to see is developing a visual world right from the start.

  4. A child beginning to see does not have tactile sensations which constitute a coherent alternative touch world.

  5. An adult who recovers vision after years of blindness is significantly different from a child developing visual perception.

LYSIS: This is a good clear argument. There are no inference gaps and it has no missing premises. The authors show that Hebb’s position was unreasonable.
CHARMIDES: This is a good argument, and the conclusion is adequately supported by the premises. Since the argument works as it stands, there is no need for any reconstruction using missing premises.

Case Five

The object of reasoning is to find out, from the consideration of what we already know, something else which we do not know. Consequently, reasoning is good if it be such as to give a true conclusion, from true premises, and not otherwise. (From C.S. Peirce, ‘The Fixation of Belief,’ in Pragmatism: the Classic Writings, edited by H.S. Thayer. New York: Mentor Books, 1970, p. 63.)

Stated Premises and Conclusion

  1. The object of reasoning is to find out from the consideration of what we already know something else which we do not know.

  2. Reasoning which gives us a true conclusion from true premises is good reasoning.

  3. Reasoning that does not give us a true conclusion from true premises is not good reasoning.

LYSIS: This is an ambitious argument. The philosopher seeks two conclusions from a single premise. The problem is not with inference. It is that the premise requires clarification. If the word ‘know’ is understood too narrowly, the premise will be false, for the purpose of reasoning is also to form reasonable beliefs on the basis of other things which we have good reason to believe. However, since this philosopher was a fallibilist, he would likely have been willing to equate having good reason to believe with knowing. If this is done, the premise is all right. The direction of the argument is clear enough.

But just as we had to clarify ‘know’ in the premises, we have to look at the semantics of the conclusions. First we have to understand them as being about reasoning of a type; because if we don’t do this, (2) is vulnerable to counterexample. You can easily reason from a true premise to a true conclusion without employing good reasoning, just by being lucky. So we must understand that the references to reasoning are to general patterns of reasoning. Right after making this argument, Peirce goes on to speak of ‘habits of the mind’, so this interpretation has a good textual basis. However, there is still a problem with (3). Whereas (2), as explained here, can be inferred from (1) – reasoning has such-and-such purpose; reasoning of so-and-so type serves this purpose; therefore reasoning of so-and-so type is good reasoning, (3) cannot. The only way to make (1) true is, as we have seen, to understand ‘know’ in a flexible sense that would be suggested by Peirce’s fallibilism. On this interpretation of (1), (3) does not follow from (1), because reasoning might give us probable conclusions from probable premises, satisfying (1), but not (3).

Since this argument needs so much clarification, we can rightly accuse the author of vagueness, and since it can only work when ‘know’ is understood in two incompatible ways, we can also accuse him of equivocation. However, these problems do not generate inference gaps and the clarification needed is not to be supplied by extra premises.

CHARMIDES: This certainly is a challenging case. It doesn’t work very well as it stands, so something must be added to it to make it more clear. The argument is really about the purpose of reasoning, which Peirce specifies in (1). Of course here, we will get too limited a purpose if we understand ‘know’ in a restrictive way as requiring both solid justification and truth. So we shall have to understand ‘know’ more loosely, as including believing for good reasons. The point of the argument is that reasoning is good reasoning if and only if it serves its purpose, as stated in (1). The reference to reasoning in (2) and (3) must be understood as referring to reasoning of a type, for otherwise (2), at least, is too easily vulnerable to counterexample. The most elegant thing to do here is to turn Peirce’s passage into two separate arguments. The first:

  1. The object of reasoning is to find out from the consideration of what we already know something else which we do not know.

MPl: Reasoning that gives us a true conclusion from true premises lets us find out something we do not know from something we do know.

MP2: Reasoning that serves its purpose is good reasoning.


  1. Reasoning that gives us a true conclusion from true premises is good reasoning.

The second argument is:

  1. The object of reasoning is to find out from the consideration of what we already know, something else which we do not know.

MP3: Reasoning that does not give us a true conclusion from true premises does not let us find out something we do not know from something that we know.

MP4: Reasoning that does not serve its purpose is not good reasoning.


  1. Reasoning that does not give us a true conclusion from true premises is not good reasoning.

There is still a problem of language, even after this inferential clarification. It affects the second argument. To get a charitable interpretation of (1), we understood ‘know’ as a fallibilist would. Yet such an understanding would make MP3 false. Nevertheless, MP3 is needed to reach the conclusion. If we revert to a more classical understanding of the word ‘know’, consistency of meaning is restored, but on this interpretation (1) is either false or highly controversial. Peirce gave one good argument and one unsound one. Both, when properly understood and filled in, are deductively valid.

Case Six

You can get a large audience together for a strip tease – that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre simply by bringing a covered plate onto the stage, and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let everyone see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop, or a bit of bacon, would you not think that, in that country, something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?(From C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, quoted by R. Olson in Meaning and Argument (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1960.)

Lewis is trying to defend traditional Christian sexual morality. He uses the analogy to argue against sexual display for titillation and amusement.


Stated Premises and Conclusion

  1. If people enjoyed watching the uncovering of a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, which they were not going to eat, something would have gone wrong with their desire for food.

  2. People enjoy watching a girl undress on stage when they are not going to have sexual relations with her.

  3. Something has gone wrong with our desire for sexual expression.

LYSIS: This amusing argument is quite complete as it stands. The direction of the inference is clear. The argument obviously is based upon the analogy between the hunger for food and the desire for sexual expression, both being human appetites. From the first premise, stating hypothetical circumstances, and a posited judgment that in these circumstances, something would have gone wrong, and the second premise, revealing the similarity between the strip-tease and this hypothetical case, we are to infer that something has gone wrong with sexual appetite in the world of strip-tease. Whether the analogy is good or not seems to be a moot point, but in any event there is no need to insert a supplementary premise; the intended direction of the inference is entirely clear. A full appraisal of the argument depends on an exploration of the relevant similarities and differences between hunger and the desire for sex.

CHARMIDES: The argument as it stands is quite clear, but the inference structure could be improved if premises were added formulating and clarifying the basic analogy between the desire for sex and the desire for food. We need to add a premise to the effect that the desire for food and the desire for sex are human desires that are fundamentally similar with regard to deliberate arousal and subsequent satisfaction. We don’t say they are fundamentally similar in all respects, because this assertion would be stronger than the argument requires, and implausible. We specify those respects required for the argument to work. Provided this added premise is true, the argument is a good one.

Case Seven

In order to prosecute for using the mail to send obscene material, the police should require the consent of the Attorney General. So urged Janet Keeping, President of the Calgary Civil Liberties Association, in a letter to the Alberta Attorney General. Her letter was provoked by a recent prosecution in that province against Joseph MacDonald for an ‘obscene letter’ he reportedly wrote to the Unemployment Insurance Commission. Frustrated by delays in the processing of his unemployment claims, Mr. MacDonald had written a letter to the UIC in which he allegedly compared public servants to certain parts of the human anatomy and admonished them to commit unnatural acts. While the court ultimately acquitted Mr. MacDonald, the Calgary civil liberties group is seeking assurances that such matters will not be prosecuted in future.

There is a distinction between bad taste and criminal conduct’, said lawyer Sheldon Chumir, an executive member of the Calgary group. ‘If using coarse language is to be considered a crime’, said Chumir, ‘half of us are going to end up in criminal court.’

(From the Canadian Civil Liberties Association Newsletter, September, 1980. Thanks to David Gallop for bringing this example to my attention. It is Mr. Chumir’s argument, as reported that will be dealt with here. We are told that he used this argument to back up the Civil Liberties group in its contention that the use of coarse language should not be an offense that is prosecuted.)


Stated Premises and Conclusion

  1. If using coarse language is to be considered a crime, half of us are going to end up in criminal court.

  2. There is a distinction between bad taste and criminal conduct.

  3. People should not be prosecuted for using obscene language in letters.

LYSIS: Here is a case which really does have a missing premise, at least as reported. The need for this premise is apparent when we see that (1) is supposed to provide the basis for (2), and yet as these are stated there is no clear connection between the statements. We know that Mr. Chumir, the author, is a lawyer speaking for a civil liberties group, and so it is reasonable to attribute to him a linking belief: namely that it is not desirable for half the population to wind up in criminal court. This can be added as a missing premise in the argument.

CHARMIDES: Several points arise here. Obviously the inference from (1) to (2) is not clear as it stands. We need to add something which will bring out the intended connection. Also, if we take (1) literally, we might think that it requires some defense. The author has a rather dramatic estimate of the numbers of people who use coarse language. But missing premises are to fill inference gaps, not to buttress stated premises. The argument should be filled out so that it reads as:

  1. If using coarse language is to be considered a crime, many people are going to end up in criminal court.

MPl: It is not desirable for large numbers of people to end up in criminal court.

  1. There is a distinction between bad taste and criminal conduct.

MP2: People who are prosecuted for using obscene language in letters are being prosecuted for bad taste.

MP3: People should not be prosecuted for bad taste.


  1. People should not be prosecuted for using obscene language in letters.

We can see that there are two strands in this argument: the numbers who might be in court, and the relation between bad taste and prosecution.

4. Analysis of the Results

CHARMIDES: That was quite exhausting. I am certainly glad it’s over.

LYSIS: So am I. Now the interesting part begins. We can discuss our results.

CHARMIDES: Well, our results do seem to indicate that arguments can come out looking structurally different when one is more or less charitable on missing premises. Usually my analyses were quite a lot longer than yours, and I was far more willing to add extra premises. Yet, I wouldn’t say, when I look at your exercises, that they really seem wrong. It is sometimes almost as though one and the same passage really can be understood in several quite different ways.

LYSIS: I wouldn’t say your analysis looked wrong to me either. Really, it even makes me wonder a little about right and wrong in finding the structure of an argument. Maybe some natural arguments have more than one structure.

You know, it used to be that people thought there was such a thing as the structure of a sentence. There was one single logical form that the sentence had. Then some came to a more sophisticated and flexible view and decided that what form a sentence had could vary depending on why we were looking for its form. A sentence like ‘Joe is happy’ could be represented a universal statement that all things identical with Joe are happy, or as a single existential statement that this one individual Joe is happy, or even just by an atomic statement represented by a single letter. It’s not wrong to show it as one or the other. It’s more or less useful, depending on where the sentence appears and what we are trying to do when we are interested in its form.

Different versions of argument structure might work like this. Maybe your longer versions and my shorter versions can equally count as representation of the structure of natural reasoning, and mine is better for some purposes, whereas yours are better for others.

CHARMIDES: I don’t know about that. That sort of structural relativism seems at least as confusing as the problem of missing premises itself.

LYSIS: Pragmatic considerations have to play a role here, I think. Couldn’t it be that your approach best represents the structure of an argument for some purposes and mine for others?

CHARMIDES: Perhaps. But it would be nice to have a more elegant and definite solution than that. Actually, we did agree in some cases, after all. We thought the argument by Gregory and Wallace, the two psychologists refuting that other psychologist, was successful without any supplementation. And that last argument, you know, the amusing one about obscenity in the mails, we saw it in almost the same way.

LYSIS: Those were good arguments. The inferences were pretty solid and clear. In that last case, it was obvious from the context what had to go in, and what we inserted was obviously true and obviously accepted by the author. Those aren’t the kinds of cases where our views differ. Good arguments don’t need a lot of supplementation. Usually, a person who puts forward a good argument knows enough that there is not a big contrast between adding plausible claims and adding claims that he or she clearly accepts. It is perfectly understandable that we don’t differ much on the analysis of good arguments. We differ on poor arguments. I have the impression that the more hastily an argument is stated, the more carelessly it is put, the crazier its premises, the sloppier its inferences, the more we shall differ. You see a need for more and more additions, and I just reject things as incorrect – having problematic premises or hasty or irrelevant inferences.

CHARMIDES: It’s funny though. Even there, the differences between us can be exaggerated. For instance, although we had very different looking analyses for that argument by Descartes and the other one about the French professors giving credits to idiots, we didn’t really disagree on the substance of the case. We just located problems in different places. On Descartes, for instance, you just said he made a hasty inference, explained why you thought it was hasty, and that was that. Whereas I went to a great deal of trouble to set out the argument clearly, adding a claim which I thought was logically presumed in order for the inference to work. It was a hard case, and I’m still not sure I have it right. But then, when I had finished setting out the argument, I could see that the premise I had added was false or at least very implausible. So I didn’t say the argument contained a hasty inference but I had to say it was a weak argument, because it had an unacceptable premise. You say Descartes made a hasty inference. I see him as reasoning accurately from premises which are not acceptable. Our structural models were different, but as far as the substance of the issue is concerned, we are really in complete agreement. We both think that Descartes has not established in this reasoning that the mind is better known than any physical body. We both think this because what the mind knows about itself when knowing a body is not the sort of thing that would make the mind distinctly known, as Descartes’ conclusion requires.

LYSIS: I noticed that. Although we state our results in different ways, there is not a single case where we really disagree on a matter of final assessment. It almost seems to me as though you think of the same criticism which would occur to me and then you form the negation of it and write in that negation as a missing premise. You then find, after reconstruction, that the argument is quite all right, except for that one premise, which is false, or at least highly controversial. With that example about regulating activities, that happened. I said the four cases cited by the author might not be representative. You said that the author presumed that the cases were representative, and then questioned the presumption, regarding the inferentially reconstructed argument as having a controversial or false premise.

Your critical route seems roundabout to me. It is supposedly motivated by charity, by the desire to make out as good a case as possible even for those arguers who express themselves in a hasty way. Given that you almost always have to go on and judge the premises you have added as unacceptable, I must say I am not even sure why this amounts to charity. You are making the same critical points, essentially, and just locating them in different places.

I see your use of missing premises not so much as charity but rather as a powerful critical weapon. In fact, sometimes your technique reveals critical problems I never would have noticed without it.

CHARMIDES: Let me tell you a little story. There was a society in which many people are fat, and these people, especially if they were very fat, were quite often criticized, insulted, and even ostracized by others. The fat women were very different from the fat men. There were more of them, they worried more about being fat, and they responded to criticism and personal attack in a very timid way, quite differently from the way men did. They usually made excuses for themselves, and pretended to be on a diet even if they really weren’t. The fat men, on the other hand, were pretty aggressive about handling criticisms of themselves for being fat. They fought back, verbally at least, when attacked.

LYSIS: Really, Charmides, this is rather depressing. Besides, what on earth could it possibly have to do with charity and missing premises? We weren’t working on dietary supplementation, you know! Some of this background information we got must really be churning up your mind and brain!

CHARMIDES: Wait a minute. I’m getting to the point. One man who was told he should go on a diet said to his acquaintance, ‘I don’t have any problem. At least it’s easier for me to change my body than for you to change your stupid brain and smarten up.’ Some people who heard about this response thought that it was warranted by the insult. But others were shocked. Think about why one might be shocked. We can learn something here, which bears on this matter of charity and missing premises. I mean, why would one find the idea of attacking another’s brain or mind so much worse than the idea of attacking another’s body?

LYSIS: Gosh, I’m overwhelmed. What kind of analogy are you using here anyway? There have to be some missing inferential links in this one. I am glad you’re here to fill them in, because I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it.

CHARMIDES: We all have our limitations. Look, the thing is, it is more offensive to insult a person’s mind or brain, or intelligence than to insult his or her body. This is because we tend, fundamentally, to identify the real person much more with the mind than with the body. We are like Rene Descartes in this respect. We think a person is essentially a thinking reasoning thing, and we think of the thinking and reasoning capacities as relatively fixed.

LYSIS: Goodness. I think I can see now what you’re getting at. You suggest that in just the way a person’s mind is more essentially that person than his or her body, a person’s reasoning is more essentially him or her than that person’s assumptions and beliefs. So it is more charitable, and less threatening, to claim that a person has made questionable assumptions than to claim that he or she has reasoned badly. Assumptions and beliefs can come and go, but our reasoning powers are a fundamental part of us, one that we have forever.

CHARMIDES: That’s it exactly. So even though we agree on the substance of the various issues with the arguments I am still being more charitable and more respectful of persons than you. It is because of the way I locate my criticisms. Beliefs and assumptions are more easily shed than styles of reasoning.

LYSIS: Well, there is so much I want to question about these assumptions – yours, I mean. I think, you see, that people may inadvertently reason badly. Bad reasoning on an occasion need not express a permanent poor quality reason in a person. And also, I think beliefs and assumptions can be a fundamental aspect of a person’s cognitive style. So the contrast between reasoning as expressing a relatively permanent aspect of a person’s capacity for thinking, and assumptions and beliefs as more easily droppable is not really valid. As a general contrast, it won’t hold up.

I’m fascinated, though, by your analogy. We might think of the common saying that inside every fat person there is a thin person struggling to get out. You could imagine that inside every poor reasoner, there is a competent reasoner, struggling to get out.

I don’t think people who make hasty or irrelevant inferences, errors formal or informal, have something in them called ‘poor reasoning ability’. Rather, they share with everyone some capacity to reason well. It is just that, for whatever reason, that capacity has not been productively applied to the argument we are criticizing. Perhaps the person was careless, or distracted, or overly emotional about the issue, or so committed to the conclusion that it didn’t seem necessary to find very good evidence for it. Good reasoning can emerge. One thing that will make it emerge is sharp, pungent criticism that points out errors in reasoning and explains why these are errors.

Anyone, however great, original, or profound, can make mistakes in reasoning, as in everything else. To say that this man Descartes, who we were told was a very great philosopher, made a mistake in reasoning is not to insult him or to imply that he lacked reason, or even that he was not a great philosopher. It is simply to show that one particular inference wasn’t correct, period. Anyway, what makes people great or profound is not just the correctness of their inferences. It is their originality, capacity to identify and resolve new problems, ability to synthesize, and much else. So much else.

CHARMIDES: I see what you’re saying. And yet it is more charitable to reject arguments on the grounds of containing unacceptable premises than to reject them on the grounds that they have hasty or irrelevant reasoning. People regard reasoning capacity as a more essential and less variable aspect of themselves than their various assumptions and beliefs. They would far more readily accept a criticism along my lines than yours. Criticism of suppressed premises will be perceived as more charitable – and for that reason it will be more charitable.

LYSIS: You mean, in this context to be perceived is to be?

CHARMIDES: Of course not. But if you can make the same point in two different ways, and one of them is likely to be more psychologically effective than the other, because people’s underlying assumptions make them more receptive to it, then you should use that approach.

LYSIS: Well, I don’t know. You seem to be shifting grounds. We are now moving from logical and interpretive issues to psychological and pedagogical ones. After all, it could be that what is most effective in causing people to produce clearer, better arguments, using better reasoning, is my approach. It will more quickly shock people out of their sloppy habits and more rapidly lead to carefully structured reasoning. My approach would more quickly improve reasoning and would for that reason be more ‘kind’ than yours.

CHARMIDES: I won’t pursue the subject further then, because we are getting off the topic. Surely which premises are missing doesn’t depend on which teaching technique is most effective!

LYSIS: The one analysis of yours that really bothered me was that case where the French professor was trying to defend himself against the criticism that he had given credits to stupid students. Remember? It seemed to me that what he said about the government having even worse idiots was clearly irrelevant to the issue. Yet you, with your astounding patience and tolerance, managed to weave a fairly plausible argument around his comments. Of course, as in other cases, it turned out that you had to use several rather implausible premises. But what bothered me was that you did so much work yourself. You were constructing a new argument, rather than analyzing his. Also his argument was just tossed off in a moment of annoyance, it seemed. Because it was amusingly bad, it was quoted in a newsletter. I don’t think it deserved the amount of attention that your approach made you give it.

CHARMIDES: I was frustrated by that example for just those reasons. But you know there is another kind of case in which your approach seems inappropriate. We sometimes have to deal with fragmentary texts by great thinkers, or with texts written in a deliberately elusive way, by writers who want their readers to think for themselves and, to achieve this, quite pointedly do not spell everything out in a pedantic and literal fashion. Here, if you fail to read in, you won’t find claims and arguments at all. And yet some of the greatest thinkers have given us, or left us, only fragmentary or elusive texts.

LYSIS: With fragments, I rather think it’s better to leave them as fragments, with their poetic flavor intact, and read in a lot of claims and arguments. And as for elusive writers, that’s a different case. They do give you the basis in another part of the text for the various attributions you need. You’ll be able to add the requisite premises to arguments using my approach, assuming that you want to get an explicit argument in that sort of case. Often, the statement of problems and the suggestion of hypotheses or images is more the issue than the actual argument.

CHARMIDES: But on the French professor example – not Descartes, the other fellow, perhaps that case does reveal something of general importance about my approach. I agree that the amount of work I put into the thing was out of all proportion to the seriousness and worth of the original piece. Perhaps this is because the argument was not the argument of a great man. I didn’t owe him the kind of respect I would owe to Descartes or Peirce, or even C. S. Lewis, for that matter. Perhaps I should qualify my policy of charity, and only apply it when the argument was put forward by a person who has a claim to be taken seriously.

LYSIS: I just can’t go for that. It’s so undemocratic! You’re implying that some people have a greater claim to be taken seriously than others. And when people have a greater claim to be taken seriously, then we should adopt your sort of policy toward them, and do a lot of filling out, if necessary, to make their arguments plausible. Whereas, when people have less claim to be taken seriously, they merit less charitable treatment? I don’t like this approach. My view is that everyone who enters the realm of rational argumentation deserves equal treatment. If your view is going to be amended so as to apply only to the elite, then it appeals to me even less than it did before.

CHARMIDES: Just as some people have greater credibility as witnesses, or experts on scientific facts than others, so too some people have greater credibility as arguers. It is one thing to attribute a hasty inference to your local bank teller and quite another to attribute it to Descartes or Peirce.

LYSIS: I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. It’s dialectical elitism, that’s what it is.

CHARMIDES: Well, a label isn’t an argument. It’s just true that different thinkers have different levels of credibility and merit different amounts of respect. Calling it ‘dialectical elitism’ won’t make it false.

LYSIS: Now we’re back to the other problem. Is criticizing someone’s argument on the grounds that it contains hasty or irrelevant reasoning disrespectful? I can’t see that it is, frankly. After all, your criticisms and mine do not differ in substance, only in location. You attack beliefs, and I attack inferences. I never really conceded that that difference makes the difference you ascribe to it.

CHARMIDES: Well it does.

LYSIS: Let me ask you something else. There is a distinction that becomes blurred when people try to argue about the theory of argument. It is the distinction between sitting down to do an ‘analysis’ of an argument, which pops up out of nowhere and is an example some theoretician is using to illustrate a point, and actively rebutting or accepting someone’s real argument in the context of a live conversation or debate. We might call the first spectator analysis and the second participant analysis. People who try to theorize about arguments are likely to do unusual amounts of spectator analysis. And people who try to teach others how to argue well are likely to do unusual amounts of it as well. Since it is often the very same people who teach and theorize, there is a tendency for the spectator point of view to predominate when these people think about arguments. Yet surely it is participant analysis which is the more fundamental of the two, isn’t it? I maintain that it is. Arguing is defending claims with reasons, and people do this in order to rationally persuade others of what they have to say. Typically, people argue and respond to arguments in contexts of actual ongoing debate, where there is controversy and disagreement. If it were not for participants, there would be nothing for the theory of argument to be a theory of. Participant analysis is primary, and spectator analysis is derivative. Spectator analysis should be in accord with what participants do when they respond to each other’s arguments.

You and I have been participants in a debate about spectator argument analysis. As theorists, we are stuck doing lots and lots of spectator analysis. It’s an occupational hazard, we might say. Just as judges should refrain from seeing all humans as potential court cases and doctors should refrain from looking at everyone as prospective patients, we should avoid looking at every argument from the view point of spectators. An argument is not primarily a thing written on a page; it is primarily a set of claims advanced by a person who is trying to rationally persuade someone else. And responding to an argument is above all, rejecting or accepting claims and inferences, on the basis of reasons that can be put forward to the arguer. Any theory or policy which we come up with, for handling arguments, should apply to participant analysis as well as to spectator analysis.

CHARMIDES: Get to the point, will you?

LYSIS: The thing is, I can apply my policy on missing premises equally as a participant and as a spectator. When I argue, actively, with you, I point out that some inference involves hastiness, or irrelevance, unless the immediate context and my knowledge or your related beliefs permits me to fill in the gaps in your case. If things don’t seem right, I just say so, and I let you respond. I can apply my policy in real ongoing debates, as well as in spectator analysis of sample arguments. Can you do this too? Do you? I don’t feel, really, when we are arguing together that I, as a participant, get the treatment you recommend for filling in gaps when you articulate your policy for spectator analysis. You imply that when you are doing spectator analysis, but you don’t seem to apply it when you are participating in a real debate like the one we are having now. Is your policy like those philosophical theories that won’t bear up in practice?

CHARMIDES: Well then, yours just might be one of those debater’s practices that doesn’t bear up in theory! I’ll think about it. The question is whether I apply my charitable policy in real debate. This can be turned into two questions. First whether the policy could be applied in this way; second, whether I do in fact apply it this way. The answer to the first question here is yes and the answer to the second is no, and for good reasons. I don’t think this involves any pernicious or wicked split between theory and practice. Let me explain.

Of course people could employ my policy when they are actually participating in ongoing debates. It would make these debates much slower than they actually are, but it would probably make them more careful, tolerant, and polite too. I suspect it is uncommon for people to use my sort of approach in actual ongoing debates, although I wouldn’t know for sure. What I do know is that even I, an advocate of the policy, do not employ it when I am actively responding to your arguments in an ongoing debate. The reason for this is perfectly obvious. It is that you are also a participant, and you are entirely capable of doing your own filling in. If you use an argument which strikes me as containing a non sequitur, I can just ask you whether you accept this or that connecting premise, or ask you how the two things are connected, and you can reply. People participating in ongoing arguments on several sides of an issue are in a very different position from people responding to an argument in a written text, where there is no opportunity for direct response from the author. The fact that I don’t use my policy in participant contexts doesn’t show I have a philosophical theory that cannot be put to practice. Rather, it shows only that I have enough ordinary common sense not to try to think for other arguers when I have to think for myself.

LYSIS: So you are qualifying your policy in two ways, really. First of all, since it demands a lot of work from the critic, you are saying that critics should only apply to arguments put forward by people who have a claim to be taken seriously. Secondly, you apply it only to contexts where you are, in effect, analyzing an argument as a spectator, and not to those contexts where you are actively engaged in arguing against or with someone in a real debate.

CHARMIDES: That’s almost right. But the last part is more complicated than you realize. You see, the contrast between analyzing as a spectator and responding as a participant is not as straightforward as you suggest. Of course, when we work out examples in teaching or in trying to figure out a theory of argument, we work as spectators, in your sense. And of course, when we debate with each other, we work as participants. But these contexts are at the ends of a spectrum, really. It’s not an either/or. We are often doing something in between. We study arguments written down somewhere, and we study them in the course of developing a theory of our own on some subject. This is participant analysis in that we are not studying an example for some pedagogical or theoretical purpose, but rather we are studying it because we have a direct concern for the issue it deals with. Here is where my original idea comes in. I’d say that this too is participant analysis. However, like spectator analysis in most cases, it typically gives us no opportunity to have a response from the person whose arguments we are studying. It is this unavailability in most spectator contexts that makes my policy appropriate. And it is this that makes my approach better than yours. Provided an author has a claim to be taken seriously and is unavailable to fill out his or her own arguments, my charitable policy is best.

LYSIS: I still don’t like it. I don’t like the contrast between those who do and those who do not deserve to have their arguments taken seriously and treated with charity. It violates my fundamental respect for human persons.

CHARMIDES: Heavy stuff, this.

LYSIS: Still, it does. And I find your approach cumbersome and long. It leaves the door open to reading in too much, and it deviates from the text too much.

CHARMIDES: Your approach still strikes me as hasty and uncharitable. You never once found a case where I read something in which was not needed for the logic of the argument. And you agreed that my approach was a powerful critical tool. In one case it revealed a problem you had not even contemplated.

LYSIS: What is ‘the logic of the argument’? That is a major thing in question here. We shall have to comfort ourselves with the thought that we do not disagree in substance on any case we have looked at. Remember, it was obvious that we were actually finding similar difficulties, only locating them in different places. You say it’s more charitable to do this, and offer a theory about people’s relative degrees of attachment to their reasoning powers on the one hand and their beliefs and assumptions on the other. I’m still not sure that it is more charitable, in an over-all sense. It seems to me that my approach is simpler and more efficient than yours, reveals substantially the same issues in any given argument (only locating them differently), and it is applicable to all persons and to all arguments, in both participant and spectator contexts. It is a more coherent and elegant policy. I stick with it, and in fact, I can argue that it is just as charitable as yours. I still say, let’s not multiply premises beyond necessity.

CHARMIDES: I multiply premises just exactly as much as necessity demands. It’s just that things are complicated and persons and contexts differ. Simplicity isn’t truth and efficiency isn’t morality.

LYSIS: Well, we made some progress in doing all this, but we sure can’t claim to have resolved our differences.

CHARMLESS: It is frustrating. We worked so hard. I keep feeling we must be missing something, some fundamental key to it all. Don’t you?

LYSIS: In a way I guess. But we can’t go on forever. Come on, let’s walk down to the ocean and watch the waves come in.


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Problems in Argument Analysis and Evaluation by Trudy Govier & Windsor Studies in Argumentation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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