With a clear understanding of the various elements at play, it is time to focus on the argument or claim itself. In so doing, we attempt to assess two distinct yet related aspects of the argument: validity and soundness.
For our purposes, we can identify an argument or claim as valid when it is complete, or when it contains all of the necessary components. If an argument is complete, it is also valid. If an argument is missing any of these components, it is invalid and should be revised. There are five components to valid arguments, many of which correspond to the elements of critical thinking.
At the risk of being too obvious, the first component of a valid argument is that it is, in fact, an argument. Beyond transmitting information or documenting facts, a valid argument must make a clear and coherent claim. Arguments or claims are inherently persuasive and seek to make a point. By definition, this means that the claim may disputed or contradicted. Implied, unclear, or nebulous argument statements require revision until the claim is succinct and bold.
For example, consider the statement (which is pure invention):
Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance artist
Unfortunately, this statement is not an argument because it is a statement of fact. Few would venture to dispute this statement in this form. If the implied argument is to claim something significant about the meaning of being a Renaissance artist, the statement should be revised to make that clear, such as (also completely hypothetical):
Like all Renaissance artists, Leonardo da Vinci was more like a modern-day craftsman than a modern-day artist
The result is a much bolder and more provocative assertion. It makes the claim clear to the reader and must be validated through the other components of the argument, like evidence.
Once you have asserted a claim, it is essential that you expose the reasons you support it. Think of being in a court of law. The claim is that a person is guilty or innocent. The rest of the proceedings display the evidence in favor or against this claim. This may include statements or testimony, objects, or data derived from research. It does not include how you connect the evidence or proof with the claim. Do not confuse an argument with persuasive logical reason with an argument supported by evidence. Evidence must be external to the claim itself.
For example, consider this evidence for our claim above (which is still completely invented):
Many documents report Leonardo da Vinci was hired to provide a skill but not to fashion a work of art.
The evidence refers to physical documents that provide data to be considered concerning the original claim. This evidence can then be examined for its credibility, usefulness, or accuracy.
In argumentation, warrants and premises refer to the connection between the evidence and the claim. We must evaluate the assumptions required to draw the claim as a conclusion from the evidence. These tend to be components of argumentation that the presenter conceives as fact. All arguments employ warrants and premises even though they may not be articulated explicitly.
For example, consider the claim and evidence offered above. The assertion is that Leonardo da Vinci is more like a modern-day craftsman because few documents contractually obligate him to produce works of art but instead provide a skill. The underlying premise or warrant required to make this connection is that the concept of an artist was stable throughout history, that Renaissance aristocracy comprehended an artwork in the same way modern thinkers do.
The last component required to have a valid argument is an acknowledgment of or response to an opposing viewpoint. Due to the fact that all arguments can be contradicted, it is essential to the validity of an argument to address these potential objections. An argument that does not make acknowledgments risks producing an unsubstantiated, biased claim. Instead, valid arguments use acknowledgments to provide more support for their own claim.
For example, consider how the following claim adds more weight by acknowledging and resolving potential objections.
Many Renaissance artists enjoyed a cultural role similar to modern-day artists; however, Leonardo da Vinci was more like a modern-day craftsman. Many surviving contractual documents highlight his unique skill rather than emphasize the more abstract ideas associated with artists (such as genius, talent, or creativity). Although few documents from the Renaissance identify these features for any artist in the period, comparing the language to those for Leonardo reveals a clear bias toward manual labor.
Though this statement remains entirely invented for the purposes of this example (it is not true), it acknowledges potential objections to the warrants or premises as well as those to the evidence.
Soundness is an evaluation of the strength of a valid argument. When an argument is sound, it uses good reasoning and makes a declaration that appears true. Valid arguments can be unsound if they use faulty evidence or are based on weak or incorrect premises or warrants. In order to consider these aspects of an argument, it may be helpful to propose inquisitive questions to test its soundness. An unsound argument often contains a fallacy or false fallacy. We will explore these in greater detail in the text chapter. For now, we will learn how to test the soundness of an argument through careful probing. The questions below are designed to help you consider the various components of a valid argument to reveal its strengths or weaknesses.
Is this claim inductive (starts with facts and works to a more generalized conclusion) or deductive (begins with a claim that is used to uncover facts that produce a specific conclusion)?
How does the claim relate to the stated problem?
How do the warrants or premises bear on the claim or question?
How does the evidence address the claim?
Does it all make sense together?
- Could you elaborate on the evidence, premise, claim, or acknowledgments?
- Could you illustrate what you mean by the claim?
- How could we find out if the evidence or warrants are true?
- Could you be more specific about how the evidence and the claim are connected?
What factors make your claim or evidence difficult to accept?
What are the underlying complexities in using this evidence?
How can the claim or evidence be viewed from another point of view?
In dealing with the larger picture, is your claim the most important factor to consider?
Is your evidence expressly addressing what you claim?
Does your claim offer a fair representation of the facts?