Elements of Critical Analysis

The elements of critical analysis function as a set of ground rules that provide a framework inside which we test an argument's integrity. Like the rules of a game, these elements help clearly define the various components at play and identify when and how those components conflict. This means that we must honestly assess the argument and our reception of that argument (as much as we want to be, we are never objective). Indeed, the elements are more like a series of questions that help us see the potential biases from all sides. 

Purpose and Motivation

All claims have a purpose or a motivation. This means that there is a (sometimes hidden) driving force at work behind the claim, a reason for which a person or thing is engaging in a particular discussion. The presence of such a purpose does not make the source untrustworthy; indeed, the more obvious a claim is about its motivations, the more trustworthy it becomes. While it is important to identify the purpose or motivation behind a particular claim, it is equally important to determine the purpose or motivations behind all of the parties engaging with it, including the observers. It is equally possible that some may engage in an argument or claim in an pursuit of truth or because it is threatening to their worldview.

Questions to Consider

  1. What is the driving force behind a claim or argument? 
  2. Who are the participants in the argument? Are their purposes the same? 

Goals and Objectives

In addition to a purpose, all claims have a goal. These claims are an attempt to figure something out, to solve some problem, or to arrive at the answer to some question. Like the purpose, the goal may be intentionally or unintentionally masked. To evaluate a claim, we must be able to articulate the goal of that claim clearly and our goal in evaluating it (do we want it to be true?)

Questions to Consider

  1. What does the speaker gain by convincing you of the soundness of his or her argument? What does the receiver gain? 
  2. In what ways are the goals and objectives driving the original argument? 

Perspective and Point of View

All arguments and claims are made and received from some point of view, a unique and biased way of interpreting the facts of the matter at hand. A point of view can skew an argument or its interpretation significantly and thus must be understood directly. Typically an argument can be evaluated from multiple points of view, some favorable and others opposing. We might think of a point of view as a way of making sense of the facts. Each person interacting with the facts at hand must draw conclusions about them. These conclusions are intricately connected to a subjective perspective. 

Questions to Consider

  1. What aspects of this claim are implied to be true?
  2. In what ways does the claim reinforce the perspective of the speaker? Of the receiver?

Evidence, Concepts, and Ideas

All claims are based on evidence. Even if the evidence is faulty, the maker of the claim still bases the argument on this collection of facts (sometimes out of a self-deceptive desire for them to be true). Nonetheless, not all data or evidence is equal and can be manipulated subtly. When evaluating a claim, it is imperative to evaluate the evidence separately.

Questions to Consider

  1. What evidence is being used to support this claim?
  2. How does the evidence, concepts, or ideas used in the argument withstand the pressure of critical analysis? 

Assumptions, Propositions, and Conclusions

All claims are based on certain assumptions and facts accepted as correct or valid. To evaluate a claim, we must consciously recognize the underlying assumptions that must be accepted if the claim is true. Like considering a speaker's point of view or perspective, we must carefully identify the implicit assumptions at play within an argument or claim, the propositions used to assert them, and the conclusions drawn from them. Any one of these elements can weaken or invalidate an argument. 

Questions to Consider

  1. What aspects of the argument or claim are implicitly suggested to be true? How are they addressed by the speaker?
  2. What conclusions depend on the soundness of the assumptions underlying the argument? 

Implications and Consequences

Part of testing an argument for soundness involves identifying the presence of its logical outcome. Like the scientific method, we can test an argument's soundness by observing its hypothesized consequences. If the consequences are present as predicted, we may find the claim to be sound. 

Questions to Consider

  1. If the claim is true, what implications or consequences would result?
  2. What would the logical extension of the argument or claim be? 

This content is provided to you freely by BYU Open Learning Network.

Access it online or download it at https://open.byu.edu/new/elements.