What is an argument?

I'm worried that by starting with this topic that I'm going to scare everyone away or bore them to sleep. Someone once told me a story about some intro to philosophy class they took in college; the first thing the professor does is places a stool on the table and asks "What is a stool? What is it about this thing that makes it a stool?" The rest of the lecture involves discussing this stool and its stoolishness.

Yuck. I promise I'm not going to do that. trust me. It's going to seem like I'm doing that, but what I'm really doing is giving you a big bucket of Legos. You remember discovering Legos, right? They're so simple, so mundane, and yet once you wrap your head around the ways they fit together you can create amazing things.

In debate, our legos are called "arguments." I don't mean "argument" like "I got in an argument with my mom when she discovered my stash of Eminem CDs," but a somewhat more technical meaning of the term. So what is an argument?

The way that debaters define and talk about arguments is borrowed from the work of a Mr. Stephen Toulmin, who I usually introduce as "A British Dead Guy," which, as I recently learned, is inaccurate, as he is actually quite alive.

Anyway, Toulmin's model of argument starts with a Claim. This is the thing being argued, the thing that I am trying to persuade you of. "The Sky is Blue" is a claim. "Barack Obama is a United States citizen" is a claim. "Stephen Toulmin is alive" is a claim.

It's a concept that's easy to illustrate, because I can claim pretty much anything. Note, however, that a claim is not an argument all by itself. You might agree with me that Obama is a US citizen, but I haven't created an argument until I provide some reason that Obama is a citizen.

But if I tell you "Barack Obama is a United States citizen, he was born in Hawaii," now I've done more than make a claim. I've also given you data - "He was born in Hawaii." This particular piece of data is pretty easily verifiable. There is a physical record of Barack's birth in the form of a birth certificate. You could go to Hawaii and inspect this document yourself if you were so inclined. You'll find that most (but not all) data is something that can be verified - statistics, studies, observations, and other things we can see and hear.

The third part of an argument is a Warrant, which is implied in the argument above, as it is in many shorter arguments. If I wanted to be more explicit, I could say "Barack Obama is a United States citizen, he was born in Hawaii. According to the US constitution, anyone born in a US state (like Hawaii) is a Citizen." The Warrant is what connects the claim to the data. Put another way, it answers the question "Why does this data prove this claim?"

Warrants are very important in debate, as I'm sure you're aware that one can use the same piece of data to prove contradictory claims. In the race between two arguments - "The economy will improve next year, interest rates are up" and "The economy will get worse next year, interest rates are up" - it is the argument with the better warrant that will win the day.

Okay, enough theory. Claim, Data, Warrant. You've got your Legos. And yes, for you pedants out there, I am aware that the plural of LEGO is LEGO and you should always type it in all caps. Sheesh.

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