Yet extracting arguments from texts is the core philosophical skill. So how can we help students do this? Here's an idea I've used recently that I hope might help.
I call it the argument scramble. Here's the idea. Direct students to a particular bit of text that contains a key argument. Provide them a list of claims and instruct them to reconstruct the argument, either individually or in groups, and ask them to identify the premises and the conclusion.
Here's the trick: You provide them more claims than are needed to reconstruct the argument. So, for instance, I used Mill's notorious proof of the principle of utility in Utilitarianism, chapter IV, and gave the students these claims:
1. Each person’s happiness is good (or desirable) to her.
2. If each person’s happiness is good to her, then the happiness of all (“the general happiness”) is good for all persons.
3. No person desires the happiness of any other person.
4. It is wrong to desire happiness only for oneself.
5. Something is good (or desirable) if and only if we actually desire it.
6. The general happiness is good for all persons.
7. Each person actually desires his/her own happiness.
8. We only desire what makes us happy.
I try to make the claims subtly different so as to compel students to be exact about the argument as found in the text.
From here, you have a lot of options: have a few students volunteer to provide their reconstructions, have the students work in groups and then write their reconstruction on the board for comparison, etc.
I've found it to be enormously informative as to how the students see the arguments in a text. For instance, is there a particular premise that students overlook? Or one they confuse with a premise nearby? Do they confuse a premise for the conclusion? Etc. In any case, I've found that discussions of the arguments, including their logical merits, are more productive when students have had to struggle a bit to make sense of the argument. At the same time, doing a little bit of their work upfront, by giving them a list of claims to work with, seems to make the process of getting started with the reconstruction less daunting.
- You can also provide too few claims or leave out a claim needed to reconstruct the argument (that's a bit more advanced).
- You can tackle larger texts, an article, say, or if you're really ambitious, a full work like the Apology.
In any event, I'd be interested to know of other techniques you've tried along these lines!