Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Scrambling their argumentative eggs

Being able to extract arguments from philosophical texts, especially historical texts, is a central philosophical skill. But it's one that (in my observation) students struggle with immensely. The reasons for this aren't hard to discern: You have to understand the words. You have to understand the sentences within which the words appear. You have to understand the larger setting of the text in which those sentences appear. You have to see those words as having an underlying logic. Etc.

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.

Some variations:
  • 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!


  1. Oh, this is excellent! I've seen something similar done with multiple choice tests. The students were given a short exchange between two characters. The first advances a claim, the second raises some objection, and then the student was asked to choose the best reply. Sometimes they were given constraints like, "What is Betty's best reply to Alfred, if Betty is committed to moral realism?" The questions could be designed with greater or lesser degrees of sophistication, but I much prefer the exercise you describe. It looks like it is much better suited to getting the students to practice (and enjoy practicing!) drawing the arguments out of the text than the multiple choice test, which seemed to encourage memorizing the moves in the arguments.

  2. Great idea! I've not tried this before but I'm going to soon. In the past I've always just had them break into their groups and flounder around trying to reconstruct bits of the text; however, I've often found that the language/jargon is too hard for them to make sense of. (Though I still find this approach very useful - they ask lots of questions and I discover what they're not understanding.) This seems like a nice "bridge" to developing the more sophisticated skills of reconstructing arguments without a list of possible claims being provided by the instructor.


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