I.  Introduction

Argument identification is only the first stage in critical thinking.  It is a crucial stage, given that you can't evaluate an argument if you can't identify one, but it is only a prelude to the real business of critical thinking.  Once you've identified an argument, you should get to know it before evaluating it.  The real business of critical thinking begins here, in clearly articulating arguments you have identified.  We call this process Argument Reconstruction .  

As the name suggests, this stage involves putting the argument together again in a way that conforms to its original construction.  We take what we have found and piece it together in an attempt to capture the arguer's original reasoning.  A similar approach can be taken in the first place by the arguer in the construction of her argument.  Thus, the lessons we learn at this stage apply whether we are producing arguments or consuming them.    (This is to say that we could have called this section Argument Construction , but for the fact that we are focusing this worksite on the critical thinking done by one who must deal with arguments they find.)

We begin this section by discussing a couple of preliminary issues that are important to successful reconstruction.  We then turn to the three principal steps of argument reconstruction:

  • Identifying Explicit Steps : What are the steps of the argument that are stated explicitly in the text/video/etc.?
  • Identifying Implicit Steps :  What steps are required to make the argument work that were left unstated by the arguer? 
  • Standard Form : This involves writing the reasons and conclusion down in a form that highlights their relationships with one another.  

II.  Preliminaries

The process of reconstructing arguments is generally subtle and complicated.  As with similarly complex processes---e.g., playing a round of golf, playing a Scarlatti sonata, or keeping up with a season of Twin Peaks ---one's success is often dependent on one's attitude.  There are two preliminary points that bear on the attitude of the critical thinker that should be mentioned now, before we get too far in.  

First, be charitable .  Often, argument reconstruction takes place in the presence of the arguer or someone sympathetic to the arguer's point of view.  In this case, it is important to keep this audience in mind, at least if you are interested in participating in a meaningful dialogue.  As we all know, arguments can spring from disagreement, and disagreement can get out of hand, making dialogue empty and worthless.  If you are reconstructing an argument and you want a worthwhile dialogue, you should try to capture just what it was that the arguer meant with her argument.  In the event that the argument is not perfectly explicit throughout, as is likely, this will require giving the arguer the benefit of the doubt from time to time.   Given this, the attitude to have when you are thinking critically is one of charity .  For more, please read Why Be Charitable? Expanded Notes on Charity .

Second, separate the relevant from the irrelevant .  Once you have recognized the presence of an argument, perhaps by spotting a conclusion or a reason, you should distinguish those aspects of the episode that are relevant to the argument from those that are irrelevant.  If you are talking with someone, then you might find your fellow arguer initially offering up small talk, and then perhaps humor, rhetorical bluster, and tangential remarks from time to time.  These contributions to the discussion have their purpose and place, but they typically do not qualify as conclusions or reasons and so should not figure into argument reconstruction.  In most cases, the main point of critical thinking in a particular situation is to evaluate an argument, and the job will be accomplished more efficiently and effectively if the argument is presented precisely, without distracting or superfluous elements.  Reconstruction of an argument that involves only the relevant elements will enable you to achieve efficiency and effectiveness.

While there are no precise rules to follow in separating relevant claims from those that are irrelevant, the following questions about the claims in question can serve as a guide:

  • Is the claim under consideration intended by the arguer to be a part of the argument?
  • Would it be uncharitable not to fold the claim into the argument as you reconstruct it?
  • Is the claim related to other parts of the argument?
  • Is the claim on the same topic as other parts of the argument?

A "yes" in response to any of these should incline you to consider introducing the claim into your reconstruction.  Failure to do so could mean that you wind up with an uncharitably reconstructed argument. For more on distinguishing relevant claims, see Expanded Notes on Relevance .  Before proceeding to section III, please complete the following exercise.

III.  Identifying Explicit Steps

In the Argument Identification stage, you learned strategies for identifying conclusions and reasons.  These argument steps were explicitly introduced by the arguer, either via verbal or written text, visual media, or what have you.  If the argument were delivered verbally, for instance, the arguer would have expressed these steps out loud.  Thus, we call them the explicit steps of the argument.  The first move in reconstruction is to list these steps.  

There are several things to watch out for here:

  • When making this list, it is helpful to put the reasons before the conclusion.
  • Be aware of the fact that a reason can itself be defended in the course of an argument.  In this case, you will have a claim that serves as a reason for the overall argument, but is itself a conclusion of a mini-argument designed to shore it up.   
  • Avoid repetition---at times, an arguer will repeat a step, but you needn't repeat the steps as you reconstruct the argument.  

It is also helpful to think a bit about the order of the reasons.  You could list them in the order in which they appear in the argument, but this is often not the best order.  Reasons typically form a "chain", leading from the first assumption to the conclusion.  It is best to try and order the reasons so that they move in a step-wise fashion from what seems like the starting point to the step that is closest in content to the conclusion.  When you are finished, you should have a list  that flows naturally from the first the first step through to the conclusion.

And as a reminder, conclusions and reasons are typically marked off by the arguer either by positioning in the argument or by explicit markers.  Conclusions are often the first or last claims expressed, and they are generally marked by verbal cues such as 'therefore', 'thus', 'as a consequence', etc.  Reasons tend to be mid-text and are generally signaled by verbal cues such as 'first', 'if', 'because', etc.  For more, see the Argument Identification section.  Not all of what is said will be part of the argument.  In most cases, quite a lot of what is said is irrelevant to the argument, so you must be careful to distinguish what is relevant from what isn't.  For more, see the discussion above on Relevance .  Now, though, it is time to turn your attention to a bit of exercise involving explicit steps.

IV.  Identifying Implicit Steps

When you make an argument, you rarely (if ever) express everything that is relevant to your argument.  After all, why express something if it is obvious to everyone?  Generally, we can rely on people to assume the obvious, or to read between the lines, and so we leave some things unsaid.  Of course, if pressed we can express these things, but most of the time things go ahead without difficulty.  Given this, it should not surprise you to find that the list of explicit steps will typically include a few holes where the arguer left an argument step unsaid.  These unexpressed argument steps are what we call implicit steps .  In a full reconstruction, it is helpful to make these explicit and list them alongside the steps you have brought with you from the preceding section.  

Consider this example.  Your friend calls you and says, "Hey!  I've made my decision.  Because they don't have the advanced courses I want in San Sebastián, I'm going to Heredia."  Being her friend, you know that she is considering a study abroad experience, and has narrowed her choices down to San Sebastián, Spain or Heredia, Costa Rica.  Further, you know that she would like to take a few theater classes while on her trip.  Without this additional information, there are too many holes in her reasoning for it to make sense; with it, the reasoning is seamless.  She plans to travel to either San Sebastián or Heredia; she will travel to the one that has advanced courses in theater; San Sebastián does not have them and Heredia does; therefore, she will travel to Heredia.  

The identification of implicit steps is tricky business---it is more art than science.  The primary goal of this part of reconstruction is to create a list of steps that flow in a smooth way from first step to last. (For more, see Expanded Notes on Argument Flow .) Once you have identified holes in the argument, you must determine if the arguer meant them to be filled.  Sometimes, these holes mark places where background knowledge about the issue in question would go; at other times, they mark places where bridging steps would go to make the argument flow better.  As a rule of thumb, it is important to ask two questions upon recognizing a hole where an implicit step might go: 

  • Does the argument need the implicit step to go through?
  • Does the arguer get to have the implicit step?

In general, the attitude of charity will incline one to include the step in one's list of argument steps if the answer to (1) is "yes"; however, if the arguer has explicitly denied this step or has indicated that she would reject it, then it would be inconsistent to list it.  For more on the art of the implicit, see the Expanded Notes on Identifying Implicit Steps .  Once you are confident, proceed to Exercise Three and test your artistic ability.

V.  Standard Form

Once you have your argument steps in a list, it is helpful to put them into what we will call Standard Form .  This form is helpful in that it forces you to make crystal clear just how you plan to organize the argument, from first reason through to the conclusion; further, it makes things easier to evaluate, which is where we are headed next.  What you have when you are finished is a complete version of the argument presented in a form that reveals its structure for all to see. 

To begin, select the claim that is the conclusion and write it below a horizontal line. Above the line, list the rest of the claims, all of which we are thinking of as reasons. Try and arrange these in order, from those that represent the arguer's starting points to those that are asserted immediately prior to derivation of the conclusion. Number each of these consecutively, and then number the conclusion last. You will end up with something like this:

1. Reason #1 2. Reason #2 3. Reason #3 ... n. Reason #n ---------------------------------------- n+1. Conclusion

This is highly stylized, but it is effective in focusing attention on the argumentative character of the claims involved and the relationships between them.  And now, for some exercise to help you work on your form.

VI.  Putting It All Together

Return to Grendel , Ch. 5.  In the preceding section, you should have identified several arguments in it.  Select one of these arguments and prepare a list of explicit steps and then identify the essential implicit steps.  Once you have finished your list, recast it into standard form and compare your results with the key.  If you have any questions about this, please talk with your instructor.

VI.  Summary

When you need to think critically, you need to think carefully and judiciously about a topic, weighing aspects of that topic against one another.  At this worksite, we are modeling this type of thinking in terms of arguments---when you weigh aspects of a topic against one another, you are in effect considering arguments for and against those aspects.  To do this properly, you need to understand the nature of those arguments, and that requires that you engage in systematic argument reconstruction. Without this, you can't be sure that you have identified all of the relevant "moving parts" of the argument.  In this section, we have presented a procedure for reconstructing arguments.  (For this procedure in outline form, see Argument Reconstruction By the Numbers .)  Once you are comfortable with this procedure, it is time to move on to Argument Evaluation , where we focus on responses to arguments.

How to Reconstruct an Argument

Sample argument reconstructions, macklin, ruth.  "human cloning don't just say no."  us news 10 march 1997.  online: http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/970310/10futu.htm., analysis and sketch of macklin's argument, prose argument reconstruction of macklin's argument, robert d. king, "should english be the law"  atlantic monthly april 1997: 55-64., analysis and sketch of king's argument, prose argument reconstruction of king's argument.

reconstructing arguments critical thinking

Reconstructing Arguments

Here is the step-by-step procedure we are going to use to take an argument from prose form and put it into our reconstructed form:

A. Find the conclusion.

B. Find the explicit premises.

C. Add implicit premises or conclusions to make it strictly valid or cogent, consistent with the authors' intentions.

D. Make charitable revisions in language to make the argument valid or cogent if possible, and as strong as possible.

E. Make the language between premises and the conclusion match. If the argument has this form, for instance, "1. If P then Q. 2. P. 3. Therefore, Q" then make P in 1. and 2. match exactly.

F. Put argument into standard form. Number each premise, separate the premises from the conclusion with a line.

G. Add justifications after every line: [EP] explicit premise, [IP] implicit premise, [1,2] follows from 1 and 2.

When we encounter arguments, they are rarely presented in the organized, premise/conclusion form that we’ve been using in class. More often, they are are presented in paragraph form or as part of a speech, a lecture, or a discussion.

Putting arguments into standard form as we have been doing is useful. It allows us to separate the specific claims in the premises, we can identify the conclusion more clearly, and we can see whether the logical structure is good or bad. So we need to be able to reconstruct arguments from their organic form into standard form.

During the reconstruction process, it is best to forego any critical evaluation of the argument and withhold our objections. The goal is to give the most charitable, and strongest version of the argument on the author’s behalf that we can. It’s more important to determine what is reasonable to believe and which claims are supported by the evidence than to score points by objecting prematurely to an argument that we haven’t fully understood or reflected on. Towards that end, we should strive to make the reconstructed argument either as deductively strong or as i nductively strong as we can, while making the reconstruction conform to the author’s intentions as closely as possible. The critical evaluation phase will come after we have the best reconstruction we can devise of the argument.

The best place to begin this process is to figure out what conclusion the author is intending to argue for. Once we have the conclusion, we can work backwards and figure out what premises are being given in its support, and what logical structure might be employed to prove it. Usually the conclusion is explicit , or stated. But sometimes the author will omit stating the conclusion, but it is clearly implied by the presentation and it is indicated by the logic of the premises offered. This would be an implicit conclusion. Premises can be implicit or explicit too.

What is the conclusion in this argument?

Kara's car is illegal to drive at night. All cars must have fully functioning headlights in order to be legal to drive.

It is "Kara's car is not legal to drive at night." How do we know? It should be intuitive that the ultimate goal of the reasoning and direction of what has been said it to get the audience to conclude that Kara's car is illegal to drive at night. The only other sentence is the "All cars" sentence, and the author is not offering any evidence for that, there are no reasons to support it. But if we construe the "All cars" sentence as a premise, then with the addition of an implicit premise, "Kara's car is not legal to drive at night" follows logically.

What is the implied premise? Consider the argument partially reconstructed:

All cars must have fully functioning headlights in order to be legal to drive.

_____________________________________

Therefore, Kara's car is not legal to drive.

We can now see that the implied premise , the reason that the author clearly depends upon and assumes in the argument but does not state explicitly is:

"Kara's car does not have fully functioning headlights." If we add that premise, the whole argument makes sense and begins to fit into a valid pattern we've seen before:

Kara's car does not have fully functioning headlights.

Notice here that we have followed the first three steps for reconstructing arguments. The next step is "Make charitable revisions in language to make the argument valid or cogent, consistent with the authors' intentions." We might have provided the implicit premise, "Kara's car has a broken headlight," thinking that would be sufficient. But "Kara's car has a broken headlight." and "Kara's car does not have fully functioning headlights" are not the same. In ordinary conversation, we would let this imprecision pass, but here we need to state that exactly the legal requirement in the first premise has not been met. Consider that the the glass cover or the trim on a headlight could be broken, but the headlight is still fully functioning. In order to make the argument strictly valid, we need to add "Kara's car does not have fully functioning headlights." Details matter in validity.

We have now addressed the concerns in D., E., and F. for this argument. What about G? What's a justification? The justification gives a pedigree or source for the line that we are attributing in our reconstruction. It makes the reason we are adding that line clear for analysis. We are going to use IP for "Implicit Premise" and EP for "Explicit Premise" and when a line follows from a logical inference like Modus Tollens or Modus Ponens from some previous lines, we will list those lines: 1,2. Now we can complete the reconstruction:

All cars must have fully functioning headlights in order to be legal to drive. (EP)

Kara's car does not have fully functioning headlights. (IP)

Therefore, Kara's car is not legal to drive. (1,2)

See the next module on Finding the Conclusion for more details.

What about this argument? First, step is to find the conclusion:

There can’t be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If there were, then the military forces would have found them by now, or some radicalized group of insurgents would have used them. But the military forces haven’t found them and no insurgent groups have used any.

“There can’t be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” is the conclusion. The author leads with it, it's supported by the other premises, and logical direction of the reasoning points to it.

Next, we should determine which explicit premises are being offered. That is, the author will most likely have presented some explicitly stated claims in support of the conclusion. Explicit premises are the ones that have been stated outright. Implicit premises are ones that the author clearly employed and expected us to understand as part of the argument, but did not write out or state.

First, what's the conclusion in this argument?

"I think she's not home. If she's home, then her car would be in the driveway."

"She's not home" is the conclusion.

What is the explicit premise? "If she's home, then her car would be in the driveway," is an explicit premise. And "Her car is not in the driveway," is an implicit premise. When we try to reconstruct it in standard logical form, we can see why the implicit premise is assumed and needed:

If she's home, then her car would be in the driveway. (EP)

What is assumed here by the author and needed to make logical sense of this argument?

___________________________

Therefore, she's not home. (1,2)

The implied premise has to be "Her car is not in the driveway." When we add it, the argument fits into our valid Modus Tollens pattern:

If she drove home, then her car would be in the driveway. (EP)

Her car is not in the driveway. (IP)

__________________________________

Now consider this argument. What is the conclusion?

Positive thinking cannot help you win the lottery. If it could, then lots of people would win."

"Positive thinking cannot help you win the lottery." is the conclusion. And "If it could, then lots of people would win." is the explicit premise. An implied premise, " Lots of people do not win." needs to be added to complete the argument. Notice that when we add it, the argument becomes valid and much clearer:

1. If positive thinking could help you win the lottery, then lots of people would win the lottery. (EP)

2. Lots of people do not win the lottery. (IP)

_________________________________

3. Therefore, positive thinking cannot help you win the lottery. (1,2)

You might also think that "Lots of people try to win the lottery with positive thinking." is assumed or implied. But that claim isn't necessary to add here in order to get a valid and relatively strong interpretation of the argument:

1. Lots of people try to win the lottery with positive thinking.

2. If positive thinking could help you win the lottery, then lots of people would win the lottery.

3. Lots of people do not win the lottery.

4. Therefore, positive thinking cannot help you win the lottery.

The logical structure of the argument is now:

2. If P then Q

4. Therefore, not P.

R, while relevant, doesn't contribute to the formal validity of the argument. The only valid inference here is from 2 and 3 to the conclusion 4. So let the logical structure of the argument and the requirements of validity be your guide, in part, to figure out which implicit premises must be added.

In general, once we identify the conclusion and we have the explicit premises, we are in a better position to determine which premises, if any, are implicit . Our guide for finding these will be our sense for the author’s intentions, and the logical structure of the argument that we can see emerging from the presentation. If a premise is not stated, but the author clearly has a logical structure or style of inference in mind, and adding the missing claim would make the argument valid or cogent, then that claim is probably an implicit premise.

Once we have all of the explicit and implicit premises, it would be helpful to rearrange the claims, make minor adjustments in language, and eliminate language that isn’t precise or that doesn’t match across the argument. If there are pronouns, it would be better to replace them with their antecedents. We should eliminate everything in the sentences except the words that provide essential information for the argument. So “I believe that a person cannot support capital punishment and be opposed to abortion.” can be converted to “A person cannot support capital punishment and be opposed to abortion,” or “Supporting capital punishment and opposing abortion are inconsistent positions.” The “I believe that” isn’t important or really part of the argument. Incidentally, recognizing that language like this isn’t essential in a sentence can make us better writers in the first place. “I’ve always had the opinion that American League baseball players are better than National League players,” is more clearly written without the “I’ve always had the opinion that.” For logical purposes, we're just interested in the claims or the interpretation of the claims that bear directly on the validity or cogency of the argument, and on the truth of the conclusion.

We should add justifications after every line in the reconstructed argument. Justifications indicate where the line came from. [EP] means "explicit premise." [IP] means "implicit premise." And [1,2] means that the line was inferred, either validly or cogently, from lines 1 and 2.

Consider this example of moving from the original text to a well-reconstructed argument in standard form:

The starter must be broken. If the car won't start, then it's either the starter, the alternator, or the battery that's the problem. It won't start. And we've ruled out the alternator since we just put a new one in, and it can't be the battery because it's fully charged.

The conclusion is "The starter must be broken." One explicit premise is this conditional: "If the car won't start, then it's either the starter, the alternator, or the battery that's the problem." Another explicit premise is "The car won't start." (Notice that I've changed the language to match the previous sentence exactly.) So we can put together this reconstruction:

1. If the car won't start, then either the starter is broken, the alternator is broken, or the battery is dead. (EP) (notice the editing)

2. The car won't start. (EP)

3. The alternator is not broken. (IP) (notice the editing to match language in 1)

4. The battery is not dead. (IP) (notice the editing to match the language in 1.)

____________________________________________

5. Therefore, the starter is broken. (1,2,3,4)

The original text needed to be edited quite a bit to get this to fit strictly into a valid argument patterns we’ve been studying. It not sufficient to just add numbers to the original text or leave those lines as originally stated. The pattern that the argument, once heavily edited and reconstructed, follows is:

1. If P, then either Q, R, or S.

_______________

5. Therefore, Q

This is known as an argument by elimination.

So consider this argument:

I’m pretty sure that if you get caught base jumping in a national park, it is a misdemeanor offense. And if you get convicted of a misdemeanor offense, it's a parole violation. I heard that while he was on parole, Fernando went base jumping in Yosemite and got caught. And if Fernando violates his parole one more time, immigration services is going to deport him. So I think he is going to get deported. That's too bad. He was a great guy.

The conclusion is "Fernando got deported." The sentence: I’m pretty sure that if you get caught base jumping in a national park, it is a misdemeanor offense." gets translated to this premise. Notice that the language has been adjusted to match the other premises and words have been eliminated:

"If you get caught base jumping in a national park, then you get convicted of a misdemeanor offense."

And if you get convicted of a misdemeanor offense, it's a parole violation, becomes: "If you get convicted of a misdemeanor offense, then you get a parole violation."

And this premise is also explicit: "If Fernando gets a parole violation, then immigration services is going to deport him." It is not stated, but it is clearly implied that "Yosemite is a national park."

1. If a person gets caught base jumping in a national park, then that person is convicted of a misdemeanor offense. [EP]

2. If a person gets convicted of a misdemeanor offense, then that person gets a parole violation. [EP]

3. If Fernando gets a parole violation, then immigration services is going to deport him. [EP]

4. Yosemite is a national park. [IP]

5. Fernando got caught base jumping in Yosemite. [EP]

6. Fernando got caught base jumping in a national park. [4,5]

7. Fernando got convicted of a misdemeanor offense. [1, 6]

8. Fernando got a parole violation. [2, 7]

______________________________________

9. Therefore, Fernando is going to get deported. [3,8]

Notice that the implicit premise has been brought out, and all of the intermediate inferences have been stated in order to validly get to the conclusion. Compare the full reconstruction above to this much less thorough reconstruction:

4. Fernando got caught base jumping. [EP]

5. Therefore, Fernando is going to get deported. [1,2,3,4]

This version seems to capture the reasoning at first glance, but it isn't valid, and several important connections haven't been stated. The longer version is correct.

Here is one more much more complicated argument in text form.

Currently the FBI and the NTSB are considering three live hypotheses about the demise of TWA flight 800. Mechanical failure is always the first option to be raised in such cases. Most plane crashes, like the recent one in the Florida everglades, are due to something along these lines. The problem with this hypothesis is that most of the wreckage has been retrieved, except for some of the most crucial areas near the blast, and no indication of mechanical failure has become apparent. The possibility of a terrorist's bomb on board is also being considered. It has happened a number of times before, and worldwide incidence of terrorist bombings are ever increasing. But again, there is no evidence, at least that is compelling, in the wreckage that there was a bomb. No terrorist group has plausibly claimed responsibility. The other possibility that is actively being considered is that the flight was shot down by a surface to air missile, maybe from the coast, but more likely and surprising, from a nearby Navy ship (180 miles) that was testing targeting systems and launching practice shots around the time of the flight's demise. Over 40 witnesses of the mid-air explosion have suggested that there was a flare of light that travelled up from the ocean to the plane shortly before it exploded. Given the problems with the other hypotheses and the evidence that indicates it was shot down, it seems that we have to accept the third possibility as the most likely, however frightening it may be.

The conclusion is: "TWA 800 was shot down." The overall logical structure of the argument appears to be a disjunctive syllogism formed around the three likely hypotheses: "Currently the FBI and the NTSB are considering three live hypotheses about the demise of TWA flight 800." The implicit premise then is:

1. TWA 800 was either shot down, bombed by terrorists, or it suffered from mechanical failure.

A very simple way to see the rest of the reasoning here is to understand the rest of the discussion as making a case for denying the second and third possibilities. So the whole argument put in rudimentary form is:

1. TWA 800 was either shot down, bombed by terrorists, or it suffered from mechanical failure. [EP]

2. TWA 800 was not bombed by terrorists. [IP]

3. TWA 800 did not suffer from mechanical failure. [IP]

4. Therefore, TWA 800 was shot down. [1,2,3]

This reconstruction has good and bad aspects. First, it is valid, it is clear, and it captures the overall structure of the reasoning. But there is a great deal of detail that is left out. We do not see any of the reasoning that led to premises 2 and 3. Here's a better version that expands some of the reasoning:

2. If TWA 800 was bombed by terrorists, then we would find evidence of a bomb in the wreckage and there would be a plausible claim of responsibility by a terrorist group. [IP]

3. We did not find evidence of a bomb in the wreckage and there was not a plausible claim of responsibility by a terrorist group. [EP]

4. Therefore, TWA 800 was not bombed by terrorists. [2,3]

5. If most of the wreckage has been found and searched and there is no evidence of mechanical failure, then TWA 800 did not suffer from mechanical failure. [IP]

6. Most of the wreckage has been found and searched and there is no evidence of mechanical failure. [EP]

7. Therefore, TWA 800 did not suffer from mechanical failure. [5,6]

8. Therefore, TWA 800 was shot down. [1,4,7]

This version is much better because it captures more of the original reasoning. And it is still valid. Notice that premises 2 and 3 from the short version have now become the conclusions of sub-arguments in the long version. This argument is still not perfect because there is no incorporation of the information about the Navy or the missile testing, or the eye witnesses. But it is a good, charitable reconstruction.

For the record, it was discovered when all of the wreckage was found, the real crash of TWA 800 was caused by mechanical failure.

How charitable should we be when we are reconstructing an argument? The idea behind being charitable is that we want to give the author as much of the benefit of the doubt as we can. We want to reconstruct the strongest argument we can on her behalf, where "strongest" is understood in terms of our inductively or deductively strong arguments concepts. It would be going too far, for the sake of charity, to completely reorder the reasoning, or add new information, or give what amounts to a different argument for the author's conclusion. Consider this simple case:

If UFOs were abducting human beings from the Earth and doing experiments on them, then there would be a lot of people who claim to have been abducted. And there are a lot of people who claim to have been abducted. So it looks like UFOs are abducting humans from the Earth.

Notice that as stated, this argument is invalid:

1. If UFOs were abducting human beings from the Earth, then there would be a lot of people who claim to have been abducted. [EP]

2. There are a lot of people who claim to have been abducted. [EP]

__________________________

3. Therefore, UFOs are abducting human beings from the Earth. [1,2]

The invalid inference is affirming the consequent.

1. If P then Q.

______________

3. Therefore, P

If we changed the author's first premise to: "If there are a lot of people who claim to have been abducted, then UFOs are abducting humans from the Earth." we can make the argument valid. But we've altered what the author said too much. So you should reconstruct it following the author's logic as closely as possible. And then in your critical evaluation of the argument, you would point out that the argument is logically flawed. It is invalid. It's also not cogent. So it is ill-formed. Also notice that even if you had altered the premise to make it valid, the new premise would be false. A lot of people claiming to have been abducted is not sufficient grounds to conclude that UFOs are really abducting humans, particularly when there are other, more likely explanations. So your evaluation of the revised argument would show that the argument is still weak, but for a different reason.

So the whole procedure for reconstructing arguments again is:

A. Be Charitable: The point of is getting to the truth, not putting someone down or scoring rhetorical points.

B. Find the conclusion.

C. Find the explicit premises.

D. Add implicit premises or conclusions.

E. Make charitable revisions in language to make the argument valid or cogent if possible, and as strong as possible.

F. Put argument into standard form.

G. Add any intermediate inferences that play a roll in the larger argument.

H. Add justifications after every line: [EP] explicit premise, [IP] implicit premise, [1,2] follows from 1 and 2.

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

This handout discusses common types of philosophy assignments and strategies and resources that will help you write your philosophy papers.

What is philosophy, and why do we study it?

Philosophy is the practice of making and assessing arguments. An argument is a set of statements (called premises) that work together to support another statement (the conclusion).

Making and assessing arguments can help us get closer to understanding the truth. At the very least, the process helps make us aware of our reasons for believing what we believe, and it enables us to use reason when we discuss our beliefs with other people. Your philosophy teacher wants to help you learn to make strong arguments and to assess the arguments other people make.

Elements of philosophy papers

A philosophy paper may require several kinds of tasks, including:

Objections and replies

Application.

Thought experiments

Let’s examine these elements one at a time.

Argument Reconstruction

To reconstruct an argument, you’ll need to present it in a way that someone unfamiliar with the material will understand. Often, this requires you to say a lot more than the philosopher whose work you are writing about did!

There are two main ways to reconstruct an argument: in regular prose or as a formal series of numbered steps. Unless your professor or TA has told you otherwise, you should probably use regular prose. In either case, keep these points in mind:

Let’s walk through an argument reconstruction. Here is a passage by 18th-century British philosopher David Hume:

Take any action allowed to be vicious: Willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact, but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature).

Step 1: Reread the passage a few times, stopping to look up any unfamiliar words—”disapprobation,” maybe. Be sure you understand the important terms, like “vicious.” (By “vicious,” Hume seems to mean “wicked, depraved, or immoral,” which probably isn’t the way you use the word in everyday speech.)

Step 2: Identify the conclusion. Sometimes your teacher will identify it for you, but even if she didn’t, you can find it. (Caution: It won’t always be the first or the last sentence in the passage; it may not even be explicitly stated.) In this case, Hume’s conclusion is something like this: The viciousness of an action is a feeling of disapprobation in the person who considers it, not a property of the action itself.

Step 3: Identify the premises. Consider the conclusion and ask yourself what the author needs to do to prove it. Hume’s conclusion here seems to have two parts: When we call an action vicious, we mean that our “nature” causes us to feel blame when we contemplate that action. There is nothing else that we could mean when we call an action “vicious.”

Step 4: Identify the evidence. Hume considers an example, murder, and points out that when we consider why we say that murder is vicious, two things happen:

Step 5: Identify unspoken assumptions. Hume assumes that murder is a representative case of “viciousness.” He also assumes that if there were “viciousness” in the “object” (the murder), we would be able to “see” it—it isn’t somehow hidden from us. Depending on how important you think these assumptions are, you may want to make them explicit in your reconstruction.

Step 6: Sketch out a formal reconstruction of the argument as a series of steps.

Step 7: Summarize the argument, explaining the premises and how they work together. Here’s how such a prose reconstruction might go: To understand what we mean when we call an action “vicious,” by which he means “wrong,” Hume examines the case of murder. He finds that whenever we consider a murder itself, all we see are the “passions, motives, volitions, and thoughts” of the people involved. For example, we might see that the murderer feels the passion of anger and is motivated by a desire to make his victim suffer, and that the victim feels the passion of fear and is thinking about how to escape. But no matter how hard we look, we don’t see “viciousness” or wrongness—we see an action taking place, and people with motives and feelings are involved in that action, but none of these things seem to be what we mean by “viciousness” or wrongness. Hume next turns his inquiry inward, and considers what is happening inside a person who calls a murder “vicious.” The person who thinks or says that murder is wrong always seems to be feeling a certain “sentiment of disapprobation.” That is, the person disapproves of the action and blames the murderer. When we say “murder is wrong,” we usually think that we are saying something about murder itself, that we are describing a property (wrongness) that the action of murder has. But Hume thinks what we are in fact describing is a feeling in us, not a property of murder—the “viciousness” of a vicious action is just an emotion in the person who is thinking about or observing that action, rather than a property of the action itself.

Often, after you reconstruct an argument, you’ll be asked to tell whether it is a good or a bad argument and whether you agree or disagree with it.

Thinking of objections and examining their consequences is a way that philosophers check to see if an argument is a good one. When you consider an objection, you test the argument to see if it can overcome the objection. To object to an argument, you must give reasons why it is flawed:

Here are some questions you can ask to make sure your objections are strong:

Let’s look at our example again. What objections might you make to Hume’s argument about murder? Here are some possible arguments:

Often you’ll be asked to consider how a philosopher might reply to objections. After all, not every objection is a good objection; the author might be able to come up with a very convincing reply! Use what you know about the author’s general position to construct a reply that is consistent with other things the author has said, as well as with the author’s original argument.

So how might Hume, or someone defending Hume, reply to the objections above? Here are some possible objections:

Sometimes you will be asked to summarize an author’s argument and apply that position to a new case. Considering how the author would think about a different case helps you understand the author’s reasoning and see how the argument is relevant. Imagine that your instructor has given you this prompt:

“Apply Hume’s views on the nature of vice to the following case: Mr. Smith has an advanced form of cancer. He asks Dr. Jones what she thinks his prognosis is. Dr. Jones is certain Mr. Smith will die within the month, but she tells him he may survive for a year or longer, that his cancer may not be fatal. Dr. Jones wants to give Mr. Smith hope and spare him the painful truth. How should we think about whether what Dr. Jones did is wrong?”

Consider what you know about Hume’s views. Hume has not given a list of actions that are right or wrong, nor has he said how we should judge whether an action is right or wrong. All he has told us is that if an action is wrong, the wrongness is a sentiment in the people considering the action rather than a property of the action itself. So Hume would probably say that what matters is how we feel about Dr. Jones’s action—do we feel disapproval? If we feel disapproval, then we are likely to call the action “wrong.”

This test case probably raises all kinds of questions for you about Hume’s views. You might be thinking, “Who cares whether we call the action wrong—I want to know whether it actually is wrong!” Or you might say to yourself, “Some people will feel disapproval of the doctor’s action, but others will approve, so how should we decide whether the action is wrong or not?” These are exactly the kinds of questions your instructor wants to get you thinking about.

When you go back to read and discuss Hume, you will begin to see how he might answer such questions, and you will have a deeper understanding of his position. In your paper, though, you should probably focus on one or two main points and reserve the rest of your speculation for your conclusion.

Original argument/taking a position

Sometimes an assignment will ask you to stake out a position (i.e., to take sides in a philosophical debate) or to make an original argument. These assignments are basically persuasive essays, a kind of writing you are probably familiar with. If you need help, see our handouts on argument and thesis statements, among others.

Remember: Think about your audience, and use arguments that are likely to convince people who aren’t like you. For example, you might think the death penalty is wrong because your parents taught you so. But other people have no special reason to care what your parents think. Try to give reasons that will be interesting and compelling to most people.

If scientists want to test a theory or principle, they design an experiment.

In philosophy, we often test our ideas by conducting thought experiments. We construct imaginary cases that allow us to focus on the issue or principle we are most interested in. Often the cases aren’t especially realistic, just as the conditions in a scientific laboratory are different from those in the outside world.

When you are asked to write about a thought experiment, don’t worry about whether it is something that is ever likely to happen; instead, focus on the principle being tested. Suppose that your bioethics teacher has given you this thought experiment to consider:

An elderly, unconscious patient needs a heart transplant. It is very unlikely that a donor heart will become available before the patient dies. The doctor’s other option is to try a new and risky procedure that involves transplanting the heart of a genetically engineered chimpanzee into the patient. This will require killing the chimp. What should the doctor recommend?

This scenario may be unrealistic, but your instructor has created it to get you to think about what considerations matter morally (not just medically) when making a life-or-death decision. Who should make such decisions—doctors, families, or patients? Is it acceptable to kill another intelligent primate in order to provide a heart for a human? Does it matter that the patient is elderly? Unconscious? So instead of focusing on whether or not the scenario is likely to happen, you should make an argument about these issues. Again, see our handouts on argument and thesis statements for help in crafting your position.

Other things to keep in mind

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Feinberg, Joel. 2008. Doing Philosophy: A Guide to the Writing of Philosophy Papers , 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Holowchak, Mark. 2011. Critical Reasoning and Philosophy: A Concise Guide to Reading, Evaluating, and Writing Philosophical Works , 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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In this chapter we turn our attention away from the arguer’s biases and dispositions and towards the nature of arguments themselves. The majority of it is devoted to explaining argument reconstruction; the practice of extracting the essential content and structure of someone’s argument from the everyday language in which it is expressed or implied. Here we will encounter concepts and techniques such as ambiguity and vagueness, straw man arguments, implicit premises, and the principle of charity. Prior to this, though, I will provide a reminder of what an argument is, and explain how the sentences which comprise the premises and conclusions must be what are called ‘propositions’ or ‘statements’.

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