Arguments

In everyday life, we often think of an argument as consisting of two or more people vehemently disagreeing about something, often loudly and not very politely. This, however, is not what the word ‘argument’ means in a philosophical or logical context. Rather, in philosophy an argument consists of a series of connected propositions which are intended to demonstrate the truth of some final proposition, called the conclusion. Here is a simple example of an argument:

P1. I am a human being

P2. All human beings eventually die

C. I will eventually die

This argument consists of three propositions. The first two propositions are called premises, while the final proposition is the conclusion. The purpose of this argument is to establish the truth of the conclusion by appeal to the two premises. That is, the conclusion is supposed to follow from the premises, so that if I believe the premises are true, and I understand the argument, I should also come to believe in the truth of the conclusion.

It is important to understand that arguments cannot, strictly speaking, be true or false. An argument does not have a truth value, since an argument is not a proposition. Rather, an argument is a set of propositions, and each of those propositions will have a corresponding truth value. Thus, when somebody says something like “your argument is wrong”, they may mean one of three different things:

  1. The argument is invalid
  2. One of the premises is false (and so the argument is unsound)
  3. The conclusion of the argument is false

These are all quite different claims which would require different forms of analysis and consideration, but since the speaker has made an unclear statement, we do not know which they mean. This illustrates how understanding the difference between propositions and arguments can be help one to use clearer language and forms of expression, which can often make discussions much more fruitful.

Further Reading

Philosophy basics – arguments: an accessible introduction to the key features of philosophical arguments and how they are evaluated

Argument: discussion of some of the ways philosophers have characterised philosophical arguments from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Arguments and inference: an overview of the relationship between philosophical arguments and the inferences drawn from them

Writing philosophical arguments: a useful primer for how to compose philosophical arguments