Argument Identification

Critical Thinking Basics

Argument Identification

Argument Evaluation

Argument Construction

Writing & Critical Thinking


Seech (2005) states that there can be many uses for language. For example, sometimes we wish to simply convey information. Sometimes we wish to persuade someone of something (i.e., reasons for believing). A third reason for language might be to explain something (i.e., why or how). In business, we attempt to provide "correct" and "persuasive" reasoning as the foundation of day-to-day business decision making.

Correct & persuasive reasoning involves an argument. In fact, it is the argument that provides the (tangible) form and structure for us to make informed judgments as to the veracity of correct and persuasive reasoning that we encounter in business situations. Thus, it is the analysis of arguments that provides the initial focus of critical thinking. (Machina 2000, p. 37) specifically asserts that we must first understand the purpose and basic elements of an argument in order to "think critically" .

So, what is an argument? An argument is defined as "...any giving of reasons, evidence, or support for the claim that something is true." Importantly. there are two important elements involved in addressing arguments as the foundation of critical thinking in this course. The first element is argument identification, and the second element is argument evaluation. In this section, we will focus on argument identification in the writing of others.

Arguments at their most basic level consist of conclusions and premises.

When someone presents an argument for something, the evidence, reasons or support are directed toward establishing the truth of some conclusion. Thus, "the conclusion of an argument is the point that the rest of the argument is supposed to show to be correct or true. Brown and Keeley (2001) state that one can think of the basic structure of an argument to be, "This because of that." This refers to the conclusion; that refers to to the supporting premises. Key indicator words of a conclusion might include:

but proves that
consequently shows that
hence so
indicates that suggests that
in fact the most obvious explanation
in short the point I'm trying to make
it follows that therefore
it is highly probable that the truth of the matter is
it should be clear that thus
points to the conclusion that we may deduce that

Source: Seech, Zachary (2005).

Let's try an example from an advertisement for Shell Oil:

We're all involved in the oil business. Every time we start our cars, turn on our lights, cook a meal, or heat our homes, we're relying on some form of fuel to make it happen.

So, is this an argument? If so, what is the argument? Ok, now let's try one a little longer by clicking here. Please note that the context of an argument is also very important to our understanding.

A final thought concerning conclusions is in order before progressing to a discussion of the supporting premises. Many, if not most, conclusions in business writing are not obviously stated. They must be inferred, i.e., they are derived from reasoning. This is often very difficult for students for at least two reasons. First, they often ignore the title of the article and any subtitle (these often relate the key point(s) the author is trying to make). Second, students tend to approach summarization by a process of word reduction. That is, they start deleting words from the article as a method of summarization. However,  this method is extremely poor when conclusions must be inferred.

Unsupported claims or conclusions are called opinions. Opinions (in a formal sense) are not very useful in business practice. That is, the absence of evidence means that there is no argument, only an opinion. In business, we most often demand conclusions supported by evidence. Each reason, piece of evidence, and each bit of data used in an argument in support of the conclusion is called a premise. Key indicator words of a premise might include:

also for the reason that
as a result of in addition
because of the fact that in view of
first, ..., second is supported by
for researchers found that
for example since the evidence is
for one thing  

So, arguments are the mechanism to persuade others to accept our conclusions based on the premises we provide in support of our conclusions. One of the skills we will practice this semester is identifying the arguments, conclusions, and premises of progressively longer and more difficult articles. Please click here or click here for two excellent (basic and short) primers on recognizing arguments. Please note that this emphasis on critical thinking is also consistent with ISU's pedagogical direction (see ISU's Center for the Advancement for Teaching and ISU's position statement on critical thinking).

Homework Assignment 2: Read and complete the two argumentation primers identified in the paragraph above. We may even have a quiz on this assignment, time permitting.

The figure above presents an organizing schema for approaching the conclusions that you draw from any particular reading. Most student struggle separating explanations from endorsement conclusions. We strongly encourage readers to consider the framework above when identifying arguments to ensure that they are comfortable with the type of conclusion that they are advocating in their interpretation of an author's writing. Please remember that if you settle for the wrong overall conclusion (i.e., the main point that the author is advocating), then you are assured of evaluating the wrong argument (set of premises) using the critical thinking tools that you will be introduced to in this course (see Argument Evaluation).

It is also important to understand that arguments can vary in complexity. capturing argument complexity is really an exercise is thought organization. The figure above provides a framework through which to understand argument complexity. The essential point to understand is that premises, sub-conclusions, and conclusions should all represent singular and unique thoughts. I find it very useful to try to reduce potential premises, and (sub)conclusions to a few words capturing the key thought, and then to look for redundancy among the potential premises, and (sub)conclusions. Once the key thoughts are recognized, then they can be organized into a charitable interpretation of writing that also captures the "flow" (i.e., logic) of the writer.

Unfortunately, we will not have time in this course to provide a comprehensive review of critical thinking. Rather, we will introduce the very basic important critical thinking concepts that will support your own life-long learning objectives. For example, we will not be able to really delve into some of the nuances of argumentation like premise evaluation (e.g., factual vs logical vs fallacies) this semester. That said, there are a number of exciting and useful resources on the Internet that can contribute to your greater understanding of these issues, including Purdue University's Online Writing Lab, San Jose State University's Critical Thinking resources, the University of Washington's Argumentation Home Page, Jeff Richardson's Argumentation page, 30 Flaws of Argumentation, Stephen's Guide to Logical Fallacies, and the Fallacies.

Additional in-class and homework assignments associated with argument identification include:

In-Class Exercises for This Section Homework Exercises for This Section
In-Class Exercise 1: "Heaven's Gate." Your task is to formally identify the argument in this article. Please click here for one "correct" assessment of this argument. Homework Exercise 3 -- The Power of Design (BusinessWeek)
Your task is to formally identify the argument in this article. Please click here for one "correct" assessment of this argument.
In-Class Exercise 2: "Compromise Social Security Reform" Your task is to formally identify the argument in this article. Please click here for one "correct" assessment of this argument. Homework Exercise 4 -- Working and Poor (BusinessWeek)
Your task is to formally identify the argument in this article. Please click here for one "correct" assessment of this argument.
In-Class Exercise 3: "Social Security Reform" Your task is to formally identify the argument in this article. Please click here for one "correct" assessment of this argument.  
In-Class Exercise 4 -- Hispanic Nation (BusinessWeek)
Your task is to formally identify the argument in this article. Please click here for one "correct" assessment of this argument.

This Course Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader
. All of the cases and readings for this course can be found online in this web page system via the following links:
  1. on campus (but out of WIH)\ 
  2. off campus -\

The format for these resources will always be Adobe Acrobat (i.e., *.pdf files). You can download the FREE Adobe Acrobat Reader by clicking here.

We have also developed an additional example for your consideration in hopes of making this concept clearer. Please click here for a great presentation of the two arguments for and against space exploration. After you have read this article, please click here for how one would distill this presentation down to its conclusions and premises, and how one would apply the critical thinking wheel to this example. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or comments.