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Difference of opinion is one of the central requirements for an argument

Difference of opinion is one of the central requirements for an argument

An argument is an exchange of ideas or opinions between individuals1 in which the individuals express different opinions about some topic.2 A defining feature to arguments is excludability, i.e. both members are engaged in some mutually dependent situation that excludes the possibility of each holding their beliefs or following their independently desired actions. Due to this excludability, the members engaged in an argument must go through a process in order to generate a combined outcome. In so doing one person’s argument will prevail over others or they will synthesize their different opinions or ideas. The process of argumentation is studied in a number of different contexts from philosophy, mathematics, and science, to law, politics, and psychology.
Arguments may be rational or nonrational, a rational argument is one that is based on objective reasoning, where the most cogent argument prevails. A non-rational argument is one based upon the subjectively motivated reasoning of the individuals, where the exchange is affective  in nature; as opposed to logical.3 Likewise, arguments may be categorized as being formal or information. Informal arguments, as studied in informal logic, are presented in natural language and are intended for everyday discourse. Inversely, formal arguments are studied in formal logic and are expressed in a formal language.4


A primary distinction can be made between arguments depending on whether they are rational or non-rational, where rational means conducted or in accordance with objective reason.5 Rational and non-rational arguments have very different structure and dynamics that define their overall workings and how the conclusion is reached. A rational argument is one where the members hold objective reasons to support their case and are prepared to alter their conclusions according to that derived from the soundest reasoning; thus a resolution can be reached based upon objective reasoning. A non-rational argument is one based upon the subjective reasoning of the individuals, their beliefs or opinions are not affected by objective reason and thus a conclusion can not be reached based upon objective reasoning alone.

Non-Rational Arguments

Russian First Vice Premier talks are a conference in Moscow. Political arguments often lack objective reasoning, where politicians resort to rhetoric to persuade the audience towards certain desired ends

Russian First Vice Premier talks at a conference in Moscow. Political arguments often lack content in the form of objective reasoning, where politicians resort to rhetoric to persuade the audience towards certain desired ends

Rational means applicable through reason, non-rational means not able to be explained by reason, non-rational arguments are obtained through intuition rather than from reasoning or observation.6 Intuition is the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.7 Thus arguments that are based on intuition are firstly derived from emotional instinct and then the holder may construct conscious reasons to support them, but the conclusion does not follow from a conceptual construction. The conceptual reasoning is just used to defend the argument – rationalizing – thus changing the reasons for the argument will not change the conclusion for the holder of a subjective idea or opinion, because it was not created originally through objective reasoning.
Non-rational arguments are based upon the subjective emotions of the individual and are driven by motivated reasoning, where members hold conclusions that are not explicable by reason and can not be altered by reason alone. For example, the individual may hold subjective beliefs or opinions that are non-generalizable – such as a belief in the superiority of their culture or society – and thus can not be supported by objective reasoning that is applicable to all. The arguments and opinions offered by the members are subjective in nature; the opinions offered by the members have no objective grounding i.e. one believes X because one’s parents believed X, or one believes X because it makes one feel good etc.

Affective Exchange

Instead of an exchange of ideas, non-rational arguments are more often affective in nature, where affective means relating to, or arising from influencing feelings or emotions.8 Without the resort to objective reasoning non-rational argumentation is primarily driven by the capacity to affect emotional states within the other members involved. This may take many forms, the most readily identifiable being the use of forceful coercion in order to induce fear and control over other members in the argument. However, force is most often the last resort in the interaction between people, typically a product of all other strategies failing.
More often individuals will use positive associations to enable an affective influence that persuades, or motivates a particular audience in a specific situation; the classical example being advertising. Advertising can be seen as a form of argumentation, different members are interacting to achieve some combined outcome – typically the purchase of a product. The advertiser has a subjective argument – to buy their product – and are likewise driven by motivated reasoning to conclusions that make their product appear favorable. Advertisers typically do not use objective reasoning to persuade consumers but more often engage with them on an affective level in order to appeal to their emotional desires and fears. They do this by associating a product with some positive emotional desire of the individual – most evidently the sexual desires of male consumers – and trying to convince them that if they purchase the product they will achieve the desired state or inversely the relief of some undesirable state.
Likewise the same can be seen in political debates, where candidates will practice limited use of objective reasoning but instead engage in the use of affective terminology and associations to persuade the audience towards certain conclusions based on emotional sentiments. Non-rational argumentation can be seen as an extension of motivated reasoning where there is a preconceived conclusion on the behalf of the individuals and the aim is to simply defend that irrespective of the evidence and case that others may make against it.9 The agency of the  members in the argument is often emotionally manipulated in order to achieve the desired conclusion.

Rational Arguments

Rational argument requires a number of preconditions most notably members being open to being influenced by the sound reasoning of others

Rational argument requires a number of preconditions most notably members being open to being influenced by the sound reasoning of others

Rational arguments involve the exchange between members who believe that they have some grounds for their argument based in objective reason. To engage in rational argument members have to be prepared to alter their opinions, beliefs or actions based upon the soundest reasoning given by any member. Rational arguments involve a reason or set of reasons given in support of an idea, action or theory. A person gives the reasons supporting their claim in order to influence others to adhere to their claim and thus reach a conclusion to the argument. Rational arguments are guided by the process of objective reasoning, whereby different claims are made by the different parties involved, individuals present evidence to support their claims and use logical inference to draw conclusions hoping to influence others to adopt their case while remaining open to being influenced by the cases presented by others in an attempt to find a conclusion that is justified by the soundest evidence and logic.
There are a number of preconditions to a rational argument. Firstly, those engaged in a rational argument seek the free consent of others involved in the argument, thus unlike non-rational argumentation where people simply use whatever means to get the other person to agree with them without respect for their individual agency, rational arguments require that the members involved respect the free will and agency of the other members, they are not simply trying to get them to adopt their belief, they wish for the other person to come to that conclusion themselves. Thus in a rational argument one simply presents one’s evidence and the process of inference used to draw the conclusion and then lets others use that evidence and inference process to derive the conclusion for themselves.
This is similar to the scientific method in the natural science where when a research discovers something new before anyone will believe them they have to present the data used and process of arriving at that result, other researchers will then perform a similar experience, if they come to the same conclusion then they too will typically adopt the ideas of the first research, in such as way a consensus is reached, by everyone having reached that conclusion themselves without anyone being coerced and everyone’s agency is respected.10

Cooperation & Uncertainty

Secondly, although arguments may connote conflict this form of rational argumentation is largely cooperative. The members have to agree on some things in order to even initiate the argument. Members must not only share a common language but typically share some common context within which they are arguing. For example, many arguments within the scientific community will be based upon agreement on the vast majority of ideas and lexicon within their domain, while disagreeing about some particular area of interest. Likewise, many scientists will not even engage in an argument with those who do not accept basic scientific theories, such as evolution, as they are seen as too irrational.11 Third, argumentation occurs only under conditions of uncertainty, about matters that could be otherwise. If the facts surrounding an argument are evident then an argument typically will not take place, it is difficult to argue whether it is raining or not as one has to just put out one’s hand and feel that it is either raining or not, the degree of uncertainty is so small that it is difficult to argue about it. People engage in arguments about things that are uncertain and thus controversial, uncertainty implies that things could be otherwise; the outcome is not known for sure and it may not be possible to know conclusively. For example, one may have an argument about why the Roman Empire fell because there are many factors involved and some degree of uncertainty. Typically people will not engage in an argument if they believe they have certainty on the question under consideration. If it is pouring rain and you are soaking wet when someone comes up and tells you it is not raining you will just laugh, you are so certain of the facts that you will unlikely engage in the argument.12 Fourth, because things are uncertain argumentation requires that members give justification for the ideas and beliefs they support. Members offer a rationale for accepting an uncertain claim, informal arguments do not offer certainty, they simply present a case that is more or less justified depending on the strength of the evidence and the logical conclusions drawn, others engage in the argument then either accept those claims and inference or offer their own.13 Finally, members entering into rational argument give over their beliefs to the combined process of reasoning they are engaged in with their interlocutors, in so doing they run the risk of having to alter their beliefs or opinions. They run the risk of being shown to be wrong. Thus the decision to engage in argumentation suggests a willingness to run the risk of having to change one’s currently held ideas.14

Formal & Informal

Informal argumentation we very much appreciated as an important skill in antiquity but came to be eclipsed by formal logic during the 20th centry

Informal argumentation we recognized and appreciated as an important skill in antiquity but came to be eclipsed by formal logic during the 20th century

Informal arguments, as studied in informal logic, are presented in natural language and are intended for everyday discourse. Conversely, formal arguments are studied in formal logic and are expressed in a formal language. Informal logic may be said to emphasize the study of argumentation, whereas formal logic emphasizes implication and inference. Informal arguments are sometimes implicit. That is, the rational structure – the relationship of claims, premises, warrants, relations of implication, and conclusion – is not always spelled out and immediately visible and must sometimes be made explicit by analysis.15 Formal arguments are deductive in nature meaning that conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. With deductive reasoning the conclusion contains no information not already present – at least implicitly – in the premises. Thus deductive reasoning does not add to our store of knowledge; it merely rearranges it. The central aim of this type of reasoning is to generate proofs, i.e. rigorously analyze the structure of a statement with formal methods to prove if it is a sound argument. Deductive reasoning is analytic; it requires no reference to the external world, and it may be counterfactual.16 Although augmentation has been studied for millennia, for much of the 20th century, the systematic study of argumentation was associated with formal logic, which achieves deductive certainty at the price of limited relevance to everyday affairs. However, during the past few decades, there has been renewed interest in the study of informal reasoning, which depends on probabilities. Informal reasoning is inherently uncertain, but it characterizes reasoning in most areas of human activity. Very seldom does one actually reason in syllogistic form, most real world arguments cannot be separated from their content in the way required to apply formal methods. Most argumentation is not represented by a form in which the conclusion contains no new information.17 Informal logical – which is non-deductive logic – is reasoning using arguments in which the premises support the conclusion but do not entail it, i.e. the argument is not a closed system. Induction is an example of informal argumentation, a form of reasoning that makes generalizations based on individual instances. An inductive argument is said to be cogent if and only if the truth of the argument’s premises would render the truth of the conclusion probable (i.e., the argument is strong), and the argument’s premises are, in fact, true. 18

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Arguments," in Complexity Academy, September 12, 2016,

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