Friday, November 7, 2014

A Model of Argument, Part 2: Stephen Toulmin, Whatever the Heck Warrants Are, and Star Wars Tee Shirts


A month a go I started sharing some introductory work I've done on argument. I was going to continue every couple of days until I put the whole chapter up, but this happened, which irritated me. And then this, which was cool, and it was the first blog post composed entirely on my phone, so there's that, I guess. Then I did a Brown Bag presentation and made this and this for it, two posts no one seemed to read, so that was, well, sad. And then TEDx took over my life for a month. So now more complex rhetoric stuff boiled down for first-year college students. Hope it helps if you need it.

We might map out the argument about Star Wars shirts using the following argument formula, based on a classical model thousands of years old called the syllogism (see Corbett, 1971), but with parts renamed by Stephen Toulmin (2003):

Okay, so let’s replace those definitions with the Star Wars argument.

The most difficult part of all of this is the warrant. It is a rule that gives a certain meaning to the evidence. Toulmin almost thinks of it in legal terms, like a warrant that allows the police to enter your house to search. Without it they cannot go in. A warrant authorizes the movement from evidence to claim.
Toulmin notes that how we talk about this idea of the warrant depends on our field, which can be defined by referring back to Santa. One of my son’s friends sought to prove the existence of Santa years ago. He asked for a video camera for his birthday and he set it up on the living room table to record all night on Christmas Eve. He would either get Santa on video or his parents. Then he would know. His parents tried to outsmart the camera by sneaking up behind it, hitting the pause button, placing the presents under the tree, sneaking back out of sight, and unpausing the camera. The next morning, the boy watched the video. It looked as if POOF! the presents just magically appeared under the tree. His field of experience told him that presents appearing out of nowhere is evidence for the existence of Santa. Magic! But for us today, even if I hadn’t told you the story of the parents, your field of experience would tell you that the video is evidence of some kind of trick.
Just as different fields have different warrants to make sense of the world, they talk about them in different ways. A physicist might talk about hypotheses or theories or laws. A priest might talk about revelation or morals or faith. A psychologist might talk about personality type or statistical prediction. Everyday people might talk about life experience or common sense. All people might be unwittingly relying on stereotype. No matter the field, the act of interpretation is more or less the same. We all interpret the evidence we find in the world the way we are taught to do so.
As if all of that is not bad enough, there’s more difficulty. Ideally, a warrant clearly and specifically tells us how to interpret the evidence to build a claim. But it usually doesn’t work out that way.
We need an example: The fedora. Is it cool? Is it nerdy? Is it hipster? Is it cringe-worthy? Notice how hard it would be to generate a warrant here. In a classical syllogism, the warrant (which was called the major premise) should be an All-or-Nothing thing for it to all work properly. But the real world often doesn’t work that way. We might say that on some people (Bruno Mars) the fedora is cool. Hipster cool, but cool. On others it is the cringe-worthy action of a nerd who is trying too hard. How do you know? You just KNOW, right? But maybe I don’t. How would you explain it to me, if, say, you were writing a chapter in a book?
In other words, the warrant “Some fedoras are cool” does not really authorize us to move to the claim “Vrooman is cool” from the grounds ‘Vrooman has a fedora.” We don’t know if Vrooman’s fedora fits the criteria. Is it one of the chosen “some” that’s cool?
Toulmin has answers to these questions, and he has an even more complex model if you are interested, but let’s instead sum this all up with: warrants are often complicated, messy, uncertain, unexplained, riddled with errors, and unreliable. That’s why getting into political arguments or arguments about which is faster, the Enterprise or the Millenium Falcon, are so frustrating.
In fact, the warrant is usually just LEFT OUT of arguments entirely. This makes it all that much harder. (You can imagine the meme we would create for this: “Because logic.”)
Chaim Perelman (1982) notes that value systems are shared in a society or community (or field). And so when we talk or write to each other, we don’t feel like we have to share all those values and warrants. Isn’t it obvious to all cool people that Star Wars is nerdy? For example, FOX News rarely has to explain why it thinks taxes are bad. The news writers for that network assume that their conservative audience already thinks that, so why waste the time?
Perhaps that kind of argument just becomes a habit. Even when we are writing to a general audience, an audience that might not share all of our values, we might still write in the same lazier, shorthand way.
So, at least part of our task as readers is to be able to figure out the often-missing warrant. To do that, we need to be able to do two things:
  1. Recognize those warrants when they are explicit, or clearly stated.
  2. Be able to figure out what those warrants have to be when they are implicit, or unstated.

Only one warrant makes sense linking my shirts to my nerdiness, but writing, arguments, and people are not always that clear.
For example, you and your friend might see me walking down the hallway in Langner Hall wearing one of my Star Wars T-shirts. You might turn to look at your friend and simply say, “Dude!” under your breath as I walk by. Your friend will understand that you made the whole argument I graphed out before, but it was all implicit. Assuming I’m too embarrassed to ask you, I’d have to figure out, based on what I know about you and students in general, what the heck the “Dude!” meant.
This is where the last key part of critical reading comes in, the context. Tune in next month for that.

This is part of a series of posts excerpted from my chapter, "Reading Argument: Santa, Star Wars and Uncle Sam," published in the 2014-2015 TLU Reader. Since we didn't make it available anywhere outside the TLU bookstore, I thought I'd break it into a few pieces to share. Argument is hard to do. This chapter was designed to help. The whole series starts here.

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