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Monday, December 1, 2014

A Model of Argument, Part 3: Star Wars, Cats, Reddit and Using Context to Figure out Toulmin's Warrants

Part Two of this argument business last month was about the warrant. It is a slippery creature. Difficult to pin down, difficult to understand. This section will explore some of that slipperiness.

The context is the situation surrounding the expression of the argument. Why does this matter? If we can figure out context, we can fill in those missing warrants.

Here’s an example:

Okay, so let’s say we are cool kids in junior high. We don’t need to state that warrant outright. In fact, one of the primary ways of being cool has always been to make it seem unattainable and mysterious. To adapt the classic tagline about Fight Club, the first rule of being cool is that you don’t explain what coolness is.

But what if we change the context?

What if we are all stranded on a deserted island with only the clothes on our backs. I dig up the buried treasure and, yes!, five shirts! Who’s laughing now, cool kids? Our new context gives us a new way of thinking:

Our warrant would have to be: “Wealth is defined by a surplus of valuable things.” But you wouldn’t take the time to figure out the warrant. You’d all see me open the box and it would turn into Lord of the Flies (That means some violence is going to happen. Didn’t read that book in high school like I had to? See? Context. It shifts.)

Voss (2005) notes that we leave out warrants when communicating with members of our community who we think already share our values. It seems clear when reading Perelman that this is because those warranting values are tied in with the shared context of a community, group or society (Perelman, 1982, 2000; Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969). For example, Perelman (1982) points out the way that the value judgment more of a good thing is always better than less competes with the “romantic” value judgment the unique and precious is more important than a larger amount (p. 30). I would argue that most Americans these days are raised to believe the more perspective in our super-sized, up-sized, 3-for-the-price-of-1 society. But perhaps some would still buy a $30 steak instead of ten Whataburgers. If I can figure out which one of those you tend to believe, I can figure out what you mean when you write about price, value and what things are “worth it.” Of course, if I find you in line at Whataburger, I probably have my answer. But maybe not. It’s easy to be wrong on questions of context. You can make what logicians call the hasty generalization fallacy: coming to a conclusion with too little evidence (Corbett, 1971). It’s how we judge people based on stereotypes, for example. So learning how to make correct judgments about context is tremendously important.

In the case of this chapter, so far you know four explicit elements of that context (things that are clear from the text) – I have Star Wars shirts, I have had enough training in theories of argument to cite a few sources, I also like Star Trek (the Enterprise reference from before) and The Avengers, and I am a professor who can sometimes be found in Langner Hall. You also have a kind of unclear element of explicit context, the fedora. Do you believe me when I say that I have one?
You might also be able to figure out some implicit (unstated) elements of my context:
  1. I have been a nerd long enough that I have issues with the idea of cool kids passing me in the hall and judging me.
  2. I frequent often enough to be able to call fedoras cringe-worthy.
  3. I want students to understand how to use pieces of argument more accurately.
  4. I like students.
  5. I have two cats.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “There is no way to know #5!” Well, there is if you researched me and saw their pictures on my Facebook. There are ways to figure out implicit context. But, of course, based on how you try to find context, you’d get different things. You could ask your professor or peer mentor. You could ask someone in the ASC. You could look at my office door. Or you could use the Internet, but even then, who knows what you’ll find.

(Insert scene of you Googling different versions of my name here. Different versions give different results. Steven vs. Steve vs. Steven S.)

Now that you’ve researched me a bit, you can be more certain about #1 (my nerdiness is pretty clear). Number 2 requires that you actually know something about reddit. Your Googling did not help you there. As readers we can’t know everything, right? Numbers 3 and 4 you have to get from the way I have written this chapter. I seem to be trying to make all of this easy to understand by writing conversationally. Whether or not it is actually working is another question, but the style I have chosen tells you something about me.

There’s one last thing. It’s going to make it harder. Sorry.

This section has so far argued that context shapes our values and our range of possible warrants. But context is not just what we’re taught by the society we live in, it is also the unique sets of experiences we have. Some of those are similar to the experiences of other people. Some are very different. Those can become evidence for arguments. 

For example, #3 on the implicit context list above is a value that is related to my unique experience as a person who has tried to teach argument to students for 20 years (new context element: he is OLD!). I have watched hundreds of students REALLY struggle with this material. A very common response is that they get it when they read it, but when they try to apply it, it all breaks down.

Context is where all the evidence and warrants come from. In fact, it is where everything comes from. I might just be repeating arguments I’ve heard all my life.

Part 4 of this will come later. In that one, I will use World War 2 propaganda posters to help you figure out how to see the arguments in front of you.


Corbett, E. (1971). Classical rhetoric for the modern student. NY: Oxford.
Perelman, C. (1982). The realm of rhetoric. Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press.
Perelman, C. (2000). “The new rhetoric: A theory of practical reasoning. In P. Bizzell & B. Herzberg (Eds.), The rhetorical tradition: Readings for classical times to the present (pp. 1384-1409). New York: Bedford.
Perelman, C., & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969). The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation. Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press.
Toulmin, S. (2003). The uses of argument. Updated ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Voss, J. (2005). Toulmin’s model and the solving of ill-structured problems. Argumentation, 19, 321-329.

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.


  1. This is a great read and truly helps explain the rather abstract concept of warrant. Thanks for this. Teaching warrant to 8th graders has always been a challenge, and I'm sure this article will help me present the concept in different, clearer ways. Thanks again, and looking forward to your next post!

    1. Thanks so much for that feedback! I really appreciate it!