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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Model of Argument, Part 4: Adding the Blobby Lightning Cloud of Context, or, Why Planting More Beans Fights Hitler

By Steven S. Vrooman

Let's refine the understanding we built last time of how context and warrants connect in argument construction. It's complex. And that's why reading and argument are hard. Hopefully, it will all become clear by the time we finish.

I am not going to diagram this for you. I’d rather see what happens if you try to make your own version of this picture on some handy piece of paper. I'd love it even more if you considered linking a scan of that diagram in the comments below. I'm curious how different people make sense of this. 

It doesn't have to be amazing pen-work, like this:
Here's what one classroom did:
Try it and see what you get...

Draw something that looks like this:

There is a big cloudy blobby thing at the top called “Society” or something like that. Inside are all these things called “Values” floating around.  There are also people floating around. Stick figures maybe. Some with fedoras. Sometimes those people make arguments, which would be like a lightning bolt coming down (it depends on how literal we want to get with this cloud business, which now I’m kind of regretting, actually) from one of our stick figures to an evidence-warrant-claim thing. Little electrical connections from the warrant and evidence (and maybe even claim) link back up into the cloud from where they’re drawn.

Okay so far? But the trouble is that sometimes the argument parts and the electrical connections back to the cloud are obvious and explicit, and sometimes they are not. If the argument is the “Dude!” statement from the student judging my Star Wars shirt, those pathways might be hidden. So you need to develop a visual language for that to finish this picture. Maybe make the explicit lines red? Maybe make the implicit warrant boxes all hazy and dotted and weird? I don’t know!! If I knew how to do this, I’d have drawn it for you!!! (More context, explicit: Vrooman stinks at art). (Even more context, implicit: perhaps Vrooman has some deep emotional issues connected to his failures as an artist)

So we’ve got an argument coming down in some sort of implicit/explicit designation scheme.

But the really complicated part comes from this: Any piece of writing has dozens, perhaps hundreds of individual arguments. Now, don’t draw hundreds. But let’s think about this for a minute.

When you were taught to write, you were hopefully taught that a paper should have a thesis, which is the main argument of the thing. You were also hopefully taught that papers then have sections with arguments that all contribute to supporting that thesis.

You might be able to write such a paper now:

Introduction with Thesis
Funnel-y introduction stuff + “Vrooman is a nerd!”

Body Paragraph 1
“Vrooman likes Star Wars. . . "
Body Paragraph 2
“Vrooman likes zombies. . . . "
Body Paragraph 3

“Vrooman likes argument diagrams.."
(I dunno, man, conclusions are really kind of hard to write, you know?)

Okay, so what does this mean for the diagram you are drawing for me? Well, we’re going to have one big, important, more general argument called the “thesis.” It will probably have evidence like “Vrooman does 3 nerdy things” and a warrant like “3 nerdy things is enough to make a person a nerd.” You can figure out that claim, I presume.

Then we’ll have lines or lightning bolts or flying ponies connecting the evidence of that big THESIS argument with the claims of the three paragraph-level arguments, like “Vrooman likes zombies.” You can imagine what the paragraph on zombies would look like. All the smaller bits of argument that would make up that few hundred words would then connect back up. It will all end up looking like some branching pyramid of ideas or an upside-down tree.

That kind of thing is the skeleton of a piece of writing. It is also how to think about the things you read. 

So now that we've just about finished Part 4 of this, we should be able to try it out. Right? Let's see...

Take a look at this piece of propaganda from World War II:

 You can find this image at the National Archives Online Public Access at I used a higher clarity print I found at

Here the evidence, warrant and claim are all explicit.

The evidence, remember, is the most specific thing. In this case it is observable just by looking at her that “They [those freed from Axis rule] need food [like beans].”
The warrant is the value judgment that tells us what to do about that fact. In this case the warrant is in the statement “[You want to] Help feed those freed from Axis rule.” Note in both cases, even though the full argument is largely explicit here, that there are some implicit logical elements that are understood. I have added those in the [brackets]. The claim has more implicit elements: “[You want to] Plant more beans.” How do I know the claim is to plant beans and not to generically “help?” Ask what the take-away is for the audience. What does this text want them to do or agree to? They already want to help. Exactly what they should do (that they might not already be doing) is the point of the thing.

Sometimes arguments are simple in their structure, like this one. All you have to figure out is how to locate the parts, which are often out of order.

We'll try a few more next time, in Part 5, as we wrap all of this up.

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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