Claims Supported by Appeals Based in Evidence

When our students hear the word argument, they may immediately think of an unpleasant exchange between embittered persons, or at least envision a heated conversation.  In our culture we tend to think of our positions as inviolable beliefs that reside deep within, untouchable and resistant to alteration.  We have been led to believe that we are responsible to defend those positions at all costs. We witness that unilateral model on the Senate floor, in presidential elections, in debating contests, and in much of everyday life. We deploy a cluster of metaphors to speak about argument as war: think of  expressions like holding one’s ground, defending a position, eradicating an opponent, or even the simple construct: What side are you on? Such agnostic debate differs significantly from dialectic, which aims for a mutualistic transformation of understanding.

In Writing 101, we contrast this notion of debate with the conception of argument that animates academic and intellectual life, where disagreement is understood (when carried out in respectful and reasonable ways) as a productive event. The ancient sophist Protagoras claimed that disagreement was endemic to human affairs, that disagreement was a permanent feature of social life. If we can help students to expect–perhaps even welcome–disagreement and to respond to it with care rather than defensiveness, we will go some distance in preparing them to face adulthood as citizens. But to help students embrace that sensibility, we need to define what we mean by argument, show them the ropes, and teach them its requisite skills–to demystify the practice that our students will be expected to become adept at throughout college.

In Writing 101, argument broadly refers to discourse that asserts a contestable claim in response to some question or issue about which reasonable persons may disagree, and

  • supports that claim through the use of appeals to reasons based less upon strict logic than upon a mode of thinking (the sensus communus) preferred by a particular discourse community (logos)
  • establishes the character (trustworthiness, courage, good will, etc.) and agency of the writer (ethos)
  • activates the realm of human feeling and draws forth affective states of mind (pathos).

In addition to these standard appeals (called the pisteis by Aristotle), students may make use of specialized appeals such as autobiographical appeals, statistical appeals, appeals to disciplinary traditions, and appeals to previous researchers’ analyses. We make appeals to commonsense thinking, to commonly-valued reasoning, to authority, and to experience (our own and others’). Alternately, a writer may have good reason to invite readers to thwart these: to question commonsense modes of thought, to recognize the limits of one or another operation of traditional reasoning, to doubt the word of authorities.

If we define rhetoric as the study of how public knowledge and understandings are shaped, shared, and changed through the strategic use of language and other symbolic forms, then the term argument, though focused on persuasion, embraces a range of ethical, epistemologic, and aesthetic interests.



Students of argument must learn to become, in effect, connoisseurs of claims, to grow accustomed to acknowledging and seeking to understand assertions derived from perspectives, commitments, interests, and desires not their own. They should think of each disagreement as a territory of contrasting, and complimentary positions, each evolved from a variety of assumptions, experiences, modes of feeling, ideologies, and values.  The array of positions that have been or might be advanced in a territory of disagreement exists as a tangle of assumptions, ideologies, and values. Disagreements that animate scholarly work (disagreements regarding the description, interpretation, and analysis of data, texts, and other phenomena) keep the epistemic cultures we call “disciplines” alive and well.  It is this world of academic argument that Writing 101 aims to demystify.

A Process for Preparing to Cast One’s Own Argument
Step #1: Inquire into the History of Responses: Reading and Researching

What have others had to say about X, and what might reasonable persons whose responses have not been documented say about X ?

To what extent am I prepared to listen carefully to and seek to understand positions not my own?

How thoroughly and fairly have I sought others’ positions, interpretations, and analyses? Am I prepared non-tendentiously to summarize others’ arguments?

Step #2: Map the Territory of the Disagreement

How might I organize these remarks into categories of response, doing justice to subtle but important differences in their positions?

Can I discern patterns in how the phenomenon has been or might be defined, valued, or otherwise conceptualized?

If I were to map the territory of the disagreement, how do I visualize positions in relation to one another?


Mapping the Territory of a Disagreement Handout

Summarizing Another’s Argument Handout

This step is explained in greater detail here, on the Davidson Writer website.

Step #3: Triangulate to Get One’s Bearings

What exactly are others arguing over?

Can turning to the stases help me determine this?

What aspect of others’ arguments deserve yet closer inspection?

Which positions am I attracted to and why?

Which positions seem to me limited or wrong-headed and why?

Which positions was I previously unfamiliar with that now interest me?

Which positions did I previously reject that I now wish to reconsider?

The Stases Handout

Step #4:Determine How You Will Respond to Others

Before you write up your own argument, you’ll need to decide which of the positions on the territory you will want to grapple with in some detail. You may discover that it’s best to launch your own position in relation to one particular argument that’s been made.  You can respond in one of several ways: fully agree, partially agree, agree with a twist, disagree in whole or parts.

  • Fully agree with the previous argument’s findings, and demonstrate its strengths.
  • Partially agree with some of the previous argument’s findings, but disagree with others.
  • Agree with the previous argument (in whole or parts), but extend it in some new direction, or apply its findings to some new case.
  • Disagree with the previous argument’s findings, and work to call parts (its assumptions, some or all of its evidence, its premises, its definitions, etc.) into question or to refute the whole.

This step is explained in greater detail here, on the Davidson Writer website.

Step 5: Draft Your Argument as a Detailed Response to What’s Been Said by Others

Now, you’re ready to draft your own argument which will summarize what’s been said about the issue at hand launching its central claim, persuasive appeals, and supporting evidence in response to one or more previous arguments.




Further Reading

“Achieving Stasis by Asking the Right Questions” from Sharon Crowley and Debra Hawhee, Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students. 5th Ed. New York: Pearson, 2017.

Basic Structure for Academic Arguments

Sample Student Argument with Parts of Argument Highlighted

Logical Fallacies in Condensed Form

Stanley Fish, “Living in a World of Argument”

George Hillocks, “Teaching Argument for Critical Thinking and Writing: An Introduction”