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Write, Debate, and Argue like Aristotle

Posted by Caitlin G. 10/8/2017
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The art of argumentation has been studied since the time of Aristotle. His book, Treatise on Rhetoric, approaches argumentation and public speaking as a science; skilled rhetoricians are said to be able to persuade anyone of any topic. In fact, rhetoric is sometimes known as the art of persuasion.

Understanding the art of argumentation can help both in terms of being able to see arguments at work against you, and in convincing others to agree with you or follow your cause. Whether you’re in need of argumentation for an essay, debate class, or to further your career in politics, classic rhetoric can help with all of these goals.

Understanding Your Audience

Perfect arguments are ones that are crafted specifically for your audience. If you’re trying to decrease the homeless population in your area, for instance, your argument is going to differ depending on who you’re speaking to: neighbors who own houses and have children in the area, a local representative of your state legislature who is focused on cutting the budget, or the manager of a homeless shelter. In each case, your audience will come to your argument with their own assumptions, priorities, and interests. Successful methods of persuasion will tailor logic and evidence to each audience depending on their unique ways of seeing the world.

Ethos, Logos, and Pathos

All arguments-- according to Aristotle-- are made up of three components: Ethos, or credibility; logos, or logic; and pathos, or emotion. Elements that add to the ethos of an argument may be:

  1. The reputation of the speaker or writer
  2. The words chosen to convey the argument
  3. If the argument is written, proper use of spelling and grammar are important; if the argument is spoken, such as during a debate or speech, dress and enunciation are important. As always, understanding your audience comes into play here. If you are addressing the legislature, for example, you would want to wear a suit. If you are running for student body president and addressing your classmates, something fashionable might be more appropriate.
  4. If you are presenting evidence, the credibility of the evidence will be important. Statistics are often more credible than personal experience. However, again audience may come into play. For example, in today’s polarized political landscape, some audiences may find Breitbart more credible than the New York Times, or vice versa.  

Pathos refers to emotion, and can be quite useful when it comes to persuasion. Any time a TV commercial tugs at your heartstrings, or shows a sad animal or a happy family, it’s attempting to use pathos to persuade you to buy a product. Likewise, you may use pathos in your arguments by telling personal stories with human elements, or even by inciting fear.

Logos should not be confused for simple “logic,” although the word does translate as such. Instead, think of logos as the many claims and subclaims that add up to the overall purpose of the argument. For example, you may argue that water is a depleting resource, and therefore your neighbors should not use sprinklers on lawns. One claim is that water as a resource is in danger; a second claim is that not using sprinklers will conserve water. A “three paragraph essay” often written in high schools usually has three sub claims (three paragraphs) that add up to one overall claim or purpose.

Warrants and Assumptions

In the above example about sprinklers, you are assuming that your neighbors care about depleting water as a resource. In fact, they may not care. It’s important to choose a claim that rests upon an assumption that your audience will agree with. All claims rest upon assumptions, or warrants. For example, you may argue prisons should reduce sentencing to save money. In this claim, you’re assuming that saving money is a positive thing, an assumption that most people will agree with. However, there are many claims with assumptions that most people will not agree with. It’s important to establish shared assumptions before trying to persuade an audience of a claim.

Further Reading

While I’ve outlined some of the major principles of argumentation above, there is a lot of additional reading to help improve your essay writing, speech, or debate skills. I highly recommend reading The Uses of Argument by Stephen Toulmin. In this book he discusses additional components of successful argument, such as rebuttals and backings, in addition to warrants.

Great speakers, politicians, journalists, and activist leaders often naturally understand the underlying components of successful persuasion, but it’s certainly possible for good leaders to become great by studying up on argumentation tools. In addition to studying, consider how your school can help you get better at argumentation, whether that’s by offering opportunities for argumentative essay writing, leadership opportunities, or classes that center around debate. Do you have a favorite argumentation trick to share, or an argument that went over well? Share your stories in the below comments.

Topics: Academics

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