Several terms will pop up again and again when we talk about argument. Let’s decode a few of them now, starting with argument:
Argument: a disagreement over an issue where both parties can provide evidence to support their side.
Notice the difference here between argument as we’ll use it and arguments that you may have experienced elsewhere. In our kind of argument, reasoned argument, the argument itself has to be over a subject where reasonable people can disagree.
Who are reasonable people? Excellent question! There’s no good answer. (Surprise!) A short explanation goes like this: Reasonable people are people who can be reasoned with. Since that’s not helpful, let’s break it down further. In order for one person to respond to another person’s arguments, they have to share some knowledge or values. It might be entertaining to get into arguments with people who have no knowledge of what they’re talking about, but it isn’t productive, and it’s not what academic argument is trying to do.
The people considered to be knowledgeable and/or reasonable on any topic will likely vary with the topic. Certainly, a Kindergartener could make a great argument for why ice cream should be eaten at every meal — but no one would likely recognize a 5-year-old as a reasonable person on this topic. They lack experience and knowledge, and they would not be able to support their argument with much evidence beyond “because it’s tasty!” or “because I want it!” Two nutritionists might be more reasonable, or two restaurant managers, or even just two people who had tried eating ice cream constantly for a day or two. People should generally have some knowledge of or on a topic to be considered part of the crowd who can argue it reasonably.
Some (like John Gage, in The Shape of Reason) define this as an argumentative community: the people who are concerned with, and knowledgeable enough about, an argument enough that they can discuss and debate it. Your writing class may be an argumentative community, but you’re even more likely to find them within classes in your major field of study, where everyone is at equal levels of expertise on a topic.
Of course, we now live in an age where anyone can look up a topic online and feel like an expert five minutes later. So — and this may be the first time you’ve heard this about the Internet — perhaps having access to online sources has expanded our definitions of who a reasonable audience may be. Let’s get back to that in a bit, when we talk about finding sources.
For now, let’s focus on the other aspect of this question: What is a reasonable argument? Where does it come from? Well, to create a reasonable argument, we’ll need to start, first, with a question. That might sound strange: Shouldn’t I start with something I want to argue about and go from there? Well, yes, but if you pick an argument based on something where you already know the answer, you’re looking for a fight you can win, instead of an academic argument.
The type of argument we’re looking at comes from wanting to find the right answer to an issue about which you have genuine curiosity. This process of inquiry is part of the research method that you’ll engage in throughout your college career. Engaging in honest inquiry is a vital part of constructing valid arguments. Think of the difference between how you look for answers when you already think you know what the right answer is and when you don’t. When actual curiosity drives our search, we are more likely to approach new information with an open mind — and to reconsider our own positions or knowledge. This is the process that academic argument wants to encourage.
The inquiry process needs to start with a question — but it needs to start with the right kind of question.