What Is Argument Repair?

Somewhere along the way, I picked up the language of “argument repair.” I don’t think this is my term, but borrowed from others. Many people have found it the most interesting concept in my analysis of textbook treatments of fallacies.  Some textbook authors have asked for sources, and some instructors have developed their own exercises.

I have only found one scholarly discussion of it, and no articles aside from mine, but in critical thinking and argumentation studies it’s quite common for  innovative scholarship to be presented in textbook form.  (A great recent example of this is Maureen Linker’s Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice — I plan to post on that soon.) Richard Epstein’s Critical Thinking (Thomson Wadsworth) devotes a chapter to the argument repair, and perhaps that’s where I picked up the term.  It’s no longer in print, unfortunately, but you can find a discussion of it here.

What attracts me to the notion of argument repair is that it suggests a dialectical context. We may repair arguments in response to criticism, though we cannot in change our central reasoning (how to identify that central reasoning is the big question). That dialectical engagement distinguishes argument repair as a practice from simply charitable interpretation, which does not involve the arguer revising what is said but only an audience interpretation. (It may also include repairing one’s own argument, in an internal dialectic.) That dialectical element is present when “argument repair” appears in the one other place I’ve found the phrase, a poem “On the Immortality of the Soul” by Charles William Jones (of Islington):

In matters of such import, pith, and weight,
As the soul’s welfare and a future state,
Each should endeavour for himself to judge,
Invoke the contest, and refuse to budge:
Then to the field of argument repair,
Wisely engage in manly conflict there;
But should conviction’s force your breast assail,
Retire at once, nor your defeat bewail

This rich depiction of argument as war is far from what I want, and yet conflict is certainly part of the dialectical picture.  What interests me is that the audience allows the speaker the opportunity for argument repair.  The speaker can take “to the field” and “retire” in turns.

Although dialectical context distinguishes argument repair from simply charitable interpretation, each may follow the same guidelines.  We don’t want to shoehorn all arguments into deductive form, and yet we want to allow for implied premises, and also “blunders” in Douglas Walton’s terms (see Tindale’s article here).  Epstein in a later edition along with Carolyn Kernberger provide the following Guide to Repairing Arguments (206, 68):

Given an (implicit) argument that is apparently defective, we are justified in adding a premise or conclusion if it satisfies all three of the following:

  1. The argument becomes stronger or valid
  2. The premise is plausible and would seem plausible to the other person
  3. The premise is more plausible than the conclusion.

If the argument is valid or strong, we may delete a premise if doing so doesn’t make the argument worse.

The three criteria involve additions to the argument: the audience “putting words in the speaker’s mouth” in a non-pejorative sense, or the speaker making additions; but it’s also noted that an argument might be improved but trimming off extraneous information. Epstein and Kernberger also suggest the following limits to argument repair (206, 68):

  • There’s no argument here

  • The argument is so lacking in coherence that there’s nothing obvious to add

  • A premise it uses is false or dubious and cannot be deleted

  • Two of its premises are contradictory, and neither can be deleted

  • The obvious premise to add would make the argument weak

  • The obvious premise to add to make the argument strong or valid is is false

  • The conclusion is clearly false.

None of this indicates a dialectical context, so it’s interesting that they choose terminology different from the traditional “charity.”  So, it seems that I need to look closer at my own past practice to see if I’m doing anything different, and have made explicit my interest in the dialectical context. I’ve also sent out some inquiries to people who might know better than I, and I’ll report back.

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Reasoning together

Hugo Mercier visited the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric at the University of Windsor last Fall to discuss his recent work with Dan Sperber in which they  argue that reason is meant to function socially, in contexts of argumentation and hence as part of communication.  This welcome message for argumentation theorists and social epistemologists draws together an immense amount of research in cognitive psychology about the conditions in which reasoning is successful.  I found it very exciting.

Not only does this view suggest a fundamental epistemological significance for argumentation, it suggests that argumentation is basically cooperative, not adversarial.  Sure, opposition can be part of valuable argumentative practice, but the more general or at least original benefit is learning from each other — not winning, as the view has been misrepresented in The New York Times.

What was disappointing is the appearance that Sperber and Mercier’s appeal to evolution, and their employment of “evolutionary psychology” is weak.  Does evolution provide explanatory power, connecting theory with one of the most important scientific innovations of the past several centuries?  Yeah sure.  But explanatory power is not enough, especially when more rigorous empirical standards are available from and demanded by evolutionary biology.  At least, so the consensus seems to be — I need to learn more about this area; but Mercier appealed only to the explanatory power of natural selection, not to anything concrete.

Evolutionary psychology is notoriously problematic, and seems especially prey to the assumption that what has evolved must have been selected for, having an advantage itself. Some evolutionary features, like chins and male nipples are by-product of other features, like jaws and female nipples.  The automatic assumption that all evolved features are adaptations has been described by Elisabeth Lloyd as “adaptationism.”