October 1980

Quote On Argumentation

Robert F. Turner

Richard M. Weaver, late professor of English at the University of Chicago, once made the following points on "Responsible Rhetoric." We believe they are applicable in many religious "issues." (Taken from transcript of a lecture recorded at Purdue U., 1955.)


"Most Americans today accept the axiomatic truth that we live in a free society. I wonder, however, how many of us realize that a free society is ... pluralistic ... one in which there are many different centers of authority, influence, and opinion competing with one another ... The pluralistic society... tolerates propaganda of all kinds ... on the strength of two suppositions: (1)... we do not think that we have arrived at the finite in truth; (2) There exists among our people enough good sense, education, and reflective intelligence to insure that in this deliberative process we will come up with the right answer.

Coping with propaganda requires a widespread critical intelligence... (One) cannot make his honest-held views acceptable to others and he cannot disarm an opponent of an argument unless he has some understanding of... (what I will) refer to as responsible rhetoric ... a rhetoric responsible primarily to the truth.

There are four basic ways of thinking about reality or ... interpreting experience (viz.): being, cause, relationship, and the fourth, which has a different kind of basis, authority. The first argument is based on definition. The second is based on cause and effect; the third on resemblance or comparison; the fourth... on the prestige of some authority. If we say all good citizens are voters we make a statement of the first class. If we say war is the cause of inflation we make one of the second. If we say life is like a voyage we make one of the third group; and if we say the Bible says that the greatest of gifts is love we make logic of the fourth. ...This is nothing more than an analysis of our actual modes of argument.


Weaver then gave examples of four types of argument in American history. He commented: "The argument for consequences rests upon this theory: a grave effect implies a grave cause and consequently, a grave cause implies a grave effect." Again: "It is a principle of logic that arguments based on comparison never yield anything more than probability;" and of course he pointed out that the validity of the authority makes or breaks that type or argument. He said tricks of propaganda were nothing more than perversions of the devices of rhetoric. Name-calling was said to be a perversion of the argument of definition. Some may "short-circuit" cause and effect reasoning by insisting on one cause when in fact many causes exist. There are arguments based on seeming rather than real similarities. And Weaver comments that one judges a man not only by what he argues but by the way he argues.

In Weaver's book, The Ethics of Rhetoric, he contends that arguments from genus, principle, definition and similitude are ethically superior to those from consequences — circumstances.