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Published in: Argumentation 3/2013

01-08-2013

On the Rationale for Distinguishing Arguments from Explanations

Author: Matthew W. McKeon

Published in: Argumentation | Issue 3/2013

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Abstract

Even with the lack of consensus on the nature of an argument, the thesis that explanations and arguments are distinct is near orthodoxy in well-known critical thinking texts and in the more advanced argumentation literature. In this paper, I reconstruct two rationales for distinguishing arguments from explanations. According to one, arguments and explanations are essentially different things because they have different structures. According to the other, while some explanations and arguments may have the same structure, they are different things because explanations are used for different purposes than arguments. I argue that both rationales fail to motivate a distinction between arguments and explanations. Since these are the only rationales for distinguishing arguments from explanations that I am prepared to take seriously, I don’t see why we should exclude explanations from being arguments.
Footnotes
1
For example, see the following critical thinking texts: Bassham et al. (2005, pp. 45ff), Boss (2012, p. 172), Copi and Cohen (2005, p. 44ff), van Eemeren et al. (2002, p. 43), Govier (2010, p. 13ff), Johnson and Blair (2006, p. 18), Layman (2005, p. 49), Moore and Parker (2012, p. 389ff), Vaughn (2013, pp. 14 and 20), Walton (2006, pp. 75ff). With respect to the argumentation literature, advocates of a distinction between explanations and arguments include Govier (1987a, pp. 167–168), Houtlosser (2001, p. 37), Johnson (2000, p. 144), Kasachkoff (1988, p. 21), Mayes (2010, p. 93), Snoeck Henkemans (2001, p. 232), Walton (1996, p. 19), and Pinto (2010, p. 230). I regard defenses of a distinction between arguments and explanations to be committed to the thesis that explanations are a type of non-argument, and, therefore, committed to the generalization that no explanation is an argument.
 
2
Nothing here hinges on taking propositions to be the primary truth bearers. Also, both the structural and pragmatic rationales as I conceive them in this paper treat arguments as things and are, therefore, compatible with the view of an argument as a product of a process of argumentation.
 
3
According to Johnson, a definition of an argument is a structural one if it defines an argument simply as a group of propositions that has a certain structure: claim supported by reason(s) (Johnson 2002, p. 146ff). According to Johnson and me, the structural definition of ‘argument’, in contrast to a pragmatic definition, does not explicitly appeal to the purposes (e.g., rational persuasion) that may be served by supporting a claim with others. Furthermore, as I understand it, the structure of an argument is not a function of the syntactic and semantic features of the propositions that compose the argument. Rather, it is imposed on them by the intentions of the author to use some of them as support for one of them.
As Johnson recognizes, different definitions of argument may qualify as structural. For example, consider the following three definitions, moving from the more abstract to the less abstract.
(a)
An argument is a list of statements, one of which is designated as the conclusion and the rest of which are designated as premises (Skyrms 2000, p. 13).
 
(b)
An argument is any series of statements in which one (called the conclusion) is meant to follow from, or be supported by, the others (called the premises) (Barwise and Etchemendy 1999, p. 41).
 
(c)
An argument is a set of claims in which one or more of them—the premises—are put forward so as to offer reasons for another claim, the conclusion (Govier 2010, p. 1).
 
(d)
An argument is any group of propositions of which one is claimed to follow from the others, which are regarded as providing support or grounds for the truth of that one (Copi and Cohen 2005, p. 7).
 
The structural definition of argument that I give as premise (1) captures what I take to be the basic idea behind the many structural definitions from critical thinking texts such as (c) and (d) that I have looked at. A collection of propositions qualifies as an argument just in case some are being offered in support of one of them. In this paper, I refer to the reasons offered in support of a proposition as evidential reasons for that proposition.
 
4
My quick characterization here follows Harman (1999, p. 17). What distinguishes evidential reasons (also referred to as epistemic reasons) from other types of reasons is a substantive and difficult issue. (See Fumerton 2002 for a review of the complications.) What is important to what follows is whether evidential reasons have the pragmatic feature mentioned below.
 
5
That a group of propositions may represent both an argument and an explanation is acknowledged by, Groarke and Tindale (2004), Walton (1990), Govier (1987a), and Thomas (1986), among many others.
 
6
To illustrate the force of premise (2), consider the following scenario. Before they leave for school in the morning, Paige and Kelly observe that there are many cookies in the cookie jar. Paige returns home right after school, and is surprised to see that the cookie jar is empty. Mom explains: (i) the cookie jar is empty because (ii) Shannon ate all the cookies that were there and (iii) no one has been able to replace them. In this context, Mom offers (ii) and (iii) as explanatory reasons for (i). Shortly afterwards, Mom calls Kelly and gives her a list of things to pick up at the store, which includes a box of cookies. Kelly questions why a box of cookies is on the list, since Kelly believes that the cookie jar is filled with cookies. Mom puts forward (ii) and (iii) in order to persuade an incredulous Kelly (she overestimated the number of cookies in the cookie jar) that (i) is true and to justify the need for purchasing more cookies. In this context, Mom offers (ii) and (iii) as evidential reasons for (i). The structural approach to arguments allows these different uses of propositions (i)-(iii): they may have the structure of an argument and of an explanation. But these are different structures if there is to be a structural distinction between arguments and explanations. Again, if premise (2) is true, propositions cannot represent explanatory reasons for a claim by virtue of representing evidential reasons for that claim. According to premise (2), (ii) and (iii) can’t explain why (i) is true by virtue of supporting (i).
 
7
My presentation of the structural rationale assumes that for any reasoner x, no proposition is x’s evidential reason for some proposition R because it is x’s explanatory reason for R. If a reason for P could support P solely by virtue of explaining why P is true, then this would erase the structural difference between arguments and explanations.
 
8
I follow Allen (1990, pp. 46–47) in taking Govier (1987a) to be defending the distinction between arguments and explanations on the basis of a pragmatic and epistemic asymmetry between them. The epistemic difference is that, “in an argument certainty moves from the premises to the conclusion, whereas in an explanation it moves from the fact explained to the explanatory hypothesis” (p. 162). The pragmatic difference is that while the purpose of an argument is rationally to persuade an audience that a claim is true, the purpose of an explanation is “to show how or why something came to be as it is” (p. 168). I agree with Wright (2002, p. 35) that Govier seems to think that the epistemic asymmetry between arguments and explanations gives rise to their pragmatic asymmetry. The epistemic asymmetry between arguments and explanations is evidence of a structural difference: premises are offered in support of a conclusion, but explanans are not offered in support of the explanandum (Govier 1987a, p. 161). The question arises: how does Govier’s assertion that there is a fundamental epistemic contrast between argument and explanation justify a structural distinction between arguments and explanations?
 
9
Govier (1987a, pp. 167–168).
 
10
Govier (1987a, p. 168).
 
11
At one place Govier writes that, “In an argument, the premises are typically [italics mine] more certain than the conclusion” (1987a, p. 162), which is more guarded than premise (1) of the epistemic asymmetry argument. Nowhere does she support this empirical claim. Not only do I find it not obvious, but I don’t see how if true it suffices to support a conceptual distinction between arguments and explanations. That explanans lack the relevant pragmatic feature is no reason to think that explanations are not arguments if premises of an argument may lack it, too.
 
12
This scenario is adapted from one given in Harman (1973, pp. 31–32) that he uses to illustrate reasoning that may explain an individual’s knowledge but not the acquisition of his corresponding belief.
 
13
I learned the distinction between reasons for believing and reasons for which one believes from Harman (1973, pp. 25–26).
 
14
Govier does not distinguish between different kinds of certainty in her discussion of the alleged pragmatic feature of evidential reasons. One might think that the certainty operative in each of the three examples I give is unique. Perhaps, Beth’s psychological certainty of her husband’s innocence is reinforced by a different kind of certainty produced by the evidence she acquires of her husband’s innocence. While I believe that there are different sources of certainty, I don’t believe that there are different types of certainty. Given Beth’s certainty of her husband’s innocence, there is no transfer of certainty from her evidential reasons to her belief that he is innocent. This deserves more discussion than I have space to give it.
 
15
See note 20 below for the connection between the evaluative criteria argument and Kasachkoff (1988). Govier (1987a) maintains that the epistemic asymmetry between arguments and explanations is fundamental, because, in part, it explains why different standards of success apply to explanations and arguments (pp. 173–174). I take it that Govier thinks that different standards of appraisal between arguments and explanations is an indication of a structural difference between them. The evaluative criteria argument is generated by taking this assertion of a structural difference to entail that no explanations are arguments. If we reject this entailment, then I don’t see how the aforementioned distinction is “fundamental” and I don’t see how it can serve to categorize explanations as non-arguments. Walton classifies explanations as non-arguments based roughly on the observation that arguments and explanations have different purposes (e.g., 1996, p. 30). It is important that the practice of argument identification not misidentify explanations as arguments because the evaluative criteria for explanations differs and so it is unfair to, say, criticize an explanation for being a bad argument (1996, pp. 26, 42; 2004, p. 72). However, that the evaluative criteria for explanations and arguments is different motivates a practice of argument identification that does not classify explanations as arguments only if differing evaluative criteria necessitates a distinction (structural or otherwise) between explanations and arguments. What I have italicized is what I am questioning in this part of the paper.
 
16
I am not attempting to breathe life into the old deductive-nomological model of the general structure of scientific explanation. That we can sometimes explain why a proposition is true by giving evidential reasons for it is not sufficient for concluding that we can only explain why a proposition is true by giving evidential reasons for it.
 
17
This echoes a point made by Thomas (1986, pp. 15–16).
 
18
Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin (2010, p. 3). In contrast to the starting point of this paper (p. 1), this definition makes it both a necessary and sufficient condition for being an argument that some propositions are offered as reasons for a proposition.
 
19
The sample explanatory arguments Fogelin and Sinnott-Armstrong give are Hemple-type arguments, and they do not address the issue of whether standards for evaluating explanatory and (what I am calling) evidential arguments may vary.
 
20
I derive this example from one given by Kasachkoff (1988, p. 27), who takes this to illustrate that the criteria for explanations and justifications differs. From this she infers that explanations and arguments are, in my terminology, structurally distinct. It is this inference that I believe is defective.
 
21
Thomas (1986, p. 16).
 
22
Johnson writes, “I offer reasons in support [of a proposition] when I explain [it]” 2000, p. 147.
 
23
Johnson (2000, p. 168).
 
24
As Johnson’s definition illustrates, a pragmatic definition may characterize an argument in terms of both its structure and function (see also Walton’s pragmatic definition, 2006, pp. 6, 76). This makes it natural to appeal to the function of arguments to explain why they have the structure they do.
 
25
A second way that Johnson’s definition prohibits explanations from being arguments is that arguments, but not explanations, must possess a dialectical tier. Johnson writes,
What is distinctive of argumentation is that it is an exercise in manifest rationality, by which I mean not only that a good argument is itself a rational product—a product of reasons, reasoning, and reasoners—but that it is part of the nature of the enterprise that that product must appear to be rational as well. This look-of-rationality feature of argument serves to distinguish it from explanation. An explanation may be perfectly rational but not appear to be so, and its not appearing to be so is no mark against it being a good one[italics mine] (p. 144).
From this passage, I reconstruct the following syllogism.
The manifest-rationality syllogism: (i) A good argument must appear to be rational (hence, the dialectical tier of an argument), (ii) A good explanation need not appear rational; therefore, (iii) no explanation is an argument.
I have chosen to press the issue of whether Johnson’s definition captures all arguments by focusing on the illative-core syllogism. Since I don’t have space in this paper to elaborate on Johnson’s conception of the “look-of-rationality feature” that allegedly good arguments possess but explanations lack, I cannot give the manifest-rationality syllogism due consideration here. My critical evaluation of this syllogism would acknowledge the substantive criticism in the literature of (i), and argue against (ii), which Johnson does not defend.
 
26
Johnson (2000, p. 170).
 
27
Johnson (2000, pp. 13, 149).
 
28
Johnson (2000, p. 168). On this page, Johnson says that his definition of argument is a stipulative one. In response to Hansen (2002), he changes his mind and says that it is a theoretical definition (Johnson 2002). However, it is hard to see how Johnson’s definition counts as theoretical when, as he admits, it does not characterize all that passes for an argument. As pressed by Tindale (2002, p. 301) in his critical evaluation of Johnson’s book, “…when we are interested in the nature of the novel, or of argument, surely it is instructive to look at the range of things that pass for each without prejudging what is central and what is not”.
 
29
Govier (1987b), p. 150.
 
30
E.g., Goodwin (2007, p. 80) questions the justification for Govier’s “conceptual and normative” point. She is skeptical that arguments have any determinate function, persuasion or otherwise, from which norms for good arguments may be derived. Her paper is a criticism of the proponent of the pragmatic rationale like Johnson (and Govier) who argues that arguments have the structure they do, and thus their evaluative criteria, because they have the paradigmatic function of rational persuasion. Pinto in several papers (1991, 2009, and 2010) has developed a view of arguments (briefly discussed below) according to which arguments have many functions, persuasion not being their typical function. Granting that rational persuasion is an important purpose of arguments on many occasions, an equally important purpose is inquiry. A conception of arguments based on the notion that rational persuasion is their typical function can distort our understanding of their nature, since arguments constructed for purposes of inquiry often take a different form that arguments constructed for purposes of persuasion. See Meiland (1989) for elaboration and defense (below I bring up the notion of an exploratory argument). Finally, others have argued that rational persuasion is not a function of arguments, but rather of the dialogical contexts in which arguments take place (e.g., Doury 2011).
 
31
As noted above on p. 9, Govier thinks that an argument may be constructed for a conclusion that is not in doubt. I don’t see that the function of such an argument must be to persuade its audience of the truth of the conclusion.
 
32
Johnson and Blair (2006, p. 18).
 
33
Johnson and Blair (2006, p. 10).
 
34
In order to emphasize the force of the question, it is worth noting that a proponent of a real definition of argument when faced with the challenge “why should we—theorists—restrict our use of ‘argument’ so that it corresponds with such a definition?” may respond with, “because that is what arguments really are”. It is not clear that such a response is available to the proponent of a less ambitious stipulative definition of ‘argument’.
 
35
Pinto’s second criterion for argumenthood is that what the speaker has given a reason for is something about which there is disagreement or doubt in the transactional context in which such reason-giving occurs (See Pinto 2009, p. 284). As discussed below, Pinto (2010) explicitly appeals to the first criterion I focus on and not the second to rule explanations out as arguments.
 
36
Pinto (2010, p. 230). See also Pinto (2009, p. 269).
 
37
It is not clear to me that Pinto’s second criterion for argumenthood, mentioned above in note 35, rules explanations out as arguments. Consider the following. Kelly and Paige disagree about whether Beth was at Matthew’s party. Paige not only believes that Beth wasn’t there, but doesn’t even understand why Beth would go to the party. In an effort to get Paige to take seriously the possibility that Beth was at the party, Kelly offers reasons that explain why Beth was there. From Paige’s perspective, Kelly gives what Walton and others call a hypothetical explanation. I see no reason for denying that in this context Kelly presents an explanation (of some type). Elaboration and defense of my interpretation of this scenario is for another paper on the interplay between and among evidential and explanatory reasons.
 
38
Pinto (2010, note 7, p. 230).
 
39
Here I draw on Achinstein’s substantive account of understanding in his 1983.
 
40
To be sure, Pinto does qualify the last sentence in the footnote cited above on p. 19 by remarking that in explanations it is usually not the case that when I offer reasons for doing something as part of an explanation, the reasons that I offer are reasons for the person whom I am addressing to do what those reasons are reasons for doing. Pinto does not provide a rationale for the qualification. The position I defend is that for all explanations, I give reasons for the addressee to do something: to understand the explanandum by means of the explanans. Hence, I reject that it is usually not the case that in giving an explanation the reasons that I offer are reasons for the person whom I am addressing to do what those reasons are reasons for doing. Notwithstanding Pinto’s qualification, I don’t see how the feature of Pinto’s definition of argument that I am concerned with serves to distinguish explanations from arguments.
 
41
All this is in accordance with pragma-dialectics. For example, see van Eemeren and Grootendorst (1992, p. 29), and Snoeck Henkemans (2001, p. 232). In addition to thinking (i) that the speech acts of arguing and explaining are different, these three authors also believe (ii) that no explanation is an argument. I accept (i) and I am skeptical that (ii) is true. It is not obvious to me that (i) motivates (ii).As I highlight below, I grant the point that that when presenting an explanation an agent believes that his interlocuter accepts the explanandum, but when presenting an argument the agent does not believe that his interlocuter accepts the conclusion. However, I take this to mark a difference between the speech acts of explaining and arguing and not between explanations and arguments qua products of these speech acts.
 
42
This paragraph and the next two have been heavily influenced by Zagzebski’s discussion of the status of the question: What is knowledge? (1999, pp. 95–99).
 
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Metadata
Title
On the Rationale for Distinguishing Arguments from Explanations
Author
Matthew W. McKeon
Publication date
01-08-2013
Publisher
Springer Netherlands
Published in
Argumentation / Issue 3/2013
Print ISSN: 0920-427X
Electronic ISSN: 1572-8374
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s10503-012-9288-1

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