The Case of the Missing Premise

Part of the Argumentation Library book series (ARGA, volume 2)


When I adopt the enthymeme approach to argument analysis I run into problems. If the argument is bad as it stands, do I make it something it isn’t by supplying it with missing premises that turn it into a good argument? If I am to improve it, should I consider which type of argument it is, because each type has its own standards of correctness? And how am Ito strike a balance between what logical theory tells me the argument needs to be correct and what my reading seems to disclose about what the arguer is thinking or saying? These are some of the problems I am supposed to face when I try to find the missing premises of an argument.


Actual Discourse Actual Argument Argument Analysis Informal Analysis Declarative Sentence 
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  1. 1.
    Gilbert (1991) is encouraging us to ask questions such as “So then you’d ban alcohol as well?” As he sees it, the question really is an attack on the hidden premise “All things bad for you should be banned.” He calls it enthymeme busting when we challenge the hidden principle upon which an argument depends by asking about other applications of the principle.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This point applies even when we concede, for the sake of argument, what an anonymous referee claims: “When we hear a contrived example, such as this one, we fill in what is in essence the most common rhetorical situation in which the argument would be presented. In this case, we think of an accused criminal, not suffering from mental problems, freely confessing guilt. Thus the contrived examples, if carefully created, can be useful for teaching argument analysis.” If the most common rhetorical situation for an argument turns out to be one where there is nothing to argue about, what we learn about its missing premises seem hard to apply to arguments where there is something to argue about.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    To introduce a key illustration for his lessons on how to identify an argument’s underlying assumptions, Michael Scriven (1976) asks us to suppose that we argue: “She is a homosexual and so she is probably a bad security risk.” (p. 167 ). Unlike Hitchcock, he quotes the argument. But, like Hitchcock, he says nothing about its rhetorical context.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    This neglect of context also is evident with the examples in Gough and Tindale (1986).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Anthony Blair, in correspondence with me, understands the PC Convention to say that “a thorough understanding and evaluation of an argument require restating it as a sequence of premises-andconclusion.” I substitute ‘may be helped by’ for ‘require’ because Blair’s version has the unwelcome implication that analysts of an argument who do not restate it as the PC sequence model cannot thoroughly understand or evaluate it.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The identification of an argument with its PC restatement seems to be encouraged by such definitions as Moore and Parker’s (1995): “An argument is a set of claims, one of which, known as the principal claim or conclusion,is supposed to be supported by the rest, called the premises” (p. 13). This definition seems to imply that when an argument is restated as a PC sequence, the restatement is the argument. So does Govier’s (1992) definition, which was discussed in the previous essay in this collection: “An argument is a set of claims that a person puts forward in an attempt to show that some further claim is rationally acceptable. The evidence or reasons put forward. are called the premises. The claim being defended... is called its conclusion” (pp. 2–3). Note that the restatement is designed to be a set of claims, but surely the original claim even though it may contain some claims, also contains other kinds of rhetoric.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    In an earlier version the PC Requirement was stated as follows: “everything relevant to the understanding and evaluation of an argument be built into the restatement of it as a sequence of premises-and-conclusion.” Anthony Blair pointed out that this requirement “makes it analytically true that proponents of the requirement cannot entertain rhetorical considerations in trying to understand and evaluate arguments.” The requirement as stated in the present version of the essay does not rule out the possibility of using rhetorical considerations to restate or the argument as a PC sequence or to criticize the restated PC sequence because, for example, it begs the question or attacks a straw man. -Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    An anonymous referee has two replies to these criticisms of the PC Requirement. One is that the problems with formulating the premises and conclusion are evidence only of “the ambiguity inherent in language.” However, none of the problems seem to be due to ambiguity, let alone in ambiguity that is a function of the fact that the premises and conclusion are being put into words. That there is such ambiguity seems little more than a sacrifice of language on the altar of logical analysis-if there are problems deciding on the formulation of the PC sequence, the fault is not with the PC requirement but with language itself! The other is that the rejection of PC reconstructions of Martha’s argument presupposes that an adequate one is possible. Granted, the rejection is based on some idea of what Martha is arguing; but the referee seems to make the question begging assumption that we can know what Martha is arguing only if we can express it as a PC sequence.Google Scholar
  9. As these notes make clear, I am indebted to Anthony Blair, Trudy Govier and an anonymous referee for their comments on an earlier version of this essay submitted to Informal Logic. I also am grateful to Lars Hertzberg, Catherine Wilson, John Powell and John Stuhr for their comments.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OregonEugeneUSA

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