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Argument Analysis Activity for Philosophy Students

This page authored by Jason Decker, Carleton College.
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project

Summary

In this exercise, students are asked to give a careful logical analysis of a philosophical argument. This involves breaking the argument down into premises, sub-conclusions, and a main conclusion, mapping the inferential connections between the foregoing in a numbered argument, and then evaluating the resulting argument for deductive validity and soundness. The exercise is designed to help students refine their ability to discern the logical structure of an argument written in regular prose and practice evaluating such an argument for deductive validity and soundness. This skill will be crucial later in the course when they are asked to write term papers.

Learning Goals

Deductive Validity, Soundness, Premises, Conclusions, Logical Analysis

Context for Use

This exercise is intended for a lower level philosophy course. The students should already have some familiarity with the notions of deductive validity and soundness and should have seen the professor model the extraction of quasi-formal arguments from prose (preferably by having the professor do this in lecture with some of the assigned readings for the course). The exercise is intended for students to complete outside of class. It should serve as one (of several) ramping-up exercises leading to the first proper paper for the course.

Description and Teaching Materials

Handout for Argument Analysis Exercise (Acrobat (PDF) 109kB Jan1 11)



Teaching Notes and Tips

Before the students do this exercise, one will want to go over logical preliminaries with them. This includes validity, soundness, and common argument forms (like modus ponens and reductio ad absurdum). Also, its helpful to talk to them about logical indicator words, such as 'thus', 'therefore', 'because', 'so', 'since', 'given that', etc. Show them how these words can often be used to help limb the structure of the argument.

Assessment

Whether or not the student has achieved the learning goals can be discerned from her argument analysis. Looking at her way of mapping out the inferential connections will tell the teacher a lot about the student's level of understanding of the notion of logical validity. It will also demonstrate the level of her ability to distill a core argument from a complicated piece of prose. (With some students, it will become clear that they cannot yet read an argument and determine the author's main point.) The prose part of the argument analysis exercise will demonstrate the student's level of understanding of the notion of soundness and her ability to evaluate the premises of an argument in a clear and systematic way.

References and Resources