Arguing About Arguing and Thinking About Thinking

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This course is under review for 2021. Course registration will open to accepted students once courses are confirmed.

Course Description

“Jesus was the son of God, because He said He was, and the son of God would not lie.” “Hitler believed that seizing the property of enemies of the state would be a good policy, so it must be misguided.” What is wrong with these arguments? What does it take to construct a good argument, and what about a bad one? Can there be bad arguments for sensible conclusions? What about good arguments for crazy conclusions? If so, what is the value of arguments (in other words, what does an argument teach us, if not that its conclusion is true)?

This class is an opportunity to critically think about argumentative reasoning, and to be able to identify and construct good arguments, as well as recognize bad ones. “Good” here does not merely mean arguments that seem persuasive, but ones that help us think straight and acquire a better understanding of the world. This is not a writing course, but building this skill is extremely important for effective college-level work in most disciplines. It is also plain fun, offering an opportunity to think critically about the kinds of thinking that we take for granted and to argue with our peers in a constructive and revelatory way.

The course starts with intuitive discussions of good and bad examples of arguments. As we all try to diagnose those examples together (What common set of characteristics do the good arguments share? What about the bad ones?), we build up to a more rigorous understanding of argumentative thinking, introducing some useful terminology and logic along the way (but not more than we need). With these tools in hand, we discuss common fallacies and come up with a precise understanding of what good and bad arguments looks like. Along the way, we practice both (a) locating, isolating, and evaluating arguments from various texts and (b) constructing and evaluating our own arguments on many different topics.

Class time will include bits of lecturing, but much of the time will be dedicated to group discussions and activities and smaller group work on short exercises and puzzles. Group discussions will sometimes be relatively conceptual (for example, when we talk about what it means for an argument to be persuasive), but sometimes they will hone the students’ skills by making them engage directly with particular arguments that we find in media, political, philosophical or scientific writing. For parts of the class, students will break up in groups, develop arguments on a given topic and present them to the other groups, which will then try to constructively assess those arguments (This is not a rhetorics or debate class though! The point of these sessions will be to examine the arguments, not to one-up our “opponents”, nor to find out the true view on the topic at hand). Often, students will have to develop arguments for conclusions that they may not, in fact, believe, in an effort to understand different points of view, and to become able to isolate the structure of an argument from its content. Homeworks will include problem sets and academic texts on various topics that the students will need to read, extract, and evaluate arguments. There may be a few in-class tests, but they will not be the main focus of the students' evaluation (participation and homework will be more important).

By the end of the course students will be able to:
-closely read argumentative writing and extract the arguments from it,
-analyze the structure and evaluate the soundness of arguments,
-identify common logical fallacies
-better construct their own effective arguments,
-better understand the multiple dimensions along which an argument can be good or bad, and therefore what one's disagreement with others on controversial issues may boil down to.

These skills are all essential for becoming a more effective thinker and secondarily a more effective communicator. Moreover, these skills will prepare students better for future academic work in most disciplines.

Prerequisites: No prior knowledge or particular academic background is necessary. The course will invite students to hone their critical skills and often to think abstractly, so those in higher high school grades may sometimes be better prepared, but this is not always the case.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPL0945
  • Length: 1 week

Program Information

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Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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