|Writing a critique of
another person's argument
© 2003 Theodore Gracyk
A critique is an evaluation. A critique or critical essay evaluates what someone has said.
Some critiques are analyses of writing, as when one critiques a novel or poem for an English course.
This outline covers a different kind of critique, a critique of the person's thinking. Thinking cannot be strictly divorced from matters of language use, but here we are going to focus on evaluation of the rationality of a person's position, not on evaluation of the person's facility in communicating it. To put it crudely, this sort of critique focuses on content and not presentation.
The simplest type of argumentative essay is one that simply criticizes the position of an opponent. There are only a limited number of strategies to adopt with this sort of essay.
Your thesis will be very straightforward. It will take one of these forms:
Before you start writing, study and take apart their argument for their position. You are looking for the parts of their argument.
An argument consists of three things:
(Premises are reasons they give to prove that they're correct. Conclusions are anything they give reasons to believe. Some of these conclusions are likely to be used as premises for later conclusions. Assumptions are undefended beliefs they hold in order for the argument to make sense.)
There are three basic strategies for criticizing the argument once you have identified it.
1. Deprive them of their premises and/or assumptions
The simplest critique will focus exclusively on the assumptions and premises, arguing that one or more is false. To be effective, therefore, the essay will start by identifying the central premises and assumptions. (So the first stage of the evaluation is to summarize your opponent's argument) The essay will then focus on the ones that you think are weakest, discussing them one at a time and giving reason not to agree with them. Don't just say that you agree or disagree! That simply identifies your position as different (resulting in a "compare and contrast" essay), but it does not provide evaluation of the other person's position.
There are three basic strategies for showing that we should not agree to a premise or assumption.
The first two of these three strategies are simpler than the third. The third involves reviewing all of the reasons that someone might give for the claim and then showing that all of those reasons are weak. Obviously, this is very time-consuming. It's much simpler to argue that the claim is false or contradicts something we know is true.
So how do you show that a claim is false?
These are best strategies for arguing that a premise or assumption is false:
2. Show that there's a hole
in the argument
Sometimes we cannot find good objections to the premises and assumptions, but we can show that the conclusion does not really follow from the ones offered by the arguer. This happens when the evidence might be true, but the arguer does not offer enough of it or the right kind. Perhaps their evidence only supports a different but weaker thesis.
For example, the arguer might want to argue that there is nothing wrong with eating meat. Their premise in defense of this thesis is that it is traditional to eat meat in our culture. We can respond that the truth of the premise does not demonstrate the conclusion. Human slavery is also a traditional practice, but hardly demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with human slavery. Since tradition does not justify slavery, it doesn't justify eating meat, either.
Here is another example, from philosophy: Some philosophers contend that innate ideas do not exist. As evidence they point to mathematics as a candidate for innate ideas and then point out that nobody has ever seen a newborn baby doing mathematical calculations. We might respond that the evidence is true, but point out that we don't see evidence of it because newborns can't talk and can't manipulate objects that allow them to draw diagrams and write out math problems. Their inability to do these things might still allow them have innate mathematical ideas in advance of being able to communicate them in the usual ways.
The more you know about argument fallacies and what it takes to put together a strong argument, the easier it is to critique arguments.
3. Show that the conclusion itself is not believable
This approach ignores the premises and assumptions in favor of focusing attention on the conclusion. The problem with this strategy is that you will have to have a very good reason to deny the conclusion is true when you cannot point to flaws in the reasoning that supports it! It suggests that you are just being stubborn and refusing to look at the evidence! About the only thing that you can do in this case is to construct a powerful reductio ad absurdum. Other strategies (offering evidence that it is false, or showing that reliable authorities reject it) are weak here because they still leave the opponent's evidence right where it was, supporting the conclusion, leaving the impression that there are good arguments both ways. We might conclude that the matter is undecided and not that the opponent's thesis is false.
So while a direct assault on the conclusion is a questionable strategy, it is powerful when paired with one or both of the other two.
Pulling it all together
© 2003 Theodore Gracyk
Last updated August 24, 2012