W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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the terms, to gain as broad a conception and as accurate a
definition as may be possible, or to take up a term where
some previous writer or speaker has left it, in order that there
may be no talking about different things. Definition is really
common understanding; this common understanding is gained
in any way possible.

It follows that in any argument where there is any dif-
ficulty a good deal of time should be put on definition. It is
not an uncommon experience for wranglers to awake to the
fact that they have been quarreling about words, not the
ideas behind the words, that they have, after all, not been
talking of the same thing. In argumentation a great deal of
intellectual effort must go to this defining; Plato's dialogues
are concerned in large measure with the defining of ideas by
critical processes. The rule is in all cases of doubt to ex-
plain what is in your mind.

4. Evidence. If one element of argumentation may be
thought to be of more importance than any other that ele-
ment is evidence. In argument evidence may be understood
as whatever substantiates, or tends to substantiate, proposi-
tions, as anything which shows them to be true or their op-
posites to be false. Evidence is not particularly easy to
understand, and yet it must be understood if argument is to
arrive at just conclusions. What it is may perhaps best be
seen by an example of what it is not or, more accurately,


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Argumentation 373

where it is not. Here are a number of interesting proposi-
tions, which may be true or may not be true; the point is
that, as they stand, there is no evidence, that is to say, no
substantiation, of their truth :

At the present time the University owns a field at , which

is so far away that it is not available now and will never be
suitable for our teams. Athletic associations at present are all
burdened with debts which could quickly be settled if a convenient
field were acquired. It seems that those who direct our affairs
overlook one undeniable fact when they decide to take away the
present meager facilities without making some provision for an
athletic field in the immediate future. If we had the opportunity
to develop good teams in every line of sport, the University would
attain a degree of prestige among the preparatory schools of the
East, which would fill its new College Hall with men who would
raise the tone of University life and would increase the general
public estimation and appreciation of the institution. In a vast
majority of cases, the most prosperous and most successful uni-
versities of to-day are also athletic universities. We desire to call
the attention of our educational authorities to this fact of which
nearly all our students and over half of our alumni seem to be
firmly convinced.

In detail, the one proposition not open to doubt, so far as
one is aware, is the first, that " at the present time the uni-
versity owns a field at ." The proposition that this

field " is so far away that it is not available now and never
will be suitable" is possibly true, but is, even so, open to
dispute. That "athletic associations at present are all bur-
dened with debts " is a proposition readily open to proof or
disproof, but that these debts "could quickly be settled if a
convenient field were acquired," is not so credible. It would
be especially hard to prove that " if we had the opportunity
to develop good teams in every line of sport, the University
would attain a degree of prestige among the preparatory
schools of the East " or that this prestige " would fill its new
G>llege Hall with men " or that these men " would raise the
tone of university life, and would increase the general pub-


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374 English Composition and Style

lie estimation and appreciation of the institution/* The
proposition that " in a vast majority of cases, the most pros-
perous and successful universities to-day are also athletic
universities," is certainly ambiguous. It may be true that
"nearly all our students and over half of our alumni seem
to be firmly convinced" of the foregoing facts, but nothing
in the forgoing extract shows that the " foregoing facts "
are facts in any sense of the word, except that the writer
terms them facts. They may of course be all true ; the point
is that no evidence is oflFered for their truth. They depend
wholly on say-so, and such say-so, unsupported by evidence,
is called assertion. If, in such a case as the preceding, a writer
would be taken seriously, — apart from evident earnestness
and enthusiasm, — he must produce facts and reasons that
will adequately support the propositions here resting wholly
on his own authority.

Now these propositions would be supported by different
kinds of evidence. It is a matter of common belief that the

university owns a field at ; if further evidence were

necessary the word of the university treasurer or the county
real-estate records would probably show the fact. As to the
second proposition, the kind of evidence to a large degree de-
pends on what is meant by " available " and " suitable." Per-
haps all that is meant is " inconvenient," an assuredly obvious
proposition with athletic fields lying some distance away.
" Not available now," however, suggests that the field was
once available, that something has been done, that some dis-
tance, say, has intervened, so that the field will never again
be " suitable." The difficulty lies in the language, but, in any
interpretation of the meaning, the facts of distance, change,
alteration, attendance at games, etc, would be matters of
record, not difficult to obtain. By no such evidence are the
succeeding propositions demonstrable; for the former are
hardly more than matters of record or statistical fact; in the
following propositions reference is made to what would take
place, that is, the university would gain prestige, the Collie


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Argumentation 375

Hall would be filled, the newcomers would elevate the tone
of university life, the estimation of the public would be in-
creased. All this is a guess, just as any proposition dealing
with the future is a guess, but the guess may be good if there
4s sufficient evidence for it. Now we guess at coming events
from our previous knowledge and experience and our judg-
ment of the similarity between present prospects and pre-
vious prospects. Thus we prophesy rain, or the victory of
the employers in the strike, or the rise in stocks, or sickness
and discomfort, and all such things. In the first of the propo-
sitions now under discussion, the only evidence is the connec-
tion between successful athletics in other colleges and their
effect on preparatory schools, and, secondly, the similarity
between present conditions and those at other colleges. The
second of these propositions " dealing in futures " depends
in a large measure on the first: if more students came, more
would probably go to College Hall. But here again there
might be reasons for their preferring some other place of
residence. Whether this increased attendance would raise the
tone of university life would depend largely on one's con-
ception of " tone." If nimibers as numbers " raise tone "
then the evidence for this proposition is merely the success-
ful demonstration of the preceding propositions; otherwise
it would have to be shown that the prospectively inflowing
preparatory school students were better quality than the stu-
dents at present ir the university in other respects than by
reason of devotion to athletics. Evidently it is very hard
to get a fundamental and agreeable conception of "tone"
and, except for mere numbers, the comparison between pres-
ent and prospective students would be a very difficult one to
make. Still it could be made; college deans frequently say
that the quality of their students is improving, and there
must be some reason or evidence for the assertion. It lies
in the comparison of the scholarship, the conduct, the suc-
cess of students in a series of years. But in this present
instance the assertion is made not after, but before, experience.


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376 English Composition and Style

Preparatory-school records might show that the best "alT-
'round " boys go to the big athletic colleges ; the less good
ones to non-athletic colleges: convert your institution and
possibly the direction of the streams may change. This is,
of course, merely a supposition, but it might show true where
possible evidence is to be found. Remarks very like these
apply to the "general public appreciation and estimation"
argument. The evidence for both is very tenuous, partly for
the reason that the meaning of each term is pretty vague.

The last proposition is a particularly interesting one. The
largest universities do have athletics and they also usually
"lick" small colleges. That fact may easily be proved by
statistics. But the implied argument, tihe only one at all use-
ful in the present discussion, is that large imiversities are
prosperous because they have athletics. Records would show
that success in sports is not consistently commensurate with
size, and, furthermore, the large universities have more
athletics than smaller ones because they have more students
who can afford to give time and energy to games.

Evidence, then, is best understood as fact; the evidence
in support of a proposition is the facts that show it to be
true. Our previous example, however, will show that a good
deal of diversity lies in the process of obtaining the facts;
for propositions deal with the present, the past, the future,
the general, the universal, and many other things, and the
same kinds of evidence will not always apply. Perhaps it
would be more accurate to say that different propositions call
for the evidence of different facts, though, doubtless, a cer-
tain set of facts is useful in proving diverse propositions.
We have in all cases to look at the applicability of specific evi-
dence to particular propositions, and this evidence, these facts,
are assuredly of great number and variety.

To help one amid the vast number of facts at his disposal,
to make clear the nature of evidence, classifications are fre-
quently made from various points of view. Since facts are
of a multitudinous number and of very diverse kinds, no


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Argumentation 377

dassification can give a thorough account of evidence, but an
examination of several of the groupings will be useful.

Evidence is often classified as direct and circumstantiaL
Direct evidence is the testimony of witnesses or observers to
the fact. Historical records, the testimony of witnesses in
court, the tale of some one who was present in the battle,
the accurate measurements in the scientific laboratory, — such
things are direct evidence; the fact is stated first hand, so
to speak. Now any one of these bits of testimony, that is,
any of the circumstances stated as direct evidence, may lead
to inferences regarding things not actually seen. Thus evi-
dence against deliberate criminals has usually to be of a cir-
cumstantial nature; for such persons are usually at pains to
act when there is no possibility of direct evidence or testi-
mony; they often go so far as to remove the possibility of
testimony against them, and a clever thief is likely to take all
possible precautions to prevent direct evidence. In like man-
ner, accurate scientific observation of fact may produce facts
that permit correct inferences; the evidence for the new fact
is circumstantial. No direct testimony to, say, the law of
gravitation or the atomic theory is possible; such things de-
pend on a large number of circumstances that go to show a
possible underlying uniformity of operation or of structure.
We all constantly use direct and circumstantial evidence every
day; and the difference, as Huxley repeatedly pointed out
(cf. p. 294), between our casual use of the methods and a
scientific use of them, lies in the greater care with which the
applications, in science, are made.

Somewhat in like manner, facts may be classified as simple
and derived. Simple facts are those resulting from direct
observation: they include statistics, chronicles of events, and
most of those things depending on direct evidence. Derived
facts depend on inferences from other sources, of whatever
kind. The derivation may be very remote and intricate, or
it may be very plain.

These kinds of evidence may be illustrated by reference to


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378 English Composition and Style

any good piece of argumentative writing. Both are likely
to be found, though in differing proportions. In Burke's
famous Speech on Conciliation he uses facts of record and
observation, as the statistics regarding the growth and wealth
of the colonies, in support of the proposition that the colonies
are worth treating as a matter of importance, are worth pre-
serving, are too large to be treated in a dictatorial manner.
Here he uses simple facts as evidence for his more general
facts, which in turn go to support his main contention that
England should adopt the conciliatory attitude. Another
kind of evidence that he uses is the vigorous generalizations
with regard to American character (see page 56). These
generalizations have their bearing on his main proposition,
but, as evidence, they are derived from the observation of a
large number of particular facts, records, and circumstances
that give weight to the generalization. In an instance of
actual practice, like this from Burke, the line between the
primary facts and the generalized facts is often harder to
draw than the statement of the nature of direct and of cir-
cumstantial evidence, or the distinction between simple and
derived facts. Still both kinds evidently exist in copious
measure in Burke.

There is, however^ in Burke, another kind of evidence which
does not seem strictly reducible, at first sight, to the classes
that have been described. Much of the impressiveness of
his speech on conciliation, as of all of his speeches, — " of his
size, his fine perspective, his momenttun, his edification/'—
comes from his use of evidence of an axiomatic character.
One of his objections against the use of force instead of
conciliation is that "conciliation failing, force remains/'
whereas if force is first employed nothing is left in case of
failure. Again you impair the object by the use of force.
These general truths are so evident as to need no demonstra-
tion; they are like the axioms of mathematics. It is very
difficult to classify such evidence, manifestly of a very power-
ful kind, according to any of the foregoing categories. A


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Argumentation 379

holder of the doctrine of " innate " ideas would be likely to
regard them as simple fact or direct evidence, on the ground
that they have always, in all probability, existed. A utilitarian
or a pragmatist, on the other hand, might be inclined to re-
fer them to a long train of human experiences and hence to
regard them as essentially circumstantial.

As an illustration of our common practice this new kind
of evidence is important. A large part of the evidence that,
in daily affairs, leads us to think or to act as we do, is not
readily referable to the more scientific classifications. For
nearly everything that we do, our chief evidence is, as ha,s
already been said, our desires, our impulses, our prejudioes,
our previous action as expressed in habits, training, tempera-
ment, and, more perhaps than anything else, our share in the
common sense and our state of mind as expressed in the term
certitude. These are the things which, practically, go to sub-
stantiate our propositions. Many of them are probably, as
a matter of fact, derived from our knowledge and change
somewhat as our knowledge changes, and hence they may pos-
sibly be regarded as evidence of a circumstantial or an in-
direct nature. The human side of argumentation, as opposed
to the scientific or academic view, consists in taking into ac-
count evidence of this last character.

As arguments supported by evidence are opposed to as-
sertion, or propositions unsupported, so argument from evi-
dence is sometimes opposed to argument from authority.
When this opposition is drawn, authority is regarded as the
say-so of the individual or the group of individuals ; evidence
is regarded as fact, or correct inferences from fact. Belief,
particularly of a religious kind, is likely to rest on authority ;
skepticism, on the other hand, denies to authority any power
or value except in so far as the individual may be an im-
personal and disinterested transcriber of the facts. Authority
and tradition are theoretically opposed to fact and observa-
tion. Practically, however, all of us in argumentation very
often substitute aulhority for evidence; that is to say, we


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380 English Composition and Style

take a person's statement of the facts and his interpretation
of the facts, instead of our own examination and inference
from them. All fact, in a sense, goes back to authority, since
the only possible source for the gathering of evidence is the
observation of the human mind and the logical processes
thereof. Indeed, authority is, like habit, a most convenient
thing, for, if we have confidence in authority, we are saved
many steps and much labor.

These considerations lead to the important matter of the
test of evidence. Here are a lot of alleged facts ; they would
be very valuable if true; are they true? With the exception
of the facts of an axiomatic nature, and possibly a very few
others, the point at which fact is tested is the authority for
the fact The authority for the alleged fact may be a wit-
ness in court, he may be a distinguished scientist, he may be
a keen observer of mankind, he may be a man with a mission,
he may be an eminent politician or a distinguished man of
letters. Whether the evidence be the statistics of census
reports,, an eye-witness's account of the accident, or what
not, evidence is tested by (i) the character, (2) the com-
petence and (3) by the opportunity of the observer. By his
character for the time being is meant his disinterestedness,
his desire to state the fact as he noted it We are skeptical and
properly so, when the auctioneer tells us that the goods are
"cheap at the price," simply because he is not disinterested,
and we do not take the statements of known liars, simply be-
cause of their reputation. On the other hand, we practically
have to accept the word of men of character, who have noth-
ing at stake in the matter ; for the usual method of procedure
in human matters is to believe people unless there should be
good reason for doubt. The reason for taking or not taking
a man's word may lie, as has been shown, in character.

It lies also in the competence of the observer. This is a
matter of intellect. The desiderata for competence are good
habits of observation, and an ability to draw correct infer-
ences. Competence of a scientific sort depends usually on


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Argumentation 381

long training in scientific observation and this is aided by
specially prepared instruments for the registering of such
observation. The logical processes are more exactly formu-
lated, but, in aim, neither the observation nor the processes
necessarily differ from the more casual, if conscientious, ob-
servations of daily life.

It lies also in opportunity. Here the chance that one has
to make the observation, to see what was going on, — in addi-
tion to his character and his competence, — determines the
value of the evidence. Careful people will not account for
more facts than they have opportunity to observe, but so
great is the assertiveness of the imagination that a good deal
passes for fact that never was seen. Scientific methods re-
quire that the circumstances for observation be most favor-
able; hence various special experiments are devised. Oppor-
tunity is evidently an important test.

These tests of evidence are not always applied in all in-
stances; indeed, they are probably much less often applied
than is apparent in formal argumentation. Actually, sources
of evidence are treated and tested in more or less well-de-
fined groups. Thus we make no question about accepting the
facts of government reports, blue-books, treatises by men of
known competence, and usually the facts as stated in en-
cyclopedias and other compilations. On the other hand, when
in rational moods, we never dream of accepting without ex-
amination the evidence as presented by salesmen, real-estate
agents, children, politicians, and many other worthy classes
in the community. As a matter of fact, also, we actually
test evidence to a very large degree by our predispositions,
in a variety of ways and instances too numerous to classify.

5. Logic. We have seen that argumentation is the process
of establishing the truth or the comparative truth of proposi-
tions by means of facts, that is to say, by evidence. Now
the propositions and the evidence for them are hot the same
things, except where we happen to be dealing with " self-
evident '* truth, and it is therefore of importance in argu-


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382 English Composition and Style

mentation to sec that the facts called evidence go, so far as is
possible, to make new facts of the pr<^x)sitions. The process
of getting safely from a fact to a conclusion, that is, to an-
other fact, is a logical process. Nearly every fact may be
made evidence for another fact: for example, I see leaves
falling to-day, and that fact leads me to conclude that
autumn is at hand. I note that the calendar fixes the day at
October 19, and I may be led to the same conclusion, that
autumn is at hand, or that the year is nearly over, or that
I should begin Christmas shopping, or hurry on with this
chapter. Totally different facts or observations of facts may
lead me to the same conclusions. If one makes a number
of such simple inquiries, one will perceive that facts are re-
lated in diverse ways: one fact may lead to several con-
clusions;- one conclusion may result from many different
facts. Thus illustrated, logic is evidently as common as the
air that we breathe. It is absolutely necessary to argumen-

The study of these relations of fact to fact, to the end that
the nature of the relationships may be quite clear, is formal
logic, the science of these relationships. We cannot avoid
logic of some sort; the value of formal logic in argumenta-
tion is in being surer that the facts properly apply to the
desired conclusion. All of us have a good deal of rough-and-
ready logic at our call, but native good sense may be vastly
aided by a study of the science of the subject. Formal logic is
of value in argumentation chiefly in the detection of fallacious
reasoning, that is, in the drawing of conclusions from facts
which really do not apply properly to them. It is here im-
possible to give a complete statement of the various fallacies as
they are detected and illustrated by formal logic, but a few of
more common occurrence may be noted. This is with a view
to seeing in what respects the facts do not apply to the con-

A very large number of fallacies arise because of failure
clearly to make known the meaning of the terms under dis-


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Argumentation 383

cussion. An example of this we have already seen in the
citation earlier in this chapter. If the terms " available " and
" suitable " mean one thing they apply to the conclusion, but
if used in their ordinary senses they do not so apply.
Wherever terms are ambiguous or vague a writer may hood-
wink himself, or attempt to hoodwink others, by making a
connection between fact and conclusion, which would be en-
tirely proper, when the term is used in one sense, appear as
if the connection were also applicable to another meaning,
the one he really has in mind. A gross though by no means
an uncommon instance of the fallacy would be this : Words-
worth and Huxley are akin in that both were interpreters of
nature. Evidently the metaphor "interpreter of nature" is
applicable in one sense to Wordsworth and in another to

Another very common source of fallacy is called " begging
the question." The evidence applies to the conclusion but
it applies only because the evidence has already been as-
sumed in the conclusion ; the point at issue is embodied in the
conclusion. When in any proposition, any fact is assumed
which should be an object of proof, the question is begged.

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 33 of 43)