W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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The implication of a recent critic that George Meredith was
not a novelist of the highest rank because he lacked " tem-
perament " rests on the assumption that lack of temperament,
whatever that may be, is fatal to the highest success among
novelists. This assumption should, if possible, be demon-
strated, obviously a very difficult thing to do and very likely
to result in arguing in a circle. Lamb in his famous essay.
On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, occasionally reasons in
a circle: he practically says that the plays are unfitted for
stage representation because there are no actors with suf-
ficient skill to act them, — the reason for there being no actors
with sufficient skill to act them resulting from the fact that
they are unfitted for stage representation. The proposition
that the murder of Charles the First was unjustifiable begs
the question in that murder may be defined as unjustifiable


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384 English Composition and Style

killing, whereas the question at issue regards the justness of
the execution of Charles the First.

A proposition is often assumed to be true because it follows
another fact in point of time. This sequence in time makes
the fact seem to apply to the conclusion, when, logically, it
may do no such thing. In our Republican party argtunent
already cited (p. 106) the facts of our national prosperity
were assumed to be due to the beneficence of the Republican
party, when in reality the power of the party and the pros-
perity of the country were, logically, merely coincident. This
post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy is very common: it con-
fuses temporal with causal applications of fact to fact. Much
popular, as well as political, tradition rests on it, as that the
change of the phases of the moon brings changes of weather,
or that rain comes because of the equinox, or that misfortune
comes from doing things on Friday or from sitting down
thirteen at a table.

Another very frequent source of fallacy lies in trying to
stretch single facts, or at best two or three facts, into gen-
eral conclusions. The little girl did not quite like to go near
the sheep, therefore she is a coward ; youth is prone to deceit,
because a small boy lodges bread crusts under the rim of his
plate; it rained yesterday and to-day, therefore the stunmer
has been unusually rainy, — all these are common illustrations
of the fallacy, which is not so clearly to be found in good
work, because there one is scrupulous to get a large number
of facts before venturing to set up a connection between them
and a generalization. The fallacy, however, is common even
in serious work. Instances of it we have already seen in our
previous discussions of literary form : illustrative examples are
chosen tp support the thesis of the short story or of the topic
paragraph, whereas a wider and more representative selec-
tion of paragraphs and short stories might not inevitably lead
to quite the same conclusions. There are enough facts of
various kinds in the world to make possible the proving of
about anything, provided one is sufficiently careful to exclude


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Argumentation 385

all facts that do not evidently prove the point that one wishes
to prove. This is probably the most common intellectual
error that the mind is prone to commit.

Another very prolific source of fallacious reasoning is the
false analogy. In analogy a comparison is made between a
known fact of which the elements are determined and a fact
or condition of which one or more elements are undetermined ;
the argument is that since the two sets of facts are alike
in known particulars, they will be like in the unknown. In
the example already cited the argument is that, because athletic
universities attract a good grade of preparatory-school stu-
dents, therefore if "our college" had good opportunity for
athletics it too would attract a good grade of preparatory-
school students. Wherein the argument fails is in not also
showing other conditions of similarity between the " athletic
universities" and the college under discussicm. As with the
immediately preceding fallacy, an insufficient number of facts
is made to apply to a conclusion.

Another kind of failure of facts properly to apply to the
desired conclusion is known as arguing beside the point. The
classic instance is Macaulay's account of how the King's
party argued in the time of the great civil war, where to such
charges as that the King had betrayed his country, such an-
swers were made as that he had good manners and was an
excellent father and husband. A common instance is that
already cited (p. 147) wherein a writer, having mentioned
a number of particulars going to show that so and so is ex-
tremely disagreeable, closes with a remark like the follow-
ing, " He, on the whole, is one of the pleasantest people
that I have ever met." The fallacy is exceedingly common,
and it must be admitted that it is one means of making con-
versation and dialogue move. The uncompleted discussions
and the slight variations of meaning from sentence to rejoinder
would seem to be essential to light conversation, though log-
ically illustrating the fallacy imder discussion. For ex-


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386 English Composition and Style

She looked at the young man a moment, while her daughter
walked away. Longueville thought her a delightful little person;
she struck him as a sort of transfigured Quakeress — a mystic with
a practical side. "I am sture you think her a strange girV' she

"She is extremely pretty."

" She is very clever," said the mother.

" She is wonderfully graceful."

" Ah, but she 's good I " cried the old lady.

" I am sure she comes honestly by that," said Longueville, ex-
pressively, while his companion, returning his salutation with a
certain scrupulous grace of her own, hurried after her daughter.*

Evidently sparring of the sort here illustrated depends on the
use of the fallacy of ignoratio etenchu

The classification of arguments, or the sources of all argu-
ments, as formulated by the late Professor Adams Sherman
Hill* is helpful at this point. He divides argument "ac-
cording to the sources from which they come, — according as
they are derived (i) from the relation of cause to effect, (2)
from the resemblance which persons or things bear to one
another in certain particulars or under certain aspects, (3)
from the association of ideas. Argtunents of the first class
are called arguments from antecedent probability; those
of the second class, arguments from example; those of the
third class, arguments from sign."

To put the matter more concretely and very briefly, these
classes of argument simply mean, (i) that one fact is the
cause of the following fact, (2) that one fact is the example
or illustration of another fact, and that (3) one fact is the in-
dication of another fact. The fact stated in Tennyson's line

The leaves decay, the leaves decay and fall,

is, argumentatively, (i) the result of some antecedent fact,
frosts, cold winds, etc., (2) an example, an illustration, and
at the same time a partial proof, of the fact that all organic

2 Henry James : Confidence, chapter i.

» The Principles of Rhetoric, Revised edition, 1895, pp. 354-379-


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Argumentation 387

matter tends ultimately to decay, and (3) a sign or indica-
tion that autumn is at hand, or that the trees have run their
yearly course. The usefulness of each of these arguments
is evident; whenever we make an inference from facts al-
leged to be known or from imagined facts, we do it in one
of these ways, — that is, we are using these arguments all
the time. The important matter is to see that they are prop-
erly used, that facts in one of these ways really apply to con-

Many fallacies arise from defective use of the argument
from antecedent probability. Most of the instances of the
fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc are of this description, as
when we popularly say tfiat weather changes with changes of
the moon, which phrase is largely metaphorical. Reasoning
back from a specific act to a motive for that act, and assuming
that the act must have been caused by a particular motive,
when it might also have resulted from other motives, illus-
trates incomplete use of the argument When Matthew
Arnold (cf. page 62), attributes Gray's failure "to 'speak
out " to his having " fallen on an age of prose " he indulges
in the fallacy. Stevenson cites examples of this defective ap-
plication of fact to fact, when he says of the workmen among
his fellow travelers, that

They did not perceive relations, but leaped to a so-called cause,
and thought the problem settled. Thus the cause of everything
in England was the form of government, and the cure for all
evils was, by consequence, a revolution. It is surprising how
many of them said this, and that none should have had a definite
thought in his head when he said it. Some hated the Church be-
cause they disagreed with it ; some hated Lord Beaconsfield because
of war and taxes; all hated the masters, possibly with reason.
But these feelings were not at the root of the matter; the true
reasoning of their souls ran thus — I have not got on; I ought
to have got on; if there was a revolution, I should get on. How?
They had no idea. Why? Because — because — well, look at
America ! *

* The Amateur Emigrant.



388 English Composition and Style

Besides the false analogy which we have already seen, argu-
ment from example is open to the fallacy of mistaking illus-
tration for proof or, that is, of trying to stretch what is an
illustration of a theory into a proof of the theory. A general
statement may be true because there are a sufficient ntunber
of particular instances in support of it ; Ic^cally, the induction
has been properly made. That the leaves decay and fall is
an illustration of the fact of decay in nature ; onnbined with
many similar facts, it has enabled us to formulate a general
proposition regarding decay. If, however, there were no other
instances of decay in nature, it would be impossible to hazard
the generalization ; all that one could truthfully say would be
that leaves decay and fall. The fallacy of mistaking an illus-
tration of an idea that you have in mind for a proof of a fact
represented by that idea is very common, particularly, as we
have seen, in generalizaticm about artistic matters. The fal-
lacy arises constantly; a representative instance is this:
"David Harum is valuable in that it proves that in America,
one man is as good as another." No such conclusion is justifi-
able, for the simple fact is that the circumstances in the novel,
being pure fiction, can prove nothing one way or another.
All that the novel can do is to illustrate the novelist's theory
of things; whether that theory is true or false, must be
demonstrated on entirely different grounds. Ibsen, doubtless
with no such malicious purpose, has been the occasion of
much fallacy of this character. The Dolfs House "proves,"
as some devotees of Ibsen think, a thesis regarding the proper
education of wives, or the really large minded attitude of
husbands to wives, and various other things. As a matter
of fact, it proves nothing. It is merely the presentation of
an uncommonly dramatic set of imagined circumstances.
These circumstances may be broadly representative or they
may not ; that can be determined only by reasoning of a differ-
ent sort, the comparison, in essential points, of the alleged
theses in The Doll's House with actual conditions. Nor can
Ibsen be said to hold a certain view of human relationships


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Argumentation 389

because he illustrates a particular view in the play under dis-
cussion; that could be shown only by corroborative examples
and by direct proof. At most a drama or a novel merely
illustrates the author's bent of mind; it demonstrates no im-
personal thesis.

In false reasoning from sign, sufficient care is not taken to
exclude the possibility of connection between the sign in ques-
tion and other things of which the sign may be an indication.
Thus a school of mackerel usually causes a rippling in the
surface of the water, but the alert hotel proprietor, wishing
to arouse the interests of his guests, or being essentially a
landsman, often points out the ripple caused by a passing
squall as a sign of mackerel. Here, of course, there is also
an evident confusion of cause. Jane Austen makes her
heroine, Catharine Morland," commit the fallacy of the false
argument from sign, when she sees in General Tilney's bear-
ing indications . that he had made way with his wife. To
infer that the small child who hesitated to encounter the
sheep is therefore cowardly, is to argue falsely from sign,
for the hesitation might have been due to timidity, to dislike
of the strange animals, or to mere usual hesitation. The argu-
ment from sign is very extensively employed by Messrs. Dupin,
Sherlock Holmes, Rouletabille, and others, and the gist of the
stories in which these heroes figure is that they use the argu-
ment correctly, whereas, the author tries to make the other
characters and the reader use it as incorrectly as possible.

6. Rhetoric. Rhetoric is not specifically an element of
argumentation, more than of any other form of discourse.
Rhetoric is essential to argumentation, as to any other kind
of writing, in so far as it enables the argtunent to be presented
effectually. Hence the subject need not be elaborated beyond
what has been said in the previous parts of this volume, except
as specific questions arise. These may best be noted under
the general heads of the process of constructing an argument,

* Northanger Abbey.


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390 English Composition and Style

that is the finding and the arrai^ement of the material, and the

The process of argumentation* This is the combination
of the essentials of argumentation into any given piece of
argument, and it may proceed formally or informally. Since
formal argument is nothing but a more careful and elaborate
way of presenting facts that might be stated in the casual way
of every-day reasoning and debate, only the more formal side
need detain us.

Analysis.^ The first step in the process is evidently an un-
derstanding of the meaning of the question to be discussed.
Assuming that the subject has two sides, — without which, in-
deed, no discussion would be possible,— ^ an understanding of
the meaning of the question has to do with adequate comprehen-
sion of just what is to be discussed and of the kinds of evi-
dence and arguments that are suitable for the discussion. All
this depends largely on that process known as analysis and
it results in a clearly defined idea of the meaning of the sub-
ject and of the issues, or special points, that must be taken
up in connection with it. Analysis is so important a matter
that a word or two must be given to it

When an3rthing is analyzed it is resolved into its con-
stituent parts; hence we may analyze substances, as water,
structures, as steam-engines, ideas, as Macaulay's views on
Steele. The expressed result of such analysis is usually an
exposition but it may also be narration or description. In
any proposition, analysis is merely an account of the various
meanings that the terms may have, with a view to seeing
which meaning is intended, and also to determining what
must be shown to be true or false in regard to that meaning.
Analysis results, therefore, in a clearer definition of the ques-
tion and an understanding of what other questions are in-
volved in it. That is to say, it shows at what points the

• Professor G. P. Baker's The Principles of Argumentation contains
an excellent account, with much illustrative material, of this subject


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Argumentation 391

comparative method so constant in all argumentation is to
be applied.

Now it happens that arguments are rarely ever made out
of whole cloth. The beliefs which argumentation seeks to
establish are related to previous beliefs, and the practices
which it tries to inculcate to previous practices. Hiunanly
speaking, all questions are likely to arise because of some
desired or imagined difference from some previously ex-
pressed belief, some currently accepted facts, some actual
practice that is justified by precept or example or habit.
Theoretically, in all argumentation, we take into considera-
tion previous propositions on the same general subject, and
these give us not only a point of departure but also the means
for analyzing our question. How all this applies may best
be seen by the examination of specific cases.

In the time-honored subject for debate, "Resolved, that
capital punishment should be abolished," analysis of the ques-
tion would show by reference to the history of punishment,
that it has in all cases been exercised for one or more of three
reasons: (i) retribution, (2) restraint of the offender to pre-
vent his further indulgence in the same misdemeanor, — with
which is mingled the idea of reformation, — and (3) a pre-
vention of offenses in other people. Capital punishment is
employed for no other purpose than one of these. Further,
a knowledge of the meaning of abolished would show that,
when applied to capital punishment, it means the disuse of
execution in favor of some other penalty. This very elemen-
tary knowledge of the history of the question and of the terms
therein, would probably show that there never was any in-
tention to do away with some sort of protection of society
against men sufficiently bad socially or politically to be pun-
ished with death. Abolished, therefore, does not mean, in
this case, what the dictionary says it means " to do away with
wholly," it means " to do away with wholly in favor of some-
thing else," and further examination of the previous discus-


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392 English Composition and Style

sions of the matter would probably show that "something
else" means imprisonment for life. This point is extremely
important in argumentation, — that we usually define terms m
accordance with the previous history of the propositions and
for the special occasion.

From this knowledge, it would appear that instead of dis-
cussing the question en masse, we are in a position to discuss
it piecemeal ; that is, we have the same advantage that classifi-
cation, also a result of analysis, gives us in exposition. Prac-
tically, therefore, the question of capital punishment is a
comparison between capital punishment and impoisonment for
life, and the comparison is made by reference to the acknowl-
edged functions of all punishment.

Methods of Analysis.'' This method of referring the matter
under discussion to its functions is a very common and useful
method of analysis. It is probably most common in the criti-
cism of institutions, the value of which lies in the efficient
carrying out of certain commonly recognized ideas. Burke
uses the method in commenting adversely on the financial ad-
ministration of the newly established French republic. A
sound financial policy is distinguished by certain principles
and practices ; tested in the light of these, France is going to

But the question of capital punishment is capable of further
analysis. Examination of the history of the question would
go to show that, however individuals may be moved by desire
for revenge, society makes little account of that motive to-day,
and consequently the function of retribution would have less
weight than the other aims of penalogy. Even, however, if

^ To the first of these methods herein described the name Method of
Functions has been applied; to the last (p. 393), Method of Objections,
by Mr. R. C. Ringwalt, to whom I am indebted for an account of the
processes. Briefs for Debate and Briefs on Public Questions by this
author (the former with W. S. Brookings) contain analyses of and
references to many current questions, and Specimens of Modern Amer-
ican Oratory by the same author contains a valuable account of the
types and structure of arguments.


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Argumentation 393

retribution be allowed an important place, and capital punish-
ment is regarded as a better means of vengeance than any
other penalty, a practical question nevertheless arises as to
the likelihood of putting the penalty into operation. The
practical question then becomes, Does the evidence obtainable
show that capital punishment is as likely to be put into effect
as the proposed substitute for it?

As to the restraint of the criminal, the same question of ad-
ministration arises. Granted that each method would be per-
fectly carried out, both ought to be entirely efficacious in
restraining the criminal from further acts of violence.

Many more questions are involved in the general proposi-
tion but enough has been said to indicate the value of analysis
in such a question. It enables us to get at functions, a matter
to be ascertained by knowledge of human experience and pur-
poses. The cutting-out process, whereby irrelevant questions
are banished and the matter in hand is to be determined in
small pieces, is illustrated in the handling of the function of

The method illustrated in the reduction of the function of
retribution to a position of Comparative insignificance, suggests
some general consideration of a method of analysis which is
very handy in those questions not readily to be measured
against accepted standards or functions. An example of what
is meant is to be found in such a question as the soundness
of, say, Macaulay's estimate of Steele, in the Essay on Addi-
son. Macaulay says about Steele a number of things of a
rather disagreeable nature; the question arises of the justice
of his remarks. In dealing with this question it is very con-
venient to classify Macaulay 's statements. Many will be
found to be simple matters of record, objectionable, if at all,
on grounds of taste or superfluousness, rather than of justice.
Macaulay also makes inferences as to Steele's character from
these facts ; here the question at issue regards the correctness
of the inferences; and, as a matter of fact, they do exhibit a
slight tendency to generalize from insufficient data, to use


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394 English Composition and Style

somewhat fallaciously the argument from example. Macaulay
also utters ex cathedra opinion about Steele; these statements
would be tested as are any arguments from authority, that is,
by the ascertained facts of Steele's life. The sum of the mat-
ter is that by analyzing Macaulay's various sayings, several
have been excluded as not coming under the term " estimate
of Steele," and the method for substantiating or combating
the remainder has been suggested. It is evident that in this
typical instance, no aid is furnished by trying to find a set of
functions, as in the former type.

In the foregoing remarks on capital punishment, there were
suggested, toward the end, certain questions of the compara-
tive working of that system of punishment and an alleged
better one. It is possible to analyze this question, and all
questions in which one institution, — as the tariff, the rearing
of children in families, private ownership of transportation,—
IS compared with another, — as free-trade, care of infants by
the state, public ownership,— f and that is by citing objections
to the present system and showing that the proposed substi-
tute would remove these objections without raising so great
a crop of dangers as had flourished under the old regime.
Here the argument is likely to be carried along in a some-
what cut-and-dried manner without reference to ideals, ex-
cept such as are implied. The stock issues, or sub-proposi-
tions, are usually: (i) "Are the objections raised against
the institution in question sound?" (2) "If so, would they
be removed by the new proposal?" (3) "Would the new
scheme destroy the advantages of the old?" (4) "Would
it introduce new dangers?" (5) "Would these dangers be
greater than those done away with?" These questions con-
stitute an analytical formula, to which one or two others might
be added for completeness. The other methods of analysis
already mentioned may in like manner be reduced to general
formulas. The value of such formulas is to point out a line
of argument to follow. The particular points must of course
be examined in the light of all the evidence available.


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Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 34 of 43)