What is an argument? How does it differ from a logical demonstration? What makes an argument good? This article addresses Aristotle’s answers to these questions. It begins with an attempt to distinguish Aristotle’s theory of logic from his theory of argument. It then moves on to consider the criterion of acceptance in arguments. The difference between premises and procedures in dialectical argument is discussed, and the relationship between dialectical argument and science is explained. Finally, the relationship between Aristotle’s conception of argument and the picture of philosophy it implies is sketched.
Logic and Argument in Aristotle
One of Aristotle’s most distinctive contributions to philosophy was his logic. Logic in philosophy has many purposes, but one of the overriding points is to offer a basis for understanding language better and for clearing up ambiguities in ordinary speech.
There is a distinction to be drawn between the study of language in this sense—i.e., attempts to formalize it in order to show the structure underpinning it—and an attempt to study language without this formalization. In the context of philosophy, where arguments are very often what we want to assess most of all, the corresponding distinction is that which holds between demonstrative logic and the study of dialectical argument. This is a distinction that Aristotle developed himself.
The distinction between the logical demonstration and the dialectical argument proceeds from their criterion of verification. That is, how we can test them, to know whether or not they are correct. The premises of demonstrations must be true and primary. This means that they must be true prior to their conclusions. Whereas on the other hand, the test for a dialectical argument is whether it is “accepted.” This idea of acceptance in dialectical argument has been the subject of extensive interpretative discussion among Aristotle scholars.
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One prominent view, held by Terence Irwin and Jonathan Barnes, amongst others, holds that the idea of acceptance should be understood as referring to the views held by a certain group of people or by a certain kind of person. Quoting Irwin, we should imagine acceptable views to be the “views of fairly reflective people after some reflection.”
Plato, Aristotle, and Dialogue
Dialectic constitutes arguments from or among those beliefs that are acceptable. There seems to be a slight ambiguity over whether these views constitute the basic building blocks of dialectical arguments, as the “true and primary premises” do in the context of logical demonstration, or whether the test of acceptability applies not to the atoms of dialectical argument but to their conclusion.
In any case, this conception of dialectical argument demonstrates a notable affinity between the philosophy of Aristotle and that of his teacher and rival Plato.
Plato’s method is strictly dialectical—he presents his arguments by way of a (potentially invented) dialogue and offers us a picture of the kind of reflection which Aristotle might be envisaging here. In any case, Plato establishes the idea that what is true is often (if not always) true within a certain dialectical context. This seems related to the method Aristotle suggests for dialectical argument, which is one of question and answer, as opposed to the logical demonstrations, which proceed by way of assertion.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily imply a literal dialogue. One can ask questions of oneself, after all. But it is at least arguable that a self-contained dialogue of this kind is an attempt to simulate the existence of another, to construct something analogous to conversation, in a way that the logical demonstration simply does not require.
The idea of a logical demonstration has proven extremely seductive to philosophers throughout history. We might reflect on why that is. Perhaps it has to do with the tendency of philosophers to work alone and to self-conceive as establishing timeless truths that hold for everyone, in every context. The concept of dialectic that Aristotle develops seems, at least in one reading, to preclude this conception of the philosopher as a ‘logical hero.’
Two Elements of Argument
There are two elements of dialectical argument that Aristotle distinguishes. First, there is the discovery of the premises from which a given conclusion follows. Second, there is a determination over which premises an interlocutor would reasonably have to concede.
The first task involves the development of a system for the classification of premises based on their logical structure. What is logical structure? Is Aristotle suggesting that dialectical argument is really a subcategory of, or at least subordinate to, the concepts of logical demonstration? Not really. While it would be foolish, both as an interpreter of Aristotle and as a philosopher simpliciter, to suggest that there is no relation between the logical demonstration and the dialectical argument, the logical structure that Aristotle has in mind here is quite different from that which constitutes his logical theory.
In particular, logical structure in this context is far less systematic. In fact, what this really represents (and here we are indebted to the analysis of Robin Smith, a contemporary interpreter of Aristotle, as we do throughout this article) is Aristotle’s awareness of the limited relationship between a scientific—that is, heavily systematic—approach to logic and real arguments.
While we’re on the topic, it would be good to say something about the relationship between dialectical argument and science in Aristotle. Of the various purposes to which Aristotle’s dialectic can be put, one of the most important relates to science. Much of Aristotle’s philosophy can be seen as being in the service of science. Aristotle wanted to suggest that the definitive feature of the scientific ideal was developing a body of knowledge that preserved a ‘systematic’ character.
In drawing the distinction between dialectic and logical demonstration, it might be useful to note that although the definitive notion of Aristotle’s logic was deduction, he believed inductive argument to be the basis of reasoning in the sciences. We might draw a connection between this claim and the relationship that Aristotle suggests exists between science and dialectic here:
“It is also useful in connection with the first things concerning each of the sciences. For it is impossible to say anything about the science under consideration on the basis of its own principles, since the principles are first of all, and we must work our way through about these by means of what is generally accepted about each. But this is peculiar, or most proper, to dialectic: for since it is examinative with respect to the principles of all the sciences, it has a way to proceed.”
As mentioned above, the dialectical argument relies on the lists of premises that would be acceptable to sufficiently reflective interlocutors. It is worth stressing that Aristotle is not envisaging these interlocutors as particular people but as kinds of people. Naturally, to create an argument, we need more than atomized premises. We need dialectical procedures. To be straightforward, we need to find a way to string these premises together and construct an argument out of them.
Aristotle developed a thorough classification of these procedures. They fall into three classes. First, there are ‘opposites,’ which include contraries, contradictions, and possession and privation. Contraries are polar opposites (for instance, freezing and boiling). Contradictions are a term and its negation (hot and not hot). Possession here refers to the possession of a certain capacity, and privation amounts to the existence of a certain incapacity (for instance, sight and blindness, respectively).
Next, there are ‘cases,’ a term that is being used in the grammatical sense to refer to different positions of the same entity and the identity that holds for the same object in those different positions. Third, there are the relations of ‘more,’ ‘less,’ and ‘likewise,’ which can be understood in a fairly natural way.
One way in which dialectical argument is similar to logical demonstration is that its status within philosophy is a matter of dispute. That is, on one conception dialectical argument is a kind of tool, a way of assessing arguments we have come up with, a way of refining things we already know. On a different conception, dialectical argument is more productive than that, and it allows us to generate genuinely novel theories about things.
There is a third conception of dialectic which becomes very important later on in philosophical history—as reflecting a conception of truth that is genuinely changeable, unstable, and tracks with the fortunes of certain argumentative positions. Aristotle’s conception of the test for dialectic as what a certain kind of person will accept allows for this changeability in our conception of truth and knowledge. Many more recent philosophers have found a lot to like about the conception of philosophy which this implies.