A Philosopher's Blog

Arguing By Example

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2010
Al Capone. Mugshot information from Science an...
Image via Wikipedia

Like most people, I often argue by giving examples. Also not surprisingly, people often take issue with my examples. As such, I thought it would be useful to say a bit about arguing by using examples.

Not surprisingly, an argument by example is an argument in which a claim is supported by providing examples.

Strictly presented, this sort of argument will have at least one premise and a conclusion. Each premise is used to support the conclusion by providing an example. The general idea is that the weight of the examples establishes the claim in question.

Although people generally present arguments by example in a fairly informal manner, they have the following logical form:

  • Premise 1: Example 1 is an example that supports claim P.
  • Premise n: Example n is an example that supports claim P.
  • Conclusion: Claim P is true.

In this case n is a variable standing for the number of the premise in question and P is a variable standing for the claim under consideration. Naturally, people generally do not lay out the premises and the conclusion so formally. Rather, they will say things like “Obama is a socialist. For example, he supported socialized medicine. He also supports other social programs like Social Security.”

So, that is how to build the argument. What tends to concern people the most is how to attack them.

The strength of an analogical argument depends on four factors First, the more examples, the stronger the argument. After all, if you are trying to make a case by weight of example, the more weight the better.

Second, the more relevant the examples, the stronger the argument. Examples that really do not fit or just weakly fit do not provide much in the way of support.

Third, the examples must be specific and clearly identified. Vague and unidentified examples do not provide much in the way of support.

Fourth, counter-examples must be considered. A counter-example is an example that counts against the claim. One way to look at a counter example is that it is an example that supports the denial of the conclusion being argued for. The more counter-examples and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument.  As such, counter-examples can be used to build an argument by example that has as its conclusion the claim that the conclusion it counters is false.

When assessing (or attacking) an argument by example it is important to note that attacks on them generally tend to just weaken them rather than conclusively refute them.  For example, if an example used to support the conclusion is show to actually not be relevant, then the argument only loses the support of that conclusion. If the other examples remain “unharmed”, then the conclusion would still be supported by them. To use an analogy, refuting an argument by example is a bit like trying to take out a building-removing one support will generally not make it collapse. Also, as with structures, some supports are more important than others.

It is also important to keep in mind that showing that an example is flawed or mistaken does not show that the conclusion the example was used to support is false. To use a silly example, suppose that someone claimed that Al Capone was criminal and one of the examples used was that Al Capone rustled camels and sold them as dog food. Pointing out that this example has no basis in fact would not, obviously enough, prove that Al Capone was not a criminal.

One should also be aware that examples are often used in conjunction with other arguments. A person might, for example, present a causal argument linking tax increases and job losses and then provide various examples. Merely attacking the examples does not (in general) harm the other argument. After all, while having a bad example or two to illustrate an argument can have a significant psychological impact, it need not have any logical impact on the actual argument. Obviously, having bad examples in an argument by example would be bad for that argument.

Enhanced by Zemanta
About these ads

15 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. urbannight said, on December 28, 2010 at 11:23 am

    In college, my British history prof had a pet theory and used a number of examples to support it. I no long remember if I even agreed or disagreed with his theory. What I remember is that I could use his same examples to argue for the opposing theory. It came up on the semester final as one of the choices for the long essay. So I used his own examples to argue the opposing theory. Then held my breath for a week thinking I probably just failed because I challenged his favorite theory. I got a B. He was not upset that I used his own evidence for his theory to argue against it.

    What it does show it that if your evidence can argue both sides of an issue, it probably isn’t very strong evidence for supporting theories and idea.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 28, 2010 at 1:20 pm

      Good point. Interestingly, or boringly, examples are often consistent with numerous claims.

      • Anonymous said, on September 21, 2012 at 6:04 pm

        just tell me what r u doing on here please tell me because I’m sorry but your not talking about nothing

    • Anonymous said, on September 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm

      im sorry but what does that have to do with the video

      • urbannight said, on September 21, 2012 at 6:21 pm

        My point was that any given example can often be used, successfully, to argue both sides of an issue and not just the side the example was intended to support.

  2. erik said, on December 28, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    “To use a silly example, suppose that someone claimed that Al Capone was criminal and one of the examples used was that Al Capone rustled camels and sold them as dog food. Pointing out that this example has no basis in fact would not, obviously enough, prove that Al Capone was not a criminal.”

    But pointing out it is a falsehood, and demanding proof of the claim is important, is it not? If this “example” is offered up as “fact”,the presentation of such a ludicrous falsehood as a fact reflects negatively on the credibility of the one who makes the claim while leaving Al and his criminiality, the subject of the discussion, untouched.

    For what does it profit a man to discuss anything with someone who makes up so-called “facts” on the fly to buttress his “claims”? It’s fun. It’s a source of humor. But in the end, it’s a waste of space and energy.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm

      Quite right. If someone did, in fact, present that as evidence for Capone being a criminal, then it could impact that person’s credibility.

      My point was just that showing that an example is false does not disprove the claim that it allegedly supports. It just removes that particular piece of alleged support.

      • erik said, on December 28, 2010 at 2:03 pm

        It absolutely does not disprove the claim. It merely undermines, and, if done frequently –and/or transparently–enough destroys the credibility of the the one making the claim.

      • Anonymous said, on September 21, 2012 at 5:58 pm

        still not getting the point

  3. Asur said, on December 29, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Another consideration that influences the weight of multiple examples is their diversity, as the more homogeneous the examples are the less weight (to a point) they collectively lend — effectively, they tend more and more toward representing a single example and simply serve to verify that that example isn’t a fluke.

  4. [...] detail of arguments, conclusions, and premises can be found on this Philosopher’s blog: http://aphilosopher.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/arguing-by-example/ This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged Definition by OliviaP. Bookmark the [...]

    • Anonymous said, on September 21, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      that’s right

  5. Anonymous said, on September 21, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    so wat r we talking bout do you watch the video or wat


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,087 other followers

%d bloggers like this: