IV. Types of Argumentation

4.5 Toulmin: Dissecting the Everyday Argument

Rebecca Jones

Philosopher Stephen Toulmin studies the arguments we make in our everyday lives. He developed his method out of frustration with logicians (philosophers of argumentation) that studied argument in a vacuum or through mathematical formulations:

All A are B. All B are C.

Therefore, all A are C.[1]

Instead, Toulmin views argument as it appears in a conversation, in a letter, or some other context because real arguments are much more complex than the that make up the bulk of Aristotle’s logical program (for a review of syllogisms see section 3.4 of this text). Toulmin offers the contemporary writer/reader a way to map an argument. The result is a visualization of the argument process. This map comes complete with vocabulary for describing the parts of an argument. The vocabulary allows us to see the contours of the landscape—the winding rivers and gaping caverns. One way to think about a “good” argument is that it is a discussion that hangs together, a landscape that is cohesive (we can’t have glaciers in our desert valley). Sometimes we miss the faults of an argument because it sounds good or appears to have clear connections between the statement and the evidence, when in truth the only thing holding the argument together is a lovely sentence or an artistic flourish.

For Toulmin, argumentation is an attempt to justify a statement or a set of statements. The better the demand is met, the higher the audience’s appreciation. Toulmin’s vocabulary for the study of argument offers labels for the parts of the argument to help us create our map.[2]

Claim: The basic standpoint presented by a writer/ speaker.

Data: The evidence which supports the claim.

Warrant: The justification for connecting particular data to a particular claim. The warrant also makes clear the assumptions underlying the argument.

Backing:  Additional information required if the warrant is not clearly supported.

Rebuttal: Conditions or standpoints that point out flaws in the claim or alternative positions.

Qualifiers: Terminology that limits a standpoint. Examples include applying the following terms to any part of an argument: sometimes, seems, occasionally, none, always, never, etc.

The following paragraphs come from an article reprinted in UTNE magazine by Pamela Paxton and Jeremy Adam Smith titled: “Not Everyone Is Out to Get You.”[3] Charting this excerpt helps us to understand some of the underlying assumptions found in the article.

Example: “Trust No One”

That was the slogan of The X-Files, the TV drama that followed two FBI agents on a quest to uncover a vast government conspiracy. A defining cultural phenomenon during its run from 1993–2002, the show captured a mood of growing distrust in America.

Since then, our trust in one another has declined even further. In fact, it seems that “Trust no one” could easily have been America’s motto for the past 40 years—thanks to, among other things, Vietnam, Watergate, junk bonds, Monica Lewinsky, Enron, sex scandals in the Catholic Church, and the Iraq war.

The General Social Survey, a periodic assessment of Americans’ moods and values, shows an 11-point decline from 1976–2008 in the number of Americans who believe other people can generally be trusted. Institutions haven’t fared any better. Over the same period, trust has declined in the press (from 29 to 9 percent), education (38–29 percent), banks (41 percent to 20 percent), corporations (23–16 percent), and organized religion (33–20 percent). Gallup’s 2008 governance survey showed that trust in the government was as low as it was during the Watergate era.

The news isn’t all doom and gloom, however. A growing body of research hints that humans are hardwired to trust, which is why institutions, through reform and high performance, can still stoke feelings of loyalty, just as disasters and mismanagement can inhibit it. The catch is that while humans want, even need, to trust, they won’t trust blindly and foolishly.

Figure 4.5.1[4] below demonstrates one way to chart the argument that Paxton and Smith make in “Trust No One.” The remainder of the article offers additional claims and data, including the final claim that there is hope for overcoming our collective trust issues. The chart helps us to see that some of the warrants, in a longer research project, might require additional support. For example, the warrant that TV mirrors real life is an argument and not a fact that would require evidence.

Example of Visualizing an Argument

Chart with the following: CLAIM - Americans no longer trust each other REBUTTAL - Research demonstrates that "humans are hardwired to trust" QUALIFIER - Research only "hints" at this possibility DATA - The General Social Survey points to declines in trust from 1976 to 2008 DATA - One of the most popular shows on TV in the past decades was premised on distrust DATA - A 2008 Gallup poll "showed that trust in the government was as low as it was during the Watergate era" WARRANT - An 11-point decline in overall trust points to a negative environment WARRANT - Television shows mirror real world sentiments WARRANT - Watergate, in American history, serves as an example of one of the worst periods of trust in American government BACKING - The past decades have seen many scandals that helped to lose America's trust in major institutions.
Figure 4.5.1: Visualizing an Argument

Charting your own arguments and the arguments of others helps you to visualize the meat of your discussion. All the flourishes are gone and the bones revealed. Even if you cannot fit an argument neatly into the boxes, the attempt forces you to ask important questions about your claim, your warrant, and possible rebuttals. By charting your argument you are forced to write your claim in a manner and admit, for example, what you are using for evidence. Charted, you can see if your evidence is scanty, if it relies too much on one kind of evidence over another, and if it needs additional support. This charting might also reveal a disconnect between your claim and your warrant or cause you to reevaluate your claim altogether.

The Toulmin method is a useful way of determining the validity of an argument and is oftentimes the model used in legal proceedings. But the Toulmin method can leave you feeling as if you’re stuck in an either/or situation as it focuses on justifying the arguer’s reasons only. For a method that incorporates a humanistic approach, consider using the Rogerian method.

Practice Activity

This section contains material from:

Jones, Rebecca. “Finding the Good Argument OR Why Bother With Logic?” In Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 1, edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, 156-179. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2010. https://writingspaces.org/?page_id=243. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

  1. Frans H. van Eemeren, Rob Grootendorst, and Francesca Snoeck Henkemans, Argumentation: Analysis, Evaluation, Presentation (Mahwah: Erlbaum, NJ, 2002), 131.
  2. Stephen Toulmin, The Uses of Argument, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958).
  3. Pamela Paxton and Jeremy Adam Smith, “Reimagining a Politics of Trust: Not Everyone Is Out to Get You,” UNTE Reader, September-October 2009, https://www.utne.com/politics/reimagining-a-political-community-of-trust.
  4. This image was derived from “Figure 5: This Chart Demonstrates the Utility of Visualizing an Argument” by Rebecca Jones in: Rebecca Jones, “Finding the Good Argument OR Why Bother With Logic?,” in Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 1, eds. Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky (West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2010), 156-179, https://writingspaces.org/?page_id=243. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License.