PERIODIC TABLE OF ARGUMENTS

THE ATOMIC BUILDING BLOCKS OF PERSUASIVE DISCOURSE

Argument lever

Within the theoretical framework of the Periodic Table of Arguments (PTA), an argument type is conceived as a particular combination of the values of three parameters: form, substance, and lever. Various heuristics are available to determine these values – for a more elaborate description, please see How to identify an argument type? On the hermeneutics of persuasive discourse (Wagemans, 2023).

The third parameter, the ‘argument lever’, is the underlying mechanism of argumentation, which expresses how the premise renders the conclusion (more) acceptable. Since in natural argumentative discourse, the lever usually remains implicit, formulating it can be a real challenge: the reader or listener must add something to the discourse, and in doing so, runs the risk of adding something the author or speaker did not intend to communicate at all or could even plausibly deny.

Although the lever can thus often be characterized as a subjective addition to the text, the options for formulating it are still limited as the lever is partially determined by the form and substance of the argument. The form provides us with an abstract formulation of the lever, and the substance helps turning it into a more concrete one.

The abstract lever

The argument form limits the number of candidate formulations of the lever because it reveals the configuration of subjects and predicates in the conclusion and premise. More specifically, the form gives us the common element, the fulcrum (which is either the subject or the predicate), as well as the non-common elements of the argument (the two different predicates or subjects). The abstract lever, then, is defined as the relationship between the non-common elements. For example, if an argument has the alpha form, ‘a is X because a is Y’, the subject (a) is the common element and the predicates (X and Y) are the non-common elements. This means the abstract lever is some kind of relationship between X and Y. In arguments with the beta form, ‘a is X because b is X’, conclusion and premise have a common predicate (X) and the subjects (a and b) are the non-common elements. The abstract lever is then some kind of relationship between the subjects a and b.

In argumentation having gamma and delta forms, the formulation of the abstract lever is somewhat more complicated. The abstract lever of argumentation of the gamma form, ‘a is X because b is Y’, expresses that the subjects (a and b) and predicates (X and Y) relate to each other in the same way: a relates to b as X relates to Y. In argumentation of the delta form, ‘q [is A], because q is Z’, the abstract lever expresses the relationship between the acceptability (A) of the conclusion and the property (Z) attributed to the conclusion in the premise.

The concrete lever

But how can we turn these abstract relationships into concrete ones? To do that, we use the argument substance, which further limits the possibilities for formulating the lever. For example, if an argument of the alpha form has substance FF, then we know not only that the lever is a particular relationship between X and Y, but also that this is a relationship between two actual predicates. Based on our knowledge of the world, we can then give a concrete meaning to the lever. In this case, we use keywords that represent connections between facts, such as ‘cause’, ‘effect’ or ‘sign’. The corresponding levers read ‘Y is a cause of X’, ‘Y is an effect of X’, or ‘Y is a sign of X’. 

In addition, the formulation of the lever of a given argument depends on the information available. It sometimes happens that the author or speaker explicitly mentions the lever of an argument. An example is ‘I think she likes Patricia, because she is looking at her all the time and that is usually a sign that you like someone’. In this case, it is not so difficult to decide the lever should contain the keyword ‘sign’. Often, however, the reader or listener must choose among the related levers based on the form and substance of the argument. In the case of the argumentation ‘He must have been driving too fast, because he left a trail of rubber on the road’, which has as form alpha and as substance FF, that is a choice from the above-mentioned levers with keywords cause, effect and sign. Of these three possibilities, the lever ‘leaving a trail of rubber on the road is an effect of having driven too fast’ is most consistent with our knowledge of the world. It is therefore probable that this is what the author or speaker intended.

What’s in a name?

Since in most cases the names of the argument types are derived from the keyword of the lever, establishing the lever also immediately identifies the argument type. In the three cases just mentioned, these are the argument from cause, from effect, and from sign, respectively.

The following table lists the levers associated with specific argument forms and argument substances.

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