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Argument, Inference, and Persuasion

Abstract

This paper distinguishes between two types of persuasive force arguments can have in terms of two different connections between arguments and inferences. First, borrowing from Pinto (in Argument, inference, and dialectic, Kluwer Academic Pub, Dordrecht, 2001), an arguer's invitation to inference directly persuades an addressee if the addressee performs an inference that the arguer invites. This raises the question of how invited inferences are determined by an invitation to inference. Second, borrowing from Sorenson (J Philos 88:245–266, 1991), an arguer's invitation to inference indirectly persuades an addressee if the addressee performs an inference guided by the argument even though it is uninvited. This raises the question of how an invitation to inference can guide inferences that the arguer does not use the argument to invite. Focusing on belief-inducing inference, the primary aims here are (i) to clarify what is necessary for an addressee's belief-inducing inference to be invited by an argument used as an instrument of persuasion; and (ii) to highlight the capacity of arguments to guide such inferences. The paper moves beyond Pinto's (2001) discussion by using Boghossian's (Philos Stud 169:1–18, 2014) Taking Condition in service of (i) and (ii) in way that illustrates how epistemically bad arguments can rationally persuade addressees of their conclusions.

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Notes

  1. This characterization deviates from Pinto’s notion of argument according to which an argument is “a set of statements or propositions that one person offers to another in the attempt to induce that other person to accept some conclusion” (2001, p. 32). Characterizing arguments independently of their potential uses serves as a heuristic for taking seriously the distinction between arguments and uses of them. Many informal logicians think that this distinction should be accommodated by any plausible full-blown theory of argument (e.g., Blair 2004; Hitchcock 2007).

  2. By “induce” I understand Pinto to mean, “give rise to or bring about.” Also, I take Pinto to understand “acceptance of the conclusion” as agreement with it, following van Eemeren's and Grootendorst 's characterization of acceptance which Pinto cites (p. 36). Accordingly, agreeing that the conclusion is true, and, therefore accepting the conclusion, results in explicitly believing that it is true. Of course, there are other senses of “acceptance” that do not make what is accepted believed.

  3. As Pinto suggests (2001, p. 39), a plausible story about how invitations to inference work in general calls for a general characterization of inference, which Pinto advances (sect. 2). I don’t attempt such a characterization of inference here for two reasons. First, I am reluctant to saddle my discussion of invitations to inference with the substantial challenge of characterizing inferential reasoning in a way that accounts for all its varieties. For example, Pinto seems to essentially characterize inference as a causal transition between belief in premises to belief in a conclusion (p. 42). However, this is controversial for it leaves out suppositional reasoning, which isn’t a mental transition between beliefs. Second, the distinction between direct and indirect persuasion that I discuss below turns on criteria that determine the inferences invited by a given invitation to inference. It is not clear to me that the needed criteria are uniform across the varieties of inferences that arguments may be used to invite.

  4. That there are models of rhetorical success not instantiated in terms of belief-inducing inference does not challenge this point. For example, suppose that S extends a belief-inducing invitation to a respondent R with the aim of persuading R that the conclusion is true. Suppose further that this doesn’t induce R’s performance of a belief-inducing, because, unbeknownst to S, R already accepts the conclusion. R might nevertheless find S’s argument persuasive, because R recognizes that the premises provide further grounds for R’s conclusion-belief which R accepts for independent reasons. R’s recognition registers the persuasive force that S’s argument has for R. However, inspired by Pinto, I take the rhetorical success of S’s invitation to belief-inducing inference to be necessary for R being persuaded by it. This motivates a distinction between being persuaded by an invitation to inference and judging that the argument so used is persuasive. Only the former requires performing a belief-inducing inference. In this scenario, even if R judges the argument S uses to be persuasive, R was not persuaded by S’s use of it as an invitation to belief-inducing inference.

  5. According to Boghossian (2014, p. 12), the Taking Condition shouldn’t be understood in terms of some occurrent mental state. For example, taking p to support q doesn’t require that one have a meta-belief about the relation of support between statements p and q. Boghossian illustrates the significance of taking so understood to the performance of an inference using a rule-following picture of inference, which he thinks satisfies the Taking Condition (2014, p. 12). To illustrate, suppose that you accept p and p → q and infer q. Your following a Modus Ponens inference rule explains and rationalizes your accepting q on the basis of your accepting p and p → q. You take the premises to conclusively support the conclusion by virtue of following a Modus Ponens rule that sanctions your accepting the conclusion on the basis of your acceptance of the premises. A rule-following picture of inference satisfies the Taking Condition in the sense that if you follow an inference rule that explains and rationalizes your acceptance that q on the basis of your accepting p, then, intuitively, you take p to support q and perform the inference because of this fact. As Boghossian observes, this is consistent with the fact, “that our thoughts can be under the influence of rules even if we have not explicitly formulated those rules to ourselves and would be unable to do so with great precision if we tried” (2014, p. 12).

  6. To clarify my stance regarding the Taking Condition, I don’t believe that the Taking Condition essentially characterizes all types of inferential reasoning (e.g., see Wright 2014). Also, the Taking Condition characterizes inferences that aren’t belief-inducing such as suppositional inferential reasoning. Furthermore, I don’t believe that all belief-inducing inferences are essentially characterized by the Taking Condition, and so explaining taking probably isn’t a primary explanatory desideratum for an adequate account of belief-inducing inference (e.g., Hlobil 2014). Again, in this paper I use the Taking Condition to essentially characterizes inferences that reflect being persuaded by an invitation to inference. With respect to such inferences, explaining taking is a primary explanatory desideratum.

  7. E.g., Bassham, Irwin, Nardone, and Wallace (2005, p. 30), Govier (2010, p. 1), Hurley (2015, p. 1), Feldman (1999, p. 6) and Sinnott-Armstrong and Fogelin (2010, p. 3).

  8. Among other indicators of an arguer’s intensions are an arguer’s use of conclusion modifiers, e.g., “certainly”, “possibly” in presenting her argument which serve to indicate how the premises are to be taken to support the conclusion. Also, argument patterns, e.g., enumerative induction, modus ponens, that the arguer’s argument clearly instantiates may indicate the arguer’s intentions regarding not only how but the way she takes the premises to support the conclusion.

  9. For example, it is hard to see why the exact order of the steps comprising an inferential transition should matter to whether the inference is invited. It is easier to see why the explicit use of theory-centric inference rules does matter (e.g., intuitionistic modus ponens is different from classical-logic modus ponens). I can’t adequately address here the complications concerning what counts as the same inferential transition for purposes of persuasion.

  10. An addressee taking the premises to support the conclusion in the manner intended by the arguer is vacuously satisfied if an arguer doesn’t intend the premises of her argument to support the conclusion in any particular manner.

  11. Recall from above (p. 8) that the premises are reasons the addressee S has for believing the conclusion only if S believes the premises and believes that they, collectively, are reasons to believe the conclusion.

  12. Here I leave it open whether in addition it must be rational for S to believe that p in the first place. It seems to me that there is a sense of “rationality” according to which the rationality of an inference is independent of whether or not the premise beliefs are rational.

  13. Contra some epistemological theorists of good arguments (e.g., Lumer 2005, p. 225), I don’t believe that the concept of rational persuasion demands that invitations to inference must invite knowledge generators. I think this is in sync with Pinto’s epistemological view of good invitations to inference. Such a demand overly restricts the legitimate function of arguments to rationally persuade addresses of the conclusion. For example, suppose that an arguer is a Kantian who advances an argument to persuade an addressee whom the arguer knows to be a Utilitarian that she shouldn’t lie to her father. The arguer uses a premise that draws on a Utilitarian principle that the arguer does not accept. The arguer is attempting to convince the addressee of the conclusion, which the arguer accepts, based on her acceptance of a Kantian principle. However, the arguer lacks the time and wherewithal to change the addressee’s mind regarding the right ethical theory. The suasive aim of the arguer is to rationally persuade the addressee that she shouldn’t lie to her father based on her ethical commitments, not the arguer’s. The inference that the arguer invites the addressee to perform is a rationality generator, not a knowledge generator.

  14. E.g., Priest (2008, p. 155) accepts that situations in which a statement is both true and false can be used to generate counterexamples to Disjunctive Syllogism (DS). Paraconsistent logic blocks explosion, e.g., p & ~ p, so q, by rejecting the validity of DS, which is needed to derive q from p & ~ p. However, Priest thinks DS cannot lead us from truth to untruth with respect to consistent situations, which are the norm, and so he thinks DS may express inductively strong inferences.

  15. Enthymemes provide further material for examples of indirect persuasion. To illustrate briefly, suppose that an arguer presents the following enthymeme as an invitation to inference.

    Kelly is a member of the NRA

    ∴ Kelly is a gun owner

    Suppose that the arguer assumes that every NRA member is a gun owner is common knowledge and advances the premise as a conclusive reason in conjunction with this suppressed premise for the addressee S to believe the conclusion. In advance of fact-checking, S thinks it plausible that there might be members of the NRA who do not own guns. Suppose S draws the conclusion from the premise in an ampliative way, believing that most NRA members are gun owners. S’s inference is not the one invited. Nevertheless, she is indirectly persuaded by the enthymematic argument because it guides her inferential performance.

  16. Goldman (1994, p. 45) briefly acknowledges this in a footnote and takes this to show that the theory of folk-argumentative rules he presents is incomplete. Even if one follows Goldman and takes true-belief consequences to be the sole end of argumentation, this does not rule out that an invitation to inference might be good because it indirectly persuades the addressee to accept the truth of the conclusion on the basis of an epistemically sound inference guided by the argument.

  17. Argument (C) itself is the evidence for the premise-belief of an inference whose content is expressed by (D). The premise of argument (G) provides evidence by virtue of entailing a truth that is the content of the premise-belief of an epistemically sound inference.

  18. Borrowing from Pinto (see p. 3 above), an invitation to inference persuades an addressee to accept its conclusion as opposed to merely causing the addressee to accept it by virtue of its premises providing starting points of an inference that induces acceptance of the conclusion. What I am pointing to here is that an invitation to inference can be (indirectly) persuasive even if it provides just some of an inference’s starting points.

  19. To briefly elaborate by way of an illustration, suppose Kelly and Paige have demonstrated a reluctance to eat their peas. Observing this, Dad says, “No dessert unless you eat your peas!” with the intention of inducing Kelly and Paige to generate a belief by way of an inference from their acceptance that eating their peas is a requirement for dessert. Dad wants to wrap up dinner. The sisters reason as follows.

    Kelly: no dessert unless I eat my peas, I will not eat my peas; therefore, no dessert for me.

    Paige: no dessert unless I eat my peas, I want dessert; therefore, I will eat my peas.

    Their different conclusion beliefs prompt different actions: Kelly pushes the plate away and leaves the table; Paige eats her peas. Dad uses his assertion to induce inferences that his assertion does not express. Nevertheless, one might think that Dad’s invitation to inference is successful because Kelly and Paige reasoned to beliefs that prompted them to finish—in different ways—their dinners. It is unclear to me that the sister’s inferences are invited by Dad’s statement made in order to induce some inference or other.

  20. A referee asks whether non-arguments can have indirect persuasive force measured in terms of belief-inducing inference. That is, can a non-argument provide—in some sense—the starting and endpoints of a belief-inducing inference and thereby serve as proper guides to belief-inducing inferences? An affirmative response, which seems initially plausible to me, complicates the story about how the starting and endpoints are “provided” in a way that engenders indirect persuasion. For example, Beth experiences a beautiful sunset that both invokes feelings of gratitude and calls to mind her Dad saying in the past that experiencing nature can dignify human existence. She realizes for the first time that experiencing nature can invoke gratitude and infers in a belief-inducing way that what Dad used to say is true. It is at least initially plausible to think that Beth’s experience of the sunset provided the starting and endpoints of her inference by virtue of suggesting them or causing her to think of them. This is grounds for thinking that Beth’s experience of the sunset indirectly persuaded her of the truth of her Dad’s comment. In general, a non-argument can properly guide a reasoner S to entertain and then perform a belief-inducing inference by providing—in some way—starting and endpoints of the inference. This accounts for the potential of a wide variety of things to have indirect persuasive force. E.g., non-argumentative speech acts such as a poem or a story; acts that aren’t speech acts such as a dance or gesture; artifacts like a painting or a garden; and natural objects like a rock or a mountain. I thank the referee for bringing this up and providing these examples.

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Acknowledgements

An earlier version of this paper was read at the OSSA 12 conference held online in June, 2020. Thanks to Dan Cohen, my commentator, for his valuable feedback. Also, thanks to the two reviewers for their valuable input. All errors that remain are mine.

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McKeon, M.W. Argument, Inference, and Persuasion. Argumentation 35, 339–356 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10503-020-09534-y

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Keywords

  • Argument
  • Inference
  • Persuasion