How to Argue Better

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

How to Argue Better

How to Argue Better

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

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About Us

We need to argue better in all areas of life so that we can understand each other, cooperate, and achieve our goals. This course will teach you how. You will learn what arguments are and how to identify, analyze, evaluate, and construct them. Concrete examples and exercises will enable you to master these essential skills.


What You'll Learn

  • What are arguments

  • What are they good for

  • Why do we need them

Course Outline
PART I: The Nature of Arguments 

What are arguments? What are they good for? Why do we need them? 

Segment 1 – Why should you take this course?

Learning about arguments is valuable in many ways. These lessons will help you avoid mistakes yourself. They will also help you understand other people who disagree with you about important issues in all areas of life.

Segment 2 – The problem of political polarization

Political polarization is tearing our societies apart. People who disagree about politics insult each other and refuse to compromise. The basic problem is mutual antagonism that stems from an inability to understand competing views. 

Segment 3 – Can arguments reduce political polarization? 

Mutual antagonism can often be reduced by asking the right questions and listening carefully to the answers. This solution to polarization is exemplified by Ann Atwater and C.P Ellis, who transformed their hostility into friendship.   

Segment 4 – Do you know enough already?

We are all susceptible to wishful thinking, generalizing from what comes to mind, and miscalculating probabilities. To avoid these common mistakes, we all need to learn how to analyze and assess arguments.  

Segment 5 – What is an argument?

Arguments are often despised because they are misunderstood as competitions or theatrical displays of intellectual prowess. Instead, arguments sets of sentences with a premise and a conclusion. They are tools for understanding issues and people.  

Segment 6 – Is this an argument?

Some passages do not include any argument. We can tell when an argument is being given by looking at particular words that mark reasons and conclusions. 

Segment 7 – What are arguments used for?  

Arguments present reasons, but what are reasons? Reasons include justifications of beliefs and actions as well as explanations of events and refutations of other arguments. Some arguments aim only to persuade without really giving any reason. One way to evaluate arguments is by whether and how well they serve their purposes.

PART II: Close Analysis of Arguments 

We can understand an argument better by isolating special words that signal crucial moves in arguments. It takes practice to improve this skill.

Segment 8 – How to start and stop arguments

An argument cannot justify belief in its conclusion unless it premises are justified, but that seems to require a second argument with more premises that also need to be justified by a third argument with more premises, and so on forever. This regress has puzzled philosophers for centuries, but everyday people use practical tools to stop the regress and secure starting points for fruitful arguments.

Segment 9 – Guarding premises

Arguers often make their premises less questionable by weakening them, such as by claiming “some” instead of “all”, “probably” instead of “certainly”, and “I believe” instead of “I know.” These linguistic moves are often appropriate but sometimes go too far.     

Segment 10 – Assuring audiences 

Premises are often backed up with assurances like “All the best minds agree that …” or “Only an insane fool would deny that …”. Phrases like these suggest that there is some justification without giving that or any justification for the premise. This move can be used well or badly.   

Segment 11 – Evaluating options

To call something good is to say that it meets some standard but often without specifying which standard is relevant. Such evaluative words can be positive or negative, general or specific, and explicitly or implicitly evaluative. It is illuminating to ask whether the same point could be made with words like “good” or “bad.”  

Segment 12 – Discounting objections 

Arguers often try to head off objections by formulating them as they wish and replying in advance. This powerful move is made with discounting words, including “but” and “although.” When nobody really would raise such an objection, discounting can descend into attacking a straw person.  

Segment 13 – Close analysis of an argument

Is it wrong to ask astronauts to volunteer for a one-way trip to Mars? Paul Davies says so, and his argument is subjected to a close analysis by identifying argument markers and guarding, assuring, evaluative, and discounting words. This method highlights crucial moves in his argument.  

Segment 14 – More close analysis

Close analysis takes time and care. More practice on Davies’s argument about settlers on Mars will help us get better at this investigative technique. Everyone still needs more practice.  

PART III: Deep Analysis of Arguments 

Arguments have structure and depend on hidden assumptions. The steps in deep analysis help us uncover these critical aspects of arguments.  

Segment 15 – Why should we do deep analysis?

To fully understand an argument, we need to look not only at its individual words but also at its larger parts and how they fit together as well as what is being assumed but not stated. That is the goal of deep analysis, which has six steps that are illustrated by a simple argument about dinosaurs.  

Segment 16 – What is validity?

An argument is valid if and only if it is not possible for all of its premises to be true in a situation where its conclusion is false. A sound argument is valid and has true premises. Every sound argument has a true conclusion, but even sound arguments need not always be good at justifying or explaining their conclusions.   

Segment 17 – What is formal validity?

An argument is formally valid if and only if it is valid by virtue of its form. Its form can be displayed by replacing sentences in its premises and conclusion with variables. Some common forms of argument are process of elimination, modus ponens, and modus tollens.  

Segment 18 – Suppressed premises

Suppressed premises in an argument are assumptions that are not stated openly but are necessary to make the argument valid. Suppressing premises can be useful to save time but sometimes intentionally or unintentionally hide flaws in an argument. Openly admitting our implicit assumptions can help us avoid mistakes.  

Segment 19 – Deep analysis of an argument

When is it legitimate to ask volunteers to accept significant risks on our behalf, such as in one-way mission to Mars? The first five steps of deep analysis are applied to an argument about this issue.  

Segment 20 – More deep analysis

Deep analysis is a complicated process that also includes making implicit assumptions explicit. That final step in deep analysis brings out problems in an argument for asking astronauts to risk their lives in a one-way trip to Mars.  

Segment 21 – Where do we go from here?

This course teaches a variety of skills that are supposed to help us avoid mistakes as well as overcome political polarization. Does it succeed in those aims? What else can help us improve these skills?  

Supplementary Readings:

Think Again: How to Reason and Argue (Penguin Books in the UK and Oxford University Press in the US, 2018) (translated into Korean and Chinese)  

Understanding Arguments, 9th Edition, Concise Version, by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin (UA9) (Cengage, 2014)  

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