Workshop: Counterargument

In addition to our reading into countering in Rewriting, this page from Harvard’s writing program on some of the basics of counterargument is useful. If countering in general terms means challenging or resisting or–as Harris puts it–finding the useful limitations of a critical perspective or assumption, then counterargument is when the writer turns the countering onto his or her own perspective. It is a rhetorical move in critical writing–useful in exploring, anticipating, and answering the limitations of one’s own argument.

An argument, as we have seen, in effect is a counter to a previous argument (or view, idea, understanding, position) that you believe is limited, in need of further thinking, if not rethinking. Thus, counterargument helps us clarify our argument and its stakes–the problem that we are addressing and responding. For a reminder, recall this discussion of stakes in an argument, and the ways that you might counter others, as well as counter your own argument toward clarifying and strengthening what you are arguing for:

1. Challenge an initial read.

2. Challenge a published view.

3. Explain an inconsistency, gap, or ambiguity.

4. Explain unexpected conclusions.

5. Intervene in a debate.

6. Point out how a piece of evidence encapsulates a larger issue.

7. Point out how an insignificant moment is actually critical.

8. Point out the limits of the existing literature.

9. Point out a problem others don’t usually see.

 

We also have as a model for countering the three basic moves that Harris identifies in his chapter in Rewriting:

  1. Arguing the other side
  2. Uncovering values
  3. Dissenting

Here is an example of counterargument (placed as last body paragraph) by Shana, a writer from a previous class.

For this project, counterargument is an element that needs to show up in your essay, a rhetorical element we are developing. However, counterargument can also be useful as a composting and revising strategy, as you move from ideas, to outline, to draft, to revised draft. It gets at one of our 4 revision questions: What Else? Imagine another perspective that is out there, or a different perspective from yours, or a perspective that your emerging argument responds to (a basic need for any argument or thesis). In other words, considering counterargument can help you sharpen the focus, purpose, stake of your argument and essay. So use the counterargument exercise (what’s the opposite of my argument? who disagrees with me and why?) to go back to your thesis and refine; to draft out an introduction; to revise one or more of your body paragraphs (strengthen by further complicating); potentially, to find a different and stronger argument.

If the opposite of your initial thesis/hypothesis turns out to be stronger or more compelling than your thesis, that’s a good thing–and a good thing to know in time to revise and change your essay and argument.

Further Reading: Logical Fallacies

Below are some common errors in logic that you might find in another’s argument (and therefore useful for countering) or may well find in your own. These errors are known as logical fallacies. In general, we engage in a fallacy when we move too quickly in our discussion, fail to qualify what we say, or admit that our own argument has limitations. Or worse: when we say or do something deceptive in our argumentation. In rhetoric, logical fallacies are bad for ethos, even though they can be good for pathos (for example, argumentum ad populum).

Ad hominem: At the man; attacking the person instead of his or her argument.

Ad populum: At the people; appealing to the people’s emotions, prejudices, etc.

Ad Authoritate: Appeal to authority; using a celebrity rather than expertise as authority.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc: After this, therefore, because of this; faulty cause and effect, jumping to conclusions.

Non sequitur: It does not follow; conclusion does not extend from the argument.

Circular logic: Begging the question; using a statement to prove itself.

False dilemma: Giving only two options in a situation when others may be possible.

False analogy: Argument based on incomplete comparison.

Faulty generalization: A conclusion that inappropriately makes a claim for all based on conclusions about a few.

Hidden premise: An unexpressed assumption, hidden agenda.

Reductio ad absurdum: (reduction to the absurd); argument in which a position is refuted by following its implications logically to an absurd consequence.

Special Pleading: Basically, invoking a double standard–arguing that a particular case is an exception to the rule based on an irrelevant characteristic that is not in fact an exception.

Tu Quoque: Turning the criticism back onto the critic.

For a comprehensive listing, see Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies. Also this discussion of Logos and Logical Fallacies from Purdue OWL.

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