Envisioning a Skeptical Reader
Sophisticated arguments don’t merely declare a particular position and therefore pretend away other reasonable claims and arguments. Rhetoric instructors in the ancient world believed that in the world of human affairs, disagreement is inevitable. Our arguments, both in college and in civic life often exist within a territory of other various and contrasting arguments, and one step toward good argument is to envision that other smart people, operating as good faith readers, will often be skeptical of our positions, and will respect writers who acknowledge or otherwise reckon with counter-analyses and counterarguments.
Imagine your readers as friends interrupting you with tough questions regarding the assertions you offer. They may wonder “How do you know that?” or ask “Why should I care?” Most often, these aren’t hostile concerns; rather, they confirm that you have an interested reader on your hands.
Even if good writers choose not to refute other positions, at the very least they acknowledge that other positions exist. In fact, many academic writers launch their arguments by contextualizing others’ findings, thereby mapping the territory of a disagreement.
Though Jurgen Habermas defines the public sphere according to the reasonable exchanges that go on there, and Michael Warner defines publics in terms of styles of communal behavior, and Hannah Arendt considers the public sphere according to what she calls a “space of appearances,” spatial arrangements where participants are visible to one another, I envision the public sphere as primarily a mediated phenomenon, where members are co-present to one another through the technologies of communication.
Though X says_______and Y says_______, I argue_______.
In this example, articulating (and then mulling over) the range of relevant alternative claims helps the writer situate her own position within a field of possible conceptions. The writer will go on to demonstrate why her definition is best or why it particularly well-suited to the problem at hand.
Structuring Your Argument by Responding to Counter-claims
If reckoning with others’ position is especially important to the success of your argument, you might consider structuring your argument by including a paragraph addressing each of the alternative positions followed by paragraphs that reveal your own position. The principle here is “important point last,” since readers will remember best whatever is included as the last information given to them. Here, you are sequentially eliminating the alternatives, leaving your solution as the last one standing.
paragraph 1 | one alternative
How then should we respond to global warming? It has been suggested that we simply ignore it (explanation), but that won’t work because. . .
paragraph 2 | another alternative
It has also been suggested that we exploit it by adapting our lives and agriculture to warmer conditions (explanation). But that won’t work either because. . .
paragraph 3 | yet another alternative
At the other extreme some argue that we should end all atmospheric emissions (explanation). But that idea is impractical because. . .
paragraph 4 | your position
None of these responses addresses the problem in a responsible way. The only reasonable solution is_______for X reasons, based on Y evidence.