World History


Then Again




Reading a Historical Argument



I. Definition

An argument is a set of propositions designed to demonstrate that a particular conclusion, called the thesis, is true. An argument is not simply a statement of opinion, but an attempt to give reasons for holding certain opinions. An historical argument gives reasons for holding a certain opinion about an event in the past.

II. Purpose

There are many disciplines in which the answers to questions can be presented in an straightforward, unambiguous manner. History is not one of these. Unlike physics or chemistry, where there is usually only one generally accepted answer to any question, in history there are usually many ways that one can understand, or interpret, what has happened in the past. It is therefore necessary to choose from among these possibilities and decide which one is correct. This choice should be based on a solid understanding of the issues and the evidence. We should be able to give reasons for our choice, our opinion, on that subject. This choice should be based on evidence.

As we have discussed earlier, there are two principle sources of evidence we can use for developing our opinions about what happened in the past: primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources are useful because they present the conclusions of those who have more knowledge and expertise on the subject than we are like ly to have. On the other hand, if we want to find out what really happened for ourselves, we need to look at the primary sources, just as those who wrote the secondary sources did. This exercise, therefore, will help you develop an argument based on primary sources.

III. Parts of an Argument

A. Thesis: that statement which you are trying to prove. In an argumentative essay, this conclusions would appear as your thesis statement. In an philosophy class, this would be called the "conclusion."

B. Argument: the reasons you give for your conclusion. An argument is considered persuasive if the reasons given are good reasons for the conclusion; an argument is considered unpersuasive if the reasons are not good reasons for the conclusion. In an argumentative essay, these reasons will generally appear as the topic sentences of individual paragraphs. In a philosophy class, these reasons would be referred to as "premises."

C. Evidence: the concrete "facts" upon which you base your argument. Evidence can be descriptions of events, philosophical concepts, economic statistics, laws, battles, paintings, poems or any other information you have about the past. Some of this information you will find in secondary sources, such as your textbooks, but for this course, most of the evidence should come from primary sources.

IV. Evaluating an Argument

  • 1. Is the argument persuasive? That is, does the argument in fact give reasons to believe the thesis?
  • 2. Are the reasons plausible?
  • 3. Is there sufficient evidence to support the argument? While writers often cite an example as a way to illustrate a particular point, a single example is often not sufficient to support a generalization.
  • 4. Are the examples representative? That is, do the examples chosen truly reflect the historical situation or were they chosen to exclude evidence which would tend to disprove or complicate the thesis?
  • 5. Does the argument present enough background information so that the reader can assess the significance of the evidence presented?
  • 6. Does the argument take into account counterexamples?
  • 7. Does the argument refute possible objections?
  • 8. Does the argument cite sources?

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