is there a point to arguing?

Argument can be either a process or a product. In VI, argument is examined as a product -- a line of reasoning that justifies a claim. Here, argument is examined as a social process that people engage in when they debate opposing claims. The two kinds of argument are not unrelated, however. Arguments as products contain implicit two-sided process arguments that weigh support for and against a claim, compared to support for and against alternatives to the claim (Kuhn, 1991).

The ability to argue well is not a mysterious talent people are born with. The skills of argument can be identified and examined. They develop through extensive practice. Whether one is inclined to expend the effort that engagement in argument entails depends on epistemological understanding (II) of the role of argument in constructing knowledge and the values (III) associated with that understanding (KNOWING diagram). To do it well, one must believe there is a point to arguing.

Less skilled arguers are preoccupied with the task of producing argumentive discourse -- that is, with generating the form of dialogue they understand to be required in argumentive discourse: Speakers must take turns, address the topic, and express their views. But the major way in which less skilled arguers differ from those having greater skill lies at a more subtle level, having to do with their understanding of the goals of argumentive discourse. For less skilled arguers, the only goal is to have one's own position prevail. Argumentive discourse thus focuses on elaborating one's own position, with only superficial attention to the opponent's position. The only way to undermine the opponent's position is to advance one's own position. Skilled arguers, in contrast, understand the goal of undermining the opponent's argument, a goal distinguishable from that of undermining the opponent's position. To achieve this goal, they must gain understanding of the lines of argument that underlie the opponent's position, construct effective counterarguments, and anticipate and address rebuttals.

Another way in which more and less skilled arguers differ is in the flexibility and adaptivity of their argument skills. Unlike their less skilled counterparts, skilled arguers are able to adapt their use of argumentive strategies to different discourse contexts (for example whether the other's claim opposes or is compatible with one's own claim).

How do less skilled arguers improve their skills? Development of argument skill proceeds simultaneously along two fronts. One is enhancing skill in directing the course of dialogue so as to meet the activity's goals. The other is deepening understanding of these goals. These two forms of development reinforce one another. Advancement in discourse skill is propelled in part by a better understanding of the goals of discourse. At the same time, exercise of these skills in discourse activity promotes more refined understanding of goals. As in other areas of cognitive development, meta-level understanding both directs and is informed by performance (KNOWING diagram). In current work, we have developed educational activities designed to promote the development of argumentive discourse skills. Preliminary evidence indicates they are effective in enhancing these skills among academically at-risk young adolescents (VIII).

Sources for further reading:

Kuhn, D., Goh, W., Iordanou, K., & Shaenfield, D. (2008). Arguing on the computer: A microgenetic study of developing argument skills in a computer-supported environment. Child Development.

Kuhn, D., & Udell, W. (2007). Coordinating own and other perspectives in argument. Thinking and Reasoning, 13, 90-104.

Kuhn, D., & Udell, W. (2003). The development of argument skills. Child Development, 74, 1245-1260.

Felton, M., & Kuhn, D. (2001). The development of argumentive discourse skills. Discourse Processes, 32, 135-153.

Kuhn, D. (1991). The skills of argument (Cambridge University Press).