Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Recommendations ♯1: Just the Arguments

(Series Index)

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my penchant for argument analysis. It is perhaps a sad reflection on my hobbies, but there’s nothing I like more than taking a passage of argumentative writing, breaking it down into its key components (reasons, conclusions etc.), and then reconstructing it in a formal or diagrammatic way.

There’s something beautiful about a well-constructed formal argument. It compresses masses of information, it provides a structure for persuasive and critical thinking, and reveals strengths or weaknesses in someone’s reasoning. When you formalise an argument, you can usually instantly highlight points of disagreement and agreement. What’s more, since philosophy should be a inquisitive, not a persuasive, enterprise, the formalisation of arguments allows you to identify useful areas of future research and inquiry.

Given my love for arguments, it will comes as little surprise to learn that I’m a big fan of Michael Bruce and Steven Barbone’s recent edited collection Just the Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Arguments in Western Philosophy. The book is definitely one that can be judged by its cover, or, more properly, its title. It features one hundred individual chapters by different authors, albeit with some repeat offenders along the way. Interestingly, this adds up to more than 100 arguments. For example, the opening chapter on Aquinas’s Five Ways contains, unsurprisingly, five separate arguments.

By and large, the content is good. It ranges over the full suite of philosophical topics: religion, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, mind, science and language. The chapters are usually short enough to read through in five to ten minutes, although some of the longer ones will take up more time. The arguments are typically presented at the end of each chapter, and references are provided to primary and secondary sources at the start of the chapter. The arguments themselves vary from being extraordinarily complex to admirably brief. On the complex side of things, check out the chapter on Kant’s categorical imperative which features 27 premises and 14 conclusions; while on the brief side of things, check out the chapter on G.E. Moore’s anti-skeptical arguments which have 2 premises and a conclusion.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to anyone with an interest in philosophy. The editors pitch the book at students, suggesting it might provide an ideal revision tool since most philosophy courses can be boiled down to a few key arguments. But I think professional philosophers and interested lay people could easily benefit from it too. I can certainly imagine myself dipping into some afternoon, and perhaps squeezing a blog post out of one the chapters.

There are some criticisms to be made though. First, because the chapters are written by different contributors, the quality is somewhat patchy. And while it’s nice to have short chapters for ease of reference, I find the longer chapters with background and context are more enjoyable to read, particularly for topics outside my main areas of research. Also, some contributors are a little too sparing with their bibliographies when compared to others. I think it would be nice to have a reasonably detailed bibliography in each chapter for those who wish to follow things up in more detail.


  1. I've been using this book to test argument mapping techniques. Some of these are brilliant, some are "rational reconstructions" of arguments, and some are modern interpretations that seem to have little to do with the argument as it was first presented. But nevertheless it is an excellent book overall, and I concur with your assessment.

  2. Yes I agree. Some excellent stuff, some rational reconstructions, and some "charitable" (?) reinterpretations. But still a useful book.

    How is your argument-mapping project coming along? I've been thinking this new ibooks program might provide some opportunities for creating interactive philosophy texts with some ability to view (and maybe build) argument maps (as end of chapter exercises or something). No idea how it would work, but I think it could be good.

  3. One of the two authors' names is not "Bruce." That's going to cause a bit of confusion. Do you mind if we call him "Bruce," just to keep things clear?

    Philosophy Department, University of Woolloomooloo

  4. Great review. You should copy&paste it over at amazon. When I bought the book it didn't have any reviews yet and so I almost didn't pick it up.