Complementary, Not Contending Theories

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[This post originally published on February 1, 2013.]

In teaching argument, we tend to want to cover all the bases. We want to introduce our students to classical rhetoric, but we don’t want to leave out Toulmin or Rogers. Stasis theory is an expansion of Toulmin, offering five types of claims instead of three, and some authors introduce the rhetorical situation as an approach different from the classical modes of appeal.

Instead of teaching our students these theories as separate approaches to argumentation, we might give them a clearer understanding of how to read and write arguments if we showed them how the theories can be viewed as overlays upon each other.

Take classical rhetoric and the Toulmin model. I see a number of current texts teaching them as separate entities. If we teach the communication triangle of writer, audience, and subject that goes back to Aristotle, I like James Moffett’s idea of focusing on the legs of the triangle. The writer-audience leg represents the rhetorical relationship. The writer-subject leg represents the referential relationship. I don’t recall that Moffett gave a name to the third leg, the audience-subject relationship, but I have started to see that those three legs or relationships in the context of the Toulmin model.

This is an oversimplification, but the claim can be viewed as what the writer says about the subject, and thus the claim can be identified most directly with the writer-subject leg of the triangle. Support is the evidence the writer provides to an audience about the subject to prove the claim, or the writer-audience leg. Warrants—that concept so hard to teach our students—are assumptions about the subject that underlie the argumentation, and the audience-subject leg of the triangle. We write arguments hoping to change an audience’s thinking on a subject, but the more essential underlying assumptions or warrants are to preserving that audience’s world view, the harder it is to persuade him or her. That’s where Rogers’s theories can be useful in at least attempting to find common ground.

Difficult as warrants are, verbalizing them can help clarify why common ground is often so hard to find. Consider this warrant regarding gun control: Arming good people is the best defense against bad people with guns. Or this one: Arming the citizenry is crucial to avoiding the rise of tyranny. Audience members whose beliefs are grounded in the first of these assumptions are not going to be moved by the argument that reducing the number of assault weapons owned by Americans will reduce the number of homicides. The second blocks acceptance of any move by the government to curb gun violence because any such move will be seen as evidence of the very tyranny these people fear.

Each theory of argumentation gives students a vocabulary for discussing what they read and what they write. Too many different vocabularies can be overwhelming unless we show them how the theories work together to lend insight into how an argument works.

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.