(It has been a long time. I started writing this post well over a year ago, and then I took a hiatus from the ‘Nacle. I guess finishing this is as good a way as any to return).
[One meta note: If you have made arguments similar to the ones I use in the examples here, realize I am not singling you out – others have made similar arguments. Also, in the end, I’m trying to help you, not attack you.]
Wikipedia defines “enthymeme” as
“an informally stated syllogism (a three-part deductive argument) with an unstated assumption that must be true for the premises to lead to the conclusion. In an enthymeme, part of the argument is missing because it is assumed. In a broader usage, the term “enthymeme” is sometimes used to describe an incomplete argument of forms other than the syllogism. For Aristotle, who defined it in his Rhetoric, an enthymeme was a “rhetorical syllogism” which was based on probable opinions, thus distinguishing it from a scientific syllogism.”
The Oxford English Dictionary says and enthymeme is “An argument based on merely probable grounds; a rhetorical argument as distinguished from a demonstrative one.” or “A syllogism in which one premise is suppressed.” (If you don’t know what a syllogism is, go read up on it at Wikipedia).
Regardless of which definition is used, the main point is that an enthymeme is an argument that relies on unstated assumptions. If your audience shares those assumptions, it is a very powerful rhetorical tool. If your audience doesn’t share the unstated assumptions, then at best you are talking past them. At worst, you’re indicating your real audience is people who already agree with and your argumentation is merely for show (perhaps to impress your allies with your “bravery” or receive praise from them). Most of the time, usage of enthymemes with audiences that don’t share your assumptions occur because of sheer ignorance. The unstated assumption seems so obvious to you that you aren’t even aware when it is missing from your argument.
The example I use when teaching this to my students is this: “I worked hard on this essay, therefore I should get an A.” That argument relies on the unstated assumption that “this essay is going to be graded on effort.” As I explain to my students, I cannot hire private investigators to follow them 24/7 to see if they really are working hard on the essays. Also, editors and publishers usually aren’t concerned with how hard you worked on the writing – they usually focus on the quality of the finished product. In a music performance, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked – what matters is whether you perform well. I can really, truly grade their essays based on the final product. Yes, that means some gifted students can write A+ essays with little effort and some students will struggle to get a C-. I’m aware of that, but I do not share in the assumption that essays should be graded on effort. I can’t grade effort, but I can grade a finished essay (there’s more to the argument than that, but I don’t have time or space to spell out my 10 page philosophy on grading student essays).
One of the main problems I have with argumentation on the internet (and in the Bloggernacle in particular) is the sheer amount of argumentation through enthymemes. Far too often, arguments are thrown out that rely on assumptions few share. This usually gets praise from those who agree, whilst those who disagree find the argument amazingly unconvincing.
Sometimes, the unstated assumptions, though, aren’t truly unstated, because of the type of blog. For example, at M*, the “Comments Policy” states: “our posts take the foundational teachings of the LDS Church as common ground and the point of departure. Posters who wish to debate or argue those foundational teachings should seek one of the other forums available for such discussions.” Therefore, in many discussions on this blog, someone saying “Well, the prophet said to do X, therefore we should do X” is an enthymeme. The “unstated” assumption is “the prophet is authoritative and should be followed.” However, sometimes people go to other LDS blogs where this is not a foundational principle, and start making the same arguments. Unfortunately, since many in the audience on those blogs don’t share that assumption, or are at least engaging in discussions where the primacy of the Gospel and the General Authorities are not taken for granted, those types of comments can really only hurt their side and do little to actually help in the discussion.
Another example might be an argument like this: “Homosexual people, once they come to terms with their identity and embrace the lifestyle, are happier then when they abstain. The church needs to learn to somehow include gay relationships and/or marriage.” The unstated assumption here is that “there’s nothing really wrong with gay sex, and embracing our desires is perfectly okay.” If you are going to make that argument, make it. But realize that many in your audience will not share those unstated assumptions. In fact, for many, their unstated assumptions will be “gay sex is a sin that’s different in kind, not degree, and we should sacrifice many of our personal desires on the altar of the Gospel.” To them, you might as well have said “pedophiles” or “serial killers” (note: I am not arguing for the equivalency of these sins, I’m merely trying to explain how it sounds to lots and lots of people in the church and elsewhere).
If you’re really, truly, interested in changing hearts and minds, you have to radically examine your many unstated assumptions, and argue for those first. This often requires “backing up” the argument before proceeding. But, if all you’re interested in is advertising which “clique” you belong to, then you can go on as before.
In the end, I think it’s worth it to try and argue for those unstated assumptions before moving onto the larger issues at stake. But then, the unstated assumption I have in all of this is that “arguments and discussions should be engaged in civilly with an eye to finding common ground.” Not everyone agrees with that either.