Enthymemes (or, random thoughts on arguments I and others often find extremely unconvincing).

(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.

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About Ivan Wolfe

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was over 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has six kids and four stepkids.

9 thoughts on “Enthymemes (or, random thoughts on arguments I and others often find extremely unconvincing).

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  3. Excellent post, Ivan! So true!

    I must say that, that I’ve noticed the same thing but came to a different conclusion. My belief is that we should actively seek our our unstated assumptions and accept that generally there *is no way* to argue for or against them on logical grounds.

    For example, you just gave three examples of Enthymemes:

    “Well, the prophet said to do X, therefore we should do X”

    “there’s nothing really wrong with gay sex, and embracing out desires is perfectly okay”

    “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”

    I would submit that all three of these, at least at this time, are pure acts of faith that can’t actually be reasoned out in any sort of deductive sense.

    While I am open to the possiblity that some day we’ll know more and each of these can move from being only faith based on also being rationally based — actually, I insist that this day is coming — for right now all three require pure faith and reason can neither confirm nor deny them.

    However, I actually do think you can assess them rationally using a different approach — as part of an overall ‘theory’ about morality. But we’re a long ways off from even understanding morality well enough to make any sort of conclusive argument.

  4. That is true Bruce. A lot of the unstated assumptions we have can’t be “proven” in any objective sense. However, that’s why rhetoric (or argumentation) was invented. The ancient Greeks (and others) recognized there were many things that couldn’t be proven straight up, but nevertheless still had to be argued for. We can’t “prove” them, but we should still make the best arguments we can.

    Aristotle believe the true argument would win out in the end, but only if everyone brought their “A” game to the argumentative table. (This is a very broad paraphrase – some Greek scholar probably wants to beat me up right about now). Out unstated assumptions still need to be argued for, because if all we can do is take it on faith, then there’s no point in trying to convince others.

  5. Ivan,

    The hard part is getting people to even recognize that their unstated assumptions even exist.

  6. Excellent post, Ivan. One of the interesting things that is happening in the world today is the gradual acceptance of the enthymeme that anybody who questions SSM is automatically a hick religious extremist homophobe. When I talk to my friends in California or NY who are not members of the Church, this is the starting position for any discussion. This enthymeme is so strong that it is impossible to have a rational discussion with many people because they are starting the discussion from a completely different mindset than you are. At the end of the day, I often find myself just giving up.

    On a completely different but Mormon-related subject, there is an interesting enthymeme that has taken over society and that the tea party movement (and Glenn Beck) are trying to take on. This is the assumption that the Constitution justifies the current federal welfare state. What tea party people and Glenn Beck and libertarians are asking us to do is to go back to the actual document and see if the arguments that the commerce clause and the general welfare clause really do justify that the federal government should be taking on activities that the 10th amendment seems to imply were meant for the states, not the federal govt. The “unstated assumption” that the commerce clause and the general welfare clause automatically trump the 10th amendment does not pass the smell test for most people when they actually read the Constitution itself. I predict the resurgence of interest in the Constitution will cause a lot of people to question a very big enthymeme, ie, our modern-day federal welfare state.

  7. Ivan, nice to have you back.

    Here is an argument pattern that I’ve noticed, though I’m not clear if it fits the enthymeme definition:

    “Thing A has characteristics X, Y, and Z, so that supports the notion Thing A is good.”
    “But Thing B also has characteristics X, Y, and Z, and Thing B is universally considered bad. Having those characteristics doesn’t establish that Thing A is good or desirable.”
    “How dare you compare Thing A to Thing B!”

    The unstated assumption here, I think, is that Thing A is good, while at the same time the arguer is going through the motions of demonstrating that Thing A is good.

  8. Bruce & Geoff –
    It’s very hard and requires a lot of thought and effort to even start realizing you have unstated assumptions. That’s a problem with enthymemes – a lot of people are arguing with them and don’t realize it. Enthymemes can be useful when used purposefully – when I give a talk in sacrament meeting, I make a lot of claims that rest on the otherwise unstated shared belief of the truth of the Gospel and the primacy of scriptures and prophets.

    It’s one thing to argue based on your audiences shared beliefs. It’s another thing entirely to act as though your audience should share your beliefs, and if they don’t, they’re idiots. It’s the difference between unstated shared beliefs and unstated assumptions.

    John M. –

    That type of argument is tricky. Usually there is some unspoken criteria being left out, or there is a mere focus on surface details. To use a rather extreme example – in some political quarters, a person who is a vegetarian that rejects traditional sexual mores and embraces gun control would be considered an a-ok dude. But that also describes Hitler (Go Go Godwin!). I could see a conversation like the one you mention happening in this way. The problem there is that really, “vegetarianism, gun control, etc.” are being used as markers for other, more basic attitudes towards the world that Hitler did not share. In that case, one would have to delve deeper and see what is really being considered worthwhile (say, vegetarianism being used as a stand in for respect for all life, or something like that).

  9. Ivan, this is a great post and something that I struggle with, knowingly or unknowingly, all the time. I think the very best thing for our political discussion in this country, in particular, is to do a better job revealing our unstated assumptions.

    To that end, Geoff B., there are also unstated assumptions in how the tea party interprets the Constitution. The unstated assumptions are that they do not believe the government can help peoples’ everyday lives, that they are employing a very narrow interpretation, even where some of the language of the Constitution is incredibly broad, and that evolving political and social circumstances should not be taken into account in its interpretation. I don’t want to turn this into a big political discussion, but that is just an example of both sides of the argument talking past each other all the time (again I do it, too) and how no one really benefits before the unstated assumptions are stated.

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