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Time to Get Tense

At the end of a recent post, I referred to past, present and future, a lead-in to the next critical-thinking topic on the agenda: argument types.

Before starting, I’d like to express my gratitude to Jay Heinrichs, author of Thank You for Arguing, a book that expands in detail about the topic I’ll be introducing today before providing contemporary examples in subsequent posts.

So far, you have seen a number of arguments that have been distilled to their logical core in order to analyze them for strength using tests such as those for validity and soundness, as well as techniques like Toulmin diagrams. But those and any other argument you can name can be organized into three distinct types:

Forensic arguments make claims about something that happened in the past. As fans of police procedurals know, forensic scientists try to piece together previous events, such as the exact steps leading up to a murder. Forensic arguments do the same sort of thing with words, rather than lab kits. For example, arguments lawyers present in court generally try to convince a judge and jury of truth or falsehood regarding a sequence of events that took place previously.

Demonstrative arguments, in contrast, are about the here and now. For instance, the sermons or homilies religious leaders have been making to help communities weather the current crisis are about bringing people together end encouraging strength in the present.

If forensic arguments focus on the past, and demonstrative ones the present, deliberative arguments – our third category – are about the future. These are the sorts of arguments you have been hearing counselling people to socially distance which, those arguments claim, will eventually (i.e., in the future) “flatten the curve.” Similarly, politicians promising to enact this or that policy if elected are arguing in favor of future solutions to present problems.

The “tell” regarding which type of argument you are dealing with is the verb tense the arguer uses. If most of those verbs are in the past tense, you are dealing with a forensic argument. Similarly, verbs in the present tense signal a demonstrative argument, while deliberative arguments make use of verbs in the future tense.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. For example, the famous accusation “What did the President know and when did he know it?” is obviously a question about the past, even if “know” is in the present tense. But even with this caveat, you can usually tell fairly easily what type of argument you are dealing with by figuring out whether it is dealing with situations past, present or future.

The reason this distinction is important is that different types of arguments serve different purposes. Forensic arguments, especially in a political context, tend to be about assigning blame. One can also use a forensic argument to try to prove that a previous era was superior to our own. But whether accusatory or celebratory, they tend to focus on things that have already occurred and, thus, cannot be changed.

Demonstrative arguments, as already mentioned, tend to be about community – such as the community of supporters that gather at a pollical rally. But, by far, the most important arguments we have – especially over political issues – tend to be deliberative.

Because deliberative arguments generally focus on how to make the world better in the future, they tend to be more solution oriented and, thus, more effective than arguments over the past or present. There are obviously times when blame must be assigned appropriately, but too much forensic argumentation tends to make the arguer look stuck on the problem, rather than committed to a solution.

If you look at some of the most effective and successful political speeches in history, you will notice that they tend to be deliberative. Winston Churchill promised to fight England’s enemies on the beaches, streets and hills – all events that he promised would happen in the future. Similarly, if you look at famous speeches by successful orators like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Ronald Reagan, you will notice a preference for future tense, meaning a preference for deliberative arguments that promise the world will get better.

Which categories do the arguments we are having today, whether over Corona, presidential politics, or other topics fall into? We’ll take a look at some examples next time (i.e., in the future).

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