Good Arguments 

Good Arguments 

Interview by Greg Shook

Arguments are an uncomfortable, unavoidable part of life. But arguments can also be good, says Anne L’Hommedieu-Sanderson ’84, co-director and co-founder of ThinkerAnalytix (TA), an educational nonprofit where Williams students Emily Bleiberg ’22 and Blain Solomon ’22 are interns. The two support the organization’s efforts to help colleges and universities work together for social change, with a focus on helping students and educators develop logical reasoning skills. 

Headshot of Anne L’Hommedieu-Sanderson ’94“Arguments supply ideas and procedures for civic, social and personal progress,” says L’Hommedieu-Sanderson. “It makes sense to build these habits for precise, empathetic argumentation.”

Using argument mapping, a visual method for displaying how reasons work to support a claim, Sanderson’s research, conducted in partnership with Harvard University’s Department of Philosophy, aims to change the public’s relationship with arguments. She also seeks to remedy the spike of extreme opinions that find support on the internet, especially on social and news media sites. Here, she shares in her words the qualities that make up a good argument.

Logical Thinking

There is plenty of evidence that many people don’t have the skills to examine and discuss arguments across political and social divides. Many people think that arguments are fights with a winner and a loser. The quantity and speed of information transfer on the internet challenges our ability to consider multiple positions using basic reasoning. Part of the problem is that most students haven’t had to learn reasoning skills in school. At TA, we think learning basic logical reasoning skills could be an antidote to information and misinformation overload. 

When we started TA, I discovered that the word argument comes from the Latin root, arguere, which means to prove or illuminate. So at their core, arguments not only work to persuade us to accept a position, but also to show us why we should be persuaded to believe this position. Reasoning skills support the ability to analyze and evaluate the structure of arguments separate from someone’s emotions, assumptions, predispositions.

Precision, Empathy and Accuracy

If someone wants to argue well, they need to work with precision and intellectual empathy. Precision requires an accurate understanding of someone’s argument, including its logical structure and hidden assumptions. Empathy requires charitable interpretation; that is, interpreting a position for its strengths, especially when you disagree with it. Intellectual empathy requires stepping into someone else’s argument to understand their position accurately, or even make their position stronger. This move is counterintuitive but necessary for constructive dialogue. 

To use intellectual empathy in the context of disagreement, you suspend predispositions and assumptions about a topic, then study the argument’s claims, evidence and inferences. If you can accurately restate the argument and pose targeted questions about the argument’s structure you can pitch a question or rebuttal. This process sounds hard, but we observe students engage these steps with energy. They like thinking about how they and their peers think.

Like learning skills of logic and reasoning, building intellectual empathy requires guidance, practice and feedback in a repetitive loop. Some people think of empathy as a soft skill. I think you can learn empathy using a procedure or system with distinct steps. For example, learning how to separate a person from their argument so you can evaluate the strength of the argument accurately. Listening with the goal of accurately understanding someone’s position on a topic is another skill most of us need to practice and hone. 

Listening to Learn

Skills acquired through practice transfer across content, academic disciplines, and political points of view. The liberal arts teach students how to make those transfers successfully. Also, an understanding of intellectual complexity results in humility, i.e., “I understand enough about other disciplines to value different modes of analysis and creativity, and I know my intellectual limits.” 

I also think about the advantages of a liberal arts education in running a startup where I routinely process and evaluate different ways of thinking about the same question or topic. This ability is an important engine, not only for generative collaboration, but also for learning from other people’s expertise. At TA, intellectual differences don’t intimidate or hinder our discussions about business strategies, content development or aesthetics. I work with logicians who operate comfortably in theoretical math and physics. I’m a trained teacher with content knowledge about literature and theology. Our orientations generate novel systems and a lot of humor. TA’s progress depends on rigorous listening—listening to learn and teach something. This is a skill I practiced and improved at Williams and as a classroom teacher.

About the Williams Interns

Emily Bleiberg ’22 and Blain Solomon ’22 have been integral parts of the ThinkerAnalytix team. Blain worked with us through a Winter Study term and continues to connect us with other educational nonprofits. Emily continues to work for TA, developing content for the How We Argue textbook and writing questions that encourage students to think critically and learn the framework of argument mapping. This past summer she organized a focus group for high school students to take the How We Argue course at Mount Greylock Regional High School in Williamstown. 

Anne L’Hommedieu-Sanderson ’84 will present an interactive workshop on the Williams campus on Oct. 26. Visit the Williams events calendar for details. You can also learn more about ThinkerAnalytix.

You can read an opinion piece by Emily Bleiberg ’22 in The Berkshire Eagle, in which she advocates for learning to argue with precision and care

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