Anne L'Hommedieu-Sanderson, Williams Class of 1994, co-founder and co-director of Thinker Analytix

Good Arguments

Good Arguments

Interview by Gregory Shook

Arguments are an uncomfortable, unavoidable part of life. But arguments can also be good, says Anne L’Hommedieu-Sanderson ’94, 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. 

“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 our ability to analyze and evaluate arguments is broken. Many people think that arguments are fights with a winner and a loser. Academic philosophers build arguments based on true reasons and relevant inferences. In a persuasive argument, the author arranges claims, evidence and inferences so they make logical sense. Most of us nonphilosophers will never reach this level of precision. But holding the standard in mind helps us frame how quantity and speed of information transfer on the internet eclipses careful reasoning. Add to this feature how artificial intelligence curates what information we receive and how we receive it. Learning basic logic and reasoning skills could be an antidote to information and misinformation overload. 

When we started TA, I told my colleagues that the word argument comes from the Latin root, arguere, which means clear, white or illuminate. At their core, arguments display justifications for different positions on a topic. Logical thinking skills give students confidence to analyze, evaluate and construct arguments. 

Precision, Empathy and Accuracy

If someone wants to argue well, they need to work with rigorous precision and 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, even when you disagree with the position. You have to step into someone else’s argument to help make their position stronger. 

To deploy empathy in a condition of disagreement, you suspend predispositions and assumptions about a topic, study the logical structure and truth of evidence, restate the argument exactly, and pose targeted questions about the argument’s structure. Like skills of logic and reasoning, building empathy skills requires guidance, practice and feedback in a loop. Some people think of empathy as a soft skill, an emotional quality. I think you can learn empathy using a procedure or system with rigorous steps. For example, learning how to separate a person from their argument so you can evaluate 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

Learned skills 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 productive humility, i.e., I understand enough about other disciplines to value different modes of thinking, analysis and creativity, and I know my intellectual limits and gifts. 

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. This ability is an important engine, not only for generative collaboration, but for learning from other people’s expertise. At TA, disciplinary clashes 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. TA’s progress depends on rigorous listening–listening to learn something. This is a skill I practiced and improved at Williams, and then when I taught high school students for 25 years. 

Anne L’Hommedieu-Sanderson ’94 is scheduled to visit Williams this October to lead a workshop examining the nature of arguments. You can read an opinion piece by Emily Bleiberg ’22 The Berkshire Eagle, in which she advocates for learning to argue with precision and careGreg Shook is managing editor of Williams Magazine.