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Structuring an Argument the Toulmin Way

If you’ve ever watched the news or read one of your friend’s Facebook posts, you know the art of effective arguing is lost on most people these days. A lot of arguments take the ol’ “I’m right because I’m always right, and you’re wrong because you’re ugly” approach. But you don’t have to be one of these people wandering around in the dark. Luckily, our friend Mr. Toulmin has put together a little model to help us craft better arguments.

The Toulmin Model

The Toulmin Model is named after Stephen Toulmin, a young gun in the rhetoric game who blew up the scene in 1958 when he published his book The Uses of Argument which features what is now known as the Toulmin Model of argument. Apparently it didn’t go over so well in his native Britain, but Americans ate it right up. Probably because their country was founded by kings, and our country was founded by lawyers. Go figure.

Begin with a Claim

The Toulmin Model works like this: When you’re setting up an argument, you want to start with a claim. The claim is your idea that you feel needs to be defended. So for example:

Professor Snape was a hero.

Usually your claim is an opinion, but these days, sometimes even facts need to be defended.

Support with Evidence

After you’ve made your claim, you’ll need to support that claim with evidence. Your evidence must be either facts or other persuasive information that will help you back up your claim. This can come in the form of quotes from reliable sources, relevant examples or precedents, or even generally accepted facts:

Snape begrudgingly rejoined the Death Eaters at the end Book 4 and fulfilled Dumbledore’s task at the end of Book 6 because it was the right thing to do, even when it wasn’t easy for him. He put his role as a double agent at risk protecting people throughout the series for the greater good. And he sacrificed his life at the end of Book 7 all for his love of Lily Evans.

People throw around claims without supporting evidence all the time, so asking for evidence is a great way to annoy your friends—and to always be right. So the next time someone tells you you’re ugly, just say to them, “Am I ugly? What evidence do you have to support that claim? Can you provide a reliable source or relevant precedent to defend your claim that I am ugly?”

Bridge with a Warrant

Now that you’ve defended your claim with evidence, the warrant is what you’ll use to show how the evidence supports the claim. Your claim and your evidence may make perfect sense to you, but if you’re trying to convince someone else, you’ll still need to explain how the two relate to each other:

These qualities of doing what is right over what is easy, working for the greater good, and sacrificial love are the same qualities that Dumbledore himself commends in Harry Potter throughout the series.

The warrant is one of those things that people often miss, but it’s important to remember that what is clear in your head is not always clear in someone else’s. You need to bridge that gap to make your argument clear.

So now, after that bully finishes listing evidence to support the claim that you’re ugly—”You’re ugly, because you’re fat, dirty and you have a stupid face.”—you can then reply, “Ah well, that may very well be true, but can you prove that this evidence defines an ugly person? What warrant do you have to help prove the evidence supports the claim? Who’s to say that being fat makes one ugly? And are there not people who are both dirty and sexy?”

Chaucer, Birds, Bees and St Valentine’s Day

Largely considered a Hallmark holiday by cynics (that is, everyone who isn’t ‘gettin’ some’), the history of St Valentine’s Day is a bit of a mystery. Even within the Catholic church, the existence of the saint himself is a matter of temporal perspective. Certainly there was someone (or a few someones) named Valentine who died around 270 AD and was beatified in the 400s AD, but as to this someone’s connection with romantic love, well…people go back and forth on this.

The Church’s current stance on St Valentine is that we don’t really know anything about him, and the veneration of St Valentine was controversially discontinued in 1969 (interesting choice of year…). It appears that the story of St Valentine secretly marrying young couples or falling in love with his jailer’s blind daughter and sending the first ‘valentine’ letter may have been retcons begun in the 14th century.

The man we actually hold responsible for linking February 14th with a day for gettin’ some is Geoffrey Chaucer (yeah, the same bloke who brought us April Fool’s Day). It was his 1381 poem “Parliament of Fowls” that linked the mating patterns of birds with the feast day of St Valentine:

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,

You see, mating birds became the first signs of the end of winter and the blossoming of new life:

Saint Valentine, who art full high aloft –
Thus sing the small fowls for your sake –
Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,
That this winter’s weather does off-shake.

St Valentine’s Day became the last day of winter and the beginnings of summer (this was before spring and fall were fully recognized as seasons), and what happens at the beginning of summer? Well, flowers bloom, rabbits multiply, birds lay eggs and bees pollinate. Speaking of which, that’s how the birds and the bees became a euphemism for ‘the sex talk’ and why rabbits and eggs are symbols of Easter.

But not all Valentine’s Day traditions are about sex. In Finland, Valentine’s Day is called Ystävänpäivä (or ‘Friend’s Day’ if you’re having trouble pronouncing that) and is a day for cherishing platonic friendships.

And speaking of platonic, generally the word is used to describe close relationships devoid of sexual involvement—an intellectual love rather than a romantic one—but the use of this eponym is interesting since Plato felt that sexual relations in an intellectual partnership were simply another way to foster intellectual growth, and he often had sex with his pupils. So next time you unwillingly find yourself in a platonic relationship, be aware that sex isn’t necessarily off the table (but perhaps under it).

Ezra Pound and Modernist Storytelling

It seems the only thing more pretentious than quoting Ezra Pound is actually being Ezra Pound, but I suppose you could allow the father of the modernist movement and the man who discovered and supported literary giants like TS Elliot, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce a little clout…even if he was a fascist.

Pound says, “Poetry Begins to Atrophy When It Gets too Far from Music”

In his 1934 book ABC of Reading, Pound wrote such gems as, “One of the pleasures of middle age is to find out that one WAS right, and that one was much righter than one knew at say seventeen or twenty-three.” Certainly no one could ever say the man lacked confidence, but that confidence did sometimes hit the mark. Take, for instance, this insight from ABC of Reading which discusses an important relationship between the arts:

The author’s conviction on this day of New Year is that music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music; but this must not be taken as implying that good music is dance music or all poetry lyric. Bach and Mozart are never too far from physical movement. (from ABC of Reading, 1934)

It’s interesting that the man who told the world to “Make it new!” would advise such a caution. As Pound says, it’s not necessary for all music to be Top 40 radio or for all poetry to be some sing-songy Dr Seuss lyric—music and poetry are open to greater creative interpretation than that—but Pound does warn that there is a danger in over-intellectualizing.

Rapper Mike Eagle expressed similar concerns on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. When talking about the legendary Hip Hop group Public Enemy, he said, “You listen to Chuck D talk about it, he realized early on that it didn’t matter what he said if the beats weren’t making people dance.” Public Enemy’s lyrics are remembered as some of the most provocative and socially conscious in Hip Hop, but front man Chuck D knew, “We had to jolt people with the sound as well as the lyrics“.

Pound cautions poets and musicians to rein in their works from the extremes of the avant garde, because if they stray too far from that instinctual pleasure of toe-tapping or head-bobbing then they atrophy: They snap their tether to the core of what made them music or poetry in the first place.

Homo Narrans or ‘the Storytelling Man’

Just as moving your body to sound is one of those instincts that even the smallest child can find pleasure in, some anthropologists feel that the pleasures of story are a similar instinct. Continue reading

The Norman Conquest and Linguistic Purism

950 years ago today, the Battle of Hastings (and the greater Norman Conquest) changed the English language forever. In 1066, the childless King of England died, and his throne was fought over by his brother-in-law and a distant cousin named William who lived in Normandy, France. In the end William conquered, and that French-speaking Norman became the next King of England.

Naturally the little people of England, whose lives rarely intersected with nobility, continued speaking their particular brand(s) of English, but Norman French quickly became the language of the aristocracy, and that French influence changed English forever. The days of Old English were done, and our language soon entered its awkward ‘tween phase, Middle English.

Anglish and English Purism

Though French was what the upper classes spoke, Latin was the language for learned people. Latin was the lingua franca of academia, science and theology for millennia: Universities taught in Latin so that students from all over could understand their lectures, scientists wrote papers in Latin, and the Catholic church didn’t stop using Latin until Vatican II: Electric Boogaloo in the 1960s.

For this reason even today English speakers find that words of Latin origin ‘just sound smarter’, but in 1946 George Orwell argued against this misconception in his essay, “On Politics and the English Language“. Though Orwell says, “Bad writers…are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones”, he advises that writers “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

Some have taken this idea a bit further though. In 1854, English poet and philologist William Barnes said that “purity is deemed a good quality of languages, inasmuch the purer a language is, the more regular it is in clippings and breath-sounds and in the forms of its words and sentences; and the more readily it is learnt and understood.” Barnes suggested that we not only switch Latin words for Saxon ones (undersea instead of submarine or freedom instead of liberty), but that we sometimes coin new words to replace the Latin-derived ones: Take, for instance, bendsome for fexible or sun-print for photograph. Continue reading

Snow White, Apples and the Fall Equinox

Little Snow-White was conceived in Midwinter when her mother wished for a child who had skin as white as snow and hair as black as ebony, which would put her birth right around the Autumnal Equinox where day and night—white and black—approach balance.

Autumn, of course, is the season between summer and winter, but we didn’t always have a set word for it in English. Spring and autumn went through quite a few name changes over the centuries at the whims of agricultural and linguistic influences. Some of the earlier instances include “lent and harvest-tide” and “spring of the leaf and fall of the leaf”.

Though the British overwhelmingly prefer autumn to the American-favored fall, HW Fowler, that arbiter of all that is English, begrudgingly admitted back in 1908 that “Fall is better on the merits than autumn, in every way: it is short, Saxon (like the other three season names), picturesque; it reveals its derivation to every one who uses it, not to the scholar only“. Fall is not only a more literal and easily understood term when compared with the Latin-derived autumn, but it’s just so beautiful, you know?

And what better way to celebrate that beauty than like Snow White herself with glistening apples with blood-red cheeks? Personally I think there’s no better way to begin the fall than with the eating of an apple, and there’s an abundance of apple options available for autumn—hard cider, mulled cider, boiled cider, switchel—but as it happens, ol’ Johnny Appleseed (whose birthday is September 26th) would probably prefer you consume the hard stuff.

You see, most eating apples are grown from trees produced from grafting (that is, splicing two trees together), but the real-life John Chapman thought this practice was cruel and traumatic to the trees, so when he donned his tin pot and set out to spread his seed across the American frontier, he began his orchards from seedlings which typically produces a hardier stock of sour, bitter apples only suitable for cider.

Of course, some people feel that Johnny Appleseed was nothing more than an eco-terrorist who introduced an invasive species to the New World. Well, alright then…how about rather than celebrating the apple, you could celebrate the fall as the Chinese do with the Mid-Autumn Festival which pays tribute to the Moon (rather than the Sun as the equinoxes do). During the Mid-Autumn Festival, it is traditional to munch on tasty little mooncakes which are tributes to the moon goddess, Chang’e.

However you choose to celebrate this September—Sun or Moon, apple or mooncake, fall or autumn—one question remains: What the f*** does ba-dee-ya mean?

Kenneth Burke’s Cocktail Party

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

~ Kenneth Burke from The Philosophy of Literary Form, 1941

How I Met the Boy Who Lived

It was New Year’s Eve 1999, I had recently started middle school in a new town, and I needed to read a book…quick. I never really liked reading—cartoons were always my obsession—but I only had until the end of Christmas Break (two days!) to finish my first book report, and as usual, I’d left the reading part to the last possible minute.

When our teacher assigned the book report, she told us we could read whatever we wanted as long as it met her guidelines: the book had to be more that a hundred pages, it had to have chapters, and finally no pictures! This was big kid business.

I spent the morning searching my dad’s house for a book because I remembered that my grandpa had gotten me one that may have met my teacher’s requirements. But for the life of me I could not find it among the mess of Legos and Pokémon cards and lumps of clay that littered my bedroom. I searched the whole apartment, but I couldn’t find anything.

New Year’s Eve also happens to be my birthday (a day shared with a certain dark wizard who shall not be named) and while I spent the day with my dad secretly searching in vain for a book, I would still have another chance at my mom’s house later…though this ultimately led to nothing. Unfortunately, neither of my parents are book people.

Later, as my mom and I were leaving for my birthday party at the skating rink, we asked my new friends next door whether they wanted to drive with us (I’d invited them a few weeks ago). They told me they wouldn’t be able to make it to my party because they were having their own New Year’s festivities at their house, but they were kind enough to hand me a birthday present before returning to their party. It was about the size of a book. It was also rectangular like a book, and when I knocked on it, it was hard like a book too. To be honest, I was pretty sure it was a book.

None of my new friends from school showed up to my birthday party, but that was OK because the new Willennium was looking good. Y2K turned out to be nothing, Panama was finally getting their canal back, and I got Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for my 11th birthday.

I didn’t end up finding the book my grandpa had gotten me until a few weeks later. It turned out to be Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (book 2 in the series). Apparently fate had this all planned out.

Sorcerer’s Stone was probably the first book I’d ever finished on my own, and I was done with it by the end of New Year’s Day. Not because I was so interested in getting my homework done (I still passed the book report in late), but because I actually liked the book I was reading. I was immersed in a way that I did realize was possible. I developed an actual relationship with the book in my hands, a bond created over time and physical intimacy which you don’t get with a half-hour episode of a cartoon.

That first day of the year 2000 I was sowing the seeds of a twofold obsession that will probably last the rest of my life: an obsession with Harry Potter…and an even more treacherous obsession with books.

Absinthe and the Legend of la Fée Verte

It killed Oscar Wilde, and it drove Van Gogh to madness. It made men murder their families, and it turned respectable young ladies into syphilitic trollops. Absinthe’s story is clouded in sex and danger—alchemy and pseudoscience—so it’s no wonder artists and eccentrics can’t wait to spend a night with the muse to the greatest artists of La Belle Époque.

But absinthe’s legend is much older than that. Before it was known as a hallucinogen imbibed by those searching for the secret and sinister, the magic of absinthe was in the ability to bottle the French countryside. Through distillation (a process which mimics the stages of alchemical transmutation) absintheurs created an elixir of life with a story older than Nicolas Flamel himself.

The Drip

Atop a slotted spoon, a sacrificial sugar cube awaits dissolving. Beneath the spoon, about a shot of a murky, yellow-green spirit fills the bottom of my glass. It’s a natural color that makes me think of sunburnt grass or moss on a tree stump. With a carafe of ice water raised high above my glass, I pour a thin thread of water—over the sugar cube and through the spoon—which tap-dances on the surface of my drink.

Absinthe was born in the late eighteenth century near the French-Swiss border. The Swiss village of Couvet lays claim to the earliest sightings of the green spirit, though just over the border, the French town of Pontarlier was home to the initial refiners and producers of absinthe.

General agreement attributes the creation of absinthe to Dr Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Switzerland who first prescribed the wormwood based elixir as a digestif (after dinner drink) though absinthe would go on to be enjoyed mostly as an apéritif (before dinner drink). Though it seems even absinthe’s humble beginnings are clouded in controversy: Some find it more likely that absinthe evolved from the tinctures of the local women herbalists who called it “Mere Henriod’s Elixir” or “Mother Henriot’s Health Elixir”.

Though wormwood tinctures have been used for medicinal and spiritual purposes since the ancient world—the ancient Greeks called it apsinthos, and even the Book of Revelation makes reference to an angel of death called Wormwood—modern absinthe is unique in its use of the trinity of herbs: grand wormwood (artemisia absinthium), aniseed (pimpinella anisum), and fennel seed (foeniculum vulgare). Other regional herbs like melissa, angelica and hyssop are common companions.

Around the end of the 18th century, the recipe for absinthe drifted into the hands of French businessman Daniel Henri Dubied and Swiss distiller Henri Louis Pernod, who, in 1797, opened the first absinthe distillery in the little village of Couvet. In 1805, the distillery migrated over the border to Pontarlier, France.

For much of the early 19th century absinthe remained a local drink, imbibed in the countryside near the French-Swiss boarder, though absinthe slowly gained popularity with the French military serving in the north of Africa who would add a little absinthe to their water as a purifier. Soon they began adding a little water to their absinthe instead.

The Louche

As the water slowly mixes in, billows of milky-white greenness consume the once deep yellow-green. The spindly, hazy paleness swirls up and around until the entire glass has clouded over. The added water gives it an opalescent quality, like spirits dancing in a crystal ball or chalk dust billowing around my glass.

In the late 1800s, France suffered a drought even worse than one of water: During the Great French Wine Blight infestation nearly wiped out the entire wine crop. But seizing her bonnes fortunes, the green fairy left her home in the country bound for the glitz and glamour of the city where she and Paris would become synonymous. Continue reading

Dante and the 4 Levels of Literary Interpretation

In mediæval literary criticism there was an accepted method of interpreting the Bible which involved 4 levels or senses. It is Dante Alighieri’s description of these 4 levels of interpretation from his book Il Convivio (The Banquet) that many modern critics look to for insight into mediæval literary criticism and theological study. In Il Convivo Dante says, “it is necessary to know that writings can be understood and ought to be expounded principally in four senses“. This need not only apply to the Bible or mediæval writings though. You can use this same guide to understand modern works, too.

The Literal

At the first level of interpretation there is the literal, “and this is the sense that does not go beyond the surface of the letter” as Dante explains it. This is simply what a piece literally means. For instance, in the Bible God literally creates the universe in 7 days:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. (Genesis 2:1-2)

Or to take something more contemporary, in the movie Star Wars Luke Skywalker and the ragtag bunch of rebels literally battle against Darth Vader and the Empire.

This may seem like the most obvious level of interpretation, but if you look to poetry, you’ll find that a lot of readers new to poetry have a tough time with it because they don’t try to understand it literally first—they dive right into the deep end, searching for the meaning of life, and are unsurprisingly left struggling to stay afloat. Just as introductory poetry teachers will say to first try to understand the poem literally, Dante indicates that to ‘go deep’ we must begin with the shallow.

The Allegorical

The second level of interpretation is the allegorical. Continue reading

Tolkien on Allegory

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history—true or feigned—with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

~ JRR Tolkien from the introduction to the second edition of The Fellowship of the Ring