Adapted from The Academic Essay: A Brief Anatomy, for the Writing Center at Harvard University by Gordon Harvey. Counter-Argument

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1 Adapted from The Academic Essay: A Brief Anatomy, for the Writing Center at Harvard University by Gordon Harvey Counter-Argument When you write an academic essay, you make an argument: you propose a thesis and offer some reasoning, using evidence, that suggests why the thesis is true. When you counter-argue, you consider a possible argument against your thesis or some aspect of your reasoning. This is a good way to test your ideas when drafting, while you still have time to revise them. And in the finished essay, it can be a persuasive and (in both senses of the word) disarming tactic. It allows you to anticipate doubts and pre-empt objections that a skeptical reader might have; it presents you as the kind of person who weighs alternatives before arguing for one, who confronts difficulties instead of sweeping them under the rug, who is more interested in discovering the truth than winning a point. Not every objection is worth entertaining, of course, and you shouldn't include one just to include one. But some imagining of other views, or of resistance to one's own, occurs in most good essays. And instructors are glad to encounter counter-argument in student papers, even if they haven't specifically asked for it. The Turn Against Counter-argument in an essay has two stages: you turn against your argument to challenge it and then you turn back to re-affirm it. You first imagine a skeptical reader, or cite an actual source, who might resist your argument by pointing out a problem with your demonstration, e.g. that a different conclusion could be drawn from the same facts, a key assumption is unwarranted, a key term is used unfairly, certain evidence is ignored or played down; one or more disadvantages or practical drawbacks to what you propose; an alternative explanation or proposal that makes more sense. You introduce this turn against with a phrase like One might object here that... or It might seem that... or It's true that... or Admittedly,... or Of course,... or with an anticipated challenging question: But how...? or But why...? or But isn't this just...? or But if this is so, what about...? Then you state the case against yourself as briefly but as clearly and forcefully as you can, pointing to evidence where possible. (An obviously feeble or perfunctory counter-argument does more harm than good.) The Turn Back Your return to your own argument which you announce with a but, yet, however, nevertheless or still must likewise involve careful reasoning, not a flippant (or nervous) dismissal. In reasoning about the proposed counter-argument, you may refute it, showing why it is mistaken an apparent but not real problem;

2 acknowledge its validity or plausibility, but suggest why on balance it's relatively less important or less likely than what you propose, and thus doesn't overturn it; concede its force and complicate your idea accordingly restate your thesis in a more exact, qualified, or nuanced way that takes account of the objection, or start a new section in which you consider your topic in light of it. This will work if the counter-argument concerns only an aspect of your argument; if it undermines your whole case, you need a new thesis. Where to Put a Counter-Argument Counter-argument can appear anywhere in the essay, but it most commonly appears as part of your introduction before you propose your thesis where the existence of a different view is the motive for your essay, the reason it needs writing; as a section or paragraph just after your introduction, in which you lay out the expected reaction or standard position before turning away to develop your own; as a quick move within a paragraph, where you imagine a counter-argument not to your main idea but to the sub-idea that the paragraph is arguing or is about to argue; as a section or paragraph just before the conclusion of your essay, in which you imagine what someone might object to what you have argued. But watch that you don't overdo it. A turn into counter-argument here and there will sharpen and energize your essay, but too many such turns will have the reverse effect by obscuring your main idea or suggesting that you're ambivalent. Counter-Argument in Pre-Writing and Revising Good thinking constantly questions itself, as Socrates observed long ago. But at some point in the process of composing an essay, you need to switch off the questioning in your head and make a case. Having such an inner conversation during the drafting stage, however, can help you settle on a case worth making. As you consider possible theses and begin to work on your draft, ask yourself how an intelligent person might plausibly disagree with you or see matters differently. When you can imagine an intelligent disagreement, you have an arguable idea. And, of course, the disagreeing reader doesn't need to be in your head: if, as you're starting work on an essay, you ask a few people around you what they think of topic X (or of your idea about X) and keep alert for uncongenial remarks in class discussion and in assigned readings, you'll encounter a useful disagreement somewhere. Awareness of this disagreement, however you use it in your essay, will force you to sharpen your own thinking as you compose. If you come to find the counter-argument truer than your thesis, consider making it your thesis and turning your original thesis into a counter-argument. If you manage to draft an essay without imagining a counter-argument, make yourself imagine one before you revise and see if you can integrate it.

3 A Guide to Using Counter Arguments Brian L. Keeley, Pitzer College One important thing you ought to learn in college (and particularly in a philosophy class) is how to deal with those who have a position or idea that actively conflicts with your own view of things. Life is full of disagreements between intelligent people of good faith. Learning how to deal with such disagreements in a fair, yet firm way is an important skill that often separates the best writer from the merely good. In the papers you will write for me, you will demonstrate that skill by including counter arguments in your essays. The issues and questions confronted in philosophy are complex and there is honest disagreement about the answers. Therefore, there is much room for differences of opinion. The ideas and the texts are often so complex that there is even disagreement about how to interpret what a given philosopher is trying to say in a particular work. This means that both the arguments you present on certain topics, as well as the interpretations of authors that you present, are open to alternative points of view. What is a counter argument? A counter argument is any position that contradicts a position you are presenting in your paper. The position you are presenting may be one that you personally hold or one that you are merely presenting in the course of the essay. For example, say you are presenting an interpretation of Plato s philosophy according to which he thinks that there are natural differences between people that affect their ability to be genuinely philosophical, so it would be a waste to train everybody as a philosopher. A counter argument to this interpretation would be one which argues that Plato, in fact, believes that everybody has at least some skills as a philosopher and that these skills should be developed in everybody in order to guarantee a just state. Textual evidence can be found in The Republic to bolster both of these claims. As a second example, somebody might argue that Socrates unique contribution to Western philosophy is the content of the questions that he famously addressed: What is justice? What is beauty? What is the Good Life? A counter argument to this might be that it is not the content of Socrates questions that is his enduring legacy, rather it s the way in which he asked questions and pursued answers. It is his method that is his unique contribution. Why include counter arguments? Some students wonder why they should mention counter arguments in their papers in the first place. After all, doesn t it detract from the point you are making to explicitly point out that there is another side to the argument? Wouldn t you just be shooting yourself in the foot? Far from it! It is true that badly handling a counter argument can backfire and undermine the position you are making. However, that said, effectively handling a counter argument in the course of an essay can greatly bolster the case you are trying to make in a variety of ways: 1. Be careful not to underestimate the intelligence of your readers. They are intelligent and have minds of their own. Therefore, it is likely that they have independently come up with the more obvious counter arguments to the position you are presenting. If so, then if

4 you do not address these objections floating in their heads, you are not likely to convince them. It would be better for you to figure out what the more obvious objections to your position are, present them in a fair manner, and then adequately confront them and tell the reader why you think your position is nonetheless superior. 2. Discussing a counter argument can be used to sharpen and clarify the point you are trying to make. For example, if you are making a subtle point, it is often useful to explicitly confront the subtly different positions that you do not hold. Doing this will make it clearer to the reader what position you do in fact hold. It alerts the reader to a potential confusion about how to interpret what you are trying to say and allows you to steer them in the right direction. Along the same lines, if you are purposely presenting a highly counter-intuitive position or one that violates common sense, it is often useful to acknowledge the more intuitive or natural thought. Explain in no uncertain terms that you are going against the grain: Socrates is often held up as a great example of a philosopher; if he is not the best philosopher there ever was, he is definitely considered an exemplary one. In this paper, however, I will argue that Socrates is actually quite a bad philosopher Imagine the reader s confusion if this author simply launched into an argument about how bad of a philosopher Socrates was without acknowledging the apparent absurdity of his thesis. 3. Dealing with counter arguments enhances your credibility as a thoughtful interlocutor on the subject you are discussing. You aren t merely a hack trying to pull the wool over the reader s eyes. You aren t a zealot who is only capable of seeing one side of what is obviously a contentious issue. You are a thoughtful, fair critic who sees the merits of many sides on this issue, but who nonetheless feels that, in balance, the position you advocate is best. 4. Dealing with counter arguments gives you one more way to argue on behalf of your position. Most of your paper should deal with positive arguments on your position s behalf; that is, the positive reasons why your position is a good one. However, a counter argument affords you the possibility to explore negative reasons on your behalf; that is, the reasons against alternative positions that might be taken in opposition to your thesis or interpretation. How should I deal with counter arguments in my essays? Are there any good rules of thumb? 1. In general, it is better to deal with one counter argument fully & effectively rather than several counter arguments quickly & superficially. Take the time to explain the alternative position fully and then respond to it fully. Don t just breeze over a number of superficial claims. 2. Give a counter argument a paragraph of its own in your essay. (This only makes sense. The general rule in writing is that each paragraph should have a single point. By definition, a counter argument will contain a point different from everything else you say

5 in your paper, so it needs to be in a separate paragraph.) By the same token, probably your response to the counter argument should be in a paragraph of its own. 3. Be sure to take the time & space to explain fully the alternative position. Be fair to the position and spell out what its conclusion is and the reasons backing up this conclusion. (A common mistake in student writing is to merely present a contrary conclusion and then proceed to attack it. Remember that we are talking about a counter argument here, not just a counter claim. An argument is a claim (conclusion) together with supporting evidence.) One reason for fleshing out the alternative position is so that you are not guilty of a straw person (aka straw man ) fallacy. In this notorious (and notoriously fallacious) form of argument, you present a purposely dumbed-down version of your opponent s position and then attack it, instead of the more plausible position she, in fact, holds. It is far more convincing when somebody effectively handles the best argument an opponent has than when he or she completely trounces a silly position that nobody in his or her right mind would hold. 4. With that in mind, make sure the counter argument you address is reasonable and plausible. If you cannot come up with a plausible counter argument to the position you take in a paper, this is a strong hint for you to change your thesis. If there is no plausible counter argument to your position, this probably means that your position is trivial and not really worth arguing for. 5. Make sure that the counter argument you explore actually is a counter argument. Not every position different from your own position is a counter claim. Some arguments are just different. An effective counter argument is one that, if true, would genuinely undercut the position you are taking in the essay. 6. Where should a counter argument go in an essay? There is no cut-n-dried answer to this question. It varies from essay to essay. It is often useful to put it near the end of the paper, especially when your response to the counter argument allows you to restate in clearer terms exactly what your thesis is (and is not). This can be a very natural way to flow into a conclusion. However, in a case where a counter argument seems particularly obvious for example, when you are taking an unusual stand on an issue it often makes sense to deal with the counter argument near the beginning of the paper. This allows you to get your argument across without the cognitive dissonance created by another, very obvious response rattling around in the reader s head. Placement of the counter argument in your essay will take some serious thought from you, the writer. 7. Finally, as a writer, you need to pay special attention to the transitions into and out of a counter argument. By definition, when you start discussing a counter argument in your essay, you are shifting gears : Before you were talking about ideas with which you agree. Now, all of a sudden, you are talking about ideas with which you ultimately disagree. When introducing a counter argument, be as explicit as possible that what you are about to present is a counter argument: I have just discussed four reasons suggesting that for Plato education is necessarily a painful process. Why might somebody disagree with this interpretation? Well, some might point to the happiness enjoyed by the

6 philosopher-kings as they contemplate and learn about the higher forms And then, after laying out the alternative position: However, this interpretation is based on a mistaken reading. When Plato describes the joy of the philosopher kings, he describes this happiness as mixed with pain There is an infinite number of ways to handle the transition into and out of a counter argument. The key is to communicate to the reader that you are shifting gears, so he or she doesn t suddenly become very confused as you begin apparently arguing against everything you have presented in the paper so far.

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