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Building an argument

An argument supports a thesis. An argument is a lot like a building. In fact it is a lot like the Parthenon of ancient Athens! The thesis statement is the roof, visible for miles around. The building is made from the raw material of facts that you have discovered through reading on your topic. But a building also has a design. Raw material does not hold up a roof by itself. It needs an architect to design a strong structure.1)

The Parthenon

In the Parthenon Model of Argument2), there are three main things we need: (1) a claim, (2) evidence for the claim, and (3) warrants, or reasons why the facts lead to or support the claim as a generalization.

   [warrant]   [warrant]  [warrant]  
     |   |       |   |      |   |
     | f |       | f |      | f |
     | a |       | a |      | a |
     | c |       | c |      | c |
     | t |       | t |      | t |
     | s |       | s |      | s |
     |   |       |   |      |   |

So as you can see, there is a logical structure at work here. You have facts on your topic, and you know that these facts are problematic. They need an explanation. Some of the facts seem to hang together, to indicate something more. They are evidence of something. In order to use facts as evidence, you must also explain your reasons why the facts in this case support the larger claim of the paper. That’s the warrant. The warrant is, basically, an assumption about how the world works. In this way, it serves as a lens with which to view facts and draw conclusions from them. In other words, Durkheim, Weber, Marx (or, in ANTH 2667 Ortner, Douglas), and so on… the great theorists of religion and society. The ones with all the Big Ideas. We read them because they give us warrants for drawing our own conclusions.

Don't wait to get started - Build your Parthenon on paper

Building a Parthenon in your own mind takes a lot of effort. Remember, though, building the Parthenon in your own mind does not just happen in your mind. It happens on paper. So don’t wait for the lightbulb to go off before you start writing. Just start writing. You’ll edit it later. And when you get stuck, talk to people about it. Take long walks. (Talking and walking are, arguably, like writing. They get the gears of the brain moving. So when someone asks you what you did all day, and all you did was walk for 10 km, just say, “Oh I was drafting my research essay for anthro…” It’s true.)

And keep at it. Eventually it will all - ding! - appear as one structure, and then you will never, ever forget it. I still remember arguments I made in my undergrad essays. I’m not saying they were the best ideas I ever had. But I do remember when - ding! - it all clicked.

The hard part is building the same building in someone else’s mind…


Toulmin, Stephen. 2003 [1958]. The Uses of Argument, 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

I told you this was Greek stuff. This is an instance of hylomorphism, or the principle that everything consists of both matter and form. Thanks, Aristotle!
The Parthenon Model of Argument was first presented to me by Jackie Giordano, the director of the Making of the Modern World freshman composition program at the University of California, San Diego in 2000. She said that it is a simplified version of Stephen Toulmin’s (2003 [1958]) Model of Argument.
the_quest/building_an_argument.txt · Last modified: 2021/06/29 02:27 by