Argument From/By Example

Introduction

Not surprisingly, an argument by example is an argument in which a claim is supported by providing examples.

While they are used in academic contexts quite often, arguments by example are also commonly used in “real life.” For example, suppose someone wants to show that another person always mooches pizza without offering to help pay for it. The case could be made by listing examples in which the “pizza mooch” ate pizza but did not contribute any money.

Strict Form

Strictly presented, an analogy will have at least one premise and a conclusion. Each premise is used to support the conclusion by providing an example. The general idea is that the weight of the examples establishes the claim in question.

Although people generally present arguments by example in a fairly informal manner, they have the following logical form:

Premise 1: Example 1 is an example that supports claim P.

Premise n: Example n is an example that supports claim P.

Conclusion: Claim P is true.

In this case n is a variable standing for the number of the premise in question and P is a variable standing for the claim under consideration.

An example of an argument by example presented in strict form is as follows:

Premise 1: Lena ate pizza two months ago and did not contribute any money.

Premise 2: Lena ate pizza a month ago and did not contribute any money.

Premise 3: Lena ate pizza two weeks ago and did not contribute any money.

Premise 4: Lena ate pizza a week ago and did not contribute any money.

Conclusion: Lena is a pizza mooch who eats but does not contribute.

Standards of Assessment

The strength of an analogical argument depends on four factors First, the more examples, the stronger the argument. For example, if Lena only failed to pay for the pizza she ate once, then the claim that she is a mooch who does not contribute would not be well supported-the argument would be very weak.

Second, the more relevant the examples, the stronger the argument. For example, if it were concluded that Lena was a pizza mooch because she regularly failed to pay for her share of gas money, then the argument would be fairly weak. After all, her failure to pay gas money does not strongly support the claim that she won’t help pay for pizza (although it would provide grounds for suspecting she might not pay).

Third, the examples must be specific and clearly identified. Vague and unidentified examples do not provide much in the way of support. For example, if someone claimed that Lena was a pizza mooch because “you know, she didn’t pay and stuff on some days…like some time a month or maybe a couple months ago”, then the argument would be extremely weak.

Fourth, counter-examples must be considered. A counter-example is an example that counts against the claim. One way to look at a counter example is that it is an example that supports the denial of the conclusion being argued for. The more counter-examples and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument. For example, if someone accuses Lena of being a pizza mooch, but other people have examples of times which she did contribute, then these examples would serve as counter-examples against the claim that she is a pizza mooch. As such, counter-examples can be used to build an argument by example that has as its conclusion the claim that the conclusion it counters is false.

Examples

Example #1

Premise 1: The painting Oath of the Horatii shows three brothers ready to take action, while the women are painted as passive observers.

Premise 2: In action films, such as typical Westerns, women are cast as victims that must be protected and saved by men.

Conclusion: Art reinforces gender stereotypes.

Assessment of Example #1

While art is full of stereotypes, more examples should be used. The examples are relevant, but specific Westerns should be named and described. Finally, there are counter-examples, especially in modern films and TV, that need to be considered.

Example #2

Premise 1: The Egyptians believed in an afterlife as shown by their funeral preparations.

Premise 2: Plato’s writings indicate that the ancient Greeks believed in an afterlife.

Premise 3: The Chinese practice of ancestor worship indicates they believed in an afterlife.

Conclusion: People of ancient cultures believed in an afterlife.

Assessment of Example #2

More examples should be used, but the mix of diverse cultures strengthens the argument. The examples are relevant. They could be more detailed but are reasonably specific. There are some limited counterexamples, such as periods of doubt about the afterlife in ancient Egypt.

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Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:29 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. favorited this one, guy


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