A Primer to Logic: Context and Setting in an Argument

In previous posts, we have discussed the minute components of an argument – the words and sentences that are combined together in such a way that one makes an assertion and offers support to demonstrate their claim. Often times we are tempted to focus on the “big picture” of the argument because here occurs the battle of ideas and issues. Attention to the finer details of arguments, however, can reap significant results when trying to understand from where an arguer is coming or to refute an opponents claim. Problematic language can distort or cloud the issue at hand, while intended propositions may do little by way of asserting. Being aware of these two issues can aid you in becoming a better listener and a better arguer.

One matter that you need to be aware of that affects every argument is the context and setting from which the argument derives. No argument occurs in a vacuum; some situation or context informs an arguer. Thus, when they make an argument, there may be language they use that their audience may understand that appears problematic to those not within or familiar with the context or setting. Likewise, if the audience is familiar with the context or setting of an arguer, then they may understand the arguer’s rhetorical questions or exclamations used in his argument.

Take, for instance, the claim we discussed above, “God is love.” The problem with this statement is that it is ambiguous; it can be understood to have different, distinct meanings. Thus, there are times when the arguer needs to clarify what is mean by the statement. However, let us say that the claim “God is love” is proclaimed in a sermon at a conservative Evangelical church. Here the audience is familiar with the beliefs of that church and the key doctrines that guide the church’s practices and teachings. As such, the pastor does not necessarily have to clarify the claim “God is love” in the same way that he would if he were engaging someone in an evangelistic encounter. Instead, his sermon can focus on how the belief “God is love” is manifested in the life of the believer instead of what is meant by “love.”

Consider another example. Let us say that Bill is announcing to his  bible study group an upcoming opportunity to minister to the city’s abortion clinic guards. Bill’s idea is that these guards are yelled at and berated by protesters – actions that can ultimately turn them off to the message pro-lifers believe in. Bill believes that by serving them with water and snacks, and by engaging them in conversation, they can eventually share with the guards the Gospel. The bible study group’s members are known to be pro-life, but only a very small handful are active in any form of pro-life activism. In order to compel his bible study members to see the value of the ministry opportunity, Bill states: “Do you not believe that every human is created in God’s image? Is not every human life valuable and worth saving? To sit silently by is to allow an atrocity to continue. We must do our part to make the truth known.” On the day of the ministry opportunity, one of Bill’s bible study group members, Sally, shows up to participate. When asked what made her want to participate, Sally claims that it was Bill’s argument at the end of his announcement that convinced her to join the ministry.

Technically, Bill did not make an argument. He asked two rhetorical questions, followed by an assertion, and ending with an opinion. At no time did Bill offer support for his assertion. However, because of the setting in which he made his announcement, Bill was able to appeal to an existing context of beliefs shared by the group without having to explicitly state them. Because of the church’s teachings that the fetus in the womb is a human person created in the image of God and, therefore, being of great value, Bill is able to ask rhetorical questions whose answers are clear to his audience. Further, Bill’s opinion “We must do our part to make the truth known” harkens the audience to Scripture where believers are called to take the light of the Gospel into a dark world. Bill does not state a mere opinion, but alludes to Scripture for support. As such, Bill’s statements do contain an implicit argument that is understood by those familiar with the context and setting. However, for someone who is not a member of the church and therefore unfamiliar with its teachings, Bill’s statements are nothing short of an emotional plea for action.

It should be clear that the context and setting in which an argument occurs is vitally important to understanding the arguer’s claim and support. Not every argument you encounter is ideally structured. In fact, you may find that most arguments bear little resemblance to what we teach in this text (and most other logic texts). Understanding the context and setting as much as possible can help you clarify problematic language and interpret the use of sentences that are not propositions. Further, understanding the fundamental principles behind argumentation and logic can help you to “uncover” intended arguments and to do your due diligence to understand where the other side is coming from before answering with your own argument. It is after you understand the context and setting that you then identify problematic language and sentences.

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