Understanding What a Formal Argument Is

Before we can delve into the juicier topics, it’s important to first lay some groundwork and establish what a formal or ‘intellectual’ argument actually is. As previously touched upon a formal argument is quite different from what we consider a regular argument between family members, friends and colleagues. A formal argument is made from premises and statements, which work together to lead to a conclusion.

When we want to persuade someone to accept our ideas or perspective, we usually try to provide them with some coherent reason to do so. We might appeal to some evidence to support our opinion, to reason or logic itself, or some other avenue which we believe makes our opinion or belief compelling to accept. Regardless of what type of support for your idea you rely upon, we all try to structure our ideas in some way that makes them seem reasonable.

Thinkers throughout the ages have studied arguments and refined these ‘structures’ of reaching a conclusion through the study of logic, which is itself is defined as the study of arguments. Logic seeks out to interpret what types of arguments are valid and what arguments are invalid. The conclusion to a valid argument is undeniably true if its premises and statements are also true. The conclusion to a valid argument, however, can be false, but only if the premises and statements are false too.

An invalid argument can have a conclusion which is false, even if its premises are true. Alternatively, an invalid argument can also have a true conclusion from false premises. This might seem confusing at first, but the important point to remember is an invalid argument doesn’t entail its conclusion if the premises and statements are true, whereas a valid argument does.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what are premises and statements? Premises are the groundwork for a formal argument. Premises usually take the form of some reasonable assumption or relatively hard-to-deny idea from which the rest of the argument can build upon.


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