Aristotelian Argument

Learn how to employ the fundamental qualities of argument developed by Aristotle.

statue of Aristotle by a building in Freiburg, Germany - photo “Aristotle” by maha-online is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Aristotelian Argument is a deductive approach to argumentation that presents a thesis, an argument up front — somewhere in the introduction — and then endeavors to prove that point via deductive reasoning and exemplification.

Scholarly conversations regarding this style of argument can be traced to the 4th century BEC, including, especially Aristotle’s Rhetoric as well as the later works of Cicero and Quintilian.

Aristotelian argument is strategic choice for developing your arguments so long as

  1. your audience is open to argument based on logical reasoning and rhetorical reasoning.
  2. you are well versed on scholarly conversations about the topic.


Aristotelian Argument may also be referred to as Classical Argument or Traditional Argument

Related Concepts: Evidence; Persuasion

Guide to Aristotelian Argument

Arguments come in all shapes and sizes. Hence, there’s no one way to compose an argument. Rather, you need to adjust how you shape your arguments based on your topic and rhetorical situation.

As always, you are wise to engage in rhetorical reasoning and rhetorical analysis to decide whether you should even respond to a call for an argument, much less invest the time in research your claims.

  1. Introduces the Topic
  2. Introduce Claims
  3. Appeal to Ethos & Persona to Establish an Appropriate Tone
  4. Appeal to Emotions
  5. Appeal to Logic
  6. Present Counterarguments
  7. Search for a Compromise and Call for a Higher Interest
  8. Speculate About Implications in Conclusions

1. Introduce the Topic

Before attempting to convince readers to agree with your position on a subject, you may need to educate them about the topic. In the introduction, explain the scope, complexity, and significance of the issue. You might want to mention the various approaches others have taken to solve the problem.

A discussion of background information and definition of terms can constitute a substantial part of your argument when you are writing for uninformed audiences, or it can constitute a minor part of your argument when you are writing for more informed audiences.

2. State Claims

Arguments are driven by claims. The claims can be about:

  • Facts (Females are better mathematicians than males).
  • Cause-and-Effect Relationships (Media violence creates a “culture of violence” in America).
  • Solutions (Vegetarian diets are healthier and easier on the environment).
  • Policies (Students who plagiarize should be expelled).
  • Value (It’s unethical to hurt animals to conduct medical research).

As discussed below, claims are typically presented near the beginning of arguments, but they can also be implied or presented in the conclusions of the texts.

3. Appeal to Ethos & Persona to Establish an Appropriate Tone

The ethos the person making the argument has an effect on its success. If the writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . . has a reputation as a credible source, their argument appears more persuasive.

Additionally, the persona you project as a communicator influences whether readers, listeners, users . . . will read and consider of your argument. Your opening sentences generally establish the tone of your text and present to the reader a sense of your persona, both of which play a tremendous role in the overall persuasiveness of your argument. By evaluating how you define the problem, consider counterarguments, or marshal support for your claims, your readers will make inferences about your ethos and pathos.

Most academic readers are put off by zealous, emotional, or angry arguments. No matter how well you fine-tune the substance of your document, the tone that readers detect significantly influences how the message is perceived. If readers dislike the manner of your presentation, they may reject your facts, too. If you do not sound confident, your readers may doubt you. If your paper is loaded with spelling errors, you look foolish. No matter how solid your evidence is for a particular claim, your readers may not agree with you if you sound sarcastic, condescending, or intolerant.

Occasionally writers will hide behind a persona. Their reasons for hiding may be totally ethical.

4. Appeal to Emotions

Advertising seeks to invoke your emotions and capture your attention because advertisers know people make some decisions based on emotion rather than reason.

We all tend to perceive certain situations subjectively and passionately—particularly situations that involve us at a personal level. Even when we try to be objective, many of us still make decisions based on emotional impulses rather than sound reasoning. Those who recognize the power of emotional appeals sometimes twist them to sway others. Hitler is an obvious and extreme example. His dichotomizing—”You’re either for me or against me”—and bandwagon appeals—”Everyone knows the Jews are inferior to true Germans”—helped instigate one of the darkest chapters in human history.

Additional emotional appeals include:

  • Appeals to authority
    • According to the EPA, global warming will raise sea levels).
  • Appeals to pity
    • I should be allowed to take the test again because I had the flu the first time I took it).
  • Personal attacks on the opposition, which rhetoricians call ad hominem attacks
    • I wouldn’t vote for that man because he’s a womanizer).

Like arguments based solely on the persona of the author, arguments based solely on appeals to emotions usually lack the strength to be completely persuasive. Most modern, well-educated readers are quick to see through such manipulative attempts.

Emotional appeals can be used to persuade readers of the rightness of good causes or imperative action. For example, if you were writing an essay advocating a school-wide recycling program, you might paint an emotional, bleak picture of what our world will look like in 50 years if we don’t begin conserving now.

To achieve the non-threatening tone needed to diffuse emotional situations, avoid exaggerating your claims or using biased, emotional language. Also, avoid attacking your audience’s claims as exaggerated. Whenever you feel angry or defensive, take a deep breath and look for points in which you can agree with or understand your opponents. When you are really emotional about an issue, try to cool off enough to recognize where your language is loaded with explosive terms.

If the people for whom you are writing feel stress when you confront them with an emotionally charged issue and have already made up their minds firmly on the subject, you should try to interest such reluctant readers by suggesting that you have an innovative way of viewing the problem. Of course, this tactic is effective only when you can indeed follow through and be as original as possible in your treatment of the subject. Otherwise, your readers may reject your ideas because they recognize that you have misrepresented yourself.

5. Appeal to Logic

Critical readers expect you to develop your claims thoroughly. By examining the point you want to argue and the needs of your audience, you can determine whether it will be acceptable to rely only on anecdotal information and reasoning or whether you will also need to research facts and figures and include quotations from established sources. Personal observations have their place, say, in an argument about staying in athletic shape. But an anecdotal tone is unlikely to be persuasive when you address touchy social issues such as terrorism, gun control, pornography, or drugs.

Despite the forcefulness of your emotional appeals, you need to be rational if you hope to sway educated readers. Trained as critical readers, your teachers and college-educated peers expect you to provide evidence—that is, logical reasoning, personal observations, expert testimony, facts, and statistics. Like a judge who must decide a case based on the law rather than on intuition, your teachers want to see that you can analyze an issue as “objectively” as possible. As members of the academic community, they are usually more concerned with how you argue than what you argue for or against. Regardless of your position on an issue, they want to see that you can defend your position logically and with evidence.

6. Present Counter Arguments

At some point in your essay, you may need to present counterarguments to your claim(s). Essentially, whenever you think your readers are likely to disagree with you, you need to account for their concerns. Elaborating on counterarguments is particularly useful when you have an unusual claim or a skeptical audience. The strategy usually involves stating an opinion or argument that is contrary to your position, then proving to the best of your ability why your point of view still prevails.

When presenting and refuting counterarguments, remember that your readers do not expect your position to be valid 100 percent of the time. Few people think so simplistically. Despite the forced choices that clever rhetoricians present, few subjects that are worth arguing about can be reduced to yes, always, or no, never. When it is pertinent, therefore, you should concede any instances in which your opponents’ counterarguments have merit.

When considering likely counterarguments, you may want to elaborate on which of your opponent’s claims about the problem are correct. For example, if your roommate’s messiness is driving you crazy but you still want to live with him or her, stress that cleanliness is not the be-all-and-end-all of human life. Commend your roommate for helping you focus on your studies and express appreciation for all of the times that he or she has pitched in to clean up. And, of course, you would also want to admit to a few annoying habits of your own, such as taking thirty-minute showers or forgetting to pay the phone bill. Rather than issuing an ultimatum such as “Unless you start picking up after yourself and doing your fair share of the housework, I’m moving out,” you could say, “I realize that you view housekeeping as a less important activity than I do, but I need to let you know that I find your messiness to be highly stressful, and I’m wondering what kind of compromise we can make so we can continue living together.” Yes, this statement carries an implied threat, but note how this sentence is framed positively and minimalizes the emotional intensity inherent in the situation.

You will sabotage your hard-won persona as an informed and fair-minded thinker if you misrepresent your opponent’s counterarguments. For example, one rhetorical tactic that critical readers typically dislike is the straw man approach, in which a weak aspect of the opponent’s argument is equated with weakness of the argument as a whole. Unfortunately, American politicians tend to garner voter support by misrepresenting their opponent’s background and position on the issues. Before taking a straw man approach in an academic essay, you should remember that misrepresenting or satirizing opposing thoughts and feelings about your subject will probably alienate thoughtful readers.

7. Search for a Compromise and Call for a Higher Interest

Occasionally–particularly in emotionally stressful situations–authors extensively develop counterarguments. Some problems are so complex that there simply isn’t one solution to the problem. Under such circumstances, authors may seek a compromise under a call for a “higher interest.” For example, if you were writing an editorial in an Israeli newspaper that called for setting aside some of the Gaza territory for an independent Palestinian state, your introduction might sympathetically explore all of the Israeli blood that has been lost since the Gaza was seized in the Seven Day War. Then you could address the “eye-for-an-eye” mentality that has characterized this problem. Perhaps you could soften your readers’ thoughts about this problem by mentioning the number of Arabs who have died. Once you have developed your claim that some land should be set aside for the Palestinians, you might try to explore some of the “common ground” and call for Israelis and Arabs to seek out a higher goal expressed by both Jewish and Muslim peoples—that is, the desire for peace.

8. Speculate About Implications in Conclusions

Instead of merely repeating your original claim in the conclusion, you should end by trying to motivate your audience. Do not go out with a whimper and a boring restatement of your introduction. Instead, elaborate on the significant and broad implications of your argument. The wrap-up is an excellent place to utilize some emotional appeals.

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