Counterargument may also be known as rebuttal or refutation.
Guide to Counterarguments in Writing Studies
Counterarguments are a topic of study in Writing Studies as
- a form of invention
- a part of Toulmin Argument
- a distinct part of Aristotelian Argument
- Rhetors develop counterarguments by engaging in two rhetorical moves:
- Rhetors develop counterarguments by engaging in two rhetorical moves:
- a part of Rogerian Argument
- Rhetors begin arguments with sincere summaries of counterarguments
- a strategy of Organization.
Learning about the placement of counterarguments in Toulmin Argument, Arisotelian Argument, and Rogerian Argument will help you understand when you need to introduce counterarguments and how thoroughly you need to address them.
Why Do Counterarguments Matter?
If your goal is clarity and persuasion, you cannot ignore what your target audience thinks, feels, and does about the argument. To communicate successfully with audiences, rhetors need to engage in audience analysis: they need to understand the arguments against their argument that the audience may hold.
Imagine that you are scrolling through your social media feed when you see a post from an old friend. As you read, you immediately feel that your friend’s post doesn’t make sense. “They can’t possibly believe that!” you tell yourself. You quickly reply “I’m not sure I agree. Why do you believe that?” Your friend then posts a link to an article and tells you to see for yourself.
There are many ways to analyze your friend’s social media post or the professor’s article your friend shared. You might, for example, evaluate the professor’s article by using the CRAAP Test or by conducting a rhetorical analysis of their aims and ethos. After engaging in these prewriting heuristics to get a better sense of what your friend knows and feels about the topic at hand, you may feel more prepared to respond to their arguments and also sense how they might react to your post.
There’s more than one way to counter an argument
“Social media is bad for you (claim) because it always (qualifier) promotes an unrealistic standard of beauty (backing). In this article, researchers found that most images were photoshopped (data). Standards should be realistic; if they are not, those standards are bad (warrant).”
Besides noting we might have a series of logical fallacies here, counterarguments and dissociations can be made against each of these parts:
- Against the qualifier: Social media does not always promote unrealistic standards.
- Against the backing: Social media presents but does not promote unrealistic standards.
- Against the data: This article focuses on Instagram; these findings are not applicable to Twitter.
- Against the warrant: How we approach standards matters more than the standards themselves; standards do not need to be realistic, but rather we need to be realistic about how we approach standards.
In generating and considering counterarguments and conditions of rebuttal, it is important to consider how we approach alternative views. Alternative viewpoints are opportunities not only to strengthen and contrast our own arguments with those of others; alternative viewpoints are also opportunities to nuance and develop our own arguments.
Let us continue to look at our social media argument and potential counterarguments. We might prepare responses to each of these potential counterarguments, anticipating the ways in which our audience might try to shift how we frame this situation. However, we might also concede that some of these counterarguments actually have good points.
For example, we might still believe that social media is bad, but perhaps we also need to consider more about
- What factors make it worse (nuance the qualifier)?
- Whether or not social media is a neutral tool or whether algorithms take advantage of our baser instincts (nuance the backing)
- Whether this applies to all social media or whether we want to focus on just one social media platform (nuance the data)
- How should we approach social standards (nuance the warrant)?
Identifying counterarguments can help us strengthen our arguments by helping us recognize the complexity of the issue at hand.
Neoclassical Argument – Aristotelian Argument
Learn How to Compose a Counterargument Passage or Section
While Toulmin Argument focuses on the nuts and bolts of argumentation, a counterargument can also act as an entire section of an Aristotelian Argument. This section typically comes after you have presented your own lines of argument and evidence.
This section typically consists of two rhetorical moves:
Examples of Counterarguments
By introducing counterarguments, we show we are aware of alternative viewpoints— other definitions, explanations, meanings, solutions, etc. We want to show that we are good listeners and aren’t committing the strawman fallacy. We also concede some of the alternative viewpoints that we find most persuasive. By making concessions, we can show that we are reasonable (ethos) and that we are listening. Rogerian Argument is an example of building listening more fully into our writing.
Using our social media example, we might write:
I recognize that in many ways social media is only as good as the content that people upload to it. As Professor X argues, social media amplifies both the good and the bad of human nature.
Once we’ve shown that we understand and recognize good arguments when we see them, we put forward our response to the counterclaim. In our response, we do not simply dismiss alternative viewpoints, but provide our own backing, data, and warrants to show that we, in fact, have the more compelling position.
To counter Professor X’s argument, we might write:
At the same time, there are clear instances where social media amplifies the bad over the good by design. While content matters, the design of social media is only as good as the people who created it.
Through conceding and countering, we can show that we recognize others’ good points and clarify where we stand in relation to others’ arguments.
Counterarguments and Organization
Learn When and How to Weave Counterarguments into Your Texts
As we write, it is also important to consider the extent to which we will respond to counterarguments. If we focus too much on counterarguments, we run the risk of downplaying our own contributions. If we focus too little on counterarguments, we run the risk of seeming aloof and unaware of reality. Ideally, we will be somewhere in between these two extremes.
There are many places to respond to counterarguments in our writing. Where you place your counterarguments will depend on the rhetorical situation (ex: audience, purpose, subject), your rhetorical stance (how you want to present yourself), and your sense of kairos. Here are some common choices based on a combination of these rhetorical situation factors:
- If a counterargument is well-established for your audience, you may want to respond to that counterargument earlier in your essay, clearing the field and creating space for you to make your own arguments. An essay about gun rights, for example, would need to make it clear very quickly that it is adding something new to this old debate. Doing so shows your audience that you are very aware of their needs.
- If a counterargument is especially well-established for your audience and you simply want to prove that it is incorrect rather than discuss another solution, you might respond to it point by point, structuring your whole essay as an extended refutation. Fact-checking and commentary articles often make this move. Responding point by point shows that you take the other’s point of view seriously.
- If you are discussing something relatively unknown or new to your audience (such as a problem with black mold in your dormitory), you might save your response for after you have made your points. Including alternative viewpoints even here shows that you are aware of the situation and have nothing to hide.
Whichever you choose, remember that counterarguments are opportunities to ethically engage with alternative viewpoints and your audience.
The following questions can guide you as you begin to think about counterarguments:
- What is your argument? What alternative positions might exist as counterarguments to your argument?
- How can considering counterarguments strengthen your argument?
- Given possible counterarguments, what points might you reconsider or concede?
- To what extent might you respond to counterarguments in your essay so that they can create and respond to the rhetorical situation?
- Where might you place your counterarguments in your essay?
- What might including counterarguments do for your ethos?
- Sweetland Center for Writing (n.d.). “How Do I Incorporate a Counterargument?” University of Michigan.
- The Writing Center (n.d.) “All About Counterarguments.” George Mason University.
- Lachner, N. (n.d.). “Counterarguments.” University of Nevada Reno, University Writing and Speaking Center.
- Jeffrey, R. (n.d.). “Questions for Thinking about Counterarguments.” In M. Gagich and E. Zickel, A Guide to Rhetoric, Genre, and Success in First-Year Writing.
- Kause, S. (2011). “On the Other Hand: The Role of Antithetical Writing in First Year Composition Courses.” Writing Spaces Vol. 2.
- Burton, G. “Refutatio.” Silvae Rhetoricae.