Stephen Toulmin’s Rules

Sometimes one comes across a book that seems to reveal rules that previously seemed indiscoverable. Stephen Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument (1958, 2003) was one of those books for me. I had previously read a (sadly) lesser-known Cambridge philosopher called John Wisdom and grown very fond of his Paradox and Discovery (1965) and Proof and Explanation (1991), and upon reading that Toulmin was a former student of his it was clear that his book, a legend in its own right, should be on my reading list. Even before going through it, however, I came across the famous Toulmin-model of argument. The simplicity and flexibility of the model was quite simply astonishing. It really is a thing of beauty, never mind the fact that the book is not strictly about this single model. Here it is:

It looks way too simple to be a powerful tool of analysis, but there is no denying that it goes a long way in any argumentative affair. (D) stands for data or datum; the horizontal line, the inference, leads us to (C), a claim that is put forth by using the argument; (Q) stands for qualifier, it might be a word like “probably” or “presumably”, but it can also be something more elaborate; (R) means rebuttal and it is characterized by the word “unless”, ie. it explains why the contingency expressed in the qualifier might come in handy; the warrant (W) supports the inference and it explains why it is possible, or warranted, to make the inference. Warrants, in turn, can be backed up (B for backing) with further arguments when, for instance, someone challenges the acceptability of a given warrant. That, in turn, can develop into a whole new discussion that needs new arguments. The model can therefore branch out in multiples and be used again to describe what goes on under (B). It’s scalable in this sense.

The model is so simple that one can gain a lot just by learning its vocabulary. These are pretty much everyday words: warrant, claim, data, qualifier, etc. Therefore, there is little need to screw around with fancy terminology on this level. Just picking up stuff in the papers or daily conversations and naming the constituent parts of argument one finds in them can help one to make a habit of picking apart simple, everyday argumentation. Most arguments come to us unlabelled, and thankfully so, and most are not constructed carefully enough to have backings for their warrants or qualifiers or much else, but in order to be argumentative they have to have at least a claim.

One can speak of argumentative rigor only after a claim has been made. After that, one can ask for instance: “What do you have to go on and what warrants your inference?” Assuming you are on friendly terms with your interlocutor and don’t get punched in the face for asking that, this questioning will lead you to think the matter through with more precision and, who knows, even construct a more solid argument to support the claim through constructive criticism. In any case, the model is one of those things that will have a lasting effect on your thinking when you get it.

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