Philosophical Analysis Using Argument Maps

Paul L. Miller '41 Freshman Seminar in Human Values

Instructor: Simon Cullen

Please note: Weekly problem set sessions (precepts) will be scheduled at the beginning of semester.

About this document

Section 1 of this document should give you a better idea of what argument mapping is and what this seminar involves; section 2 presents the results of an experiment designed to test the effectiveness of the seminar; and section 3 presents anonymous feedback from alumni of the seminar.

A syllabus is available here, and the official Princeton course listing is here. You can find a short article about the seminar, published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, here. A short experimental report on the seminar is available by request. For more information, contact Simon Cullen: scullen[the-you-know-what-sign]princeton[dot]edu. 

1 Argument Analysis

Whether in the dining halls or when writing an academic paper, during the coming years you’ll be constructing and analyzing lots of complex arguments. Weirdly, most people rarely stop to consider how arguments actually work, much less how to improve their own argumentation skills. And although you are certain to rely on these skills, chances are no one will teach them to you explicitly.

This presents a problem because analytical reasoning (aka "critical thinking") is an activity that, like playing the guitar, we’re not naturally very good at. But we can improve with the right kind of practice. Similarly, teaching analytical reasoning as it’s usually donewithout this practiceis about as useful as listening to someone lecture on how to play the guitar. When you analyze an argument, you practice your reasoning skills deliberately. In this seminar, you will get lots of practice analyzing important philosophical arguments, and weekly, detailed, feedback on your work.

Visualizing argumentation

To ease the cognitive burden of complex argument analysis, you’ll learn a software-based visualization technique called ‘argument mapping.’ Argument maps visualize the relations of support in argumentative prose. They help you to organize and navigate complex information; they encourage you to clearly articulate your reasoning; and they allow you to communicate this reasoning quickly and effectively. Having laid bare the moving parts of complex arguments, you’ll be much better equipped to discuss their weaknesses and to formulate objections.

To get a sense of what argument mapping is all about, consider the following simple example:

Do you think your local butcher will reduce the amount of meat she orders from the slaughterhouse if you become a vegetarian? Of course not! The supply chain for meat just isn’t sensitive to the quantities that a single person consumes. So, by becoming a vegetarian, you'll never save a single animal’s life! But by becoming a vegetarian, you’ll deprive yourself of the pleasure of eating meat, and you should only do that if the benefits would outweigh the losses. Therefore, you should only become a vegetarian if doing so would save some animals’ lives.

Even though this passage is vastly simpler—both conceptually and logically—than nearly any text you'll be asked to read at college, most students still find it quite challenging: very few manage to identify the logical structure, and almost no one finds it easy to do so. The argument can be mapped as follows (we adopt the convention of using square brackets to mark premises which remain only implicit in the text):

Once you’re familiar with argument mapping, a glance at this diagram will immediately reveal that the conclusion is supported by a reason (1A) which consists of two premises, each of which is supported by further reasons. The first reason consists of three premises, one of which (2A-c) remains implicit in the text; the second consists of two claims, only one of which is explicitly stated in the text.

This structure is communicated by the text, but extracting it is not trivial. Because argument maps use color, line, and shape to represent the structure of an argument, this information can be delivered via preconscious visual processing. Moreover, with the map in front of you, you won’t strain to hold the entire argument in mind. This frees you to focus on its parts and to detect the assumptions implicit in its inferences. With the map in front of you, you can say exactly where you disagree with the argument.

2 Experimental results

Effect on analytical reasoning skills

Over the past three years, students in the Princeton Freshman Seminar Philosophical Analysis using Argument Maps have participated in a controlled experiment to study the effectiveness of this approach to teaching philosophy and general analytical reasoning. The results were unprecedented and extremely encouraging.

Using the most rigorous standardized test of analytical reasoning skills available, we found a large effect in 2013 for the seminar group, and negligible effect for the control group. The difference was significant at p=.01. Over the next three years, we successfully replicated (and improved upon) our initial experimental findings. Follow-up tests given one to two years after completing the seminar indicate that student gains are long lasting. To give you a sense of the magnitude of our students' improvement, an equivalent improvement on an IQ test would be over 10 points.

We found that if you began the seminar in the 50th percentile of your cohort, and improved by the average amount, you’d end the semester scoring better than about 80 percent of your cohort.

The effect size for regular philosophy courses is estimated at around 0.25, and the effect size of the best taught dedicated critical thinking courses is also considerably lower than what our students have achieved. To our knowledge, previous experiments that used the same test as we did have found effects that are, on average, 50% smaller than what our students have achieved.

Effect on comprehension and essay writing

To study the effect of the seminar on students’ essay writing and their comprehension of the philosophical material, we ran a controlled experiment in which blind graders scored both seminar essays and control-group essays, drawn from a concurrent Princeton philosophy course, written on the same topics, using the same readings. (The graders did not know which essays were from seminar students and which from the control group.)

Here’s what we found:

These effect sizes mean that a completely average essay from the seminar scored more highly than about 90 percent of the essays from the control group. This was also true when essays were scored on the standard grade-point scale.

In short, learning to analyze philosophical arguments is the most effective way we know of to improve your analytical reasoning skills, the quality of your analytical writing, and your grasp of philosophical ideas and arguments. 

While these skills may be particularly important to philosophers—crisp argumentative prose is the bread and butter of philosophy—they are not specific to philosophyRather, they apply to all disciplines that demand clear expression and deal in complex argumentation. They will serve you well not just in your Princeton classes, but also in the political, professional, and civic reasoning you employ for the rest of your life.

3 Feedback from Princeton students

Students gave the seminar an average course rating of 4.93/5. Additionally, students gave an average response of 4.9/5 to each of the following statements: “This class has improved my ability to construct and evaluate written arguments,” “This class has improved my ability to read and understand academic articles,” “I expect the skills I have learned in this class to help me in other courses.” Below you will find some feedback from students who participated in the first and second iterations of the seminar. It was provided to us anonymously.

“This class has improved how I argue, how I read, and even how I think, but what seems even more remarkable is that every single person I’ve talked to from the class now loves philosophy.”

I soon noticed in other subjects that while my classmates would complain that a paper was undecipherable, I’d figure out the argument quickly. Now, as I go back and look through all of my early work in my search for a final essay, I can see just how incredible my progress has been.

In this class we learned how to think about arguments in their purest form. I grew immensely throughout the course, and would recommend it to any student regardless of their future plans or other interests.

There has been no other experience in my life that could compare with the effect this seminar has had on my ability to think, read, and write.

“I was able to better organize my thoughts, and understand the structure of arguments. My reading skills have improved immensely from this class. I can understand readings at a much higher level.”

“I really believe that the skills I have gained in this class will transfer to many aspects of my life - and not just to other courses.”

“By the end of the course, in a first reading I could understand the argument at a much higher level than after careful reading before the course.”

“This has been one of the best classes I’ve ever taken, and it’s certainly the most useful. The skills learned in this course can be applied in many different ways . . . It helped me tremendously.”

This course makes approaching even the densest, most staidly academic text less scary. The ability to sit down and really, deeply work out exactly how the argument on the page is working seems so invaluable for any field, not just philosophy.

Before this class I'd always thought I was a good reader. As it turns out I wasn't. I struggled early on to understand many of the readings. However, as the readings got denser, I grasped their arguments more quickly as my skills improved. The same was true for my writing. Beginning to end I'd say I progressed dramatically in analytical reading and writing.

I remember when I started in the seminar and was unable to make heads or tails of any argument on the page. But as I practiced more and more, my ability to parse through seemingly complex arguments improved. A lot. It truly was as if I could feel my 'logical superpowers' activating.

“After the first two or three classes . . . I could notice a perceptible difference in the way everyone in the class was thinking and articulating their points. I saw people’s ideas being changed (including my own) through logical discourse. This is the point which has made me want to switch to a philosophy major from a pure science major.”

“The seminar offered a personalized learning experience unlike any class I have ever taken. We received constant feedback on our work in class and on the homework assignments. It was the type of class I envisioned myself taking when I chose to attend Princeton.”

“I’ve learned to extract the core argument from a reading and break that argument down to its essential premises. From there, I’ve been able to write concise summaries and develop original objections. This course has been invaluable to my development as a critical thinker . . . This seminar was the highlight of my term.”

It gave me the tools necessary to understand the nuances and implications of philosophical arguments made by others and, almost as importantly, myself. It was the kind of intellectual excitement that I was looking forward to in college.

“I have absolutely loved my semester in this seminar. It has been one of the most rewarding learning experiences ever. It’s such a different and new way of thinking, but it has helped me immensely and been an applicable science in multiple areas.”

My thinking has become much more precise, and I consider many more possibilities for fault in my thinking, which has made my argument construction, writing, and reading significantly better.

“I think this class has made me a better person, not because of the articles I have read, but because of the new way I have learned to think. I find myself being much more cautious about what I say, and a bit more humble. I make sure to only try to set forth my opinion in a group setting if it actually makes sense, and is helpful.”

Sample map

[Contact Simon.]

The official course description can be found at