Can you identify implicit assumptions in the messages you see every day? Read on and you’ll find a wealth of examples that will help you see what’s not being said- a precious skill we should all have!
The Opposite of Hidden
A good argument, as shown by Toulmin should consist of the following elements:
-Conclusion (or claim)
-Reason for reaching the conclusion
-Warrant- the general rule that helps connect the reason to the conclusion
-Evidence for both the reason and the warrant (although some warrants will not need evidence such as axioms, definitions, values etc.)
-Rebuttal as a counter-argument to the conclusion.
-Qualifier to offer the degree of strength for the conclusion
Here is a visual representation of what this argument might look like (excluding the qualifier):
And here is an example of such an argument (note the word “presumably” in the conclusion which is a qualifier):
Harry is presumably a British subject because he was born in Bermuda (and has a birth certificate to prove it). Based on statutes and legal provisions, any man born in Bermuda will generally be a British subject, unless both of his parents are aliens or he has become a naturalized American citizen.
Putting the argument in a graphic representation can help figure out the different elements comprising the claim and also helps identify quickly if something is missing.
Here is the graphic representation of this argument:
This argument above is explicit- which means that all elements are spelt out and nothing is hidden or missing.
However, many arguments in the real world could contain hidden (latent or implicit) elements for various reasons. Which means that not all elements of an argument are spelt out explicitly and figuring out what is missing can sometimes be pretty challenging.
But why would it be important to figure out if something is not spelt out explicitly and hidden? When analysing an argument we want to make sure that there is a logical reasoning line linking the reasons, warrants and conclusions. By not spelling out certain parts of the argument, the writer or speaker might intend to use unproven warrants or reasons. As you can see in the diagram above, a good argument should have supporting evidence for the reason, but also supporting evidence for the warrant. So identifying any hidden elements can help us understand if there is any evidence needed which is not provided, or if there is any false assumption made.
All this sounds pretty dry and abstract, so we’ll take a look at some examples to make it clearer.
But before that, let’s also acknowledge the fact that sometimes it is acceptable for certain warrants (assumptions) to not be spelt out and backed with evidence. For example in this case above, if the argument is presented to a group of lawyers living in Bermuda and very familiar with Bermuda laws, it might not be necessary to spell out the warrant or the rebuttal because everyone in the group would already know these and it would save time. In which case the argument might look like this:
Harry is presumably a British subject because he was born in Bermuda.
Let’s look at a text which makes a lot of assumptions, some of them reasonable, some not.
Not all assumptions should be challenged, but we must pay attention to them.
Running alongside the river is a time of recreation and joy. From now on thousands of people will have their workout ruined by the development of four-lane highway right close by the river.
There are many assumptions made in this short argument.
Assumption 1: that running is a time of recreation and joy. While this activity could seem like that to many experienced runners, it is possible that some people engaged in running are struggling if they are beginners.
Assumption 2: that the river the author is referring to is known and does not need to be named. This might be the case if this text appeared in a local publication, but not really in a national or international paper.
Assumption 2: that thousands of people are running by the river.
Assumption 3: that the runners who run by the river do not like cars passing them by on a highway.
Assumption 4: that the development of a highway and consequent cars passing by can ruin a workout.
Assumption 5: that the readers of the text will understand words such as “workout”, “recreation”, “joy”, “ruined” and that these words do not need to be defined.
Here is what the graphic argument map looks like with these assumptions added within it (some assumptions are reasons, some warrants).
The implicit elements are highlighted in red.
While these assumptions are hidden, most of them are acceptable (maybe apart from the one where the writer does not name the river in question). It’s true that not everyone might find running joyful, or that everyone is bothered by cars passing by; however these statements have enough general applicability to be considered reasonable assumptions. As Stella Cottrell shows, if the writer were to try and prove each and everyone one of these assumptions, or to define those terms in Assumption 5 above, which are already generally well understood and accepted, then we might find that annoying and a waste of time.
So the context is important- identifying what are reasonable assumptions depends in part on the context: is the audience already familiar with the terms used or do these need clarification? Does the audience have the same level of background knowledge to be able to understand what is behind the assumptions? Is the text published in a local or national paper and as such do any of the locally known elements need to be clarified for the larger audience?
Key Takeaway: underlying assumptions are not necessarily incorrect or unreasonable.
Benefits of Identifying Implicit Assumptions
From the examples above we can deduct that there are a few benefits to identifying hidden assumptions. Figuring out what is not being said helps understand and evaluate the argument better. Once we can spell out any implicit reasons or warrants we can also start judging whether these are backed by reasonable evidence. On the contrary, if certain claims are hidden, we might be tempted to accept them as they are, not bothering to verify if they are true or supported by evidence.
Furthermore, an argument which does not spell out all its components is considered invalid.
Unlike the example above, there are many cases where the authors or speakers make use of implicit assumptions in order to not have to show why or how these are true.
In general there are three problems that can arise with hidden assumptions:
-the assumptions might be false
-they might be missing evidence
-they might not connect logically to the conclusion.
Looking at Toulmin structure above, when assumptions are missing, they are either reasons or warrants. Each of these will be discussed in more detail below.
2. Hidden Assumptions used as Warrants
A warrant is a general rule, theory, axiom or value which helps connect the reasons to the conclusion. For more on this, see our article on Toulmin.
Here is an example of an argument containing a hidden assumption used as warrant:
There is nothing wrong with arriving late at work. Other colleagues do it all the time.
In this example the general rule (warrant) which is assumed is that if other people do an action all the time, then there is nothing wrong with that.
This is the graphical representation of the argument map:
Unless you are a very seasoned critical thinker, until we spell out the missing warrant, we can’t quite grasp what is wrong with it. But once it’s out there and we understand its role, it’s much easier to see why it might not be true. There is no evidence to support it. We are also missing any backing evidence to support the statement that other colleagues do it all the time.
When dealing with hidden assumptions used as warrants, you need to identify the hidden assumption and judge if that is a reasonable assumption to be made: would it be accepted by the majority of people, would it hold true for the majority of the cases? If yes, then it is reasonable and probably does not need to be proven. But if the assumption would not be accepted by the majority of people, then evidence needs to be included in order to support its veracity. If there is no evidence included, then we can conclude that the warrant is not true.
3. Non-Sequitur based on a Hidden Assumption
To understand this type of problem, let’s look at an example we studied carefully in one of our past articles:
In this article written in The Guardian, the author asserts that people should stop eating animals if they care about the working poor, racial justice and climate change. To support this conclusion, the writer offers as reason the fact that we can live longer, healthier lives without animal protein.
As you can see in the argument map below, applying critical thinking leads us to inevitably observe that there is no logical connection between the reason provided and the conclusion drawn. This is a non-sequitur, meaning that it doesn’t follow on. For this conclusion to be true, there has to be some other warrant or reason which the author has missed to include. This is of course a problem, because it makes the argument invalid.
4. Implicit Assumptions Used as Hidden Reasons but without Evidence
It’s not necessarily a problem that implicit assumptions are used, but the fact that by being hidden, it’s not immediately apparent that any reason used in an argument needs an evidence. So the human mind (wanting to preserve resources) tends to move quickly over them if we’re not being careful. We need to identify all the hidden reasons because all reasons in an argument (whether hidden or explicit) must be supported by backing evidence.
Here is an example from Cottrell:
“Many people in the world are under-nourished or do not get enough to eat. More should be done to reduce the world’s population so that food supplies can go round.”
Here is the argument map:
The hidden reason which is not spelt out here is that the cause of undernourishment is represented by the size of the population. By not verbalizing this reason, the writer does not feel the need to include backing evidence for it. Additionally, there is no backing evidence for the first reason stated, which may or may not be true.
5. Implicit Arguments- An argument where the conclusion is not stated
Another type of implicit message is the one where the conclusion of the argument is not clearly spelt out.
In this case, the reasons and/ or warrants might be stated, but what is missing is the conclusion (although that is implied):
These types of arguments are quite tricky and you wouldn’t be wrong to wonder why such methods might be used. An argument that doesn’t state clearly its conclusion gives the impression that it doesn’t attempt to persuade the readers. As such, we might be less inclined to carefully analyse the logical line of reasoning between the reasons and the conclusion. We might also spend less time evaluating the evidence that should back the reasons.
Additionally, when the conclusion is missing, the audience will be inclined to draw the conclusion on their own. When the readers are under the impression that they reached the conclusion on their own, the argument can be more convincing.
Cottrell lists six purposes for which such arguments could be used:
- catching people unprepared or trying to convince people at a subconscious level
- persuading someone to do something they don’t really want to do
- putting an idea into another person’s head without appearing to do so
- threatening others or creating the idea of threatening circumstances
- slandering other people without actually mentioning their faults
- suggesting a consequence without stating it in an attempt to mislead or to make the audience feel they thought if it themselves
Consider this example from an experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology evaluating the persuasiveness of political messages:
“He is a greedy bureaucrat who wants to take as much money as he can from the average working men and women of this country“
Looking at it in an argument map, it becomes very clear what conclusion the author wants us to draw: that people should not vote for this candidate. But when this conclusion is not specifically verbalized, not only do we reach it on our own, but we might also tend to overlook the fact that the statement is missing any backing evidence to support it. The political and advertising world abound in such messages. Only with a critical, analytical mind can we discern the underlying purpose of such methods of communication (and persuasion).
Here is another example from an ad:
“It’s a small investment that will deliver tremendous benefits and we’re ready to prove everything we claim!”
Here it’s also pretty clear what conclusion we are expected to reach: buy this product/service! Not only is the claim missing any backing, but it also states that the author is ready to bring evidence (should it be required). Why isn’t the evidence just presented? Perhaps because most of us are happy to trust such claims, hoping that the authors would not be lying and fail to ask for supporting evidence.
Which of these hidden messages have you seen lately? Leave a comment below to tell us…