Toulmin: The Uses of Argument

Toulmin and His Arguments

Toulmin’s The Use of Argument is an interesting read, but certainly requires a bit of digestion before you can think you know what he’s talking about. Essentially, Toulmin is positing a philosophy for using practical argumentation and looking at how the lack of such argumentation is a faulty area in the study of the logic. In the text, he puts for a style of argument for philosophy that takes into account exceptions, rebuttals and modal qualifiers. Toulmin argues, in a roundabout way, that truth is not a universal concept (thus the reason that the traditional syllogism will not work for philosophy and logic). Instead, each community has qualifiers or rebuttals for the idea of universal truth that make their own truth undefinable through formal syllogisms. (Okay, so here we have to remember that this idea was put forth by Protagoras many centuries ago. Protagoras, with more brevity) argues the same point in his writings on the dissoi logoi and the question of whether or not the gods exist.)

Toulmin’s Two Forms of Argument

There are two distinct forms of arguments in Toulmin’s work. He looks specifically at the substantial argument and the analytical argument. Each of these arguments has, at the foundation, the syllogism. However, each of the arguments do completely different things.

Substantial Arguments

Substantial arguments can be evaluated according to their content and require an inference to move from the evidence to the conclusion. This inference is largely based on the substantial argument’s basis in situational claims. For example:

Harry was born in Bermuda.

Harry is a British citizen.

This syllogism requires that the reader infer that Bermuda is a colony of Britain and that all children born their are given British citizenship automatically. This argument is also situational because whether Harry is a British citizen or not depends on who was in control of Bermuda at the time of Harry’s birth.

Analytical Arguments

Analytical arguments can be evaluated according to their form. These arguments are universal and, therefore, their conclusions are in their evidence. Take, for example, the classic analytical argument:

Socrates is a man

All men are mortal.

Socrates is mortal.

The key to analytical arguments is that there is no inference left out. Toulmin could also explain this as the “backwards” argument. This argument says the same thing if presented in the opposite form:

Socrates is mortal.

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.

Modal Qualifiers

Modal qualifiers (probably, maybe, might, cannot, etc.) are terms added to an argument to indicate the degree of certainty in the conclusion. Modal qualifiers demonstrate the practical implications of use for the argument and that there are reasons to justify the claims. For example, if we return to Harry’s situation, this argument could be written as:

Harry was born in Bermuda.

Harry is probably a British Citizen.

We can find out for certain if Harry is a British citizen or not. However,  I do not know with complete certainty that he is, so I must qualify the argument.  Modals play a specific place in Toulmin’s argument structure, but this is a bit difficult to explain in words. So, I’m including my own diagram of the structure.


This example uses an exception to demonstrate how the argument is altered when not using universal premises. This applies specifically to the Substantial arguments in Toumlin’s work.

The Problem with Logic

The diagram above also demonstrates Toulmin’s argument about the problem with Logicians. He argues that Logicians took analytical syllogisms as a paradigm and build their systems of formal logic completely on this foundation. Then, they proceeded to apply this foundation to all arguments in all fields in an attempt to free theoretical logic from field dependence. Unfortunately, this attempt removes the ability of logical systems of serious applications to substantial arguments.

About smartykatt

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Lamar University where I specialize in rhetoric, composition, digital literacy, and information literacy. My research focuses on the intersections of student engagement with digital and information literacy and their relation to student research and writing. I am an ACES Fellow at Lamar and, with Janice Walker (Georgia Southern), I am a Principal Investigator on the LILAC Project.

Posted on January 2, 2009, in Applied Rhetoric, Exams, Historical Rhetoric, Theory and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hello, I’m analysing argument using Toulmin model. This is new for me, but your article has really helped me understanding Toulmin’s model. I have some questions. Toulmin’s model is an improvement of deductive reasoning, but in the application can I use it to classify inductive or conductive reasoning in spoken discourse such as debate? And in classifying argument element by toulmin, which one is the most important referring to claim indicators or to the functions? Because sometimes a claim can be sequences of sentences, not only just a declarative statement. I really appreciate any answer. Thank you for this article !!

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