Mapping Philosophical Arguments

Mapping Philosophical Arguments


The students sit in pairs at a computer terminal, and after reading Cullen’s synopsis of a particular argument, they try to map it. The room fills up with whispered suggestions, lines tested and rejected, double negatives made positive. Most of the boxes into which they enter text are red or green. The green ones contain evidence supporting the above premise; the red ones offer arguments against it. No doubt you could achieve a similar effect using brightly colored sticky notes, but it’s much quicker mapping an argument with the help of a software program… which generates the boxes and assigns them colors. 

Simon Cullen teaches a freshman seminar called “Philosophical Analysis Using Argument Maps” and has done some highly interesting research about their effectiveness. There’s an article about it here. I asked him to say a bit more about his work with argument mapping, and he kindly sent in the following remarks.

High school curricula are dominated by textbooks and fiction, and engaging with serious argumentative prose, like playing the guitar, is not something we’re naturally very good at. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many students haven’t developed the analytical skills that college-level humanities courses presuppose. I wanted to design a philosophy course that would address this problem. Teaching students to create argument maps—diagrams that lay bare the structure and content of argumentative prose—seemed to me a promising idea because my own litmus test for whether I understand an argument is whether I can map it.

This three-minute video should give Daily Nous readers a good sense of what the resulting class is all about. The students are working on one to two page arguments that we’ve adapted from papers or written ourselves. They read these in class and then analyze them in groups. Here are two examples, adapted from A.J. Ayer’s “Freedom and Necessity” and David Lewis’ “Are We Free To Break The Laws?”. Each seminar consists of around three such exercises. Students prepare for class by attending a lab and attempting a problem set that requires them to read a reasonably short piece *very* closely. At the beginning of the semester, the problem sets are straightforward fill-in-the-blank mapping problems; by the end, we’re throwing difficult papers at them with instructions like, “Map Chisholm’s argument for the claim that we can be responsible for our actions only if we are the uncaused causes of those actions.”

I can’t make our experimental results public before they’re published (we hope this will happen soon), but I can say that they are, to our knowledge, completely unprecedented. Using the most rigorous standardized test of analytical reasoning skills available, we found improvements far larger than those we found with the control group, and we replicated these findings in the second year of the study. While we were interested in transfer to topic-neutral analytical skills, we also wanted to study the effect of the seminar on students’ writing and their comprehension of the philosophical material covered in the seminar. So we ran an 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. Here we found even larger effects on six different scales ranging from how well the student understood and presented the philosophical terrain, to how much of an original contribution they made.

So why do our students seem to improve so much? My guess is that while visualization provides real benefits, the main ingredient has little to do with maps or computers. As with any other sophisticated and acquired skill, the main ingredient is lots of practice guided by regular, targeted feedback. In our class, students work closely with each other and their instructors for upwards of four hours each week; then they spend an additional five to six hours working on problem sets, often collaboratively. They work hard, and it shows. But I also don’t want to downplay the role of visualization. Arguments have structure: this claim supports that one, which, in concert with yet another, opposes some further claim . . . . It’s possible to extract this structure from (clearly written) prose, but it’s far from trivial, especially for students whose cognitive resources are already heavily taxed by the argument’s content. It’s a bit like asking them to play tic-tac-toe in their heads: just remembering the positions of all the pieces is so taxing, they’ll spend hardly any effort on their game. Much better just to draw out the board. And so it seems with students and arguments: much better they just make a map!

Cullen says he would be glad to answer any questions that might come up in the comments.

Before we get to that, though, I wanted to draw your attention to an opportunity to join a group led by Michael Hoffman (Georgia Tech), who is applying for a $325,000 NEH Digital Humanities grant “focusing on using web-based argument mapping software to support problem-based learning (PBL) in philosophy argument mapping.” The grant “could pay for course releases or summer salary so that you can find the time that is necessary to participate in workshops,” learn the software, and design a new course (via Nathan Nobis).

An announcement posted at In Socrates Wake explains how to apply.

(art: detail of “Norwich” by Ed Fairburn)

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