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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Eddy Nahmias
6 years ago

This mapping exercise seems to be a nice response to Justin’s earlier post about teaching our students as if they were not going to be philosophers. Learning to map arguments well is an incredibly useful skill for all our students and if we could help them do it better, it would benefit them regardless of what career they enter (and contra some comments there, such attempts are not lame attempts to ‘market’ philosophy or dumb it down). Philosophy arguments may be particularly useful for developing these skills (e.g., because they are usually developing in a valid form), but that’s an empirical question. I tell my students that an argument looks like the (older pyramid-style) structures in Angry Birds and their job is to find the premises supporting the conclusion and knock one of them out to take down all the pigs (or develop a reductio that shows the premises lead to a very ugly pig).

The video doesn’t help understand the exercise very well, but does show the students are engaged. I hope the results come out well and the methods can be shared. Meanwhile, the summary of Lewis’ article is fantastically clear–that’s the sort of ‘mapping’ I try to get my grad students to do.Report

Peter Furlong
Peter Furlong
6 years ago

This looks very interesting. Does anyone have recommendations for free argument mapping software? I have found several available online (and I have probably missed several more). If someone could save me a little time by telling me where to look (or which to avoid), I would appreciate it.Report

Derek Shiller
Derek Shiller
6 years ago

I found iLogos very easy to use (though it doesn’t have a lot of features). One of its advantages, especially if you’re going to use it with teaching, is that it is cross-platform.Report

Brian Coffey
Brian Coffey
6 years ago

Very cool project! One quibble about the design: Using red and green to distinguish important information is going to make this project much more difficult for folks who are colorblind. You might consider a different way of distinguishing this information in future versions.Report

Peter Furlong
Peter Furlong
6 years ago

I agree Brian! I have color vision deficiency and have a hard time distinguishing the red boxes from the green.Report

Jeff Y
Jeff Y
6 years ago

I did a bunch of debate mapping (not the same as mapping individual arguments, but similar) back in the 20th century, and the project I worked on got ported over to debate graph, which I think is pretty nice and intuitive.

http://debategraph.org

I have not, however, used it in the classroom. There is also an argument mapping listserv. I just posted a note there telling people about this discussion. Hopefully that will generate additional suggestions here. Cheers.Report

Jack Paulus
6 years ago

I suspect that the benefits are not only the visualization as a means to remembering (re: tic tac toe in your head) but also the natural propensity for the shared display to focus the conversation and avoid digression. Peter, a free argument mapping tool that allows constructive engagement asynchronously is https://www.truthmapping.comReport

Bob Kirkman
6 years ago

Michael Hoffmann’s system, dubbed AGORA-net, is at agora.gatech.edu. The process of setting up an account and getting started should be fairly straightforward.Report

Joseph A. Laronge
6 years ago

I taught a Lewis & Clark law school class in Advanced Argumentation using argument mapping software. I have found that students were much more successful applying a universal precise fail-safe logic template (DCIT) for structuring their maps . The following youtube video illustrates some of the differences with this universal logic structure and typical modes of inference for mapping: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhWMVMonLR8 . This logic structure accommodates any mode of inference (deductive, inductive, abductive, defeasible) or argument schemes. With only one argument structure to learn, mapping successfully becomes easier. (Links to Papers: http://logicguaranteed.com/papers/ )Report

C
C
6 years ago

Rationale from Austhink is very nice, but it’s pricey for students.Report

Simon Cullen
Simon Cullen
6 years ago

I’m really hoping to see some progress of the software front soon. We’ve been using “Rationale,” but I can’t recommend it for several reasons, among them: it’s needlessly complex, often frustrating for students, and *very* expensive. I wish there were a good free alternative, but I’ve looked pretty closely and from what I can tell there’s nothing out there that really comes close to what we want. Things like Truth Mapping and Debategraph cannot visually represent basic logical structures (they seem more akin to “mind mapping”), and though I like many things about AGORA-net, it’s really focused on argument forms, which we try not to discuss in our class. The thing that comes closest is iLogos — it allows you to represent supports that require two or more premises — but it seems to be not up to task in other ways. But I should say, we don’t think that Rationale-style argument mapping is any kind of pedagogical magic bullet—it’s not specific software that makes the big difference.Report

Greg
Greg
6 years ago

Re: “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.”

You have probably already seen this, but just in case you haven’t, Claudia Maria Alvarez Ortiz’s 2007 MA thesis, “Does Philosophy Improve Critical Thinking Skills?” provides a meta-analysis of a lot of extant empirical literature on the question. Her conclusion is that a course with a lot of argument mapping practice (which she abbreviates LAMP) does much better than any other sort of coursework — which sounds like it corroborates your findings. Here’s a link to her thesis: http://images.austhink.com/pdf/Claudia-Alvarez-thesis.pdfReport

Simon Cullen
Simon Cullen
6 years ago

Thanks, Greg. We know about the Alvarez meta-analysis — I learned of argument mapping back in Melbourne from Tim van Gelder, the person behind the LAMP studies 🙂Report

Rob
Rob
6 years ago

Pricey? A one year RationaleOnline education subscription is 30 US dollars, I think that’s a fair price.Report

Gary Comstock
6 years ago

I’ve used Rationale for my courses (On the Human, Biomedical Ethics) for five or more years. Every term. Students are much better at understanding arguments, and especially at identifying missing premises, as a result. I think the cost for the Basic Educational version, $30, is quite reasonable, especially compared to the cost of textbooks. They do more, much more, to improve their critical thinking skills by actively using Rationale than they do from passively reading assigned chapters.Report

Rebecca Root
Rebecca Root
6 years ago

Does anyone have experience doing argument mapping with children? I’d be interested in exploring this with a group of 10-11 year olds and am wondering if others have tried this, either on paper or electronically.Report

Simon
Simon
6 years ago

Hi Rebecca, except for one of my students who said she tried to give her little sister argument mapping lessons, I don’t know of anyone doing this. But if you try it out I would really like to hear about how it goes!Report

Fiona
Fiona
6 years ago

It’s not clear why you give “Rationale” a bad wrap – given the results you’ve been getting. You say that “My guess is that while visualization provides real benefits, the main ingredient has little to do with maps or computers” but the map is precisely what provides the visualisation and you just can’t produce a map on the board. You need software to manipulate the claims into their logical order and add and delate as necessary . Also $29 for an online format which allows real time collaboration, sharing and online Argument Mapping exercises is seriously INexpensive, particularly given it has been party to your improved results.Report

Fiona
Fiona
6 years ago

The LAMP study was undertaken by Dr Yanna Rider and Dr Neil Thomasen, not Tim Van Gelder (who was the supervisor for Alvarez’s thesis).Report

Chris Reed
6 years ago

We are starting to move beyond silo thinking of non-interchangeable, often idiosyncratically different applications for mapping arguments. Rationale, iLogos, Araucaria, OVA and Carneades are currently compatible with Argument Web infrastructure: debategraph, RationaleOnline, AGORAnet, Argunet and others are getting there. This is really important for being able to build on each others’ advances in pedagogy and scholarly investigation. So for example, if you want to do corpus-based research, check out corpora.aifdb.org. Want to automatically mark student analyses and have them get detailed feedback? Try argugrader.com. To find out more, take a look at the Centre for Argument Technology, arg-tech.org.Report

Peter Furlong
Peter Furlong
6 years ago

Thanks for the suggestions everyone! I have started playing with some of the suggested programs and hope to use these in the classroom soon.Report

Jonathan Surovell
Jonathan Surovell
6 years ago

Any advice on teaching argument maps without one of the programs specifically designed for it? Can the students do the exercises with pencils and paper?Report

Timo ter Berg
6 years ago

As Rationale is being discussed here, I would like to comment on some issues raised.
I work for the company/foundation Kritisch Denken (Amsterdam) that makes Rationale; I have been lecturing philosophy for 30 years. Rationale was originally made by a brilliant group of Australians whose company went down because of lack of income.

@ Derek & cross-platform: originally Rationale was Windows only. The last two years we brought Rationale online so now it is cross-platform too. Look at http://www.rationaleonline.com .
@Brian, Peter & color blindness: reasons and objections within Rationale are not only distinguished in Rationale by their color, but also by their shape (reasons having rounded, objections having square corners). Above that you can distinguish them by their different logical connectors ‘because’ ,’ but’).

@ C, Simon & Rationale being ‘pricey’:
– Secondary education: always tailor-made but prices vary between 15 and 1 dollar per student per year, depending on the amount of accounts. Lots of accounts/pilots are given free here (e.g. for the Ethics Bowl competition, in much International Schools, researchers with low research budgets etc.).
– Higher education: always tailor-made, starting from 30 or 39 dollar per year going down to 1 dollar per student in campus licenses. Contact me for pilots.
-Individual licenses with Educational discount: 30/39 per year, 4 years 60/64.
See: https://www.rationaleonline.com/accounts/upgrade/educational

@ Simon & ‘Rationale is needlessly complex, often frustrating for students and *very* expensive’:
– I am quite amazed you did not answer my private email of last year with a request for suggestions for improvement (that I always send to lecturers ), and at the same time giving here some general unsupported negative qualifications of Rationale . This behavior does not help us improving Rationale.
– Happily we did not receive any complaints of the users of Rationale Online ( almost 10.000 accounts being made the last 1 ½ year).
– Concrete suggestions from you for improvement of Rationale are very welcome.

@ the idea of ‘free software’: many lecturers think that software should be freely available. Please send me the business model that makes this possible while at the same time it generates enough funds to pay for development, maintenance, marketing, answering the phone and being a long-term trustworthy partner for schools and universities that want to integrate Rationale into their curricula to develop critical thinking skills. All this without having advertisements in Rationale or selling personal information.
We are thinking about options to make (parts of) the source code of Rationale open source when we have finished the final stage of development ( = adding real time collaboration).

@ Rebecca & argument mapping with children: great idea, I would like to support you. Some suggestions you can find in the Guide for Primary Education you can find here: http://www.reasoninglab.com/learn/ . Please contact me when you want to organize a pilot with Rationale.

@ Jonathan& am with pencils and paper: yes, possible but not with complicated maps, not when you want to easily change claims, etc. Please, try both ways yourself.

To all lecturers who read this thread: when you want to try Rationale or want to organize pilots, please contact me at http://www.reasoninglab.com/contact/ .Report