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Topics Book 1: Arguing for Problems

Aristotle has just finished discussing the difference between a problem and a thesis. He continues his discussion of the kinds of argument by discussing what dialectical problems we should argue about. He does this in Topics, Book 1.

Not every problem, nor every thesis, should be examined, but only one which might puzzle one of those who need argument, not punishment or perception. For people who are puzzled to know whether one ought to honour the gods and love ones parents or not need punishment, while those who are puzzled to know whether snow is white or not need perception. The subjects should not border too closely upon the sphere of demonstration, nor yet be too far removed from it- for the former cases admit of no doubt, while the latter involve difficulties too great for the art of the trainer.

We should not argue for every problem or every thesis. We should only argue for the ones that argument will help us solve, rather than perception or punishment. If someone is puzzled about whether or not they should honor the gods or love their parents, then they are in need of punishment. On the other hand, if someone is not sure whether snow is white or not, then should find some snow and look at it. We should make sure that our problems are not too close to the ones examined by demonstrative deduction. If they are then they cannot be doubted, just as the person who sees the snow does not doubt that it is white. Neither should the problems be too far from dialectic deduction. In that case, proving the argument is too much to demand from the study of dialectic. The person who is unsure whether or not he should love his parents is in this category.

Aristotle’s examples can be brought into the present quite easily. If you believe that killing people for fun is perfectly acceptable, then you are a psychopath and need counseling. Dialectic arguments will not help you. Unlike Aristotle, we will usually not claim that punishment is the answer. We will probably claim that counseling is the better option. Like him, we will agree that dialectic arguments will not help the person because sane, rational people do not think like that.

Next, Aristotle will discuss the kinds of arguments.

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