How to Map an Argument


This be an araucaria araucana tree, a.k.a. monkey puzzle tree

Today’s post is an attempt to use argument mapping software to help visualize and analyze an argument. The specific program I’m using is called Araucaria. It’s a free tool developed at the University of Dundee, but there are others. A spreadsheet can be used to create something similar, as can Photoshop (for something more presentable) or simply a pen and paper.

The downside of any of these methods is that the diagrams tend to get large and unruly as an argument grows more complex. The benefit is that by seeing an entire argument in distilled form we’re able to identify its strengths and weaknesses. This can help construct an argument of our own or identify where our opponent’s argument is most vulnerable to attack.


Let’s create a simple situation related to movies. You and your friend are talking about African films. The conversation is chugging along, you agree on a number of points. Then you pose the question “Which national cinema in Africa is the best?” Your friend replies:

How is that even a question? It’s obvious that Egypt’s cinema is the best. They’ve made the most movies.

Diagrammed, the argument looks like:


It has one premise and one conclusion. However, there is a second, unspoken but implicit, premise that we should also include in our diagram:


Yet something seems off. As drawn, our diagram suggests that both premises, separately, support the conclusion. That’s wrong, so we do this:


Notice that the two premises are now cumulative (which we show by selecting both arrows and then clicking on the program’s “Link” tool). Both need to be true for the conclusion to be true.

We may now create a basic strategy for defeating our friend’s argument: disprove one of his premises. But our first step may be to probe further and see how firm our friend’s ground is.

For example, we may challenge one of his premises by asking a question: “How do you know that Egypt’s cinema is the most prolific”? Questions are good because they don’t bind us to anything. In this case, they force our friend to either back up one of his premises or admit that he doesn’t know. If he doesn’t, all the better for us. But let’s say he does know, and answers:

It’s in a book by Doug Jones. But after I read that, I went on the IMDB and counted all the titles myself. He was right.

Our diagram grows:


The two premises that support the conclusion (that Egyptian cinema is most prolific) are not cumulative. One reinforces the other and makes the conclusion stronger; but each, by itself, also leads to the conclusion. Hence, the arrows remain unlinked.

Let’s go on the offensive!

And create a rebuttal to the notion that Egyptian cinema is the most prolific cinema in Africa. Maybe we can make a strong case, and if we manage to convince our friend that he is wrong on this point his ultimate conclusion will also fail. We say:

Come on! Everyone knows that Nigeria makes tons of movies. Way more than Egypt. Nollywood is right up there with Bollywood and Hollywood in terms of output. And, yeah, most of that may be low quality stuff and on video, but I think it still counts as films and we have to take it into account.

So our diagram looks like:


The software allows us not only to create and link premises and conclusion but also to assign “schemes” that illustrate what kind of reasoning is being used. In our case we referred to common knowledge, so we’ve chosen accordingly. Do you think our friend will admit that we are right and he is wrong? Not likely.

He will probably do what we did: question our premises (“It’s a funny kind of common knowledge if I didn’t know about it. Got any proof?”) and then rebut one of them to try to restore the flow of his original argument that we’ve so rudely disrupted. We’ll find a Wikipedia page to support our common knowledge claim, and then be faced with the following:

Actually, in that book by Doug Jones, he had a whole section on why video is not the same thing as a film and that the two shouldn’t be judged the same way. We may as well count home videos!

I’ve taken out the “scheme” and put in some ownership labels to help identify which rebuttal belongs to our friend and which is ours:


Our Wikipedia page strengthens our claim that Nollywood makes more films than Egypt, but our friend has challenged our second premise (that “videos” are films) and, unfortunately, we need both premises to be true for our initial rebuttal to work. We could go on, possibly taking a look at the credibility of Doug Jones, on whose opinions our friend is rather heavily relying, but let’s admit defeat on this half of the argument and re-survey the entire situation:


So back where we were, but now with “evaluation” labels to remind us of what (or rather where) to pursue the issue. The conclusion that Egyptian cinema is the most prolific may be rebuttable, but, after our initial attempt, it seems that that avenue is too much work and too well defended. Besides, we can take down the entire argument without touching that particular premise.

The premise that the most prolific cinema is the best cinema has the softer underbelly. We shall strike!

OK, fine, you’re right about Egypt making the most films, but this whole idea that quantity is quality doesn’t make sense. There are plenty of national cinemas, like the French and Japanese, that make less movies than, say, India, but their movies are on average better. They’re shown in more countries and they win more international awards. Plus, the best French and Japanese films are better than the best Indian ones. How many times has a Indian film won the Palme d’Or?

In sports, the the team that wins is the best team, not the one that competes the most times or plays the most games. The same thing here.



And so on…

Obviously, the diagram will never argue for you, but it will help you spot the good and the bad in both your own and other people’s arguments. And the act of creating the diagram, as much as the finished diagram itself, will help you grasp the structure of it. Sometimes it’s useful to realize that that long and elaborate chain of conclusions that you’ve come up with—it can be snipped right at the beginning.


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