A More Powerful Argument: The Toulmin Model

From the Lecture Series—The Art of Debate

By Jarrod Atchison, Ph.D., Wake Forest University

One of the most widely studied models of argumentation was designed by Dr. Stephen Toulmin, a British philosopher and scholar of formal logic. The beauty of the Toulmin model is its simplicity — yet it reveals that truly mastering argumentation requires a series of high-stake decisions to be made “in the moment”.

Structure of an Argument: The Toulmin Model
Think about arguments in terms of their components to understand how people argue. Image: RYGER/Shutterstock

The Three Components To An Argument

Once you begin to think about arguments in terms of their component parts, you will start to listen differently to how people are arguing. Dr. Toulmin breaks arguments down into three distinct parts.

  1. The Claim: The first component of the Toulmin model is the claim. It’s the conclusion that we are seeking to establish over the course of the argument. A claim is a statement that requires support. By itself, the statement carries little argumentative force. It is missing the evidence on which to ground it so the audience can start to accept it.
  2. The Grounds: The grounds are the second component of the model. An argument requires facts, data, statistics, and other pieces of evidence to represent it.
  3. The Warrant: The connection between the claim and the grounds is the warrant—the third component of the model. According to Dr. Toulmin, the connection between the evidence and the claim is not automatic. In most arguments, people make strong claims and have some data, but they invest relatively little time in connecting them. It is key to focus your attention on the warrant: it is often the most vulnerable part of an argument.

People often use their boldest language in the claim. Rather than getting distracted by their words, you will be listening for their actual warrants. When you realize their warrants are vulnerable for attack, you will start to evolve in terms of which arguments you prioritize when you respond.

Learn more about the claim, the evidence, and the warrant

Organizational Decision Making Issues at the Committee Level

Group of business people who are attending the meeting
In an organization, one of the most important venues for using the Toulmin model is the committee meeting. (Image: Korawat photo shoot/Shutterstock)

In organizational decision making, almost everyone benefits from slowing the conversation down. Using the Toulmin model may help to diagram the arguments as they develop. One of the most important venues for using this exercise is the committee meeting. The committee spends time examining an issue, and they work on developing a report and a presentation designed to persuade the organization to adopt their recommendations.

This is a transcript from the video series The Art of Debate. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

People in a meeting debating
One of the primary reasons committees fail to generate successful recommendations is that they rarely use the power of debate in their decision making. (Image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

The main issues arise inside the committee meeting itself in how the committee arrives at its findings. One of the primary reasons committees fail to generate successful recommendations is that they rarely use the power of debate in their decision making. They fail to use debate in arriving at the recommendations, testing their recommendations against potential objections, or developing nuance that accounts for the potential objections by limiting the scope of their claims.

The more controversial the subject and the more powerful the recommendations, the more likely the committee is to be peppered with questions by stakeholders who feel that their perspectives have been ignored in the final presentation. Audience members ask, “Have you considered this” or “that” rebuttals, and the committee members scramble to justify the exclusion while simultaneously demonstrating that they did their due diligence. A great committee can balance this exchange and move forward with their credibility intact. But if just one important question is not answered satisfactorily, the issue can be sent back for further consideration, and that’s just in the presentation stage.

Learn more about when and how to use debate

The Toulmin Model—Three Steps For A More Powerful Process

One of the easiest ways to improve a committee decision-making process is to hand everyone on the committee an outline of the Toulmin model with blank space to fill in the component parts. With a short presentation on what the model is and the differences between a claim, the grounds, and the warrant, you will be surprised at how many arguments will disappear as people struggle to satisfy the demands of a good argument. The arguments that do survive are far more nuanced and vastly superior to simple discussion.

Learn more about using evidence in debate

Three steps are necessary to make this practical assessment a reality:

  • Someone in your organization must commit to learning the Toulmin model. Ample information is available online. This person will be responsible for giving a 10- to 15-minute presentation to the committee, including at least two good examples to show what a fully developed argument looks like.
  • The Toulmin leader must distribute blank versions of the model to the committee and give them time to develop their arguments. If the committee is going to meet more than once, allow people to take the model home and work on it before the next meeting.
  • The committee chair must agree that the committee will attempt to base its presentation on the three best arguments it can generate using the model. The selection process of the three best arguments helps the committee members develop nuance and anticipate potential objections.

The process of talking through the model with the committee creates ample opportunities to anticipate the best arguments against the final recommendations, along with helping to generate the best version of those recommendations.

Common Questions About the Toulmin Model

Q: What is the Toulmin model of argumentation?

The Toulmin model consists of the following components: claim (argument), evidence, and warrant (the bridge between the claim and the evidence).

Q: Why is the Toulmin model important?

The Toulmin model is important because it allows you to evaluate, in detail, how well each component of your argument is working both in isolation and in conjunction with the other components.

Q: Why should we use the Toulmin model?

The Toulmin model provides us with the framework for making a well-constructed argument that is supported with evidence and sound reasoning.

Q: What is the reservation in the Toulmin model?

In the Toulmin model, a reservation is a weakness or hole in the argument which would make the warrant false.

This article was updated on August 15, 2019

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