The silent warrant

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

Every day, both at work and off, I read truth claims. Positions stated, propositions advanced, and conclusions asserted. Whether it’s a legal analysis, a theological discussion or the evolution-ID debate, there are truth claims being made. It’s one thing to express a hunch, another to lay claim to truth.

In the art of persuasion, which is what much of writing is all about, the key is in the warrant, which connects evidence with the claim being made. In Stephen Toulmin’s argument model, the warrant answers the question ‘Why does this mean that your claim is true?’

This about this for a moment; how often have you read a blog post or news article and thought, “why should I believe this?” It’s probably not that often, even though I’d be willing to bet that many such truth claims are warrant-deficient. For example, there’s one blog that I read occasionally (which shall remain nameless) where the very well-known blogger makes assertion after assertion, sometimes based on information and sometimes not, with nary a warrant to be found. There’s ridicule, there’s hyperbole, there’s hot air, and sometimes there are tons of supposedly relevant facts … but an actual justification for his position? Why should he? He’s famous! and he’s right! You should just believe him!

A point that I’ve tried to make on a few occasions is that we all are to some extent presuppositional. That is, we operate within various worldviews (aka paradigms or meta-narratives) and see things through our own set of filters and lenses and from our own perspectives. For example, most of us reading this would be considered modernists. We can’t help it; we were raised in a culture permeated with modernism, so that we don’t even recognize it. We think of logic as your basic “if a and b, then c” syllogism, even without thinking about it. We think the automobile is better than a horse & buggy, and that a new car is better than an old one (unless it’s a classic). We don’t even consider that there are people from other times and other places who would think we were nuts for thinking this way. We’re modernists.

Now, within the modernist worldview there are American conservatives and American Liberals, both of which are conservative by some European standards. Then there are liberals who are atheists, and liberals who are Christians. There are liberal atheists who like spicy Mexican food and watching I Love Lucy reruns because that’s what they were raised with, and liberal atheists who don’t like spicy food and prefer Leave it to Beaver. Get it? Worldviews and heritage and just plain preference affects how we look at things – even old TV shows.

In Elements of Argument, Annette Rottenberg & Donna Winchell have a slightly different take on the warrant:

Certain assumptions underlie all the claims we make. In argument, the term warrant is used for such an assumption, a belief or principle that is taken for granted. It may be stated or unstated. If the arguer believes that the audience shares his assumption, he may feel it unnecessary to express it. But if he thinks that the audience is doubtful or hostile, he may decide to state the assumption to emphasize its importance or argue for its validity. The warrant, stated or not, allows the reader to make the same connection between the support and the claim that the author does.

In explaining further how the warrant works, they explain that the one being persuaded may accept the evidence, but unless he or she also accepts the warrant, the claim is not believed. Now, even an unwritten warrant for an argument may be fairly specific to the claim being made (such as “you can trust Pew Research polls”) or perhaps more commonly, they can be a very broad assumption or belief that we take for granted that can apply to many claims.

So, the warrant is usually there, even when you don’t see it. I have a hunch that often, the warrants are kept silent on purpose; and various methods – including the use of emotion-charged words or ideas – are used to get people to jump to conclusions without realizing that the silent warrants or presuppositions are flawed (or at least so contrary to the anticipated reader’s position that the writer knows the warrant just wouldn’t fly).

It is important, then, that we are aware of a writer’s presuppositions, as it will have much to say about the idea being argued. If I stumble across a theological article challenging some established position, I first check out the author: What’s his background? Is he from a tradition that would color his thinking or even impact the meanings of the words being used? Does he have a personal history with the issue that would impact his thinking? Realizing these things will at least provide a clue to his presuppositions, while it may not invalidate his argument.

I try to be as overt as possible with my warrants or presuppositions, especially if they are not universally accepted. I am a Theist. Furthermore, I am a Theist who has subjective knowledge of God, not just objective. I believe in ways of knowing that fall outside of the scientific method. Now, I can’t say whether I believe in God because of experience, or if I believe that knowledge of God is possible because I have knowledge of God. Here, I can’t tell my a priori from my a posteriori, but it’s not important. What is important is that, for example, claims based on presuppositions of philosophical materialism don’t hold water for me, because of my presuppositions (which are in turn based on subjective knowledge which is not accepted by materialists).

See the problem?

So, beware the silent warrants. Find them, analyze them, and challenge them. They may be actually of more importance than the particular point being argued.

One thought on “The silent warrant”

  1. Thanks for a very helpful post. Recently I have been in dialogue with some people who are taking very strong positions that they are right on some controversial issues within our church. Your advice to address the silent warrants should help in our discussions.

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