Surfacing our assumptions enhances our ability to understand and negotiate different perspectives. Reasoning is a both a collective and individual process. The conclusions we reach vary according to our personal values and interests and the extent to which we share these with other participants in the conversation. If we view argument writing as communication, a faulty warrant indicates a failure to pay attention to the audience’s cares and concerns–or, at the very least, a failure to establish shared values.
Let me offer an example. In Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, the irascible and elitist Harold Bloom expresses his frustration with students who read the character of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice sympathetically, noting that they refuse to “accept [his] statements that Shylock is a comic villain and that Portia would cease to be sympathetic if Shylock were allowed to be a figure of overwhelming pathos” (171).
Bloom’s argument rests on an underlying principle about the importance of genre that reveals a great deal about his own highly traditional values and interests. I can paraphrase his implied reasoning this way:
Because The Merchant of Venice is a comedy, the audience must see Shylock as a villain. Comedies have to have happy endings. The audience has to like the comedic hero or heroine. We have to like and admire Portia and see her as the one who saves the day.(my paraphrase of Bloom’s underlying assumptions)
According to Bloom, if you feel sympathy for Shylock—if you feel like what’s happening to him is really awful and you’re saddened and appalled by the anti-semitism of the play—then you’re reading the play the wrong way. His claim is based on the premise that the genre of a literary work ultimately determines how it should be read. This line of reasoning further suggests that generic distinctions should be preserved.
However, we don’t necessarily have to accept these ideas. A faulty warrant is a logical fallacy wherein a rhetor assumes an audience shares an underlying principle or value that the audience doesn’t actually share. So while Harold Bloom says you have to dislike Shylock because The Merchant of Venice is a comedy and comedies have to have villains, I can say, “No, I don’t think genre is the most important thing we consider when we interpret literary works.” I can say instead that I think the ongoing cultural work a text continues to perform—including, in this case, the representation of racial hatred—is a more important consideration in literary analysis. If I’m Bloom’s target audience, then his claim is predicated on a faulty warrant.
As students become more skilled at reasoning from evidence, we can support them in more rigorously examining the assumptions behind their claims and the extent to which their audience shares those assumptions. We can also help them dig into the warrants authorizing other writers’ claims–and empower students to challenge those principles based on their own best thinking.
Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1999.
Shakespeare, William. The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice. The Norton Shakespeare. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katherine Eisman Maus. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2008. 1111-1175.