The LSAT: Understanding the Architecture of Argument (part 1)

A fair number of people come to me after having taken an LSAT course, and one thing that keeps surprising, and appalling, me is how little they understand argument.  They have, apparently, been advised to use various shortcuts to get to the right answer: eliminate any answer with extreme words like ‘only’ and ‘always’; eliminate the answers that are too general; eliminate any answer that doesn’t use the same words as those used in the stimulus; eliminate the very short answers; and so on.

I strongly discourage that approach.  Instead, I encourage people to simply understand what’s being said.  In most cases (and I’m talking about LR), an argument is being made.  It’s not just a mini-discussion.  And that’s the first thing people have to understand.  There’s a difference.

An argument has a very special structure; there’s a specific relationship between the bits that are given.  So first, you have to figure out those relationships; you have to figure out that the speaker is claiming or concluding ZZZ on the basis of XXX.   That, in a nutshell, is an argument: I conclude ZZZ on the basis of XXX.

Then you have to ask yourself ‘Does that follow?’  Can you get to ZZZ from XXX?  Usually the answer is ‘Yes, if YYY.’  And there’s where you really have to think: what must the speaker be believing in order to think they can get to ZZZ from XXX?  Look for a gap, a bridge missing from XXX to ZZZ.  And use your imagination!

And then you’re ready for almost any type of question.

My view is that either you have what it takes to (learn to) understand argument or you don’t.  If you don’t, you won’t get far in law school.  And if you do, why would you want to use shortcuts that bypass that understanding?

Peg Tittle used to work at LSAC writing the questions that go on the LSAT; she’s the author of a logical reasoning textbook (Critical Thinking: An Appeal to Reason, Routledge 2011); she has an M.A. in Philosophy (we’re all about argument!), a B.A. in Literature (there’s my RC!), a B.Ed. (so I know pedagogy), and ESL certification; and she has over ten years’ teaching/tutoring experience.

She has set up an FAQ page about her LSAT tutoring (which she does by phone or skype).

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