Quality as Argument

Back when I was at the University of Southern California and learning how to teach composition and rhetoric, I learned about the Toulmin method of reasoning. It’s a system of claims, grounds, and warrants that, in the context of an essay, require an author to make a claim and then explain the grounds that warrant that claim. It was basically the foundation upon which the rubric by which we graded papers was based, because when you break it down, that’s what a thesis is. It’s an argument.

Not an argument in the internet sense of the word. Not an argument wherein you have two people who dislike each other vociferously talking across each other.

No, in this context, an argument is a position. A claim. When I was teaching my students how to craft an essay well, how to draft and refine a thesis, I always told them that a thesis is a statement with which any reasonable person can disagree.

That’s the nature of it. It has to be bold enough that it could be wrong. It can’t be fact; that would be boring. It used to be that would be easily disproven, but nowadays in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts” as apparent misnomers we apply to any data with which we disagree, that’s less the case.

But I think that’s what makes quality and art interesting. They’re claims.

I’ve seen a lot of people claim that both are subjective. They’re opinions. Chalk them up to taste.

I propose that they’re more than that. When someone says that Casablanca is a great movie, it’s less an opinion than it is a claim.

If it’s a claim, that necessarily requires the grounds that warrant such a claim.

There are myriad.

If I were making the claim that Casablanca is a great movie, I’d point to a few easy wins. Bogart’s performance is, as his performances always were, pitch perfect. The dialogue is smart, witty, and to this day utterly quotable. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is wonderful in that it’s torn between her love of Bogey and her loyalty to Lazlo.

There’s a reason it’s in my top three favorite movies of all time. That’s subjective, for sure.

But that it is among the greatest movies of all time isn’t. That’s a claim, with the grounds that warrant it. Not only did I just build a compelling case for it in a paragraph, but over the years so too have myriad movie fans.


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