Scheme: Argumentation scheme

1. Argument scheme

An argumentation scheme (argument scheme) is a discursive formula, a generic statement functioning as an argument rule, an inferring license. Concrete argumentations, or enthymemes are its actualization in specific passages.
The concept of an argumentation scheme (argument scheme) captures the specificity of the minimal concatenation of two statements (S1, S2) making up an argumentation (Arg, Concl). An argumentation scheme is essentially a specific kind of sentence connection, a special case of textual coherence and cohesion; that is to say, a general discursive inferential scheme associating an argument with a conclusion.

In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, all the argument lines are expressed as such generic statements, that can sometimes be formulated as proverbs or maxims. The saying, “if you can do the hard things, you can do the easy things as well” corresponds to the “from the biggest to the smallest” (a maiori ad minus) branch of the a fortiori scheme. Typical formulas, such as those proposed by Bentham “let us wait a little, the moment is not favorable” are also complete and perfectly adequate expressions of an argument scheme. S. Juridical arguments: three collections. This scheme can be specified in a discursive domain, S. A fortiori.

In the expression of the scheme, their characteristic indefinite components (subject, predicate) may also be expressed as variables. For example, the a fortiori scheme can be written as (according to Ryan 1984):

If <P is O> is more likely (more recommendable…) than <E is O>,
and <P is O> is false (not plausible, not recommendable)
then <E is O> is false (not likely, not recommendable).

And embodied in the following argumentation:

If teachers do not know everything, students know even less

In the same style, the scheme of the opposite is written as:

If <A is B>, then <not-A is not-B>.

Derived argumentation:

If I was of no use to you during my life, at least my death will be useful to you.

Such presentations should not be taken as a kind of “logical or semantic deep structure” of the scheme. Their unquestionable benefit is to clarify the reference of general terms.

2. Example: Argument scheme and argumentations on waste

To detect a scheme in a text is a key moment in argument analysis. But this identification is not easy, the key semantic components of the scheme being frequently disseminated in the text. How can we identify a scheme in a passage? Experts will say that they just recognize a scheme when they see it; but the non-specialist necessitates a methodical reconstruction, which can proceed along the following basic lines:

— First, an explicit definition of the topic is needed.
— Second, the passage must be clearly delimited.
— And finally, one has to show how the scheme can be projected upon the passage; that is, one has to establish a point-to-point correspondence between the scheme and the passage under analysis. In essence, these links consist in linguistic operations of equivalence and close reformulation.

This method can be illustrated by the case of the argument from waste, as defined and illustrated in Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca.

— The scheme:

The argument of waste consists in saying that, as one has already begun a task and made sacrifices, which would be wasted if the enterprise were given up, one should continue in the same direction. ([1958], p. 279)

— First derived argumentation:

this is the justification given by the banker who continues to lend to his insolvent debtor in the hope of getting him on his feet again in the long run. (Id., p. 279)

— Linguistic operations associating the argument to the scheme (bijective association Scheme – Argumentation)


italics: arg. wording

Linguistic Operation

italics: arg. wording;
bold: AS wording

Scheme (AS)

bold: AS wording

Implicit: a debtor is a person to whom the banker has already lent money Lending money is a task; it can be a sacrifice


(Past:) one has already begun a task and made sacrifices


Insolvent debtor


Insolvent means that the previously lent money [will] be wasted


(Present:) which would be wasted if the enterprise were given up


The banker continues to lend Continues to lend = continue in the same direction (Decision:) one should continue in the same direction

The second enthymeme is more complex:

This is one of the reasons which, according to Saint Theresa, prompt a person to pray, even in a period of ‘dryness’. One would give up, she says, if it were not “that one remembers that it gives delight and pleasure to the Lord of the garden, that one is careful not to throw away all the service rendered, and that one remembers the benefit one hopes to derive from the great effort of dipping the pail often into the well and drawing it up empty”. (Id., p. 279)

— Linguistic operations associating the argument to the scheme (same conventions):

Argumentation Linguistic Operation Scheme
all the service rendered

that is:

(the great effort of) dipping the pail often into the well

rendered (presupposes) already begun

a service (is) a task

one has already begun a task
the great effort of (dipping the pail often into the well) the great effort (is a) sacrifice and made sacrifices
in a period of “dryness”(1)

driving it up empty

dryness — empty
<=> no result
for no result


not to throw away
not to throw away <=>would be wasted (present) which would be wasted if the enterprise were given up


prompt a person to pray prompt to
<=> urge to continue
one should continue in the same direction

 (1) Traditional mystic metaphor for “no increase in faith” = no spiritual benefit.

3. Naming the argument schemes

Argument schemes are labeled according to their form or their content.

3.1 According to their specific domain and semantic content

Some famous arguments are named in reference to their precise content.

— The third man argument is an objection made by Aristotle to the Platonic theory of intelligible forms, as opposed to individuals. According to this objection, the Platonic theory implies an infinite regression. It may be seen as an argument from vertigo.

— The argument against miracles: the likelihood that the dead person was resurrected is lower than the likelihood that the witness is mistaken; so we can reasonably doubt that the dead person was resurrected (Hume, 1748, §86 “Of Miracles”). This formally refers to a hierarchy of the probable, and can be represented on an argumentative scale, S. Argumentative scale.

— The ontological argument infers the existence of God from the a priori notion of a perfect being, S. A priori; Definition.

3.2 Depending on their form and content

S. Collections (2): From Aristotle to Boethius
Collections (3): Modernity and tradition
Collections (4): Contemporaty innovations and structurations

On the use of Latin words and expressions, S. Ab Arguments, a/ade/ ex — 

3.2 Oriented labels

Usually, the label designating an argument specifies a form or content: the argument refers to the consequences (ad consequentiam), to authority (ab auctoritate), to the consistency of human beliefs (ad hominem), to emotion (ad passionem) or to any particular emotion (ad odium). The speaker may admit, without inconsistency, losing face and invalidating the argument he has just used, that he or she argues by the consequences, ad hominem, ex datis, upon a religious belief (ad fidem), or possibly from the number, ad numerum. These arguments can be assessed in a second, normative, stage.

Some other arguments involving the arguer are designated by oriented labels. An argument cannot be dubbed an appeal to stupidity, to superstition or to imagination without invalidating it; given the current vision of emotion as antagonistic to reason, referring to a passage as containing an appeal to emotion, from ad passiones to ad odium, amounts to a rejection of the argument. Such labels contain a built-in evaluation; there is some confusion between the levels of description and evaluation.

A call to faith will or will not be judged as fallacious depending whether or not one shares the beliefs of the speaker. In such cases, the theoretical language is biased, and normative action becomes ideological.

4. Typologies of argument schemes

A general typology of argumentation schemes is an organized collection of argument schemes. Collections of argument schemes are locally constituted as:

— The set of arguments locally exploited by a particular speaker, in a particular discussion, see « collections”.
— The set of arguments attached to a question, S. Script.

5. Argument schemes in discourse

The concept of the argument scheme anchors the study of argumentation in the material reality of speech and discourse. The capacity to identify an argument from authority, a pragmatic argument, etc. is an essential skill for the production, interpretation and criticism of argumentative discourse, S. Tagging.

Some works, such as the Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica or texts such as Montesquieu “On the Enslavement of Negroes” can be described as dense and dry successions of arguments. Other texts are more fluid, and seem hardly reducible to circumscribed segments that could be plausibly described as an occurrence of an argument scheme.

The schemes are relatively under-determined by the linguistic expression; there may be several plausible analyses of the same text segment, some invalidating the argument, others not. This uncertainty should not be automatically seen as an indicator of the poor quality of the argument. In this respect, contextual considerations and the kind of editing given to the analyzed passage play a crucial role.

An argumentative text or interaction can be compared to a natural meadow, the most beautiful flowers corresponding to canonical argument schemes. But it is also necessary to wonder about what the dense plant tissue around these flowers is made of. To this end, interaction analysis, discourse analysis and text linguistics serve as crucial analytic instruments, which have to be adapted to the specificities of argumentation analysis. The “scheme approach” comes within a larger prospect, opening with the stance taken vis-à-vis the other’s discourses, the kind of argumentative situation they frame, the determination of general argumentative strategies, taking into consideration a whole range of semiotic phenomena. On a micro-level, one has to consider the operations producing the statements, as well as in their coordination: a good grammar book and a good dictionary are essential if one is to construct a good argument analysis, S. Argumentative Question; Indicator.