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How to Analyze Two Texts with Opposing Arguments

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  • 0:04 Analyzing Two Texts
  • 0:41 What Do They Say?
  • 3:51 Breaking Down the Argument
  • 6:09 How Do They Say It?
  • 7:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Egan
In this lesson, we'll discuss how to analyze two texts that present opposing arguments. We'll examine arguments based on varying evidence and on varying assumptions.

Analyzing Two Texts

When you analyze the argument in a text, you take a look at what case the author is making and how. Analyzing two texts can be a little bit complicated and confusing, especially when they have opposing arguments, but it's not impossible. It would be great if you had magical analysis glasses that did it all for you, but in the real world, unfortunately, you've got to do it by hand.

In this lesson, we'll work on strategies for analyzing two texts with opposing arguments, what points they make, and how. You'll learn how to organize your ideas and a method that can help you get started, even when you don't know where to begin.

What Do They Say?

It can be kind of hard knowing where to start when you're comparing two texts, so here's a quick start method: read each text and jot down what the author is trying to say or argue. Just worry about one text at a time. We'll start with two example texts.

Text #1 is an excerpt from a speech by Abraham Lincoln. This speech was given on June 16, 1858, right before the Civil War. Lincoln is talking about slavery.

We are now far into the fifth year since a policy was initiated with the avowed object and confident promise of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only ceased but has constantly augmented. In my opinion, it will not cease until a crisis shall have been reached and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government (the United States) cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.

What is Lincoln trying to say here? Think about it for a second and see if you can come up with your own answer. Lincoln is saying that the United States has to pick one: slavery or no slavery. None of this a la carte business for individual states.

Text #2 is an excerpt from the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This speech was given about two months later, on August 21, 1858, by Lincoln's political opponent, Stephen Douglas.

Mr. Lincoln. . . says that this Government cannot endure permanently in the same condition in which it was made by its framers - divided into free and slave states. . . Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and the great men of that day. . . left each State perfectly free to do as it pleased on the subject of slavery. Why can it not exist on the same principles on which our fathers made it?. . . At the time the Constitution was framed, there were thirteen States in the Union, twelve of which were slaveholding States and one free State. Suppose this doctrine of uniformity preached by Mr. Lincoln, that the States should all be free or all be slave had prevailed, and what would have been the result? Of course, the twelve slaveholding States would have overruled the one free State, and slavery would have been fastened by a Constitutional provision on every inch of the American Republic. . . Here I assert that uniformity in the local laws and institutions of the different States is neither possible or desirable.

What's going on here? Stephen Douglas is making a speech arguing against Lincoln. He thinks that the United States will do just fine with some slave states and some free states. After all, it's been that way since the beginning of the country.

Breaking Down the Argument

Now let's directly compare and analyze these two arguments. To keep everything organized, we'll make a comparison contrast chart with four categories: position, evidence, assumptions, and counterarguments.

Position

What main point does each passage make? They're disagreeing about whether or not the United States can keep going with some slave states and some free states. Lincoln says 'No,' Douglas says 'Yes.'

Evidence

What evidence does each man use to back up his argument? Lincoln discusses the failure of recent policies to stop slavery agitation. Douglas brings up historical precedent and the wisdom of the founding fathers. You can see that both texts use historical evidence to support their points, but they're not arguing about what the historical facts are. They're arguing about what the facts mean.

In another pair of opposing passages, you might get an argument about what the facts are in the first place, but this argument isn't like that. Once you understand each author's position and evidence, you can analyze their argument to see that this is about interpretation of facts, not what the facts are.

Assumptions

Look back at the positions in the evidence. What assumptions is each author making? This is the hidden glue that makes each argument stick together. For example, Douglas is assuming that what the founding fathers did in the 1780s would still work in 1858, even though the United States was totally different. That's not necessarily true. Looking at the assumptions behind each argument lets you analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the argument and decide which one you think is stronger.

Counterarguments

What could you say against each text? Use the assumptions to think about counterarguments for each person. In this case, one potential counterargument to each text would be:

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