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
Expert Contributor
Anastasia Brooks

Anastasia has a PhD in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Connecticut. She has taught high-school and college English for over 20 years.

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.

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Additional Activities

Identifying Logical Fallacies in Academic Writing

Any kind of quality writing will include arguments; that is, the reasons used to support a particular claim or a standpoint. Quality writing should include logical arguments; however, these are sometimes used in a way that weakens the writer's position, instead of strengthening it. They are called "logical fallacies." Here are some examples:

  • Hasty generalizations: This fallacy is about making assumptions about a large number of cases based on a few samples. Example: "My sister is having a hard time in her math class and I am too. Therefore, all math classes must be hard."
  • Appeal to Authority: Using famous people's names in our writing in order to strengthen our argument. "I am not the only person who thinks this way: even Thomas Jefferson had the same opinion."
  • Slippery Slope: The writer using this type of fallacies claims that some sort of chain reaction will occur if a particular course of action is or is not taken. Example: "Animal testing is violent and if we do not stop it, it will lead to widespread use of murder and violence. In fact, it may lead to the end of civilization."
  • Ad Hominem ("against the person") Instead of attacking a person's words, actions, or arguments, the arguer attacks the individual. Example: "We should not believe what this politician says as he is bitter and angry and he simply cannot get over his disappointments."
  • Red Herring: Using a distraction to get the audience not to focus on what really matters. Example: "If your mom raises the issue of your high phone bill, instead of responding, you share details of your hard life, the number of classes you are taking, and the number of hours you spend studying every day."

Applying the skills:

Let's see now what kind of arguments Lincoln and Douglas are using in the short excerpts from their speeches. Lincoln's main argument is that a "house divided cannot stand" and by that he means that the country needs to stand united on the issue of slavery by simply abolishing it. He is relying on logic and sound thinking and not on weak arguments.

Douglas, however, uses logical fallacies in his speech. Find at least three examples and explain why and how they weaken the arguments he is making.

Answers: Appeal to Authority, Slippery Slope, Hasty Generalization

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