When you write an academic essay, you make an argument: you propose a thesis and offer some reasoning, using evidence, that suggests why the thesis is true. When you counter-argue, you consider a possible argument against your thesis or some aspect of your reasoning. This is a good way to test your ideas when drafting, while you still have time to revise them. And in the finished essay, it can be a persuasive and (in both senses of the word) disarming tactic. It allows you to anticipate doubts and pre-empt objections that a skeptical reader might have; it presents you as the kind of person who weighs alternatives before arguing for one, who confronts difficulties instead of sweeping them under the rug, who is more interested in discovering the truth than winning a point.
Not every objection is worth entertaining, of course, and you shouldn't include one just to include one. But some imagining of other views, or of resistance to one's own, occurs in most good essays. And instructors are glad to encounter counterargument in student papers, even if they haven't specifically asked for it.
The Turn Against
Counterargument in an essay has two stages: you turn against your argument to challenge it and then you turn back to re-affirm it. You first imagine a skeptical reader, or cite an actual source, who might resist your argument by pointing out
- a problem with your demonstration, e.g., that a different conclusion could be drawn from the same facts, a key assumption is unwarranted, a key term is used unfairly, certain evidence is ignored or played down;
- one or more disadvantages or practical drawbacks to what you propose;
- an alternative explanation or proposal that makes more sense.
You introduce this turn against with a phrase like One might object here that... or It might seem that... or It's true that... or Admittedly,... or Of course,... or with an anticipated challenging question: But how...? or But why...? or But isn't this just...? or But if this is so, what about...? Then you state the case against yourself as briefly but as clearly and forcefully as you can, pointing to evidence where possible. (An obviously feeble or perfunctory counterargument does more harm than good.)
The Turn Back
Your return to your own argument—which you announce with a but, yet, however, nevertheless or still—must likewise involve careful reasoning, not a flippant (or nervous) dismissal. In reasoning about the proposed counterargument, you may
- refute it, showing why it is mistaken—an apparent but not real problem;
- acknowledge its validity or plausibility, but suggest why on balance it's relatively less important or less likely than what you propose, and thus doesn't overturn it;
- concede its force and complicate your idea accordingly—restate your thesis in a more exact, qualified, or nuanced way that takes account of the objection, or start a new section in which you consider your topic in light of it. This will work if the counterargument concerns only an aspect of your argument; if it undermines your whole case, you need a new thesis.
Where to Put a Counterargument
Counterargument can appear anywhere in the essay, but it most commonly appears
- as part of your introduction—before you propose your thesis—where the existence of a different view is the motive for your essay, the reason it needs writing;
- as a section or paragraph just after your introduction, in which you lay out the expected reaction or standard position before turning away to develop your own;
- as a quick move within a paragraph, where you imagine a counterargument not to your main idea but to the sub-idea that the paragraph is arguing or is about to argue;
- as a section or paragraph just before the conclusion of your essay, in which you imagine what someone might object to what you have argued.
But watch that you don't overdo it. A turn into counterargument here and there will sharpen and energize your essay, but too many such turns will have the reverse effect by obscuring your main idea or suggesting that you're ambivalent.
Counterargument in Pre-Writing and Revising
Good thinking constantly questions itself, as Socrates observed long ago. But at some point in the process of composing an essay, you need to switch off the questioning in your head and make a case. Having such an inner conversation during the drafting stage, however, can help you settle on a case worth making. As you consider possible theses and begin to work on your draft, ask yourself how an intelligent person might plausibly disagree with you or see matters differently. When you can imagine an intelligent disagreement, you have an arguable idea.
And, of course, the disagreeing reader doesn't need to be in your head: if, as you're starting work on an essay, you ask a few people around you what they think of topic X (or of your idea about X) and keep alert for uncongenial remarks in class discussion and in assigned readings, you'll encounter a useful disagreement somewhere. Awareness of this disagreement, however you use it in your essay, will force you to sharpen your own thinking as you compose. If you come to find the counterargument truer than your thesis, consider making it your thesis and turning your original thesis into a counterargument. If you manage to draft an essay without imagining a counterargument, make yourself imagine one before you revise and see if you can integrate it.
Copyright 1999, Gordon Harvey (adapted from The Academic Essay: A Brief Anatomy), for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Counterargument and Refutation
In 1980, a bronze “Rocky” statue standing more than 12 feet tall was commissioned by Sylvester Stallone for use in Rocky III. During the film, this statue appears at the top of the museum steps when fictional character Rocky Balboa is honored with the city's dedication of the statue to him. When filming for Rocky III finished, Stallone gifted the statue to the City of Philadelphia, leaving it at the top of the steps to the Philadelphia Art Museum, where the scene in the movie was filmed. The Museum protested the statue's location--in particular, its prime visibility--debating its value as more "prop than art." The statue was moved from location to location afterward, and in 2006, the Philadelphia Art Commission approved a permanent location nearby for the bronze Rocky statue. (Read more on-line about this event at Pop History Dig: http://www.pophistorydig.com/?tag=rocky-statue-in-philadelphia.)
Is the bronze Rocky statue art? Or, is it a prop? What's the difference? What's "art"? What isn't art, and why? Should the Rocky statue have been left atop the steps to the Museum? Why, or why not?
PowerPoint Version Here
In persuasive-argumentative writing, used to show your readers that you are knowledgeable about a full range of positions other than your own.
As a rhetorical strategy, it demonstrates that you are interested in finding common ground and consensus with your opponents.
As a statement of your character, it shows that you are honest and forthcoming about other viewpoints that might jeopardize your position.
Three Stages of Counterargument
STAGE 1: ACKNOWLEDGMENT
a paraphrase, with useful examples, of an argument posed by your potential opponents
proof to your readers that you can, not only understand the complex ideas of your opponents, but digest them clearly for the edification of your readers.
remains neutral in tone
introduces the counter-argumentative process as if to say, “Let me see if I understand my opponent correctly: . . . .”
EXAMPLE OF ACKNOWLEDGMENT
Many advocates of extreme rendition charge that the word "torture" is a rhetorical usage, and that the methods employed to extract information from hostile agencies deserve an image makeover. Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, insisted in a 2009 interview with PBS that “we [the United States] don’t torture,” stating that the term “enhanced interrogation” was sanctioned by the Justice Department. Cheney added, “A great many Americans are alive today because we did all that.” Extreme rendition, it is argued, is ultimately an effective method of detainment and interrogation whose reputation is tarnished by the semantics of terms like "torture."
STAGE 2: ACCOMMODATION
a statement conceding to the merit of some part of the opposing argument--either in the argument, itself, or in the character and values of the arguer
establishes common ground.
shows you are representing the opposition as fairly as possible.
points out logic, values, interpretations, motivations that you respect in the opposing argument
shows you are capable of empathy and understanding.
is careful to agree ONLY IN PART with the opponent
proves you've chosen an opponent of equal or greater strength
EXAMPLE OF ACCOMMODATION
. . . One can find these argument persuasive in that the most controversial issues of our day hinge on semantics and torture is no different. Terms such as "pro-life" and "pro- choic" demonstrate how opposing groups using semantics for frame how the enemy is perceived, named, and identified. Words such as "torture" are clearly undercut with a prejudice formed by such history lessons as the Spanish Inquisition or the Killing Fields.
STAGE 3: REFUTATION
Argue against the opponent on the terms introduced by you in acknowledgment, OR
Subvert the choice of criteria used the opponent, by introduced what you believe to be a more valid set of criteria to discuss the argument.
remains even-tempered and uses a rational tone
responds by addressing those parts of the opposing argument with which you CANNOT agree: interpretations of the facts; inappropriate examples
subverts logic or questions the values in the opposing argument, in defense of your own position.
does not veer off topic: stays focused on the criteria introduced in acknowledgment
EXAMPLE OF REFUTATION
. . . However, the need to put "spin" on the reputation of "torture" is, itself, an indication that the word has power, not because it is in the common vocabulary of a nation, but rather because it conveys an underlying truth about the cruelty and inhumanity that the word "torture" connotes. Phrases such as "enhanced interrogation" are not merely euphemisms; they absolve us of the responsibility to qualify and rationalize the barbarous methods of interrogation used in favor of contemplating effective, business-style strategies in the extraction of sensitive information in the interest of national security. It dangerously portrays extreme rendition as matter-of-fact and "business as usual." It trivializes arguments about how much "enhanced interrogation" is enough. (How can performance be enhanced too much, after all?) In a very real way, such arguments about semantics work insidiously upon the character of a nation because they persuade the unwitting public to coat the issue of torture with a veneer of semantics. It hides, once again, behind the same "means justifies the ends" debate that keeps us distracted in the subtleties of torture when the obvious, general immorality of it goes unchallenged by us.
Avoid becoming shrill in your tone.
Address the issue at hand to avoid making ad hominem attacks or red herring arguments.
Be sure to do a full and thorough job of accommodation; do not, for example, write, “My opponent might make a good point, but . . .”
Don’t forget to include examples in every stage of the counterargument.
Be certain that your refutation doesn’t change the topic capriciously. If you do intentionally change the issue that was introduced in the Acknowledgment, make sure that you explain your rationale.
Identify the source of your opposing arguments as specifically as possible, and represent your opponent fairly and honestly.
Devote one portion of your essay to an anticipation of the opposing arguments.
Address three separate opposing points.
Dedicate a single paragraph to a single opposing argument.
Include all three stages--Acknowledgment, Accommodation, and Refutation--in a single paragraph. For example, do not group all three acknowledgments together. Do not start a new paragraph with accommodation or refutation (unless the refutation is exceptionally complex and much longer than the other components); each counterargument ordinarily is presented as a single paragraph:
Many advocates of extreme rendition charge that the word "torture" is a rhetorical usage, and that the methods employed to extract information from hostile agencies deserve an image makeover. Vice President Dick Cheney for example, insisted in a 2009 interview with PBS that “we [the United States] don’t torture,” stating that the term “enhanced interrogation” was sanctioned by the Justice Department. Cheney added, “A great many Americans are alive today because we did all that.” Extreme rendition, it is argued, is ultimately an effective method of detainment and interrogation whose reputation is tarnished by the semantics of terms like "torture." One can find these arguments persuasive in that any of the most controversial issues of our day hinge on the semantics of the debate; torture is no different. Terms such as "pro-life" and "pro-choice" aptly exemplify the matter. Similarly, words such as "torture" are clearly undercut with a prejudice formed by such history lessons as the Spanish Inquisition or the Killing Fields. However, the need to put "spin" on the reputation of "torture" is, itself, an indication that the word has power, not because it is in the common vocabulary of a nation, but rather because it conveys an underlying truth about the cruelty and inhumanity that the word "torture" connotes. Phrases such as "enhanced interrogation" are not merely euphemisms; they absolve us of the responsibility to justify the barbarous methods of interrogation used in favor of contemplating effective, business-style strategies in the extraction of sensitive information in the interest of national security. It dangerously portrays extreme rendition as matter-of-fact and "business as usual." It trivializes arguments about how much "enhanced interrogation" is enough. In a very real way, such arguments about semantics work insidiously upon the character of a nation because they persuade the unwitting public to coat the issue of torture with a veneer of semantics. It hides, once again, behind the same "means justifies the ends" debate that keeps us distracted in the subtleties of torture when the obvious, general immorality of it goes unchallenged by us.
Impress readers with your sophisticated and subtle reasoning, and use sources, not only for their information, but for the authority and expertise that they can loan you.
Refutation is not about logic only. Appeal to your readers’ emotional sensibilities and their values.
Make the process intellectually enjoyable to yourself, without creating the impression that you are sparring with adversaries.
Divide into groups no smaller than six and, using the assigned readings in the focus casebook ("Is There a Case For Torture?" starting on page 679) and the film Serenity, create two related counterarguments, one from the point of view of torture advocates and one from its critics. To help illustrate and support each stage of the counterargument process, use the following to raise issues and themes relevant to the debate over government-sanctioned torture:
examples, quotes, and information from the Casebook articles, and
the film Serenity and your discussion of it.
At the end of your discussion, prepare a scripted debate in which three of you will, one by one, systematically acknowledge, accommodate, and refute one argument, and the remaining three will do the same for its responsive counterargument. Be prepared to present these to the class--formally, clearly, and with proper references to the sources.
Note: If there are five or seven people in your group, you can still do what you need to accomplish this exercise, but try to amass groups of six.
Last Updated: 01/13/2016