On the LSAT you are often asked to determine something about a portion of an argument. What was the main point, perhaps, or what role did such and such a statement play in the argument? That first question is called a Main Point question (no surprise there), and the latter is what we call a Method of Reasoning – Argument Part question.
Both of these question types are asking something very similar. They want you to pull apart the argument and identify some key component. Was it a premise? Something that the author wants you to disprove? Was it a conclusion, or was it something else? The arguments in these questions can be fairly complex. It’s easy to spot a conclusion when it comes at the end of an argument and the argument is straightforward, with just a premise or two. However, we all know that the authors are not all that interested in making things easy on us. Instead, they will often scramble things up, putting the conclusion at the beginning or in the middle somewhere. They may include a phrase or sentence that isn’t even a part of the argument, but is just additional, nonessential or background information.
One of their favorite tricks in complicating these arguments is to include a second conclusion, what we call a subordinate or intermediate conclusion. Two conclusions in one argument? How can that be? It’s just like one of my favorite moments in America’s favorite pastime, baseball. I’m talking about the Double Play.
Imagine the scene: there’s a runner at first, and one out. The game is on the line. Maybe we’re in extra innings, the home team is up by one run, and everything is riding on what happens next. The crowd is on the edge of their seats. The pitcher winds up, throws, and the batter connects with a loud crack! It’s a ground ball heading towards left field! The shortstop dives on the ball, turns, and from one knee fires the ball to second base. The ball lands solidly in the second baseman’s glove, and his foot grazes the bag before the runner can get there. He’s out! Now, the second baseman pivots, pulling the ball from his glove as he does, and he fires the ball down the line to the waiting first baseman, who is reaching out, stretching himself to the limit while keeping his back foot on the edge of first base. The batter is running with all he’s got towards first, hoping to get there in time, but just before he can step safely on first the ball arrives in the first baseman’s glove. He’s out! Double play! The inning is over, the home team wins! The crowd is going wild!
Exciting, huh? But what was I talking about? Oh yeah, complicated arguments with two conclusions.
When the shortstop scooped up that grounder and fired it to the second baseman, that was a premise. It supported the out at second. That out, when the second baseman caught it, was an intermediate conclusion. It was a final statement in a very short argument against the guy running from first base. Now, when the second baseman turned and threw to first, that was a new premise – support for a new conclusion. That conclusion was the out at first, the end of the whole argument, and the inning, and the game. One argument, two conclusions, with the one in the middle acting as both a conclusion (supported by one premise) and a premise (supporting the main conclusion).
When evaluating an argument, ask yourself if there’s more than one conclusion at work. Is there something in there that gets some support, and then turns and gives some support to something else? If so, then you have a Subordinate or Intermediate Conclusion. If you are asked a Main Point question, don’t pick the statement that both received and gave support! Pick the conclusion that gets all the support and gives none – the out at first. If they ask you about the Intermediate Conclusion, though, be sure to pick the answer that describes something playing both the role of a premise and that of a conclusion, and stay away from the answer that says main conclusion.
Okay, that’s enough of a pep talk, so now get back out there and play ball!
Photo "Baseball" courtesy of HendersonStateU