What is an argument?

While researching for a new poem sequence, I was reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I found myself constructing an argument for a possible essay or article. Why did Victor Frankenstein end up creating a monster? What part was played by his education? Later, preparing writing workshops for MA Literature students and looking back over essays from previous years, the problem of argument recurred frequently in a sample of markers’ comments. Students were advised to ‘argue rather than illustrate’ or were told: ‘Your paragraphs and arguments don’t have a clear discursive shape’. Not being clear about the basic outline of the argument means that an essay lacks direction, with consequences for the quality of the writing.

Alerted to this problem, I went back to Frankenstein. Could I retrace my steps? Victor’s studies began at home in his early teens with alchemy, investigating works by Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus. Entering the university at Ingolstadt, in Bavaria, Germany, his tutors introduced him to ‘natural philosophy’.

Constructing an argument involves identifying its main concepts, establishing their exact meaning, where they occur, their provenance and background, plus any further relevant research. This information can be presented as a concept grid.

A concept grid works well for humanities students at any level. Visualising the material helps us discover connections, oppositions, pathways and links, out of which a complex argument can emerge. The grid below is just a simplified version of what could be a spreadsheet or a message-board in an incident room. As you define your concepts and see where they lead, you will be able to take your reader with you. Under Alchemy: Content, we might enter ‘transmutation of metals, elixir of life, philosopher’s stone’, all of which are consistent with a belief in magic. ‘Natural philosophy’ – what we would now call science – would have exposed the young Frankenstein to a whole new set of procedures based upon experiment, observation and probability. Victor’s problem was not to progress from one form of knowledge to another, but to embrace them both. He had to find a way to transmute mortality, and used modern science as his means.

So what went wrong at Ingolstadt? The last two sentences above could serve as an attempt to frame the argument, with further questions to follow. An argument is a vehicle able to carry you far into your topic, opening up new spaces for exploration. Concepts clarified in detail stimulate research, generate insight, and bring to writing a ‘clear, discursive shape’.

Title: What part did Victor Frankenstein’s education play in the creation of his monster?


1 March 2017