homeschool teen studying formal logic

Sound Argumentation: The Steelman vs. the Strawman

Scholastic Method and Aquinas

If you’ve ever read St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, you will be familiar with the Scholastic method of argumentation. The Scholastic method provides a structure for framing an argument that uses dialectical reasoning to examine a problem from opposite viewpoints, resolve contradictions, and extend knowledge by inference.

Aquinas’ approach to dialectical reasoning always begins with a clear statement of the problem. For clarity, it is stated in a yes or no format (e.g., “Can God alone create?” “Does the will move the intellect?” etc.) Once the problem is stated, Aquinas lists all the objections against his point of view. These are not throw-away objections. They are generally the most weighty counterpoints. Aquinas will then introduce his own perspective with a quote from an authority (such as the Bible, a Church Father, or Aristotle), succinctly state his case, and then proceed to answer the objections individually.

What is so admirable about the Scholastic method, as exemplified by Aquinas, is its willingness—nay, eagerness—to seek out the strongest objections to a point. Aquinas and the Scholastics were sincere about the advancement of knowledge. To move logically from one inference to the next, they knew they needed to wrestle through the particulars of objections, sometimes very substantial objections. They were not afraid to confront opposition to their ideas because they knew that if their ideas were sound, they had to sustain every possible criticism.

The Steelman Approach

We might say that the Scholastics adopted a steelman approach to argumentation. Steemanning is a term I picked up from leadership coach Hamza Shayk. Shayk describes steelmanning as “a technique that presents the other person’s case in the strongest possible form. You try to understand their position as well as possible, and then present it in a way that makes it as difficult as possible to refute” (source). A steelman argument is opposed to a strawman argument, where we focus on refuting the weakest elements of someone’s position, sometimes by deliberately misrepresenting it. Strawmanning is a method employed to make one’s own argument look more impressive by knocking down a weakened characterization of the opponent’s argument. It is considered a logical fallacy.

Steelman vs. Strawman

The difference between the strawman and the steelman is that the steelman method is actually concerned with coming to the most reasonable conclusion. In contrast, the strawman is utilized merely to make oneself look good. Sadly, most of our political discourse today is a web of strawman fallacies. This is painfully clear to anyone who has watched any of the debates from recent presidential cycles, primary or general. Every participant is only interested in making their opponents look as bad as possible, often through gross misrepresentation and overgeneralization. While this occasionally makes entertaining political theater, it is ultimately a manipulative tactic that is not truly a win. It neither refutes the opponent’s true argument nor proves one can stand on one’s own.

The danger, of course, is that we ourselves can rely too much on the strawman in our own problem-solving—and that we can pass this on to our children as well. But it need not be this way. Rather than emulating the fallacious strawman reasoning of our moribund political class, let’s teach our kids to emulate the steelman approach of Aquinas. It is inevitable in life that disagreements will come, whether in friendships, romantic relationships, or professional settings. However, disagreements need not be acrimonious, The Scholastics viewed them as opportunities to grow in knowledge. This is a lesson we want to impart to our children about argumentation.

How to Use Steelmanning

To return to Hamza Shayk, he offers five suggestions for steelmanning your disagreements with others:

  • Listen carefully to the other person’s argument. Try to understand their point of view as well as you can. This ensures that you respond to an actual objection and not a caricature of their point.
  • Ask clarifying questions. This helps ensure that you understand their argument correctly. It also demonstrates goodwill by showing you care about what the other person is truly saying.
  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of their argument. What are the best points in favor of their position? What are the potential weaknesses? Review their argument objectively and fairly.
  • Present their argument in the strongest possible form. This means putting aside your own biases and presenting their argument in a way that is as persuasive as possible.
  • Be respectful and open-minded. Remember that you are trying to understand their point of view, not to win an argument.

Another way to foster sound methods of argumentation in your child is to sign them up for logic classes through Homeschool Connections. We offer a wide variety of logic courses every year, both LIVE and recorded. To learn more, check out this article on HSC’s logic offerings.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Join me and other homeschooling parents at our Homeschool Connections Community or our Facebook group to continue the discussion!

Resources to help you in your Catholic homeschool…

Catholic Homeschool Classes Online

Homeschooling Saints Podcast

Good Counsel Careers

The Catholic Homeschool Conference

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