The best books to learn how to argue well

Marianne Talbot Author Of Critical Reasoning: A Romp through the Foothills of Logic for the Complete Beginner
By Marianne Talbot

Who am I?

I taught philosophy (in particular critical reasoning!) for the colleges of Oxford University between 1987 and 2021. But, aged 15, I was thrown out of school (for truancy and disruption). Between the ages of 18 and 23 I travelled the world, hitch-hiking through Asia, living in Australasia, then travelling back through Africa. By the time I got home, starved of intellectual stimulation, I started an Open University Course and discovered logic. It was the hardest thing I had ever done. But also the most enjoyable. I loved getting to grips with difficult distinctions and concepts and having to use them precisely. Getting the answers right felt like an achievement. Getting them wrong, a challenge. I’ve loved logic ever since!

I wrote...

Critical Reasoning: A Romp through the Foothills of Logic for the Complete Beginner

By Marianne Talbot,

Book cover of Critical Reasoning: A Romp through the Foothills of Logic for the Complete Beginner

What is my book about?

Have you ever wished you could argue more convincingly? Or have you wished you could detect more easily the problems in the arguments of others? Then this is the book for you. It’ll teach you how to recognize arguments, how to analyse and classify arguments, and how to evaluate arguments – how to say which arguments are good and which are bad. You will also, after a close reading of the book, be confident in saying why these arguments are good and bad. Those who’d like to will also be able to dip their toes into formalizing arguments. 

The books I picked & why

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Thinking, Fast and Slow

By Daniel Kahneman,

Book cover of Thinking, Fast and Slow

Why this book?

This book, driven by research that Kahneman did with his late colleague, Amos Tversky, is an introduction to the fact that much of human thinking is not rational. It is not logic that drives most of your decisions and actions, but a mixture of heuristics and biases. The mind is constituted of two systems, one of them fast, automatic, and largely unconscious, the other, slow, effortful, and demanding of concentration. It is the second one we must invoke when we engage in critical reasoning. But it is extremely easy to give in to the temptation to let system one take over. Read all about these two systems and you will, at least, be alerted to the possibility that you are thinking lazily in almost everything you do. 

The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin

By Keith E. Stanovich,

Book cover of The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin

Why this book?

Stanovich takes his title from the very last sentence in Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene, “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” In his book, Stanovich shows how human beings are able to rebel against those selfish replicators – our genes. It involves exercising, in Kahneman’s terminology, our ‘system two’ and exercising tenacity and self-discipline in bringing to bear logic and rationality in our decisions. This book is not an easy read, but it is a fascinating account of why human thinking is different and of what such differences might in principle enable us to do. 

Explaining Explanation

By David-Hillel Ruben,

Book cover of Explaining Explanation

Why this book?

In this book, David-Hillel Ruben introduces the ways in which various philosophers have tried to explain the concept of explanation, before ending with his own account of explanation. Explaining is one of the most important actions a human being can engage in. Diagnoses, for example, are explanations of why you have the symptoms you have, or perhaps they are explanations of why that bridge collapsed or why those people bombed that mosque. In trying to explain something we make our first attempts at trying to understand the phenomenon under investigation. But what actually is an explanation? What do we do when we try to explain something. This is not an easy read, but it is an excellent book. 

Tetralogue: I'm Right, You're Wrong

By Timothy Williamson,

Book cover of Tetralogue: I'm Right, You're Wrong

Why this book?

One area in which argument is increasingly important is the area of ethics, or morality. In our increasingly polarized world, a world in which people often find themselves in ‘bubbles’ where their ideas are confirmed by everything they read, arguing becomes increasingly difficult because people want to remain in their comfort zones. This book looks at a discussion between four people on a train and examines the way their discussion questions their key assumptions.   

The Philosopher's Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods

By Peter S. Fosl, Julian Baggini,

Book cover of The Philosopher's Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods

Why this book?

As with any other academic discipline, philosophy has its own language. This is not jargon (or it shouldn’t be!). It is a technical terminology. To look at something very closely, as any academic discipline does, is to record distinctions that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Immediately two names are needed where only one was needed before. This book will talk you through the most important of these distinctions. The book also looks at the methodology of philosophy, the most important of which, of course, is logic. 

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