Chapter Two: The Five-Step Dialectical Essay Format

Step Two: Getting Off the Ground: Interpretation of the Target Claims

            Every essay starts somewhere. Often an essay begins by analyzing another essay’s argument, or by arguing a problematic case. The first step in the body of the essay is to spell out all the facts, claims, and arguments relevant to what you are discussing. As before, assume the reader is ignorant of key details, but is of normal intelligence. You must supply all important facts, but make sure these facts are relevant to the issue and the stand you plan to take and develop. In a short essay, you need to make sure that you explain facts or arguments in a short paragraph. In a longer essay, the structure would be slightly different, with general information beginning the essay and specifics being mentioned later. If you are criticizing a statement from an argument, an action of a person, or a method of arguing in a philosophical text you must indicate what you are specifically targeting for investigation.

            Following, we outline two versions of this step. The Jury Model sees the dialectical essays as a forum for assessing in an impartial way the strengths and weaknesses of a position, while the Debater Model sees the dialectical essay as a forum for the author to put forth a position and defend it.

An example for the Jury Model (for step two) is shown below. As you read it, see if you can identify the target claim.

            The situation leading up to the NATO air action and providing justification for it involves two key events. The first event is the one of Yugoslavia refusing to sign the October peace agreement. A resolution to the conflict acceptable to the international community and to the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo was rejected by the Yugoslav government. During negotiations, and following their breakdown, Yugoslavia engaged in preparations for a large-scale attack on Kosovo. Yugoslavia also engaged in a variety of practices of ethnic cleansing earlier in the decade in Bosnia. A primary reason defenders had for the air attack on Yugoslavia was that NATO was justified in attacking Yugoslavia since Yugoslavia was about to engage in ethnic cleansing.

This paragraph clarifies the target of the investigation:

            A primary reason defenders had for the air attack on Yugoslavia was that NATO was justified in attacking Yugoslavia since Yugoslavia was about to engage in ethnic cleansing.

            In addition to clarifying the target of the investigation, this paragraph presents relevant facts that the reader needs. It also explains the context of the statement. Do you always need a target? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that sometimes a writer implies things he does not say. The target may be implied, and not written as a direct statement. But if you are implying a meaning, you must be careful. You don’t want to imply one thing, but have the reader interpret another. Should you always spell out the context of the target? For that question there is a clear answer: yes. The context determines the meaning, and may also provide crucial evidence for or against the target.

            It is important that a target claim is well-chosen, of course. For example: in an essay evaluating an argument, the target out to be a premise, not the conclusion of the argument. (For more on the crucial distinction between premises and conclusions, see Chapter Three). If you want to reject a conclusion, you must show where the argument for it fails. Your best target will be the false premise, or faulty inference, that leads up to the falsity of the conclusion (or maybe the whole argument). A lengthier essay might attack the conclusion and then the argument leading up to it, but a short essay needs to be focused and concise. (A short essay is 4-7 pages in length). The best target for an essay on an argument will be any faulty premise that leads up to the false conclusion. You can mention that the conclusion is false, but to keep the paper focused, select the premise as your target. Here is a simple example:

            Socrates criticizes the customs of Athens.

            Citizens who criticize the customs of their country should be killed.

            So Socrates should be killed.

            You may think that the conclusion is false, but since the conclusion is derived from the two proceeding premises, pick one of them as your target claim. You might want to attack the claim of “citizens who criticize the customs of their country should be killed.”

            In textual analysis, some targets will be implied claims or implicit modes of reasoning. It is fine to target implications for investigations, but it is crucial to insure that when you state an implied claim that you show the claim really is implied (by other explicit claims in the text).

            Finally, you must explain all crucial quotes you introduce in Step Two. Not only do you need to make sure that your audience understands what they are reading, but you must prove that you understand the claim you are criticizing. Consider the argument in the previous paragraph. The sentence, “Citizens who criticize the customs of their country should be killed,” seems simple enough, but what does it mean – (do we understand the words ‘criticize’ and ‘customs’?) –and why would anyone assert it?

            An alternative to this format for Step Two is called the Debater Model. While essentially the same, the Debater Model includes a more developed set of personal reflections by the writer, indicating reasons for agreeing/disagreeing with the target. Under this model, the writer would state his personal defence of the thesis early on in the essay. The rest of the essay would target possible criticisms of the writer’s statements from Step Two. This approach adds a more personal element to the essay, early on. In every other way, the rest of the steps would be the same. The example essay used here does not take this approach, but for an example of an essay that does, see Sample Essay Three below.

Summary of Step Two

- Identify the target of your investigation

- Explain its context, focusing on relevant details that provide meaning, background context, or crucial evidence for subsequent argument.

- If your target is implied, make sure that you show that the implied claim is justified in light of evidence of the text.

- The structure for your target claim in Five-Step Web-checked practice essays: a statement using the phrases “primary reason” followed some point later in the sentence by “is that, or was that” followed by the target itself.

Next Page
Chapter Two: The Five-Step Dialectical Essay Format - Step Three
Previous Page
Chapter Two: The Five-Step Dialectical Essay Format - Step One