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Unstated Assumption

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English

Have you ever come across an argument that seemed logical on its surface, but deep down you felt something was wrong with it? Imagine your school principal made this announcement over the intercom: “Since bright colors are fun, every classroom should now be painted yellow and pink.” This would certainly raise some eyebrows. You might even like yellow and pink rooms, but as an argument for something the school should do to its classrooms, it seems fishy, like it’s based on an idea about colors that have almost nothing to do with education, classrooms, and even what it means for colors to be “fun.”

What makes this argument questionable reveals something more interesting at work in all arguments. These are the unstated assumptions upon which all arguments are built. If an argument seems to make sense but feels fishy, it is usually because of what the argument leaves unsaid (“unstated”) and the “assumptions” that the argument makes (its fundamental ideas about the world).

Marc Antony's Oration at Caesar's Funeral by George Edward Robertson, Wikimedia Commons, StudySmarterRhetoric, the art and study of persuasion, was a major focus of classical philosophy, since in ancient Greece and Rome, persuasion was at the root of democratic debate, Wikimedia Commons1

A few of the ideas that the principal seems to miss are:

  • Are yellow and pink fun when they’re the colors of classrooms?

    • Perhaps colors are fun because they appear in fun contexts. Wouldn’t an un-fun context, like a classroom, make the colors less fun?

  • Do the colors of classrooms affect how well students learn?

    • Perhaps students’ success in learning is unrelated to the colors of walls.

  • Would students have more fun if the things inside the classroom were colored in fun ways?

    • Perhaps it’s not the classrooms that need to be bright and fun, but the colors of the ink on the papers, the pictures on the walls, or the clothes that the students are wearing.

  • Does everyone think yellow and pink are fun?

    • Perhaps some people think purple and green are more fun than yellow and pink.

  • Do all of the students want the classroom to be fun?

    • Perhaps students are comfortable with the classrooms being calm and professional.

The ability to recognize unstated assumptions lies in asking questions about how the parts of the argument connect with each other. But first, it is important to understand precisely what an unstated assumption is and how it differs from other types of implied information.

Definition of an unstated assumption

Unstated assumptions are parts of an argument's reasoning that are left out of the explicit language of the argument. Unstated assumptions are claims and reasons that the argument implies, nudging the audience to assume they are simply common sense and need not be critiqued. They often appeal to the values that the audience supposedly holds and the goals that the audience might desire.

In order to convince an audience, it is often useful to hint at the finer points instead of getting bogged down in the details and risk losing the audience's attention to the larger, more important conclusion. These implied points are often referred to as tacit claims or tacit assumptions.

How to recognize an unstated assumption

To recognize an argument's unstated and implied material, you should first point out what the arguer is trying to accomplish. Then consider why the arguer wants to accomplish that goal. By putting these two important parts into words, you can then examine how the arguer moves from one to the other. In order to articulate these in words, it is important to know the basic parts of an argument and how they work. All arguments, of all types, are made of premises and conclusions.

In Logic, a premise is defined as a statement (or “proposition”) upon which a conclusion is based. A premise is an initial step toward a conclusion.

The conclusion is the final statement that the premises support. It is the ultimate idea that that the arguer wants to convince the audience to accept.

If a premise is untrue, then the truth of the conclusion comes into question.

Consider the following simple argument:

Mrs. Dalloway’s classroom is good for plants because its many windows let in a lot of sunlight.

The stated premises are:

  • Mrs. Dalloway’s classroom has many windows.

  • The windows of Mrs. Dalloway’s classroom let in a lot of sunlight.

The stated conclusion is:

  • Mrs. Dalloway’s classroom is good for plants.

The unstated premises are:

  • Sunlight is good for plants.

  • Windows letting in a lot of sunlight is sufficient for Mrs. Dalloway’s classroom to be good for plants.

The technical term in Logic for an argument with unstated premises is an enthymeme. An unstated premise is called an enthymematic proposition: it is the claim that is attached to the “because” clause, which is the stated reason for the conclusion to be accepted. In the previous example, the enthymematic propositions are the implied claims “sunlight is good for plants” and “windows that let in a lot of sunlight are sufficient for the classroom to be good for plants.”

From this example, we can see that the first unstated premise (“Sunlight is good for plants”) is a reasonable statement. Plants use sunlight to create energy by a process called photosynthesis. The second unstated premise, however, reveals potential problems for the original argument. Plants need more than sunlight to thrive: they need water and clean air, and if they are potted houseplants, they need people to take care of them. If Mrs. Dalloway’s classroom has unhealthy air, no access to water, and no people around to care for the plants, then the conclusion (that Mrs. Dalloway’s room is good for plants) will be untrue.

Terrace Garden Plants, Wikimedia Commons, StudySmarterSunlight isn't all a plant needs to thrive, Wikimedia Commons

Sound vs. valid arguments

A problem that often shows up in Logic is that an argument can make sense without actually being true. Two important concepts in Logic are validity and soundness.

For an argument to be valid, its conclusion must simply follow from the premises. For the argument to be sound, it must be both valid and true.

All velociraptors are blue.

George is a velociraptor.

Therefore, George is blue.

This is an example of an argument that is valid, but not sound, because the premise (“All velociraptors are blue”) is not true.

All crows are birds.

The Caledonian crow is a crow.

Therefore, the Caledonian crow is a bird.

This argument is both valid and sound.

Recognizing unstated assumptions involves critically examining the potential truth of the argument's premises. These can be tested. (What evidence exists about the skin color of velociraptors? What features do birds have that are shared by the Caledonian crow?) Therefore, in order to recognize an unstated assumption in an argument, you must consider what the argument asks you to assume is true in order to accept the conclusion as true.

These first two arguments are rather simple, and the stakes are low. If the school paints its classrooms yellow and pink, and if Mrs. Dalloway’s plants are unhealthy, the consequences are minimal. Students may dislike their classrooms and the plants might need replacing. But when the arguments are larger in scope, their ideas affect large parts of the world. Unstated assumptions become critically important when they show up in more scientific knowledge, political discourse, and our understandings of how the world works.

Examples of Unstated Assumptions in Critical Reasoning

Here are a few examples of arguments with some of their unstated assumptions listed below:

Germany should protect its water supply from contamination so its people can drink and shower safely.

This is a common sense statement, but it does assume a number of things that could be contested if someone disagreed with its fundamental values.

A few claims that the argument implies or leaves unexamined:

  • People drink and shower with water.

  • It is good for people to drink and shower safely.

  • Contaminated water makes drinking and showering unsafe.

  • The responsibility for the quality and safety of Germany’s water is Germany’s responsibility, and not someone else’s

  • Germany, as the name for a governing institution, is an entity that is separate from its citizens, and that entity bears responsibility for things like the safety of its water supply.

If the audience disagrees with any of these assumptions, then the main argument that “Germany should protect its water supply from contamination” would not make much sense to them.

People with disabilities should not serve in the military because they lack the strength and endurance needed for military service.

This statement is much more controversial and complex, though at first glance it appears reasonable.

A few of the unstated assumptions here are:

  • "Disability" refers to problems with strength and endurance.

    • There are mental disabilities which do not affect physical capabilities.

  • All military services require strength and endurance.

    • Today many of the military's operations are technological and digital. Therefore, wouldn't a physically disabled person perform perfectly fine at a computer?

As you can see, there are many unstated assumptions that can be identified in arguments. Although there is no single list of all types of unstated assumptions, it is apparent that assumptions often deal with the way things are categorized, with suggestions for future courses of action, and with how something is valued.

Stephen Brookfield, a teacher and author on education, defined three types of assumptions that are usually made in critical reasoning. The three types are: casual assumptions, prescriptive assumptions, and paradigmatic assumptions.

  • Casual assumptions are the easiest to recognize and critique. They are assumptions we make about how things work and what we can do about them.
  • Prescriptive assumptions are any assumptions that are stated with the word "should." They are assumptions about what course of action should be taken.
  • Paradigmatic assumptions are the deep, unquestioned beliefs we have about the world. They are the most difficult to identify and critique because they make up the backbone of how we experience the world.2

A perceptive arguer will be able to recognize, verbalize, and call into question each of these types of assumptions. Being able to identify and critique the third type, "paradigmatic assumptions," is the most important skill for success in critical thinking and analysis sections in English courses and tests.

Unstated assumptions in tests and assignments

A major topic of English coursework is the evaluation and analysis of arguments. Both "free response" questions and "rhetorical analysis" sections require students to read argumentative texts and analyze how the writer's language choices build the text's intended meaning and purpose. Reading with an eye toward what the text leaves unstated allows you to clearly describe the messages that the writer intends to convey and the tools used to convey them. In "evaluating arguments" sections, you can use the unstated material to reveal mistakes the arguer makes, faulty reasoning, and unexamined beliefs that compromise the argument's effectiveness.

Consider the following passage from an article in The Guardian:

No part of our world deserves to be polluted with plastic, but national parks may be one of the most obviously unsuitable places for a problem that has escalated into one of the planet’s top environmental threats. Americans agree. According to a recent Oceana poll, 82% of American voters would support a decision by the National Park Service to stop selling and distributing single-use plastic at national parks. The National Park Service was created to conserve the natural and cultural resources of these treasured areas. To maintain that commitment, the service and its contractors must stop selling and distributing single-use plastic products and offer refillable and reusable alternatives.3

This paragraph clearly states the article's main complaint and its recommendations for addressing the problem. From an environmental standpoint, the logic is clear and the suggested actions are reasonable. If you were expected to critique the argument and point out potential flaws, it would be easy to do so if you believed that plastic pollution was not a problem and protecting national parks was not important. However, if you agree with the values of the text, and you are expected to criticize the argument, then you have a more difficult task on your hands.

This is where identifying unstated assumptions comes in handy. First, identify the parts of the argument which point to a system of values.

The terms "unsuitable," "treasured," and "commitment" stand out.

Then spell out that value system in your own words.

The writer calls for waste-free national parks and conservation of these area's "natural and cultural resources."

Also note what the article claims threatens this value system.

The writer claims waste from single-use plastic products sold at national parks threatens the parks.

Then ask yourself if that threat to the value system is indeed true, to what degree, and if there are alternatives that the author might be missing.
  • Perhaps people bringing their own plastics to the parks also contributes to the waste.
  • Perhaps Americans need not regard national parks as prime sites of environmental conservation.
  • Perhaps the 82% of voters are concerned with the National Park Service selling anything at all.
  • Perhaps instead of limiting plastic sales at national parks, it would be better for the environment to return the areas to their indigenous peoples rather than changing small rules about how the parks are currently run.
By taking the implied and unstated material of an argument seriously, the argument opens up and becomes vulnerable to critique, revision and re-imagination.

Unstated Assumptions - Key takeaways

  • Unstated assumptions show up in the premises of an argument.
  • A valid argument need not be true, but a sound argument must be both valid and true.
  • The technical term for an unstated assumption is an enthymeme.
  • Recognizing unstated assumptions involves paying attention to the reasons upon which a conclusion is built.
  • Three major types of assumptions are casual, prescriptive, and paradigmatic.

1. "Marc Antony's Oration at Caesar's Funeral" by George Edward Robertson.

2. Stephen Brookfield, Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher, 2017.

3. Jonathan B Jarvis and Christy Leavitt, "Why are American national parks filled with plastic?" The Guardian International, 3 May 2022 , https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/may/03/why-are-american-national-parks-filled-with-plastic

Unstated Assumption

An unstated assumption is the part of an argument's reasoning that are not made explicit because it is assumed the audience is aware of them.

Yes. No matter the argument, there will always be some sort of assumption made, whether it be about the person making, the culture in which it's made, or the argument itself.

After parsing through an argument, ask what the argument did not say that you were expected to understand as true.

An enthymeme.

An unstated assumption is something implied, while a stated assumption is specifically mentioned in an argument.

Final Unstated Assumption Quiz

Question

"A logical fallacy indicates there might be an error in the logic."


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. A fallacy is an error in logic.

Show question

Question

Can a hasty generalization occur in argument involving multiple parties?

Show answer

Answer

Yes.

Show question

Question

"All carpet is carpet."


Is this a hasty generalization?

Show answer

Answer

No. This is true by definition.

Show question

Question

"Dream. Move Forward. Trust." Is this a hasty generalization?

Show answer

Answer

No, this is a glittering generalization. 

Show question

Question

Are logical fallacies and propaganda synonymous? 

Show answer

Answer

No.

Show question

Question

The hasty generalization is a kind of _____.

Show answer

Answer

Jumping to conclusion

Show question

Question

Which is another name for the hasty generalization?

Show answer

Answer

Faulty generalization

Show question

Question

Is "sweeping generalization" another term for hasty generalization?

Show answer

Answer

Yes.

Show question

Question

What is an "argument from small numbers"?

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Answer

The same as a hasty generalization.

Show question

Question

A hasty generalization is reaching a generalized _____ about a topic based on a small sample of evidence.

Show answer

Answer

Conclusion

Show question

Question

If a conclusion is huge about topic Y, and there is some good evidence to indicate this about topic Y, is this a hasty generalization? 

Show answer

Answer

Yes. "Some" indicates too little evidence. You need more than "some" evidence to say something huge.

Show question

Question

"There’s an awful lot of crime in this part of town. The folks around here are criminals."

Does this contain a hasty generalization?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, the second sentence is one.

Show question

Question

"To avoid a hasty generalization, move more swiftly through your evidence so as not to get bogged down in the illogic."


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. You should slow down to avoid hasty generalization. Make sure all your evidence is straightened out, or a misstep could derail your essay.

Show question

Question

What is the "scale test" you can use to identify hasty generalization?

Show answer

Answer

Big claim = a lot of evidence, small claim = not much evidence.

Show question

Question

Erase _____ to avoid hasty generalizations.

Show answer

Answer

Preconceptions

Show question

Question

What is the technical name for an argument with at least one unstated assumption?

Show answer

Answer

Enthymeme

Show question

Question

An unstated assumption and a tacit claim are the same thing?

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

An argument is ___ if it is both valid and true?

Show answer

Answer

Sound

Show question

Question

____ describes an argument in which the conclusion follows logically from the premises.

Show answer

Answer

Validity

Show question

Question

Paradigmatic assumptions are the most difficult to identify.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What type of assumption deals with courses of action being taken?

Show answer

Answer

Prescriptive

Show question

Question

Where do unstated assumptions show up in an argument?

Show answer

Answer

In the premises

Show question

Question

A clever enough speaker can make an argument with no unstated assumptions.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Paying attention to unstated assumptions is necessary for which parts of English tests and assignments?

Show answer

Answer

Rhetorical analysis

Show question

Question

An assumption about how something works is a casual assumption.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

If a claim can be tested, is there a small chance it is still a non-testable hypothesis?

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Answer

No. It is testable then.

Show question

Question

Should you cite a high-level academic theory that is currently untestable as evidence?

Show answer

Answer

No. You would still commit the non-testable hypothesis fallacy. 

Show question

Question

A logical fallacy appears like what?

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Answer

A logical reason

Show question

Question

A non-testable hypothesis _____.

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Answer

Cannot be tested.

Show question

Question

When somebody presents a non-testable hypothesis, they fail to make the distinction between _____ reasons and _____ reasons.


Show answer

Answer

Emotional, logical

Show question

Question

In a logical argument or essay, when can an emotional reason substitute for a logical reason?

Show answer

Answer

It cannot.

Show question

Question

What is the problem with using emotions to clarify and study reality?

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Answer

Emotions cannot clarify anything in reality, and the clarification of reality is the objective of logical discourse.

Show question

Question

"Yesterday, I did too walk down that road!"

Could this claim be a non-testable hypothesis?

Show answer

Answer

Yes. If no one saw it and no evidence exists, then it is not a testable hypothesis. 

Show question

Question

To avoid a non-testable hypothesis, don't make assumptions. What does this mean?

Show answer

Answer

Do not assume a conclusion is true without some form of logical verification.

Show question

Question

When you assume things, you don’t verify them. When you don't verify something, you mighty employ a ______. 


Show answer

Answer

Non-testable hypothesis

Show question

Question

Just because you respect someone’s beliefs or opinions, it does not mean that you should accept their beliefs and opinions as _____ in a logical argument.

Fill in the blank.


Show answer

Answer

Valid or correct.

Show question

Question

In order to avoid a non-testable hypothesis, when you make a claim, understand _____.

Show answer

Answer

Where your claim is coming from

Show question

Question

What are some other names for the non-testable hypothesis? 

Show answer

Answer

The non-testable hypothesis is also known as the "untestability fallacy," the "unfalsifiability fallacy," and the "untestable explanation fallacy."

Show question

Question

Is the untestability fallacy a logical fallacy?

Show answer

Answer

Yes, it is synonymous with the non-testable hypothesis fallacy.

Show question

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