Unstated Assumption

Have you ever come across an argument that seemed logical on the 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: as if it's based on an idea about colors that has almost nothing to do with education, classrooms, and even what it means for colors to be "fun."

Unstated Assumption Unstated Assumption

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

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

    • 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, instead of the walls?

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

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

    As you can see, the principal is guilty of unstated assumptions.

    Unstated Assumption Definition

    Here's a simple way to see the unstated assumption.

    Unstated assumptions are reasons left out of the explicit language of an 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.

    Recognizing an Unstated Assumption in an Argument

    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 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.

    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.

    Unstated assumption. Someone plants a garden. StudySmarter.Fig. 1 - Unstated assumptions can be true or untrue

    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."

    Unstated Assumption Examples

    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. But there are mental disabilities which do not affect physical capabilities.

    • All military services require strength and endurance. Many of a modern 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 list of all types of unstated assumptions, it is apparent that assumptions often deal with how things are categorized, with suggestions for future courses of action and 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.1

    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. 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.2

    Unstated assumption. A bird sits with plastic. StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - Unstated assumptions may or may not be tricky

    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 that 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 threatens this value system, according to the article.

    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 percent 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 Stephen Brookfield. Becoming A Critically Reflective Teacher. 2017.

    2 Jonathan B Jarvis and Christy Leavitt. "Why are American national parks filled with plastic?" The Guardian International. 2022.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Unstated Assumption

    What is an unstated assumption?

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

    Does an argument always require assumptions?

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

    How can one recognize unstated assumptions?

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

    What is the formal name for an unstated assumption in an argument?

    An enthymeme.

    What is the difference between stated and unstated assumption?

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

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    "A logical fallacy indicates there might be an error in the logic."True or false?

    Can a hasty generalization occur in argument involving multiple parties?

    "All carpet is carpet."Is this a hasty generalization?

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