A new Rationale user working on a PhD thesis emailed the following:

I finished my comps in March and have been working to nail down my dissertation topic since. I have too many interests and little discipline so it’s been daunting. Notably, I sat down last week with rationale and decided to map out what I was thinking and feeling. I used the reasoning tools to nail down my main argument, the assertions I am inclined to make in support of that argument, and then what I know (or believe) supports those. Trying to not get bogged down, I next skipped to basis statements that helped me sort out which of these things I know are supported in the literature, which I need to do original logic on, which I need to test using a game model, and which I need to support using case studies. And finally – after months of circling, I went to the text panel and got the skeleton of a précis. Spent three more days cleaning up and thinking, and then as of this morning I sent those 4 pages off to a prospective adviser to start a conversation.

It might also be useful later in the process, articulating and evaluating what you take to be your core arguments.

If you’re writing a thesis, or some other elaborate piece of argumentative prose, then its a good idea to try mapping your arguments just to test whether you really know what they are.

If you actually have any substantial arguments, and if you are truly clear about what they are, mapping them should be a trivial exercise – just whacking claims into boxes and putting those boxes where they belong in the logical hierarchy.

However, it almost never is a trivial exercise.  We are, in fact, often quite deluded about the extent to which we really understand our own arguments.   Of course often we’re aware that we’re not fully on top of the arguments.  The more interesting point here is that, most of the time, when we think we know exactly what they are, we’re laboring under a kind of illusion of clarity.  There’s nothing like the demand to lay out the arguments in a map (well, a map observing the core principles of good argument mapping) to puncture the illusion.

The amount of effort you find you need to put in to get a tolerably good map of your arguments is a measure of the lack of clarity you have about those arguments.

(This assumes that you’re using a tool, like Rationale, which reduces to almost nothing the mechanics of producing an argument map diagram.)