Argument Mapping with Rationale

One of my current personal projects is to work on improving my critical thinking skills. During the course of my web peregrinations, I stumbled across Rationale. It is a web-based tool for diagramming the structure of an argument: building an argument map. It is aimed largely at education and is intended to help teach critical thinking.

What is Argument Mapping?

Wikipedia defines argument mapping:

In informal logic and philosophy, an argument map is a visual representation of the structure of an argument. It includes the components of an argument such as a main contention, premises, co-premises, objections, rebuttals, and lemmas. Typically an argument map is a “box and arrow” diagram with boxes corresponding to propositions and arrows corresponding to relationships such as evidential support.


An argument, which is a set of statements leading to a conclusion (assuming everything’s correct), has a number of different elements that are represented in an argument map. These are the components used in Rationale:

  • Contention: this is the claim that the argument is designed to support: “You should get vaccinated”, “Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon”, “There is a God”.
  • Reason: this is a statement in support of a contention or parent claim.
  • Objection: this is a statement that does not support or refutes the parent claim.
  • Co-premise: this is an additional reason or objection which is in addition to the main reason/objection. This element appears in Rationale’s Advanced Reasoning toolkit.

Here’s a simple map illustrating the different components:

A simple argument map

A simple argument map

We can see the main contention (You should get vaccinated) has two supporting reasons (in green) and one objection (in red). There is an objection (with a premise and a co-premise) to one of the supporting claims. There is also an objection to an objection. This is termed a rebuttal. Generically, reasons and objections can be referred to as claims.

Signing up for Rationale

You must create an account. There is a free account, but frankly, it is not really much use. With a free account you can:

  • create maps with the editor
  • view maps created and shared by others
  • look through the guides and help files

You can’t:

  • save maps
  • export images, text files and PDFs of your maps
  • share your maps
  • access the e-book
  • access all the tutorials

In other words, you can have a play in a session and then be obliged to throw all your work away. I think the developers would be better advised, if they allowed maps to be saved, perhaps, with a restriction on the number of elements allowed and the number of maps allowed. And denying access to the complete set of tutorials seems perverse. I would think you’d want to help people get the most out of your system as possible.

The paid accounts are:

  • Rationale Basic for USD 45 per year or USD 30 for six months
  • Rationale Extra for USD 90 pa or USD 35 for three months
  • Rationale Premium USD 180 pa or USD 60 for three months

There are substantial educational discounts.

The Basic account allows you to create as many maps as you want. There aren’t any restrictions, but there are fewer ancillary bells and whistles like being able to work on an iPad or Android tablet. The only difference between Premium and and Extra is that the Premium includes map collaboration, which allows nominated users to access a map with full privileges or read-only access. The blurb isn’t clear, but I would guess that only one user at a time is allow to edit a map.

All versions claim to allow offline working, but I haven’t tested this.

The e-book, by the way, is Critical Thinking: Reasoning and Communicating with Rationale written by Timo Berg et al. Timo is involved with Rationale; it is he who has responded to the various queries I have emailed

Using Rationale

When you start a new map in Rationale, you are presented with the workspace screen:

The Rationale mapping window ready for a new map

Rationale window ready for a new map. Click for a larger image.

At the top of the screen is the ribbon bar for quick access to standard commands. There are tabs that display other ribbons, which we will discuss later.

On the left is the Building Panel; this has different sections for different activities with Rationale: Group, Reasoning and Advanced Reasoning. All three use the same tree structure, and you actually toggle the display using the Change Map commands from the ribbon bar. Any items on the map are simply redisplayed using the conventions for the chosen map type.

Basis boxes can be attached to a claim as evidence in support of the claim. Eighteen different bases are defined, but essentially each is just a text box with an icon.

Rat03 Basis Boxes

Basis Boxes. Click for larger image.

Essay Planning is another use for Rationale. Using one of the standard templates, Rationale will create an essay in the Text Panel, which is on the right-hand side of the window.

An argument map can be be converted to an outline in the Text Panel. Here is the outline for the vaccination map shown earlier:

Rat04 Vax Essay

Outline from vaccination map

Building a Map

I’m going to focus on building an argument map, primarily using the Advanced Reasoning toolbox. Start an map by dragging a contention box onto the workspace. Type the text that describes the claim the argument will support. Then drag the reason or objection box on to the workspace. To attach this to the contention, click and drag, so you are “hovering” just underneath the parent contention, a horizontal purple bar appears indicating you can release. This is the method for the first claim linked to any parent claim. To add additional claims, click and drag so the new claim is positioned to the left or right of an existing one. A purple bar indicates where the new claim will be placed.

NewplanContinue to build your argument map by adding new reasons and objections and co-premises. If you make a mistake and want to change a reason to an objection or vice versa, there’s a context menu that allows you to change the box: select the box and right-click. Or there’s the Type button in the ribbon.

If you have a bunch of text that defines your argument, you can paste it into the Scratchpad in the Text Panel, and then drag selected text directly on to the map. You’ll probably need to change type occasionally as the system usually creates a supporting reason. I find this method a bit fiddly to use; it seemed easier to cut-and-paste text from the scratchpad into the claim box.

A few minutes of playing around is enough to learn the basics of creating an argument map with Rationale. There are some quirks that need to be learned. For example, the premise(s) inside a green reason or a red objection box can be moved independently. They can be dragged to a different position within the box, or dragged outside to an entirely different claim. Point, click and hold on the colour to move the claim box and its premises at the same time.

The biggest annoyance I find working on an iMac with a Magic Mouse is that it is very easy to inadvertently touch the mouse so that Rationale zooms the map in or out. Zooming happens so quickly that the map either gets unreasonably large or unreadably small. There is no way (it seems) to disable the scroll. It can be a real PITA. I’ve raised this issue with the developers, but they say they have no plans to change this.

Learning which buttons to press is the easy bit. In my next post, I’ll take a look into the thinking that’s required to create an argument map.



  1. […] a previous post, I gave an overview of Rationale, the browser-based argument mapping software. In the diagram […]

  2. […] is the third post in my series on argument mapping with Rationale. The previous posts are Argument Mapping with Rationale and More on Argument Mapping with […]

  3. […] Argument Mapping with Rationale More on Argument Mapping with Rationale Rationale and Thomas Aquinas Rationale and Thomas Aquinas Part the Second If Not Rationale, What? […]

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