Tag Archives: critical thinking

A philosophical turn of mind

In a closed facebook group on analytic philosophy, someone asked a question along these lines: "How do you primarily criticize other people's reasoning?"

Here's the reply I gave. What are some other ways you approach the task of evaluating another's reasoning?

There's no definitive checklist or prescription for identifying an issue and diagnosing someone's treatment of that issue. One reason such an endeavor cannot be reduced to an algorithm is that the complexity of any single issue can be daunting, and the product of interactions among such issues is of an order of complexity too high for even the best merely human mind to address synchronously or sequentially.

Instead, we have to use various troubleshooting heuristics until we've isolated a matter of interest that fits our capacity for analysis. At that juncture, we can go to town on it, and perhaps make (micro-)progress toward clearing away the underbrush of human cognition and laying out defensible assertions about how and why things are.

Typical questions in the area of fuzzy diagnostics applied to person P include (but are not limited to):

  • What is the general domain that P is addressing, and what general domain does P seem to believe P is addressing? Do these match?
  • What are the purposes of P's discourse? To identify an assertion and rebut it? To identify a confusion and clarify it? To rant gracefully against a disfavored ideology? To note an oversimplification and introduce remedial complexity? Other?
  • What does P assume? Does P acknowledge that P assumes that?
  • When fluff and qualifications and mods and idiosyncratic terminology and other debris have been swept away, what is P's argument? What conclusion does P claim to reach? Which premises does P offer as an avenue to reach it? What evidence does P adduce in support of them?
  • What kinds of evidence are actually relevant to P's argument? What kinds of evidence does P employ? What kinds does P ignore? What kinds does P dismiss? What is the effect of this particular configuration of employment, ignorance, and dismissal on P's endeavor?
  • Which alternatives to P's affirmations and inferences does P explicitly consider? What does P prefer to them? Which explicit judgments account for P's preference? Which unacknowledged factors constrain it?
  • Does P's argument, taken as facially acceptable, pass the "So what" test?
  • If you find fault with P's argument in its given context for reasons such as those suggested above, is there something about your own approach, your own assumptions, your own preferences, or your own commitments that prompt or guide you to object in that way?
  • Is P right?
  • What would you have to know or reliably believe in order to evaluate P's discourse in each way listed above? Are you suitably positioned to evaluate it?

Note: this is not an exhaustive list– not even close. It's also given not in a chronological or diagnostically relevant order; it's given in the order in which I improvised the list while eating a bagel and superficially weighing your question.

The broad point is that there's no formula for doing philosophy. Instead, there's a set of habits of mind intermixed with some balance of generosity, skepticism, curiosity, and hope.

In the New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg Gets It Wrong

Verlyn Klinkenborg has written an op ed called The Decline and Fall of the English Major in which he starts with his students' inability to write and winds up discerning a "literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities". The apparent goal of the article is to defend the value of the humanities. However, the editorial has two weaknesses that undermine that goal.

The first weakness arises in the attempt to define that value. The author reduces what the humanities offer to mere writing— to clear composition. "They don’t call that skill the humanities. They don’t call it literature. They call it writing," explains Klinkenborg, who also asserts that undergrads do not know "how valuable the most fundamental gift of the humanities will turn out to be. That gift is clear thinking, clear writing and a lifelong engagement with literature."

So the value proposition of the humanities is reducible to clear thinking, clear writing, and a literary hobby. If that's all the humanities can offer, then why not eliminate every humanistic discipline other than composition and informal logic?

The humanities must be defended, if at all, on a much broader and deeper basis than this. To defend them merely because they build communication skills is to provide a tacit argument for superseding them with more efficient means toward that goal.

This fault in the editorial is joined to another. Klinkenborg writes: "…a certain literal-mindedness in the recent shift away from the humanities… suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring…. Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations. All three apply."

Whether these are genuine faults or merely perceived ones hardly matters in view of one overriding concern: if the humanities are so excellent at developing clear thought and clear verbal expression, then why do "the humanities… do a bad job of explaining" their value, and why do "the humanities… do a bad job of teaching the humanities"?

It seems reasonable that if the value proposition of the humanities consists of "clear thought and expression", then explaining the value of, and teaching, the humanities should be a slam dunk (and should be perceived as such). But if "the humanities" do a poor job of explaining their value and communicating their methods, then why believe in the first place that effective communication is a likely outcome of humanistic education?

Note– I'm all in favor of the humanities. Because of my humanistic education, I look askance on weak arguments and outright contradictions. For this reason, I don't like to see the humanities defended by a reduction to "clear thinking and writing" on the one hand and, on the other, by a contradiction of their efficacy at precisely that juncture.