2009 Philosophy Proseminar excerpt

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Return to 2009 Philosophy Proseminar Instructional Notes on Method

From The Five Disciplines of Thought, Dr. Mark Alfino:

Terms The cornerstone of good method is to be concerned about the definition of terms. We have been writing about “critical thinking” as if we all agreed or understood what it is. But what is it? For our purposes, critical thinking is inquiry which proceeds by producing and evaluating rationales and by responding to the rationales and points of view of others. This kind of inquiry is also the defining activity of reflective and deliberative contexts. Reflective contexts are just situations in which rationales are discussed or thought about.

Reflective contexts are all around us. Informal reflective situations arise frequently during a day. When I think to myself about what I need to do today and why, when we tell someone why we like some restaurant, when we explain why there’s more traffic than usual or why we liked a certain book, we are opening up a reflective context that lasts as long as the discussion or thought. Our everyday discussions of everything from fashion to ultimate truths create reflective contexts whenever they involve giving reasons for claims. Just telling someone your point of view does not create a reflective context unless there is some further consideration of the view, even just by questioning from others. More formal reflective contexts include business meetings, collaborations that involve weighing approaches, debates, hearings, court proceedings, and so on. In the public media, video and writing which presents an analysis of some topic or reasoned opinion (stating both an opinion and giving at least one reason for that opinion) constitute reflective contexts. As you will see, many so-called “serious” television talk shows really engage in pseudo-reflection because reasons and rationales are cited but not really discussed in much detail.

Inquiry broadly includes all human activity oriented toward the discovery of truth. The main activity of inquiry in reflective contexts is the production and evaluation of rationales. Rationales have some structure, so we need to introduce some basic terminology to discuss them. A claim is any statement that can be evaluated as true or false. Questions are not claims, phrases are not claims, but sentences that say “one thing of another,” (as ancient philosophers put it) are claims. Claims can be simple factual statements based on immediate observations, such as, “It’s raining”. They can also be statements about relationships between things or ideas, such as, “If you don’t take care of your things, you will lose them.” Naturally, some claims are easier to evaluate for truth or falsity than others.

When we offer one claim as a reason for another we are giving a rationale. A rationale is any speech or writing which includes at least one reason for a related conclusion. Often it is the context of the speech or writing that helps us tell that a rationale is being offered, as well as which part is the premise and which is the conclusion. It is important that the speaker or writer can be interpreted as intending for us to take part of what they say (the premises) as a reason for another part (the conclusion). Rationales always have this two-part structure – one thing (the premises) is asserted as a reason for another (the conclusion). Sometimes the reasons we offer for a conclusion help us decide whether to believe the conclusion. These are called arguments. Should I believe in universal health care? Should we go to war? If you answer these questions and give even one reason for believing in the truth of your answer, you have given an argument. In other cases, the reasons we offer for a claim help us understand how some fact or situation came about. These are explanations. If your car doesn’t start, you might try to find an explanation. You might present this rationale: The car doesn’t start (conclusion), because it has no gas (premise). Whether you are explaining a conclusion or giving a reason for believing a conclusion, you are giving a rationale, which is the basic structure of thought we will work with in this manual.

That is a lot of terminology right away, but these eight concepts are at the foundation of all of the discussion and instruction ahead. So you might want to review them:

  • Claim
  • Reason
  • Premise
  • Conclusion
  • Argument
  • Explanation
  • Rationale
  • Reflective Deliberative Context

Looking at these concepts a slightly different way, the first six concepts pick out features of a rationale and rationales are what you find in reflective deliberative contexts. Every reason, premise, or conclusion is a claim. A claim becomes a “reason” if it is intended as a justification or explanation of some conclusion. Arguments and explanations are the two types of rationales. It is important to think of a rationale as a structure which always has two parts: the claim(s) that are offered as reasons (premises) and the claim (conclusion) that the premises support or explain.

A reflective context could involve you thinking by yourself, but you should typically think of a setting with more than one person involved in a discussion in which people are offering reasons for claims. The setting might be face-to-face or mediated through telephone, writing, or other technology. It is important to imagine a social setting for deliberation, especially when we get to the third discipline, which focuses on critical response.

But even thinking alone involves an internal dialogue in which we pose questions and reply to ourselves or create alternatives and then step back and look at them, much the way people in a discussion suggest a diversity of ideas. When thinking alone, many people report that they have simulated “conversations” in which they associate a “voice” with particular alternative views they are considering. So whether you are alone or with others, the idea of a reflective deliberative context as a plurality of voices helps capture the experience of deliberation as interactive. Critical thinking is an interactive process.