Tonight, and for the next six (or ten, or whatever)
sessions, we're going to be exercising the most singular gift of our
species: human reason. Like any other of our facilities, it becomes
stronger with exercise. Also like the others, it weakens and atrophies
There will be no shortage of examples, topics, and test
cases on which to exercise ourselves: we ourselves will provide them,
from our own experience imported into these sessions.
These few pages
identify some of the most general themes that are likely to color our
discussion. The first section, Applications , asks briefly what thinking is, and
supplies some commonplace instances of that activity. The second
section, Basic Operations , identifies four
operations that may informally be considered as components of human
reasoning processes. In the third section, How
Many Kinds of Thinking?, I simply list some cultural subsystems that
exemplify loosely organized systems of premises and argument forms. We
may have occasion to look at a few of these in more detail. Section
four, Thematic Polarities, names some of the
most common concept-pairs that lie at the foundations of human
experience and rational discourse. Finally, the last section, Goals, describes some reasonable (!) goals for the course:
i.e. some criteria by which, if you want, you may measure your progress
throughout our time together.
These pages are not an "outline". We
will almost certainly not be visiting these headings in the order in
which I've written them down here. Some may not come up at all; others
may turn up several times, from several different perspectives, in every
What are some of the most ordinary circumstances in which we do this
simple human thing we call thinking
? And what are we doing when
we do it? How would you describe it to an alien who didn't know the
word? How, for example, could we show
ourselves thinking, if
somebody asked for that? It's easy enough to imagine giving dramatic
examples of activities like wrestling, or grocery- shopping, or watching
TV; but it seems a lot harder to come up with any example of thinking
that couldn't be misunderstood, or that might not easily be taken for
something else. (On this topic, we could profitably cite the past
couple of decades' research into primate behavior, as a way of refining
the question "Does this creature think?")
At any rate, here are some
general cases. The group members, in discussion, will supply individual
examples under each case:
Making an important decision
people go all formal; some people really do make those lists of pros and
cons on opposing sheets of a notebook. I don't, and I suspect that most
of us don't. But then what do
we do? Somehow, one wants to take
into account all the reasons not to do it, and then all the reasons to
do it after all, and balance them against each other. Of course, they
never balance; inevitably, one ends up "comparing apples and oranges".
And then the decision often revolves around, or has consequences for,
your own notion of who you are. Even the less personal decisions can
begin to look like this. Most of those, however - say in business - are
more like game decisions, competitive things, and they'll show up
further down under the competition heading.
Sorting out your
feelings about something or someone
Wow! The first thing that
comes to mind of course is something like getting married, or just plain
laid. But it might be a political or social issue like the stuff on the
op-ed pages of the newspaper. Sorting out the candidates in an
election, and the issues they want you to get excited about.
Well, for example, reflecting on a bad
decision that turned out much more important than you thought it to be.
Or seeing that you made a decision through some extended period of time,
and didn't know you were making it, and wish you hadn't. Or happily
reflecting on the happy consequences of some small thing you did without
thought of its consequences. Noticing, over the years, that you have
attributes (good, bad, or weird but neutral) that nobody else seems to
have noticed, and wondering whether you can or ought to do anything
about them. Wondering just how wicked you can get before God strikes
you down, or how angelically good, or proud, or sad.
what the world is really or ultimately like
Come on. We all do
this. Do any of you really believe that only the scientists or
philosophers or saints can do this? Remember that scene in The
Magnificent Ambersons where the old family patriarch, falling into his
last senility, sits in front of the fireplace trying to figure out where
we all came from? In any other age, people would be proud of doing
this; only in the 20th do people blush and look away when a topic like
this comes up. We are prudish about our thinking: we pretend it doesn't
happen. It’s not polite to think in public any more.
win in some kind of competition
This includes business, chess,
athletics, and any scheming for personal advantage. It includes war.
Most of this comes under the heading of what Kant would have called
hypothetical imperatives: given some goal, find some recipe for
achieving it. Much of the activity of programming computers is also of
this sort. Actually, this is one of the easiest kinds of human
reasoning to examine.
What do all the people in the world named "Harry" have
in common? Nothing, obviously, except that name. The English language
is constituted of some 414,825 words. There are lots more things than
that in the world. Therefore a lot of different things are going to get
called by the same name; "Harry", for example, was the name of the
Beatles' haircuts on their first visit to this country.
fact is that a lot of quite different human activities get referred to
as "thinking"; and we're going to confuse each other no end if we don't
see the differences. Even among professional philosophers, discussion
time is devoted to sorting out all the different things they mean, so
they can get down to business. Sometimes it seems as though one is
forever "getting down to business" and never quite actually reaching the
point where one is doing business.
But ordinary people can
usually recognize too when they mean different things by the same word.
I think that if we keep one eye cocked on this we'll be all right. It
especially helps when we're all listening together; the sharpest
observations about different meanings for the same word often come from
third parties with no direct interest in the argument.
are the four most fundamental operations I can think of that constitute
human reasoning activity:
In the book of
Genesis it says: "whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was
the name thereof." Ursula Le Guin has an answering story in which the
woman unnames the same creatures that the man had named.
reason about something until we've named it. Naming is necessarily the
most fundamental, primitive, basic prerequisite of reason, and it is not
itself a rational activity. That is, it is not logical. It is
mythical, poetic, metaphorical, fanciful. Discovering the true name of
a thing or a person is a work of sorcery. One of the greatest mistakes
of this century is that we forgot this, or even actively denied it: we
thought, perhaps, that the names of things could be reasoned out. They
Another terrible mistake is to think that names are not
important; that they are a matter of complete indifference, arbitrary.
They aren't. Habitual liars believe that truth is whatever they can
persuade somebody it is. It isn't. There are some very
"sophisticated", intellectual variants of this mistake; the more
intellectual they get, the more damage they can work in a culture. The
argument that some conduct or situation A is "effectively" or
"virtually" equivalent to B, sometimes exhibits this error.
Reasoning About Things
Once the things of the world have names,
we can think about them. Having begun to think about things, we can
observe, and therefore give a name to, the process of reasoning itself,
and begin to think about that. In Western culture, the moment when
mankind did that for the first time is well documented: the Greeks,
about 25 centuries ago, were the first. This was one of the greatest
moments in world history. There were many others, in other cultures,
but this one belonged to the Greeks. Aristotle, singlehanded, invented
This is not a course in formal logic; neither is it a
course in the history of logic. But there are a couple of things I want
everybody to know about the subject, and here they are... .
Taking Things Apart
Western civilization has been taking things
apart - analysing them - for three or four centuries. We thought that
was the only way to get truth. We were wrong.
So now we're stuck trying to put together all the pieces.
What kinds of pieces are these? Families, schools, churches, children,
cities, nations, courtesies, arguments, souls, laws, governments, our
own minds, our wild places.
Kinds of Thinking?
A lot. I put this list down simply in order to
illustrate the range of subdomains, in human experience and activity, in
which human reason plays a significant role. It is not a “complete”
list; there isn’t any such thing. In each kind of thinking, there is
such a thing as true and false, valid and invalid argument, true names
and false names. Each of these, seen from inside one of the others,
might seem only dubiously rational. At the height of scientific
materialism, about a hundred years ago, it was fashionable to believe
that religion was not rational or logical. Like most fashions, that was
a muddled prejudice.
Some myths are in fact more
rational than others.
By this I mean to refer here
to classical deductive reasoning, both as a skill and as an expositional
form, the way Spinoza used in his Ethics. Again, this has its own
proper forms, and they are not always on the face of it congruent with
common practical reasoning skills.
of science depends critically on a certain kind of invalid reasoning
process, and you'd better not forget it.
theology: it depends on a certain kind of invalid reasoning.
This is one of those areas where the power of an
unquestioned (perhaps a better word would be "unbounded") assumption is
most evident. The cold war was our attempt to win without even knowing
what winning was, or to avoid losing without even considering what
Some images are unreasonable. Some poems
are more rational than others.
By this I refer to modern
(from George Boole onward) formal logic.
of examples from athletics can show that rational action is not
necessarily based on reflective thinking. Larry Bird is the most
rational living athlete.
This is thinking in time.
This is dramatic reasoning, for structure, and surprise, and
retrospective assimilation of events.
...and so on
These are some of
the great issues that are most likely to show up over and over again in
our conversation. They are simply ubiquitous in human life and
experience; I know they'll show up in these sessions because they show
up everywhere anyway.
I've expressed them here as polarities, ideas
in pairs. Don't think of them as either/or choices; nothing in life is
like that. These polarities are useful, I've found, for analysing the
events and ideas and people and institutions and experiences of life.
Over the years I've come to picture them more as clothesline supports
than as either/or choices, with all the stuff of real life spread out
between them. It seems that wherever I find one I'll also find the
other, in some proportion; and I never find any pure instance of just
one. In fact I've stopped looking for any such instance.
...and so on
This is a simple list, and description, of some of the
methods and skills and ideas I've found useful in my own thinking about
things. These are the tools that, when it comes right down to it, I'll
be trying to pass on to the members of the group; these are what I teach
you to use. It should not, I suppose, need saying that I didn't invent
any of these; if it weren't for people like Aristotle, I'd be inclined
to deny that it was even possible to invent a basic reasoning skill at
all. These tools are part of our genetic and/or cultural heritage.
General < > Particular
If you come out of the course with
nothing else, you should at least come out with a comfortable fluency in
moving back and forth along this continuum, knowing exactly where you
are (and where everybody else is) on that continuum at any given moment
in a discussion. Ignorance of this, or inability to navigate smoothly
along it, is a serious thinking defect; a defect that causes more
trouble, personal confusion, shouting matches, social unrest, divorce,
and injustice than any other.
taking an argument or a thought pattern that you want to examine and
translating it into some completely trivial topic so as to expose the
bare logic structure of the argument, apart from any emotional baggage
it might be carrying in its original domain. We'll have plenty of
opportunities to practice this; you should get noticeably better at it
by the end of the course.
Backtracking to Premises
popular stereotype about "assumptions" is nonsense promulgated by
incompetent teachers. Uncovering assumptions is important; but it's
only the first step towards enlightenment. You should come out of this
course knowing what to do with an assumption once you've found it,
whether it's your own or the other guy's.
kinds of thinking, it's true, are best accomplished alone. But many are
best worked out between two or three people. Find a friend and work out
what needs to be worked out. It's a little like jogging together.
Polymerizing Your Thoughts
If the subject is complicated, it
may be useful to merely write down random thoughts and watch them
connect themselves into if..then
propositions. Don't try to turn
everything into a single deductive chain right away. That comes
naturally, later in the process of thinking the whole thing out.
Use Stipulative Definitions...
There aren't enough words to go
around. Don't hesitate to use whatever is handy: a stipulative
definition amounts to nothing more than attaching a word to its
referent, temporarily, so as to get your work done.
Don't let your mind get cluttered with leftover
attachments. There aren't enough words to