Copyright (c) 1995 by Jim Michmerhuizen



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 with disuse.

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 discussion.


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

Some 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.

Speculating 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.

Planning to 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.

Basic Operations

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.

The plain 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.

Anyway, these are the four most fundamental operations I can think of that constitute human reasoning activity:

Naming Things

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.

We can't 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 can't.

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 formal logic.

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.

Putting Things Together

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.

How Many 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.


The progress of science depends critically on a certain kind of invalid reasoning process, and you'd better not forget it.


So does 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 losing was.


Some images are unreasonable. Some poems are more rational than others.


See military, above.


By this I refer to modern (from George Boole onward) formal logic.


Any number 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

Thematic Polarities

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

The Available Tools

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.


This means 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

The 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.

Get Help

Some 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.

...And Then Trash Them

Don't let your mind get cluttered with leftover attachments. There aren't enough words to begin with.

Copyright © Jim Michmerhuizen 2000