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The Elements of Thought: A First Look

Let us begin by looking at the parts of thinking as they stand in an interrelated set. It is possible to name them in just one, somewhat complex, sentence:

Whenever you reason, you do so in some circumstances,
making some inferences (that have some implications and consequences) 
based on some reasons or information (and assumptions) 
using some concepts, 
in trying to settle some question (or solve some problem)
for some purpose
within a point of view.

If you like, you can put it in two sentences (also see Figure 6.4):

Whenever you are reasoning,
you are trying to accomplish some purpose,
within a point of view, 
using concepts or ideas.
You are focused on some issue or question, issue, or problem,
using information 
to come to conclusions, 
based on assumptions,
all of which have implications.

Figure 6.4. If you understand the parts of thinking, you can ask the crucial questions implied by those parts.


Let us now examine, at least provisionally, each of these crucial concepts. We will be using them throughout this resource. It is essential that they become a comfortable part of your vocabulary. As you read these explanations, see if you can write out your understanding of them, with an example drawn from your own experience.

By reasoning, we mean making sense of something by giving it some meaning in one's mind. Virtually all thinking is part of our sense-making activities. We hear scratching at the door and think, "It's the dog." We see dark clouds in the sky and think, "It looks like rain." Some of this activity operates at a subconscious level. For example, all of the sights and sounds about me have meaning for me without my explicitly noticing that they do. Most of our reasoning is unspectacular. Our reasoning tends to become explicit to us only when someone challenges it and we have to defend it. ("Why do you say that Jack is obnoxious? I thought he was quite pleasant."). Throughout life, we begin with a goal or purpose and then figure out what to do to achieve our goal. Reasoning is what enables us to come to these decisions using ideas and meanings.

By reasoning having a purpose, we mean that when humans think about the world, we do not do so randomly but, rather, in line with our goals, desires, needs, and values. Our thinking is an integral part of a patterned way of acting in the world, and we act, even in simple matters, with some set of ends in view. To understand someone's thinking—including one's own—we must understand the functions it serves, what it is about, the direction it is moving, and the ends that make sense of it. Most of what we are after in our thinking is not obvious to us, though. Raising human goals and desires to the level of conscious realization is an important part of critical thinking.

By reasoning within a point of view, we mean that our thinking has some comprehensive focus or orientation. Our thinking is focused on something from some angle. We can change either what we focus on or the angle of our focus. We often give names to the angle from which we are thinking about something. For example, we could look at something politically or scientifically, poetically or philosophically. We might look at something conservatively or liberally, religiously or secularly. We might look at something from a cultural or a financial perspective, or both. Once we understand how people are approaching a question or topic (what their comprehensive perspective is), we are usually much more able to understand the whole of their thinking.

By using concepts in reasoning, we mean the general categories or ideas by which we interpret, classify, or group the information we use in our thinking. For example, in this resource the concepts of critical thinking and uncritical thinking are important. Everything written in this resource can be classified as an attempt to explain one or the other of these two important ideas. Each of these ideas is explained, in turn, by means of other ideas. Thus, the concept of thinking critically is explained by reference to yet other concepts such as "intellectual standards for thought." Each profession or discipline (business, psychology, science, geology, literature, history) develops its own set of concepts or technical vocabulary to facilitate its thinking. All sports require a vocabulary of concepts that enables those who are trying to understand or master the game to make sense of it. Try to explain baseball to someone without using these ideas: strike, ball, shortstop, inning, at bat, hit, run, safe, out, balk. To play the game, we must interpret everything we do in it by means of concepts such as these. The rules would not make sense without them. The game would be incomprehensible.

By reasoning upon some question, issue, or problem, we mean that when we think about the world in line with our goals, desires, needs, and values, we often face questions we need to answer, problems we need to solve, and issues we need to resolve. Therefore, when we find ourselves confronting a difficulty, it makes sense to say, "What is the question we need to answer?" or, "What is the problem we need to solve?" or, "What is the issue we need to resolve?" To improve our ability to think well, it is important to learn how to put the questions, problems, and issues we need to deal with in a clear and distinct way. If we change the question, we change the criteria we have to meet to settle it. If we modify the problem, we need to modify how we are going to solve the problem. If we shift the issue, new considerations become relevant to its resolution.

By using information in our reasoning, we mean using some set of facts, data, or experiences to support our conclusions. Whenever someone is reasoning, it makes sense to ask, "Upon what facts or information are you basing your reasoning?" The factual basis for reasoning can be important. For example, in a newspaper ad, the following pieces of information were used in support of an argument against capital punishment:

"Since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme court in 1976, for every 7 prisoners who were executed, one prisoner awaiting execution was found to be innocent and released."

"At least 381 homicide convictions have been overturned since 1963 because prosecutors concealed evidence of innocence or presented evidence they knew to be false."

"A study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found racial prejudice in death sentencing…: killers of whites were proportionally more likely to be executed than were killers of blacks."

"Since 1984, 34 mentally retarded people have been executed (New York Times, November 22, 1999)."

Can you see how information such as this—if true—gives strength to the reasoning? The opposing position would, of course, advance information of its own to try to challenge or counter this information. Two important critical thinking axioms are: check your facts and check your data!

By coming to conclusions we mean taking something (which we believe we know) and figuring out something else on the basis of it. When we do this, we make inferences. For example, if my boss walks right by me without saying hello, I might come to the conclusion (make the inference) that he or she is angry with me. If the market goes up for six straight months, I might infer that it will go up again in the next month. If my business was successful with a strategy last year, I might infer that it will work again next year. In everyday life, we are continually making inferences (coming to conclusions) about the people, things, places, and events of our lives.

By reasoning based on assumptions we mean whatever we take for granted as true in order to figure something else out. Thus, if you infer that since a candidate is a Republican, he or she will support a balanced budget, you assume that all Republicans support a balanced budget. If you infer that foreign leaders presented in the news as "enemies" or "friends" of the U.S. are in fact enemies or friends, you assume that the news in the U.S. is always accurate in its presentation of the character of foreign leaders. If you infer that someone who invites you to their apartment after a party "to continue this interesting conversation" is really interested in you romantically or sexually, you assume that the only reason for going to someone's apartment late at night after a party is to pursue a romantic or sexual relationship. All reasoning has some basis in the assumptions we make (but usually do not openly express).

By the implications of reasoning, we mean that which follows from our thinking. It means that to which our thinking is leading us. If you say to someone that you "love" him, you imply that you are concerned with his welfare. If you make a promise, you imply that you intend to keep it. If you call a country a "democracy," you imply that the political power is in the hands of the people at large (as against in the hands of a powerful minority). If you call yourself a "feminist," you imply that you are in favor of the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. We often test the credibility of people by seeing if they are true to the implications of their own words. "Say what you mean and mean what you say" is a sound principle of critical thinking (and of personal integrity, for that matter).

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