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Bringing Together the Elements of Reasoning and the Intellectual Standards

We have considered the elements of reasoning and the importance of being able to take them apart, to analyze them so we can begin to recognize flaws in our thinking. We also have introduced the intellectual standards as tools for assessment. Now let us look at how the intellectual standards are used to assess the elements of reason (Table 7.1 & Figure 7.1).

Figure 7.1. Critical thinkers routinely apply the intellectual standards to the elements of reasoning.

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Table 7.1
Powerful questions are implied by the intellectual standards. Critical thinkers routinely ask them.

Clarity

Could you elaborate?

Could you illustrate what you mean?

Could you give me an example?

Accuracy

How could we check on that?

How could we find out if that is true?

How could we verify or test that?

Precision

Could you be more specific?

Could you give me more details?

Could you be more exact?

Depth

What factors make this a difficult problem?

What are some of the complexities of this question?

What are some of the difficulties we need to deal with?

Relevance

How does that relate to the problem?

How does that bear on the question?

How does that help us with the issue?

Logicalness

Does all of this make sense together?

Does your first paragraph fit in with your last?

Does what you say follow from the evidence?

Significance

Is this the most important problem to consider?

Is this the central idea to focus on?

Which of these facts are the most important?

Breadth

Do we need to look at this from another perspective?

Do we need to consider another point of view?

Do we need to look at this in other ways?

Fairness

Is my thinking justifiable in context?

Are my assumptions supported by evidence?

Is my purpose fair given the situation?

Am I using my concepts in keeping with educated usage or am I distorting them to get what I want?

Purpose, Goal, or End in View

Whenever we reason, we do so to some end, to achieve an objective, to satisfy some desire or fulfill a need. One source of problems in human reasoning is traceable to defects at the level of goal, purpose, or end. If the goal is unrealistic, for example, or contradictory to other goals we have, if it is confused or muddled, the reasoning used to achieve it will suffer as a result.

As a developing critical thinker, then, you should get in the habit of explicitly stating the purposes you are trying to accomplish. You should strive to be clear about your purpose in every situation. If you fail to stick to your purpose, you are unlikely to achieve it. Let's say that your purpose in parenting is to help your children develop as life-long learners and contributing members of society. If you keep this purpose clearly in mind and consistently work to achieve it, you are more likely to be successful. But it is easy to lose sight of such an important purpose in the daily life of dealing with children. It is all too easy to get pulled into daily battles over whether a child's room is kept clean, whether they wear clothes considered "appropriate," whether they can get their nose pierced or their stomach tattooed. To achieve your purpose, you must revisit again and again what it is you are trying to accomplish. You must ask yourself on a daily basis questions like, "What have I done today to help my child develop as a rational, caring person?"

As an employee, you can begin to ask questions that improve your ability to focus on purpose in your work. For example: Am I clear as to my purpose—in this meeting, in this project, in dealing with this issue, in this discussion? Can I specify my purpose precisely? Is my purpose a significant one? Realistic? Achievable? Justifiable? Do I have contradictory purposes?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon Your Purpose

Think of an important problem in your life. This can be a problem in a personal relationship, at your place of work, etc. Now state your purpose in the situation clearly and precisely. What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Is your purpose fair, or justifiable? Is it realistic?

Question at Issue or Problem to Be Solved

Whenever you attempt to reason something through, there is at least one question to answer—one question that emerges from the problem to be solved or issue to resolve. An area of concern in assessing reasoning, therefore, revolves around the very question at issue.

An important part of being able to think well is assessing your ability to formulate a problem in a clear and relevant way. It requires determining whether the question you are addressing is an important one, whether it is answerable, whether you understand the requirements for settling the question, for solving the problem.

As an employee, you can begin to ask yourself questions that improve your ability to focus on the important questions in your work. You begin to ask: What is the most fundamental question at issue (in this meeting, in this project, in this discussion)? What is the question, precisely? Is the question simple or complex? If it is complex, what makes it complex? Am I sticking to the question (in this discussion, in this project I am working on)? Is there more than one important question to be considered here (in this meeting, etc.)?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon the Question at Issue

Go back to the important problem in the previous activity. Now state the problem you are trying to address. Then state the question that emerges from that problem. State your question clearly and precisely. What complexities, if any, are inherent in the problem? Is there more than one question that you need to address to effectively reason through the problem?

Point of View, or Frame of Reference

Whenever we reason, we must reason within some point of view or frame of reference. Any "defect" in that point of view or frame of reference is a possible source of problems in the reasoning.

A point of view may be too narrow, may be based on false or misleading information, may contain contradictions, and may be narrow or unfair. Critical thinkers strive to adopt a point of view that is fair to others, even to opposing points of view. They want their point of view to be broad, flexible, and justifiable, to be clearly stated and consistently adhered to. Good thinkers, then, consider alternative points of view as they reason through an issue.

As an employee, you begin to ask yourself questions that improve your ability to focus on point of view in your work. These questions might be: From what point of view am I looking at this issue? Am I so locked into my point of view that I am unable to see the issue from other points of view? Must I consider multiple points of view to reason well through the issue at hand? What is the point of view of my colleague? How is she seeing things differently than I? Which of these perspectives seems more reasonable given the situation?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon Points of View

Continue with the problem from the last two activities. Now state the point or points of view that are relevant to the issue at hand. State each point of view clearly and precisely. Make sure you are considering all relevant points of view (that you are thinking broadly), and that you are representing each point of view accurately (even if it means sympathetically expressing a view that you do not personally hold).

Information, Data, Experiences

Whenever we reason, there is some "stuff," some phenomena about which we are reasoning. Any "defect," then, in the experiences, data, evidence, or raw material upon which a person's reasoning is based is a possible source of problems.

Those who reason should be assessed on their ability to give evidence that is gathered and reported clearly, fairly, and accurately. Therefore, as a developing thinker, you should assess the information you use to come to conclusions, whether you are reasoning through issues at work or reasoning through a problem in your personal life. You should assess whether the information you are using in reasoning is relevant to the issue at hand and adequate for achieving your purpose. You should assess whether you are taking the information into account consistently or distorting it to fit your own (often self-serving) point of view.

At work, you can begin to ask yourself questions that improve your ability to focus on information in your work. These questions might be: What is the most important information I need to reason well through this issue? Are there alternate information sources I need to consider? How can I check to see if the information I am using is accurate? Am I sure that all of the information I am using is relevant to the issue at hand?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon the Information You are Using in Your Reasoning

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the information you are using in your thinking. This could be data, facts, or experiences that, in conjunction with your assumptions, lead you to conclusions. It could come from your experience, word of mouth, research, the media, or other sources. State the information clearly. How could you determine whether the information is accurate and relevant to the question at issue?

Concepts, Theories, Ideas

All reasoning uses some ideas or concepts and not others. These concepts include the theories, principles, axioms, and rules implicit in our reasoning. Any defect in the concepts or ideas of the reasoning is a possible source of problems in our reasoning.

As an aspiring critical thinker, you begin to focus more deeply on the concepts you use. You begin to assess the extent to which you are clear about those concepts, whether they are relevant to the issue at hand, and whether your principles are inappropriately slanted by your point of view. You begin to direct your attention to how you use concepts, what concepts are most important, and how concepts are intertwined in networks.

As a person interested in developing your mind, you begin to ask questions that improve your ability to focus on the importance of concepts in your life. These questions may include: What is the most fundamental concept I am focused on in this situation? How does this concept connect with other key concepts I need to consider? What are the most important theories I need to consider? Am I clear about the important concepts in this meeting? What questions do I need to ask to get clear about the concepts we are discussing?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear upon the Concepts You Use

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the most important concepts you are using to guide your reasoning. For example, if you are concerned with how you can keep in physical shape while also dedicating enough time to family and work, your key concepts might be physical fitness, good family relationships, and productive work life. (You usually can find the key concepts you are using in your reasoning by looking at your question and purpose.) Elaborate on each of these concepts so you understand exactly how you are using them. State your concepts clearly and precisely.

Assumptions

All reasoning must begin somewhere. It must take some things for granted. Any defect in the assumptions or presuppositions with which reasoning begins is a possible source of problems in the reasoning.

Assessing skills of reasoning involves assessing our ability to recognize and articulate assumptions, again according to relevant standards. Our assumptions may be clear or unclear, justifiable or unjustifiable, consistent or contradictory.

As a person interested in developing your mind, you begin to ask questions that improve your ability to analyze the assumptions you and others are using. These questions could include: What am I taking for granted? Am I justified in taking this for granted? What are others taking for granted? What is being assumed in this meeting? What is being assumed in this relationship? What is being assumed in this discussion? Are these assumptions justifiable, or should I question them?

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon Your Assumptions

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the most important assumptions you are making in your reasoning. What are you taking for granted that might be questioned? Using the previous example of how to keep in physical shape while also dedicating enough time to your family and your work, your main assumptions might be:

  1. High-quality family relationships are more important than work productivity.

  2. I know enough about physical fitness to do appropriate exercises.

  3. I must spend a considerable amount of time at work in order to support my family.

  4. I have enough time to do all of the above well.

State your assumptions clearly and precisely. Make sure they are justifiable in the context of the issue.

Implications and Consequences

Whenever we reason, implications follow from our reasoning. When we make decisions, consequences result from those decisions. As critical thinkers, we want to understand implications whenever and wherever they occur. We want to be able to trace logical consequences. We want to see what our actions are leading to. We want to anticipate possible problems before they arise.

No matter where we stop tracing implications, there always will be further implications. No matter what consequences we do see, there always will be other and further consequences. Any defect in our ability to follow the implications or consequences of our reasoning is a potential source of problems in our thinking. Our ability to reason well, then, is measured in part by our ability to understand and enunciate the implications and consequences of reasoning.

In your work and personal life, you begin to ask yourself questions that improve your ability to focus on the important implications in your thinking and the thinking of others. These questions could include, for example: What are the most important implications of this decision? What are the implications of my doing this versus my doing that? Have we thought through the implications decision in this meeting? Have I thought through the implications of my parenting behavior? Have I thought through the implications of the way I treat my spouse?

Test the Idea
Thinking Through the Implications of Your Reasoning

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the most important implication of potential decisions you might make. Fill in these blanks: If I decide to do ___________________________, then _________________________________ is likely to follow. If I decide to act differently by doing _________________________________________, then __________________________________ is likely to follow.

In this activity, you are emphasizing the logical implications and potential consequences of each potential decision. Make sure you emphasize important implications of each decision. For further practice, what would be the most likely implications of (1) getting married, (2) staying in your hometown for the whole of your life, (3) staying in the same job for the whole of your life, (4) deciding to get a divorce (if you are married)?

Inferences

All reasoning proceeds by steps in which we reason as follows: "Because this is so, that also is so (or is probably so)" or, "Because this, therefore that." The mind perceives a situation or a set of facts and comes to a conclusion based on those facts. When this step of the mind occurs, an inference is made. Any defect in our ability to make logical inferences is a possible problem in our reasoning. For example, if you see a person sitting on the street corner wearing tattered clothing, a worn bed roll beside him and a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag in his hand, you might infer that he is a bum. This inference is based on the facts you perceive in the situation and of what you assume about them. The inference, however, may or may not be logical in this situation.

Critical thinkers want to become adept at making sound inferences. First, you want to learn to identify when you or someone else has made an inference. What are the key inferences made in this discussion? Upon what are the inferences based? Are they justified? What is the key inference (or conclusion) I made in this meeting? Was it justified? What is the key inference in this way of proceeding, in solving this problem in this way? Is this inference logical? Is this conclusion significant? Is this interpretation justified? These are the kinds of questions you begin to ask.

As a person interested in developing your mind, you should ask questions that improve your ability to spot important inferences wherever they occur. Given the facts of this case, is there more than one logical inference (conclusion, interpretation) one could come to? What are some other logical conclusions that should be considered? From this point on, develop an inference detector, the skill of recognizing the inferences you are making in order to analyze them.

Test the Idea
Bringing Intellectual Standards to Bear Upon Your Inferences

Continue with the problem you have been working on. Now state the inferences, or conclusions, you might come to (about the information you have) in solving your problem. You may have already stated these in the activities above. Once you have thought through the potential conclusions you might come to in reasoning through the question at issue, state a possible final conclusion. Be clear and precise in stating each potential conclusion. Make sure your inferences make good sense, based on the information and concepts you are using.

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