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Using Intellectual Standards to Assess Your Thinking: Brief Guidelines

As we have emphasized, all reasoning involves eight elements, each of which has a range of possible mistakes. Here we summarize some of the main "checkpoints" you should use in reasoning (See also Tables 7.27.9).

  1. All reasoning has a purpose.
    • Take time to state your purpose clearly.

    • Choose significant and realistic purposes.

    • Distinguish your purpose from related purposes.

    • Make sure your purpose is fair in context (that it doesn't involve violating the rights of others).

    • Check periodically to be sure you are still focused on your purpose and haven't wandered from your target.

  2. All reasoning is an attempt to figure out something, to settle some question, solve some problem.
    • Take time to clearly and precisely state the question at issue.

    • Express the question in several ways to clarify its meaning and scope.

    • Break the question into sub-questions (when you can).

    • Identify the type of question you are dealing with (historical, economic, biological, etc.) and whether the question has one right answer, is a matter of mere opinion, or requires reasoning from more than one point of view.

    • Think through the complexities of the question (think deeply through the question).

  3. All reasoning is based on assumptions.
    • Clearly identify your assumptions and determine whether they are justifiable.

    • Consider how your assumptions are shaping your point of view.

  4. All reasoning is done from some point of view.
    • Clearly identify your point of view.

    • Seek other relevant points of view and identify their strengths as well as weaknesses.

    • Strive to be fair-minded in evaluating all points of view.

  5. All reasoning is based on data, information, and evidence.
    • Restrict your claims to those supported by the data you have.

    • Search for information that opposes your position as well as information that supports it.

    • Make sure that all information used is clear, accurate, and relevant to the question at issue.

    • Make sure you have gathered sufficient information.

    • Make sure, especially, that you have considered all significant information relevant to the issue.

  6. All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas.
    • Clearly identify key concepts.

    • Consider alternative concepts or alternative definitions for concepts.

    • Make sure you are using concepts with care and precision.

    • Use concepts justifiably (not distorting their established meanings).

  7. All reasoning contains inferences or interpretations by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.
    • Infer only what the evidence implies.

    • Check inferences for their consistency with each other.

    • Identify assumptions that lead you to your inferences.

    • Make sure your inferences logically follow from the information.

  8. All reasoning leads somewhere or has implications and consequences.
    • Trace the logical implications and consequences that follow from your reasoning.

    • Search for negative as well as positive implications.

    • Consider all possible significant consequences.

Test the Idea
Checkpoints in Thinking

For all of the eight categories outlined, transform each checkpoint into a question or a set of questions; figure out one or more questions that the checkpoint implies. When you have completed your list and you are actively using the questions you formulated, you will have powerful tools for thinking.

Under the first category, All reasoning has a purpose, for example, the first checkpoint is, "Take time to state your purpose clearly" Two questions implied by this checkpoint are: "What exactly is my purpose?" and "Am I clear about my purpose?"

Table 7.2 This chart focuses on purpose in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to purpose and in differentiating between the use of purpose in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.

PURPOSE

(All reasoning has a purpose)

Primary standards: (1) clarity, (2) significance, (3) achievability, (4) consistency, (5) justifiability

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) trivial, (3) unrealistic, (4) contradictory, (5) unfair

Principle: To reason well, you must clearly understand your purpose, and your purpose must be fair-minded.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

take the time to state their purpose clearly.

are often unclear about their central purpose.

Have I made the purpose of my reasoning clear?

What exactly am I trying to achieve?

Have I stated the purpose in several ways to clarify it?

distinguish it from related purposes.

oscillate between different, sometimes contradictory, purposes.

What different purposes do I have in mind?

How do I see them as related?

Am I going off in somewhat different directions?

How can I reconcile these contradictory purposes?

periodically remind them-selves of their purpose to determine whether they are straying from it.

lose track of their fundamental object or goal.

In writing this proposal, do I seem to be wandering from my purpose?

How do my third and fourth paragraphs relate to my central goal?

adopt realistic purposes and goals.

adopt unrealistic purposes and set unrealistic goals.

Am I trying to accomplish too much in this project?

choose significant purposes and goals.

adopt trivial purposes and goals as if they were significant.

What is the significance of pursuing this particular purpose?

Is there a more significant purpose I should be focused on?

choose goals and purposes that are consistent with other goals and purposes they have chosen

inadvertently negate their own purposes.

do not monitor their thinking for inconsistent goals.

Does one part of my proposal seem to undermine what I am trying to accomplish in another part?

adjust their thinking regularly to their purpose.

do not adjust their thinking regularly to their purpose.

Does my argument stick to the issue?

Am I acting consistently within my purpose?

choose purposes that are fair-minded, considering the desires and rights of others equally with their own desires and rights.

choose purposes that are self-serving at the expense of others' needs and desires.

Is my purpose self-serving or concerned only with my own desires?

Does it take into account the rights and needs of other people?

Table 7.3 This chart focuses on questions in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to questions and in differentiating between the use of questions in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.

QUESTION AT ISSUE OR CENTRAL PROBLEM

(All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out, to settle some question, solve some problem.)

Primary standards: (1) clarity and precision, (2) significance, (3) answerability, (4) relevance

Common problems: (1) unclear and unprecise, (2) insignificant, (3) not answerable, (4) irrelevant

Principle: To settle a question, it must be answerable, and you must be clear about it and understand what is needed to adequately answer it.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

are clear about the question they are trying to settle.

are often unclear about the question they are asking.

Am I clear about the main question at issue?

Am I able to state it precisely?

can re-express a question in a variety of ways.

express questions vaguely and find questions difficult to reformulate for clarity.

Am I able to reformulate my question in several ways to recognize the complexity of it?

can break a question into sub-questions.

are unable to break down the questions they are asking.

Have I broken down the main question into sub-questions?

What are the sub-questions embedded in the main question?

routinely distinguish questions of different types.

confuse questions of different types and thus often respond inappropriately to the question they ask.

Am I confused about the type of question I am asking?

For example: Am I confusing a legal question with an ethical one?

Am I confusing a question of preference with a question requiring judgment?

distinguish significant from trivial questions.

confuse trivial questions with significant ones.

Am I focusing on trivial questions while other significant questions have been addresses?

distinguish relevant questions from irrelevant ones.

confuse irrelevant questions with relevant ones.

Are the questions I'm raising in this discussion relevant to the main question at issue?

are sensitive to the assumptions built into the questions they ask.

often ask loaded questions.

Is the way I'm putting the question loaded?

Am I taking for granted from the outset the correctness of my own position?

distinguish questions they can answer from questions they can't.

try to answer questions they are not in a position to answer.

Am I in a position to answer the question?

What information would I need to have before I could answer the question?

Table 7.4 This chart focuses on point of view in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to point of view and in differentiating between the use of point of view in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.

POINT OF VIEW

(All reasoning is done from some point of view.)

Primary standards: (1) flexibility, (2) fairness, (3) clarity, (4) breadth, (5) relevance

Common problems: (1) restricted, (2) biased, (3) unclear, (4) narrow, (5) irrelevant

Principle: To reason well, you must identify those points of view relevant to the issue and enter these viewpoints empathetically.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

keep in mind that people have different points of view, especially on controversial issues.

do not credit alternative reasonable viewpoints.

Have I articulated the point of view from which I am approaching this issue?

Have I considered opposing points of view regarding this issue?

consistently articulate other points of view and reason from within those points of view to adequately understand other points of view.

cannot see issues from points of view that are significantly different from their own; cannot reason with empathy from alien points of view.

I may have characterized my own point of view, but have I considered the most significant aspects of the problem from the point of view of others?

seek other viewpoints, especially when the issue is one they believe in passionately.

can sometimes give other points of view when the issue is not emotionally charged but cannot do so for issues they feel strongly about.

Am I presenting X's point of view in an unfair manner?

Am I having difficulty appreciating X's viewpoint because I am emotional about this issue?

confine their monological reasoning to problems that are clearly monological.[*]

confuse multilogical with monological issues; insist that there is only one frame of reference within which a given multilogical question must be decided.

Is the question here monological or multilogical? How can I tell?

Am I reasoning as if only one point of view is relevant to this issue when in reality other viewpoints are relevant?

recognize when they are most likely to be prejudiced.

are unaware of their own prejudices.

Is this prejudiced or reasoned judgement?

If prejudiced, where does it come from?

approach problems and issues with a richness of vision and an appropriately broad point of view.

reason from within inappropriately narrow or superficial points of view.

Is my approach to this question too narrow?

Am I considering other viewpoints so I can adequately address the problem?

[*] Monological problems are ones for which there are definite correct and incorrect answers and definite procedures for getting those answers. In multilogical problems, there are competing schools of thought to be considered.

Table 7.5 This chart focuses on information in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to information and in differentiating between the use of information in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.

INFORMATION

(All reasoning is based on data, information, evidence, experience, research.)

Primary standards: (1) clear, (2) relevant, (3) fairly gathered and reported, (4) accurate, (5) adequate, (6) consistently applied

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) irrelevant, (3) biased, (4) inaccurate, (5) insufficient, (6) inconsistently applied

Principle: Reasoning can be only as sound as the information it is based on.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

assert a claim only when they have sufficient evidence to back it up.

assert claims without considering all relevant information.

Is my assertion supported by evidence?

can articulate and evaluate the information behind their claims.

don't articulate the information they are using in their reasoning and so do not subject it to rational scrutiny.

Do I have evidence to support my claim that I haven't articulated?

Have I evaluated for accuracy and relevance the information I am using?

actively search for information against (not just for) their own position.

gather information only when it supports their own point of view.

Where is a good place to look for evidence on the opposite side? Have I looked there? Have I honestly considered information that doesn't support my position?

focus on relevant information and disregard what is irrelevant to the question at issue.

do not carefully distinguish between relevant information and irrelevant information.

Are my data relevant to the claim I'm making?

Have I failed to consider relevant information?

draw conclusions only to the extent that they are supported by the data and sound reasoning.

make inferences that go beyond what the data support.

Does my claim go beyond the evidence I've cited?

state the evidence clearly and fairly.

distort the data or state it inaccurately.

Is my presentation of the pertinent information clear and coherent?

Have I distorted information to support my position?

Table 7.6 This chart focuses on concepts in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to concepts and in differentiating between the use of concepts in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.

CONCEPTS AND IDEAS

(All reasoning is expressed through, and shaped by, concepts and ideas.)

Primary standards: (1) clarity, (2) relevance, (3) depth, (4) accuracy

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) irrelevant, (3) superficial, (4) inaccurate

Principle: Reasoning can only be as clear, relevant, realistic, and deep as the concepts that shape it.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

are aware of the key concepts and ideas they and others use.

are unaware of the key concepts and ideas they and others use.

What is the main concept I am using in my thinking?

What are the main concepts others are using?

are able to explain the basic implications of the key words and phrases they use.

cannot accurately explain basic implications of their key words and phrases.

Am I clear about the implications of key concepts? For example: Does the word cunning have negative implications that the word clever does not?

are able to distinguish special, nonstandard uses of words from standard uses.

are not able to recognize when their use of a word or phrase departs from educated usage.

Where did I get my definition of this central concept? For example: Where did I get my definition of the concept of…

Have I put my unwarranted conclusions into the definition?

are aware of irrelevant concepts and ideas and use concepts and ideas in ways relevant to their functions.

use concepts in ways inappropriate to the subject or issue.

Am I using the concept of "love" appropriately? For example: Do I unknowingly act as if loving a person implies a right to treat them discourteously?

think deeply about the concepts they use.

fail to think deeply about the concepts they use.

Am I thinking deeply enough about this concept? For example: The concept of health care, as I describe it, does not take into account the patient's rights and privileges. Do I need to consider the idea of health care more deeply?

Table 7.7 This chart focuses on assumptions in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to assumptions and in differentiating between the use of assumptions in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.

ASSUMPTIONS

(All reasoning is based on assumptions—beliefs we take for granted.)

Primary standards: (1) clarity, (2) justifiability, (3) consistency

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) unjustified, (3) contradictory

Principle: Reasoning can be only as sound as the assumptions it is based on.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

are clear about the assumptions they are making.

are often unclear about the assumptions they make.

Are my assumptions clear to me?

Do I clearly understand what my assumptions are based upon?

make assumptions that are reasonable and justifiable given the situation and evidence.

often make unjustified or unreasonable assumptions.

Do I make assumptions about the future based on just one experience from the past?

Can I fully justify what I am taking for granted?

Are my assumptions justifiable given the evidence I am using to support them?

make assumptions that are consistent with each other.

often make assumptions that are contradictory.

Do the assumptions I made in the first part of my argument contradict the assumptions I am making now?

constantly seek to figure out what their assumptions are.

ignore their assumptions.

What assumptions am I making in this situation? Are they justifiable?

Where did I get these assumptions?

Table 7.8 This chart focuses on implications in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to implications and in differentiating between how skilled and unskilled reasoners think about implications.

IMPLICATIONS AND CONSEQUENCES

(All reasoning leads somewhere. It has implications and, when acted upon, has consequences.)

Primary standards: (1) significance, (2) logicalness, (3) clarity, (4) precision, (5) completeness

Common problems: (1) unimportant, (2) unrealistic, (3) unclear, (4) imprecise, (5) incomplete

Principle: To reason well through an issue, you might think through the implications that follow from your reasoning. You must think through the consequences likely to follow from the decisions you make.

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

trace out a number of significant potential implications and consequences of their reasoning.

trace out few or none of the implications and consequences of holding a position or making a decision.

Did I spell out all the significant consequences of the action I am advocating?

If I were to take this course of action, what other consequences might follow that I haven't considered?

clearly and precisely articulate the possible implications and consequences clearly and precisely.

are unclear and imprecise in the possible consequences they articulate.

Have I delineated clearly and precisely the consequences likely to follow from my chosen action?

search for potentially negative as well as potentially positive consequences.

trace out only the consequences they had in mind at the beginning, either positive or negative, but usually not both.

I may have done a good job of spelling out some positive implications of the decision I am about to make, but what are some of the possible negative implications or consequences?

anticipate the likelihood of unexpected negative and positive implications.

are surprised when their decisions have unexpected consequences.

If I make this decision, what are some possible unexpected implications?

What are some variables out of my control that might lead to negative consequences?

Table 7.9 This chart focuses on inferences in thinking. It is useful in understanding the intellectual standards to be applied to inferences and in differentiating between the use of inferences in thinking by skilled and unskilled reasoners.

INFERENCE AND INTERPRETATION

(All reasoning contains inferences from which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data and situations.)

Primary standards: (1) clarity, (2) logicalness, (3) justifiability, (4) profundity, (5) reasonability, (6) consistency

Common problems: (1) unclear, (2) illogical, (3) unjustified, (4) superficial, (5) unreasonable, (6) contradictory

Principle: Reasoning can be only as sound as the inferences it makes (or the conclusions it comes to).

Skilled Reasoners

Unskilled Reasoners

Critical Reflections

are clear about the inferences they are making clearly articulate their inferences.

are often unclear about the inferences they are making do not clearly articulate their inferences.

Am I clear about the inferences I am making?

Have I clearly articulated my conclusions?

usually make inferences that follow from the evidence or reasons presented.

often make inferences that do not follow from the evidence or reasons presented.

Do my conclusions logically follow from the evidence and reasons presented?

often make inferences that are deep rather than superficial.

often make inferences that are superficial.

Are my conclusions superficial, given the problem?

often make inferences or come to conclusions that are reasonable.

often make inferences or come to conclusions that are unreasonable.

Are my conclusions reasonable?

make inferences or come to conclusions that are consistent with each other.

often make inferences or come to conclusions that are contradictory.

Do the conclusions I come to in the first part of my analysis seem to contradict the conclusions that I come to at the end?

understand the assumptions that lead to inferences.

do not seek to figure out the assumptions that lead to inferences.

Is my inference based on a faulty assumption?

How would my inference be changed if I were to base it on a different, more justifiable assumption?

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