Table of Contents, Thinking Tools Resources Page Previous Section, Thinking Tools Next Section, Thinking Tools

Key Idea #2: There is a Logic to This, and You Can Figure It Out

As a critical thinker, you approach every dimension of learning as requiring the construction of a system of meanings in your mind that makes sense and enables you to make logical inferences about the subject of your focus. We use the expression "the logic of…" to designate such a system. As a critical thinker, you recognize that there is a logic to academic subjects (a logic to chemistry, physics, mathematics, and sociology). There is also a logic to questions, problems, and issues (a logic to economic questions, social problems, controversial issues, and personal problems). There is a logic to situations. There is a logic to personal behavior. There are explicit and implicit logics, admitted and hidden logics. There is a logic to warfare and a logic to peace, a logic to offense and a logic to defense. There are political logics, social logics, institutional logics, and cultural logics.

There is a logic to the way the human mind works, a logic to power, a logic to domination, to mass persuasion, to propaganda, to manipulation. There is a logic to social conventions and a logic to ethical concepts and principles. There is theo-logic, bio-logic, and psycho-logic. There is even patho-logic (the logic of disease and malfunctioning). Each can be figured out by the disciplined, critical mind.

Using the elements of thought to figure out the basic logic of something is a practice to which we hope you are becoming accustomed. It is a powerful strategy for achieving perspective and gaining leverage or command. In this section, we confine ourselves largely to the logic of personal life.

In every human situation or context, multiple systems of meaning are usually present. As a critical thinker, you engage in a process of figuring out why your associates, friends, clients, children, spouses, and employers relate to you in the way they do. This is true because everyone makes sense of the situations of their own life in some way. To do this, they must, at least implicitly, make use of the eight elements of thought. If you can identify the elements of others' thinking, you can better understand where they are coming from.

You can assume all of the following:

  • Everyone you interact with has purposes or objectives they are trying to achieve.

  • Everyone has problems that relate to those purposes.

  • They are basing their reasoning on some information.

  • They come to conclusions based on that information, conclusions that may or may not be logical in the circumstance.

  • They take certain things for granted, or make certain assumptions.

  • They use certain key ideas or concepts in their thinking.

  • They think within a point of view, within a frame of reference that may keep them from seeing things objectively.

  • There are consequences that result from their thinking.

By assuming that there is always a logic to what happens not only in the world but also in the mind of those who operate in the world, you are empowered in your pursuit of understanding. You therefore are led to question superficial explanations and seek deeper ones. You are led to question:

  • the goals and purposes of those you interact with,

  • the way they define their questions and problems,

  • the assumptions they are making,

  • the information they are using to support their arguments,

  • the conclusions (inferences) they come to,

  • the concepts that guide their thinking,

  • the implications inherent in their thinking, and

  • the point of view from which they are looking at situations.

  • Just as you question the logic of the thinking of those around you, you also question the logic of your own thinking.

Strategic Idea

When you realize that there is a logic to everything, you can think through the logic of the situations in which you find yourself. You can apply this principle in a number of directions, depending on your precise goals and objectives. Consider the questioning "inner voice" of the activist thinker focused on understanding the logic of his or her own thinking or the logic of others' thinking:

  1. Questioning goals, purposes, and objectives. What is the central purpose of this person? This group? Myself? I realize that problems in thinking are often the result of a mistake at the level of basic purpose. I realize that I must develop skill in shifting my goals and purposes. I realize that I must be clear about my purposes, about others' purposes, about alternative purposes. I realize that I can always question my purposes, as well as the purposes of others.

  2. Questioning the way in which questions are framed, problems are posed, and issues are expressed. What issues have to be addressed in this situation? What is the key question I should raise? I realize that if the problem is misconceptualized, it will not be solved. If I have misconceived the question, I will not find the answer. Furthermore, I understand the value of sticking to the question at hand, of not wandering to other issues before effectively dealing with the question at issue. I want to be aware of situations in which others are failing to stick to the question at issue.

  3. Questioning information and sources of information. What information do I need to gather to figure out what is going on? Where can I get it? How can I test it? What information are others using? Is it accurate? Is it relevant to the issue at hand? I realize that if I lack the information I need to effectively deal with this issue, my reasoning will be impaired. I also understand the problems inherent in using incorrect information in reasoning.

  4. Questioning interpretations or conclusions. What interpretations, judgments, or conclusions are crucial to this situation? What conclusions am I coming to? What conclusions are others coming to? I understand that there is often more than one way to interpret situations. I value the ability to consider multiple ways to do so, weighing the pros and cons of each, before coming to a decision. I also want to be able to assess the quality of the conclusions that others are coming to.

  5. Questioning the assumptions being made. What is being taken for granted? Is this a reasonable assumption? What would be reasonable to assume in this situation? I recognize that, because assumptions usually are unconscious in thinking, it is often difficult to determine what is being taking for granted. I want to be able to identify and correct my faulty assumptions. I also want to be able to accurately assess the assumptions others are using.

  6. Questioning the concepts being used. What main ideas or concepts are being used? What implications follow from this idea? What main ideas, or concepts, are crucial to making sense of this situation? I understand that whenever we think, we use concepts, and the way we use them both determines and is determined by the way we think in situations. Therefore, I must continually raise my awareness of the way concepts are being used, both by myself and by others.

  7. Questioning the point(s) of view being considered. What point(s) of view have to be considered? Have I failed to take into account some point(s) of view that are relevant to understanding and thinking-through the issue? I realize that good reasoning often involves considering more than one way of looking at things. I therefore understand the value in being able to consider issues from multiple viewpoints. I recognize when others are unable or unwilling to see things from alternative viewpoints.

  8. Questioning implications. Given the reasoning I am doing, what are the likely implications, positive and negative? What are the implications if I reason to this conclusion versus that conclusion? I understand that, whenever I reason, implications follow from my reasoning. Thus, I need to think through the potential consequences of decisions I am considering. I also question the implications of others' thinking.

Just as we can seek to understand our own logic, we can seek to understand the logic of others. Perhaps an example will be helpful here. Imagine a person whose everyday life is based on the following thinking:

The simple pleasures are the key to happiness: sleeping, gardening, walking, nature, telling jokes, listening to music, reading books. Do not seek more power or money than is necessary to get by. Do not seek to change the world in significant ways because no matter what you do, nothing much will change. The people at the top will always be corrupt and they will always have the power to hurt you. The large masses of people are lazy and irresponsible and always will be. Do not get involved in the affairs of others. Avoid gossip. Don't worry about what other people have. Don't worry about injustice; those who do unjust acts will naturally suffer negative consequences. Take things as they come. Don't take yourself too seriously. Be ready to laugh at yourself. Avoid conflict. When you do a job, do it well. Value your friends and support them. They will help you when you need them.

It would be of no use to attempt to persuade this person to become active in any social, political, or moral cause. If you understand the basic logic of her thinking, you recognize that her response will always be the same: "You can't fight city hall. Don't worry about it. Those people will get their just deserts. Stay out of the battle. You can't do any good. And you probably will do yourself some harm."

The logic of this thinking has many implications, some positive, and some negative. On the positive side, this thinking leads this person to enjoy life far beyond that enjoyed by most people, as she is continually seeing ordinary events—which most people treat as unimportant and insignificant—as objects of pleasure and delight. For example, the simple act of looking out the window at a bird on a tree limb engenders inner warmth. On the other hand, she assumes no ethical responsibility for any action that is not directly within her immediate control. The logic of her thinking makes her indifferent to the fate of others not immediately connected to her. Though she is a reader, she reads only fiction and that only for distraction and amusement.

Now let us put our commentary into the logic of this thinking in such a way as to pin down the elements of the logic inherent in it:

  1. The main goal or purpose of this person is to enjoy life and to avoid involvement in any painful struggle. The first part of this purpose is fully justifiable because people have a right to enjoy life. The second part is questionable, and there is more than one way to evaluate it. Here is one reasonable way: On the one hand, insofar as this person would expect others to be concerned when injustice was done to her, she is obligated to help others who experience injustice. On the other hand, if she would not expect others to be at all concerned about any injustice she might experience, she is justified in not concerning herself with injustice being done to others.

  2. The main issue or question for this person is something like this: How can I arrange the affairs of my life in such a way as to maximally enjoy the simple things of life and avoid involvement in any problems beyond those experienced by my immediate family? In evaluating this question, the same reasoning would apply as that expressed in evaluating the purpose (in number 1 above).

  3. The main information this person used in pursuing her goals was information about immediate matters of daily life. Again, the use of this information is partially justified. It is justified in that this particular information enables the thinker to achieve her purpose. However, the thinker fails to use information in her thinking that would enable her to contribute to making the world more just (information about the large number of people who are acting every day to improve conditions in the world, information about the large numbers of people who could be helped through some basic acts of kindness, and so on).

  4. The main assumptions this person uses in thinking are: Simple pleasures are always available to everyone and are more important than socially praised possessions; in the world of power, nothing ever really changes; and only immediate family members have any moral claims on us. Again, the first assumption is justifiable for the reason stated in purpose (number 1 above). The second assumption is simply not true. Even though power structures are difficult to change, they certainly can be changed through dedication and hard work. Many examples can be cited to support this point. With respect to the third assumption, this person would most likely expect others, outside her immediate family, to help her if some injustice were being done to her. Therefore, a likely unconscious assumption in her thinking is: "If some injustice is being done to me, I expect others to help me out. After all, I have a right to justice."

  5. Some of the main concepts this person uses in thinking are these principles: The best way to live is to enjoy life's simple pleasures; no matter what you do, you can't change city hall; and people who behave in unethical ways will suffer the law of natural consequences. The first concept or principle, concerned with "simple pleasures," is being used justifiably because it helps this person enjoy the small pleasures in life, to appreciate all of the many simple everyday joys. The second principle, "you can't change city hall," is not logical because every day, through diligence and perseverance, people help bring about improvement within institutions. The third principle, involving "natural consequences," is also illogical because many people are behaving unethically each and every day and suffering not at all while they are causing suffering to innocent others. By using this idea in thinking, this person irrationally justifies her unwillingness to help make the world a more humane place.

  6. The main conclusion (inference) this person comes to is: I can best enjoy life by keeping to myself and to my immediate family, by surrounding myself with the things I like, by taking time every day to appreciate the small joys that life brings. Given the information this person uses in her thinking, her conclusions logically follow. Because she does not take into account information that would imply an ethical obligation to help reduce injustice, she concludes that she has no ethical obligations outside her immediate family.

  7. The points of view of this person are: seeing every day as uncomplicated and filled with simple delights; and seeing her ethical obligations as applying only to her immediate family. This person is concerned only with her own point of view, and those of her family members, but not of others.

  8. The main implications of this person's thinking are that she will appreciate the many small pleasures in life, but do nothing to contribute to the well-being of society. This person is concerned only with the implications that come with enjoying life. She is unconcerned about her doing nothing to help make the world a more just and humane place within which to live.

Test the Idea
Focusing on the Logic of Someone's Thinking

Think of someone that you know well—a spouse, parent, a child, an employer, or a friend. Try to figure out the logic of this person's thinking by focusing on the eight elements of his or her thought. Humans in many circumstances and contexts act with a hidden agenda. As a consequence, human behavior is often other than it seems to be. After figuring out the logic of this person's thinking, try to assess the thinking that he or she does within each element. Complete this template:

  1. The main purpose of this person is… I think this person is or is not justified in pursuing this purpose because…

  2. The main issue for this person, and its related question, is… I think this question is/is not worth pursuing because…

  3. The main information this person uses in pursuing his or her goals is… This information should/should not be used in this person's thinking because…

  4. The main assumptions this person uses in thinking are… These assumptions are/are not justifiable because…

  5. The main concepts this person uses in thinking are… These concepts are/are not being used justifiably because…

  6. The main conclusions this person comes to are… These conclusions are/are not logical because…

  7. The point of view of this person is… This person is/is not fully considering the relevant viewpoints of others because…

  8. The main implications of this person's thinking are… This person is/is not concerned about these implications because…

    Table of Contents, Thinking Tools Resources Page Previous Section, Thinking Tools Next Section, Thinking Tools