In This Episode
I explore reasons why standard critical thinking textbooks say almost nothing about the psychology of human reasoning and persuasion.
- argumentation as rhetoric vs argumentation as tool for philosophical reasoning
- why Plato was so hard on the Sophists
- what it was like being socialized into philosophy as a student
- the martial arts training hall as a ritualized space
- why the philosophy classroom is like a dojo for training in the martial art of rational argumentation
- understanding the rules inside the dojo vs the rules outside the dojo
- critical thinking texts as martial arts training manuals
- argumentation and the dream of universal reason
- why critical thinking needs both approaches to argumentation
“I can’t expect a stranger to honor the rules of rational argumentation any more than I can expect a guy strangling me in a street fight to automatically release his grip if I tap out.“
“We can’t make all of society our dojo, but we can teach techniques that can make us better prepared for life on the street. It’s time that critical thinking education did the same.”
References and Links
- My critical thinking education site, Critical Thinker Academy.
- How you can support this site (my “Thanks and Support” page)
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Play or download the mp3 file for this episode
This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 4!
Hi everyone and welcome to the Argument Ninja podcast. I’m your host, Kevin deLaplante, and I’m a philosopher and critical thinking educator.
You can go to argumentninja.com to learn more about this podcast, show notes for each episode, my background, and my other online projects, including the Critical Thinker Academy, which is a site that hosts video tutorials on a wide range of topics related to logic, argumentation and critical thinking.
In the last episode we looked at a case study on the ethics of persuasion. When is it okay to intentionally use persuasion techniques that operate unconsciously, to achieve your goals?
I’ll have a lot more to say about this question, because it’s really fundamental to my project, but in this episode I want to return to an issue that I touched on in the first episode.
This is about the disconnect that I see between traditional ways of teaching logic and argumentation and critical thinking, and the psychological reality of how people actually form beliefs and what actually motivates people to change their mind.
At many universities you can take a full 40-hour course in symbolic logic, and a full 40-hour course on critical thinking, and get no exposure to basic concepts in classical rhetoric and persuasion, no exposure to the literature on cognitive biases and human reasoning, and no exposure to the social psychology literature on why seemingly irrational beliefs and behavior persist in different social groups.
I’m not kidding. No exposure, none.
Yes, there are exceptions, and in different textbooks you’ll see passing references here and there, a sprinkling of material on some of these topics … but as a generalization it’s still true.
I said it in the first episode and I’ll say it again: this is a disaster for critical thinking education.
In this episode I want to talk about how this situation came to be.
And I want to talk about this from my perspective as someone who taught logic and critical thinking in university philosophy departments for many years, in exactly this way, covering no material on rhetoric, no material on persuasion, no material on cognitive biases, no material from the social sciences.
I only started to wake up after teaching this way for seven or eight years. I slowly started adding extra material to my courses from these different sources. By the time I left academia, in 2015, after almost 20 years as an academic philosopher, my critical thinking courses were about 50% standard logic and argumentation, and 50% material from these other sources.
But I had to create my own reading packages to do this. The standard critical thinking textbooks weren’t any help, and for the most part they’re still not much help.
So, what’s going on here?
Well, the first thing to realize is that critical thinking education at the college and university level, where these courses are offered at all, has become the responsibility of philosophy departments, or in smaller colleges, humanities departments with a few philosophers on staff. There are exceptions, but this is generally the case.
And the second thing to realize is that historically, the dominant trend in Western philosophy has been to distinguish logic and argumentation from rhetoric or psychology.
Philosophers have tended to believe that philosophy, as a discipline, has a special claim on logic and argumentation. That in a certain way it “owns” these fields, because philosophy is uniquely concerned with the foundations of knowledge and standards of correct reasoning.
So, the separation that I’m pointing to, between the aims of logic and argumentation as philosophers have understood them, and these other branches of the humanities and social science, is actually a feature, it’s not a bug.
There’s a story to tell about why this is so, and I think this story needs to be understood and appreciated if we’re going to move past it and develop a more integrated, multi-disciplinary approach to argumentation and critical thinking.
And just a heads-up: I’m not going to crap all over philosophy and say that its approach to logic and argumentation is mistaken or misguided.
In fact, I want to defend it.
What needs to be crapped on is the idea that this approach, by itself, can serve as a foundation for effective argumentation in the social environments where most of live.
But the aims, the goals, of the philosopher’s model of argumentation, are vitally important. They need to be part of the package of concepts that we teach when we teach critical thinking. They just can’t be the only concepts we teach.
Much more on this later.
Oh, and for those who enjoy the martial arts analogies, I promise there’ll be one here. I’m calling this episode “The Classroom is My Dojo”, and there’s a reason for that.
For now, let’s start at the beginning.
If you want a quick one-sentence definition of “rhetoric”, you can say that it’s the “art of persuasive speech”.
Rhetoric is about the various ways we can use language and other forms of symbolic communication, to persuade an audience.
The study of persuasive speech goes back thousands of years.
Argumentation — understood as a type of rhetoric, a type of persuasive speech — has also been studied for thousands of years.
When it’s studied like this, you have to treat argumentation as a deeply psychological and social practice.
Why? Because it’s about offering reasons for a particular audience to accept a particular conclusion, or agree to a particular course of action, in a particular social and historical context.
In the West, we see the first systematic teaching on argumentation and persuasion with the ancient Greeks.
This is partly because Greek democracy in the 5th century BC placed a premium on a man’s ability to deliver a persuasive speech.
Political governance and decision making involved someone getting up in front of an assembly and making an oral case for a particular point of view, and winning the support of the majority.
In Greece, around the second half of the 5th century, a whole new profession popped up that offered to teach the art of persuasive speech, sometimes for a fee.
These traveling instructors would show you how to argue persuasively on any subject — ethics, philosophy, science, art, whatever — not just political topics.
In Greek philosophy, these teachers of argumentation and rhetoric were called Sophists.
The term “Sophist” derives from the Greek words for “wisdom”, sophia, and “wise”, sophos.
The Sophists claimed to be wise, and to teach wisdom.
Now, there is no doubt that there were some really smart, educated guys among the Sophists. But they had a mixed reputation among the Athenians.
Their critics were bothered that the focus of their instruction seemed to be how to be persuasive in whatever field or topic you chose, on whatever side of an issue you chose.
Plato featured the Sophists in several of his dialogues, and his student Aristotle talked about them as well. Their historical reputation has certainly been colored by the way they’re presented in Plato and Aristotle, the two influential philosophers of antiquity.
Plato, in particular, had a very negative view of the Sophists. He distinguished the use of argumentation in the service of persuasion, from the use of argumentation in the service of truth and wisdom and virtue, and he charged the Sophists with indulging in unscrupulous and fallacious reasoning, for persuasive effect.
This charge has stuck. Over time the dictionary definition of the term “sophistry” has come to mean the deliberate use of fallacious reasoning for persuasive effect.
Now, as a matter of historical scholarship, this is almost certainly an overly reductive and unfair characterization of what the Sophists were doing.
But for whatever reasons, Plato’s judgment had a huge influence on how subsequent generations viewed the Sophists.
Now, whether this judgment was fair or not, it did help to create an identity for Western philosophy, as fundamentally about the search for true wisdom, not just the appearance of wisdom.
This distinction, between a good argument, and a persuasive argument, has become fundamental to philosophy.
The goal of argumentation, on this view, isn’t persuasion for its own sake — it’s persuasion for good reasons.
Consequently, philosophers have spent a lot of time thinking about what constitutes good reasons to believe something.
This approach to argumentation treats it as a fundamental tool of philosophical reasoning, and by that I mean a tool for exploring the logical implications of our beliefs, justifying our beliefs, and uncovering truth and falsehood.
This is what I meant when I said that philosophers feel that they have a special claim on logic and argumentation, that philosophy “owns” these fields in a way that no other discipline does.
Plato’s concern was that if philosophers focus too much on the rhetorical dimensions of argumentation, they risk losing sight of these larger philosophical goals.
Fast forward 2500 years, and the situation hasn’t changed much.
Philosophy has largely followed Plato’s lead in that for the most part philosophers don’t study rhetoric and don’t teach rhetoric, and generally don’t have a positive view of rhetoric, because of its perceived association with persuasion and manipulation at the expense of truth.
So, as a philosophy student I was required to study formal logic. And there we learned about different systems of formal reasoning and how to symbolize natural language sentences in these different systems, and how to evaluate the logical structure of arguments expressed in these logical systems.
And in the first philosophy class I ever took, we were assigned a textbook called Logical Self-Defense, written by philosophers, which was quite popular as a critical thinking text.
That book covered basic concepts in argument analysis, it had a big section on informal fallacies of reasoning, and to its credit, a big section on critical thinking about the media and advertising.
What a text like this does, basically, is show you how human beings routinely violate norms of good argumentation, in the hope that you, the reader, will be better equipped to detect these violations when they occur.
This is all great as far as it goes, but as I said earlier, texts like these say almost nothing about the psychology of human reasoning, about the cognitive processes that underly human behavior, about the social conditions that influence human behavior and human judgment — in short, they say almost nothing about human nature that is relevant to understanding how argumentation actually operates in the real world.
I didn’t know this of course. I thought I was learning everything there was to learn about how to reason well.
And I was thrilled.
I was a keen student, and like many keen students who are exposed to a little logic, I started to notice fallacies everywhere — it’s like you’ve been given glasses that let you see things you’ve never seen before.
And I was thrilled with the kind of discussions we had in my philosophy classes, where the whole focus was on reading for the argument, reconstructing arguments, criticizing and revising arguments.
Any topic was fair game. We talked about arguments for and against abortion, pornography, infanticide, terrorism, war, belief in God, whether we have a soul, the morality of capitalism vs Marxism, you name it — with no worry about offending anyone’s sensibilities based on the subject matter alone.
And everyone understood the rules of the game. If an argument entailed a contradiction, or relied on an assumption that was false or dubious, everyone, students and teachers alike, understood that that was a problem that needed to be resolved, not dismissed or ignored.
As students, we learned to admire well-crafted arguments, and well-crafted counter-arguments that stayed on topic, that didn’t dodge the issue or change the subject.
We came to regard a clever, compelling counter-argument as a beautiful thing. It takes skill to come up with them. As philosophy students we learned to enjoy and value the dialectic of argument, objection, reply, rebuttal, and so on.
It was like studying chess and learning basic chess moves and strategy, and then studying classic chess matches and learning how brilliant people applied these strategies, and invented new strategies along the way.
And we learned not to mistake criticism of the argument for criticism of the person giving the argument.
We also learned that philosophical argumentation is intended to be a social thing, a public thing, that you conduct within a community.
You create an argument with the expectation that you’ll present it to an audience. And the responsibility of the audience is to interrogate the argument as forcefully as possible, to test for strengths and weaknesses, and to test one’s ability to defend the argument against criticism.
All academic fields are public and open to peer review, but philosophers rightly have a reputation for being especially forceful in their interrogation.
I remember a chemist friend of mine visiting me at a philosophy conference and sitting in on a session. The speaker had about 40 minutes to deliver his presentation, and then the audience had another full 40 minutes to ask questions.
My chemistry friend had never seen anything like it. First of all, he’d never heard of a speaker getting this much time for their presentation. He was used to 20 minutes max, and sometimes he’d only get 10 minutes at a conference to deliver his presentation, with 5 minutes of Q&A.
But this was 40 minutes of Q&A. 40 minutes of a room full of people taking turns criticizing one or another aspect of the argument, often engaging in lengthy exchanges with the presenter, following a chain of reasoning and allowing the other person to reply and ask follow-up questions.
If you’re an outsider, this experience can feel very confrontational, very stressful, like being in a boxing ring for 40 minutes with a bunch of fighters lined up to take turns on you.
My chemist friend was fascinated by the whole thing, but at one point he leaned over to me and asked “is it always like this?”, and I had to answer “yes”, most of the time — this is what peer review looks like in philosophy.
And I had to reassure him that most of the time, there’s no hard feelings. Of course people can be rude and unreasonable, and no one appreciates that, but no one trained in philosophy is bothered by the idea of having their arguments stress-tested in this way.
In fact, we appreciate the feedback enormously. We don’t want to defend bad arguments. We appreciate it when weaknesses are brought to light.
But more than that, most of us take great pleasure in the exercise itself. It can be exhilarating to be a part of, and exhilarating to watch, if you’re into the subject.
There’s definitely a performance element to it. You’re presenting your work to an audience, and people want to see how well you present it and how well you handle objections.
And there’s a game-like combat element to it.
I’m not the first one to point this out — it’s not unlike sparring in martial arts.
But the test is occurring on two levels, simultaneously.
On one level you’re testing an idea, an argument. You stress-test it to identify weaknesses and improve it.
On another level, you’re testing yourself, how well you perform “in the ring,” so to speak, in front of a real opponent, not just an imaginary opponent.
This is what it means to be socialized into academic philosophy, as a profession.
And let’s not forget, this is an academic profession.
To succeed as an academic philosopher, you need to do original research that is subject to peer review and that passes the test of peer review.
You measure success by your ability to create arguments that are judged to be worthy of publication.
That’s what the PhD degree is designed to do — to get students to a point where they can produce original scholarship that is recognized by peers as making a contribute to the field, and that can pass the test of peer review.
Now, let me back up remind ourselves of why I’m talking about this.
I’m trying to shed some light on why critical thinking textbooks written by philosophers and taught by philosophers, focus almost exclusively on principles of logic and argumentation and say very little about psychology or how persuasion works in the real world.
In some sense, I think all philosophy students are aware of this disconnect.
You just have to have the experience of going home after class and try to have a conversation with your parents or your friends about what you talked about in school, and see how quickly you can get people upset.
You know that principle that we learn, about not mistaking the argument for the person?
Well, in the real world most people feel quite the opposite.
If you criticize someone’s ideas, most people will interpret that as an attack on them.
Their shields go up, and they’ll assume a defensive posture.
They’re not going to thank you for pointing out the weaknesses in their position.
There isn’t a philosophy student alive who hasn’t had this experience, of walking into a conversation feeling like you’re going to help people work through an argument, like you do in class, and you end up making people mad at you.
So, given this reality that everyone in philosophy (and many people outside of philosophy) can relate to, why isn’t this discussed in the critical thinking textbooks, or in logic classes?
Why isn’t the psychology of belief and persuasion part of the discussion of what it means to give a persuasive argument?
Well, I think there are two reasons for this.
One has to do with what I talked about earlier, about the historical legacy of the Sophists, the suspicion that philosophers have about rhetoric, and their commitment to argumentation as a tool of philosophical reasoning.
But the primary reason, I think, has more to do with the socialization of students within academic philosophy, and the socialization of professional philosophers that I just described.
Let’s ask ourselves — what is the environment that teacher and students find themselves in, when studying philosophy?
It’s the controlled environment of the philosophy classroom, with all the conventions and expectations that come with it, that students are socialized into, starting from their first day in class.
In the classroom, principles operate that don’t operate outside of it.
In that space, everyone agrees that the goal of reading a text is to extract the argument and subject it to critical analysis, in accordance with certain rules about how that analysis should go.
In that space, we try hard to distinguish criticism of an argument from criticism of a person.
In that space, a failed argument is just as instructive as a successful one.
In that space, there’s agreement that what we’re trying to do, as a group, is ultimately to gain some wisdom on a topic that matters to us. It’s not to win arguments.
Which means that in that space, in the classroom, you can get away with saying things and doings that you could not reasonably expect to get away with in the world outside the classroom.
In this sense, I submit that the classroom is very much like the training hall of a traditional martial art.
These training halls are ritualized spaces … some might describe them as sacred spaces … where respect for the principles and goals of the martial art are built into the rules that govern the space.
There are rules for how to enter and exit these halls, what you’re allowed to wear, what you’re allowed to say, how you address the other students and your instructors.
In taekwondo, for example, you bow when you enter and bow when you leave. When you step on the matt you address one another as “sir” and “ma’am”. You raise your hand to ask a question. If you’re late you need to be given permission to join the group by the instructor, you can’t just walk in.
After any pair practice between students, you bow in a particular way and shake each other’s hand, and say “thank you sir” or “thank you ma’am”.
There are rules for safe training that everyone learns and must abide by, or they’re forced to leave.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
And most importantly, no one expects people outside the martial arts training hall — outside the dojo, the dojang, the kwoon, the akhara, whatever name you give it — no one expects the rules of the hall to apply outside the hall.
There’s no confusion about that.
The academic classroom is a ritualized space, just as much as the martial arts training hall.
The philosophy classroom is a particular kind of ritualized space, where the teacher establishes and enforces rules that express and reinforce the principles of the discipline.
That’s the space that I experienced as a philosophy student.
And here’s my point. In the classroom, because it is a ritualized space, as I said, you can get away with saying things and doings that you could not reasonably expect to get away with in the outside world.
Now, what does this have to do with how critical thinking texts are written?
What I’m saying is that these texts are written much like the official training manuals for a particular martial art.
What they teach you is the principles and practices of the martial art, within the idealized environment of the training hall, not the noisy public world outside the hall.
Critical thinking texts teach the principles of logic and argumentation that are the backbone of the Western philosophical tradition that emphasizes argumentation as tool for philosophical thinking.
In short, they’re teaching students what philosophical reasoning looks like, and how to do it.
But this is crucial — they’re teaching students what philosophical reasoning looks like, and how to do it, in a space where these principles will be shared and honored.
And it works, to the extent that one can successfully create this ritualized space where everyone agrees to follow the rules.
When you play a sport, you have to find a way to ensure that everyone follows the rules, or at least incentivize the players to follow the rules. Otherwise you can’t play the sport.
In the world of academia, the rules are built in to the social and professional structure of the academic discipline. I have to follow the rules if I want to keep my job, earn the respect of my peers and advance in my career.
In a classroom environment of a college or university philosophy program, the rules are established by the conventions of the discipline and by the leadership and example of the instructor.
With the right support in place, these rules are usually not hard to achieve or maintain.
But it’s not guaranteed. I’ve seen them break down.
If a class is really badly managed, it can break down. If there are ideologically motivated students in the class who are committed to challenging the rules and disrupting the environment, it can break down.
There’s a lesson here: a culture that respects the rules of philosophical debate and argumentation doesn’t happen on its own. It takes work and effort and vigilance, by a community, to maintain.
But in the wild world outside the classroom? At home, on the playground, at your work place, in the media, on the internet, on the streets, in the halls of government?
You can’t expect these rules to apply.
I can’t expect a stranger to honor the rules of rational argumentation any more than I can expect a guy strangling me in a street fight to automatically release his grip if I tap out.
So, getting back to these critical thinking texts, we need to ask some questions.
If it’s as obvious as I say it is, that these texts are inadequate to prepare students for how to argue persuasively in the wild, why doesn’t the field recognize this?
Why don’t textbook authors acknowledge that what they’re really teaching is an idealized form of intellectual debate, that only works within social environments that support these intellectual values?
Well, there are probably a number of different factors at play, but let must describe how I felt about teaching this material for many years, because I think it reflects how most philosophy instructors think about it.
I think we’re all just a little bit dazzled by the universality of what we study, and by the dream of universality.
I know I was, and I still am.
When you’re first learning the elements of argument analysis, it really does seem like you’re learning something that has universal scope and significance.
We start off giving a few examples of arguments, and then we quickly move to the general question — what do all arguments have in common, that makes them arguments?
And we give an answer — an argument is a collection of statements or propositions, one of which is singled out and called the conclusion, the others are called the premises; in which the premises are being offered as reasons to believe or accept the conclusion.
Then we dig deeper into the components of this definition. What is a proposition? How do propositions differ from other linguistic expressions? What does it mean to offer reasons. What does it mean to offer good reasons? And so on.
And when we start talking about fallacies of reasoning, these are framed as general patterns that show up everywhere that human beings communicate.
This is all so general, so abstract, that it’s easy to believe that it’s an ahistorical description of a universal feature of human reasoning, if not rationality itself.
In fact, it’s such a compelling notion that for long stretches of Western intellectual history, philosophers and theologians have assumed that the basic principles of logic are universal rules of rational thought, and that the universe itself, to the extent that it’s a rational, intelligible universe, should conform to these rules as well.
That’s what I would tell my students, trying to sell them on the philosophical significance of logic and argumentation, not just its practical usefulness.
And as a philosopher of science, I was also very aware that when I was teaching logic and argument analysis, I was setting up a conceptual framework that I would later use to talk about the logic of scientific reasoning, and how scientific inferences can be justified.
There’s a case to be made that modern science as we know it wouldn’t exist without this dream of universal reason animating it, and the logic of scientific reasoning driving the assessment of evidence and the acceptance and rejection of different scientific theories over time.
That was another way to sell this material to students — to show them how important these ideas were, what roles they placed, in the intellectual history of the West.
So as a philosophy teacher, I was perfectly comfortable teaching this material in the standard ways it had been taught, because I believed all of this.
And with some qualifications and caveats, I still believe it.
The study of argumentation, as a tool for philosophical reasoning, does tell us something universal about the nature of logic and rationality.
It does describe ideas that have had a huge influence on the intellectual history of the West, and on the birth of modern science.
And it does pave the way for a deeper understanding of modern developments in lots of different fields outside of philosophy, like mathematics, linguistics, computer science, artificial intelligence, and so on.
So, there’s a strong case for the educational value of learning logic and argumentation and critical thinking in the ways that this is traditionally taught.
And this is the reason why philosophy instructors are generally happy to teach this material in the way it’s been taught for so many years.
They’re not completely blind to the reality of how argumentation and persuasion works in the wild. They’re aware that the material may not be all that relevant outside the classroom.
But that was never the primary aim of teaching this material.
As philosophy instructors, we emphasize the value of teaching and learning this material independent of its effectiveness or ineffectiveness as a tool for rational persuasion.
Now, I believed all this, and I still believe it now.
But having said all that … it doesn’t change the fact that when it comes to understanding human reasoning and human nature, and how real people make judgments and decisions and respond to arguments, and how to be more effective at persuading people on the basis of reasons … the standard material on logic and argumentation is completely inadequate to the task.
Well I’ve gone a lot longer than I had intended to, so let me try to summarize that main take-away points from this episode.
The first is that historically there are two distinct approaches to the study of argumentation.
You can study it as form of persuasive speech, as a form of rhetoric; and you can study it as a tool of philosophical reasoning. Both are about persuasion, but the philosophical approach places its focus on persuasion for good reasons, rather than persuasion for its own sake.
The second point is that the philosophical approach to argumentation is genuinely effective only within an idealized social context where the norms of rational argumentation are respected and valued.
I tried to show how the culture of the philosophy classroom and the profession itself helps to create and reinforce this social context, and why it’s foolish to assume that the world outside the classroom will respect these rules.
And I drew an analogy with the ritualized spaces of the martial arts training hall, and how the rules and principles the martial art are embedded in these spaces, and enable students to practice the art in a supportive environment.
The philosophy classroom, in this sense, is like a dojo for training in the martial art of rational argumentation.
The third take-away point is that, even though the standard principles of rational argumentation aren’t really that helpful in understanding how argumentation and persuasion work in the wild, outside the classroom, they still have educational value and they’re still important to learn.
In particular, we need to appreciate the role they’ve played in the intellectual achievements of the West, and especially the critical spirit that animates scientific reasoning.
The main takeaway, for me, is that we need to appreciate just how much social support is needed to maintain and reinforce this critical spirit.
We reason best as members of a community that values and respect the principles of critical inquiry.
That community needs to be established and nurtured for individuals to thrive and learn and practice the principles that animate that community.
The classroom can function as such a community. Social institutions, like the institutional structure of science, or the judicial system, can help to create and maintain such communities, where certain rules of argumentation are taught and reinforced.
But argumentation in the public or private spheres outside of these intentional, ritualized communities, these sacred spaces, poses a real challenge.
You can’t make all of society your dojo.
That’s why when martial arts schools teach students practical self-defense, they approach it very differently from the way they normally teach the basic elements of the martial art.
In taekwondo you spend a lot of time learning how to kick to the head, but you would never teach that as a basic self-defense technique.
We can’t make all of society our dojo, but we can teach techniques that can make us better prepared for life on the street.
It’s time that critical thinking education did the same.
Thank you for listening, and I’ll see you next time on the Argument Ninja podcast.