The Classroom is My Dojo
In this post I’m going to shed some light on why critical thinking textbooks written 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.
To do this I’m going to describe my own initiation into rational argumentation and explore further the analogy of training for combat in the “dojo” versus training for combat on “the street”.
What philosophers are teaching in critical thinking classes is very much like the training that occurs in a traditional martial art studio, where the focus is on learning the rules and techniques of the martial art tradition within the ritualized space of the training hall, the dojo.
This training is valuable and effective in ritualized spaces where similar norms of communication, similar “rules of engagement”, are respected and reinforced. Like the philosophy classroom, like academic talks and journal articles, like the conventions of scientific reasoning reinforced in scientific methodology and the peer review process.
But if you expect these same rules of engagement to be respected in your interactions with people “outside the dojo”, you’re in for a rude awakening.
We’re Aware of the Disconnect
In philosophy classes we’re taught that pointing out weaknesses in an argument is a good thing. We’re taught not to mistake criticism of an argument for criticism of the person.
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.
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?
I think there are two reasons for this.
One has to do with what I talked about in a previous post, 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 scientists and academics generally.
My Experience of Learning How to Reason and Argue as a Philosophy Student
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.
The aim of a text like this is to show 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.
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.
Everyone Understands the Rules
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 as I said, 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.
We’re Grateful For Vigorous Criticism and Feedback
All academic fields have a tradition of public discussion and 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 for questions and answers.
But this was 40 minutes of questions and answers. 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, 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’re grateful 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 a Performance/Combat Element To It
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. 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.
Critical Thinking Texts as Martial Arts Training Manuals
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.
They’re Manuals for Combat in the Dojo, Not on the Street
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 had to follow the rules if I wanted 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.
That’s why we desperately need a new approach to critical thinking education. We need to teach students how to think critically and independently, and communicate persuasively, on the street as well as in the dojo.