Plato and the Problem of Critical Thinking Education (or, The Dojo vs The Street)

Plato and the Problem of Critical Thinking Education (or, The Dojo vs The Street)

Kevin deLaplante


There’s a disconnect 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.

I know, because I’ve taught critical thinking courses for years out of standard textbooks. I have dozens of these texts in my shelves.

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.

This is what I’m referring to when I talk about the “problem of critical thinking education”.

It’s not just a problem; it’s a DISASTER for critical thinking education.

In this post I want to talk about how this situation came to be, and what we need to do to fix it.

Philosophers Are in Charge

The first thing to note 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.

The second thing to note is that historically, Western philosophy has drawn a strong distinction between logic and argumentation on the one hand, and rhetoric and the psychology of persuasion on the other.

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.

I’m not going to criticize philosophy and argue that its approach to logic and argumentation is mistaken or misguided. I think it’s a vital component of critical thinking education.

What needs to be criticized is the idea that this approach, by itself, can serve as a foundation for effective argumentation in the social environments where most of us live.

Argumentation, Rhetoric and the Greeks

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 Doesn’t Like the Sophists

Plato featured the Sophists in several of his dialogues, and his student Aristotle talked about them as well. Their historical reputation has been colored by the way they’re presented in Plato and Aristotle, the two most 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.

An Identity for Philosophy

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, 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.

Suspicion of Rhetoric and Persuasion Remains

Fast forward 2500 years, and the situation hasn’t changed much.

Philosophy has largely followed Plato’s lead in that most 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.

Philosophy students study formal and informal logic, where the focus is on identifying standards of good reasoning, and learning how to identify deceptive or fallacious reasoning.

Many critical thinking textbooks also feature sections on deceptive practices in advertising and the media, and are concerned with practical applications.

However, it is still true today that the standard texts say almost nothing about the psychology of human reasoning, about the cognitive processes that underly human behavior, or 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 and persuasion actually operate in the real world.

The Problem: Training Only For the Dojo

In studying principles of rational argumentation in logic and critical thinking classes, what students are actually learning is a kind of ritualized persuasion practice that has been very important and influential in Western philosophy and science.

In the Argument Ninja Academy, this style of argumentation has a central role in the curriculum. If we care about evidence, reason and truth, we should all have some training in it.

But the reality is that this style of argumentation is only persuasive within social environments that respect and support the goals of rational argumentation. Environments like the philosophy classroom, or academic and scientific journals, or other institutions where truth and evidence actually matters, and there’s a social culture that respects norms of good reasoning.

Outside of these environments — in the public square, in public media, on the internet, etc. — explicit appeals to reason and argument are much less effective.

To draw on a martial arts metaphor, in a standard critical thinking class, students are learning the rules of a martial art in an environment where everyone has agreed to follow and respect the rules.

But it’s a serious mistake to assume that the same techniques that are effective in sparring or tournament fighting will also be effective in a street fight.

You can’t expect a stranger to honor the rules of rational argumentation any more than you can expect a guy strangling you in a street fight to automatically release his grip if you tap out.

The Solution: Train For the Dojo and Train for the Street

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, for example, 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.

The whole point of the Argument Ninja program is to help students develop skills in BOTH domains, the dojo and the street. 

On the one hand, we need to understand what good reasoning is supposed to look like, how to distinguish good versus bad arguments, how to read for the argument, how to engage in constructive, rational debate with an audience that is open and responsive to reason and debate. That’s rational argumentation “in the dojo”.

On the other hand, we also need to understand how human psychology works, how people actually form beliefs and make judgments, how vulnerable we are to errors arising from cognitive biases and the evolved architecture of human reasoning, how techniques of propaganda and persuasion exploit these biases, and how debiasing strategies can function to neutralize or mitigate their distorting effects. That’s persuasion “on the street”.

And finally, we need to learn how to bring these two skill sets together, so that we can be more effective advocates and spokespersons for the views we care about, and raise the quality of our public conversations overall.

We need to learn how to bring some of the dojo with us to our engagements on the street.

This is not an easy task, but it can be taught and it can be learned.

Traditional approaches to critical thinking education aren’t doing any of this. It’s not even on the radar.

That’s why we’re doing it here. Because somebody has to.

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