In this series, I will walk through the critical thinking rules that are sections of the book A Workbook for Arguments: A Complete Course in Critical Thinking. My aim for this blog (as you guys know) — before I get into any actual philosophical debates — is to equip you with the tools necessary for how to think, not what to think.
The key is to be as specific as possible in explaining the ways in which the argument does or does not follow each rule. So, without further ado, let’s get into it!
Rule 1: Identify premises and conclusion.
Does the argument make clear what the conclusion of the argument is?
Rule 2: The ideas, concepts, and propositions are developed and presented in a natural order.
Does it present ideas in a natural order?
Rule 3: Start from reliable premises.
Are the premises reliable?
There are guidelines to help you spot unreliable premises. Premises that are widely known to be false or easily shown to be false are unreliable. Such claims can either be philosophical or empirical in nature. Usually, if it’s the former, to determine their reliability requires analysis, reasoning, and evaluation. On the other hand, if they are empirical in nature, then most likely their reliability is determined through data or observations. Other premises are unreliable not because we know that they’re false but because we don’t know, or can’t know, whether they’re true; such claims can’t provide a solid foundation for an argument.
If you think some of the premises are unreliable, say which premises those are. Explain why those premises are unreliable.
Rule 4: Be concrete and concise.
Avoid abstract, vague, and general terms. “We hiked for 3 hours in the sun” is better than “It was an ordeal consisting in a protracted and extended period of laborious exertion.” Be concise too.
Could the argument be clearer or more concise? If so, which words or expressions are unclear? What might the author have said instead?
Rule 5: Build on substance, not overtone.
Offer actual reasons; don’t just play on the overtones of words.
Do not argue as follows:
Having so disgracefully allowed her once-proud passenger railroads to fade into obscurity, America is honor bound to restore them now!
This is supposed to be an argument for restoring (more) passenger rail services. But it offers no justification for this conclusion whatsoever, instead providing emotionally loaded words. Did passenger rail “fade” because of something “America” did or failed to do? What was “disgraceful” about this? Many “once-proud” institutions outlive their times, after all — we’re not obliged to restore them all. What does it mean to say America is “honor bound” to do this? Have promises been made and broken? By whom?
Ask: Does the argument use loaded language? If so, which words or expressions are loaded? Can you suggest a more neutral substitute?
If the argument is unclear or wordy, state which words or expressions could be improved. If the argument uses loaded language, state which terms are loaded and briefly explain why they’re loaded. You might even suggest a more neutral substitute. Likewise, if the author would be better off sticking to a single, consistent term for some idea, point out exactly what terms he or she uses and suggest the best one to use.
Rule 6: Use consistent terms.
Does the author confuse the argument by using more than one term for the same idea? If so, identify the inconsistent terminology and suggest one term that the author might use throughout the argument.
For instance, when you are discussing atheism, do not conflate it with strict materialism or scientism. Another example would be the philosophy of mind: don’t use the terms “mind”, “soul”, “consciousness”, “psyhe”, and “intellect” interchangeably without explicitly stating what you mean by each.
In the next post we will look at a number of other rules concerning generalizations. I’m looking forward to it!