Reasoning together

Hugo Mercier visited the Centre for Research in Reasoning, Argumentation and Rhetoric at the University of Windsor last Fall to discuss his recent work with Dan Sperber in which they  argue that reason is meant to function socially, in contexts of argumentation and hence as part of communication.  This welcome message for argumentation theorists and social epistemologists draws together an immense amount of research in cognitive psychology about the conditions in which reasoning is successful.  I found it very exciting.

Not only does this view suggest a fundamental epistemological significance for argumentation, it suggests that argumentation is basically cooperative, not adversarial.  Sure, opposition can be part of valuable argumentative practice, but the more general or at least original benefit is learning from each other — not winning, as the view has been misrepresented in The New York Times.

What was disappointing is the appearance that Sperber and Mercier’s appeal to evolution, and their employment of “evolutionary psychology” is weak.  Does evolution provide explanatory power, connecting theory with one of the most important scientific innovations of the past several centuries?  Yeah sure.  But explanatory power is not enough, especially when more rigorous empirical standards are available from and demanded by evolutionary biology.  At least, so the consensus seems to be — I need to learn more about this area; but Mercier appealed only to the explanatory power of natural selection, not to anything concrete.

Evolutionary psychology is notoriously problematic, and seems especially prey to the assumption that what has evolved must have been selected for, having an advantage itself. Some evolutionary features, like chins and male nipples are by-product of other features, like jaws and female nipples.  The automatic assumption that all evolved features are adaptations has been described by Elisabeth Lloyd as “adaptationism.”

A sample syllabus

One of the things I hope to add to this page over the long run is a series of best practices and models: syllabi, exercises, etc.  I don’t expect these all to come from me and if you have something you’d like to share please send it along.

I am teaching a course (module) on fallacies this term, and in case you are interested, here is my syllabus.  It is based on the way the textbook author, Chris Tindale, designs his own course, but has my own spin.  In particular, I plan this time to have some discussion and assignments addressing constructive failure, a notion popular in business and creative thinking and that has many adherents in pedagogy too. I have also developed a youtube playlist to play at the beginning of class to pick up on the particular themes as we progress through the syllabus.

My technique for using the book is to leave all the case studies/exercises in the book for student practice, and to bring my own examples for in-class analysis.  This book adopts the “critical questions” approach associated especially with Doug Walton, according to which fallacies are deviations from argumentation or inference schemes that may often (or in certain cases) be acceptable.  The questions are used to devise the strength or weakness of a particular employment of an inference scheme, such as appeal to the person.

The critical questions/inference schemes approach gets past the problem that many putative cases of fallacy can be given positive interpretation.  Thus interpretation plays a central role in the course/module, which might seem to open a messy can of worms but I find it a useful way to teach students how to justify their analysis.  And to teach the value of changing their interpretations as they reflect more deeply on the reasoning they encounter, and recognize they can improve on their initial impressions.  Pressing students to be accountable for their interpretations (along with their evaluations) is one reason that I think fallacies can be a valuable way to teach argumentation.

The first month and the next year

The CT² site has now been up a month and received over 1100 unique visitors (the counter was added a little late) from all over the globe.  While the traffic has waned since the first few days, I’ve received excellent feedback and extremely helpful suggestions from all sorts of people, all of which I have already implemented or will get to next summer.  (I am a social epistemologist and try to make good use of the resources other people provide me!)

This week I met with some folks from the University of Windsor’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.  A good deal of the ideas behind the CT² guide come out of the many workshops I’ve taken with them, and some others specifically from John Biggs’ Teaching for Quality Learning at University.  This week Chris Smith and Erika Kustra gave me some pointers on developing the site, so that I can more effectively encourage better pedagogy in philosophical instruction about critical thinking.

CT² won’t change much between now and next summer, while my time is heavily occupied with my own teaching.  However, I have been invited to give related talks: on the status quo fallacy at “Thinking and Speaking a Better World” in Qatar early January; on the relationship between feminist logic of argumentation and feminist philosophy of science at the Pacific APA in San Francisco late February; on adversarial argumentation in philosophy at the Central APA in New Orleans late March.

Then of course there’s OSSA here at Windsor in May, where I will not be presenting so I can be readily available as an organizer.  There’s still time to submit your abstract.

If you find yourself at these places and have any comments on CT², please let me know!


Fallacies and failure

Why teach fallacies?  There is no universal way to get an argument wrong, many argue.  It’s derivative on some positive theory of argumentation.  We have positive theories to support fallacy theory (the three aspects of argument strength from Blair and Johnson, and Govier; argumentation schemes from Walton; or pragma-dialectical errors) so why concentrate on an archaic theory of failure?  Doesn’t that encourage an unhealthy emphasis on nay-saying?  knee-jerk scepticism?  Certainly it can.

For the exact same reasons teaching fallacies can be a serious opportunity for students to learn about the value of failure.  “Teaching students to fail” by Edward Burger in Inside Higher Ed recommends not only informing students about the value of taking risks and learning from their own failure, but making that part of the assessment.  He makes it sound pretty simple and very effective.

Combining this with fallacies seems perfect, as it encourages students to consider the epistemological (or in Douglas Walton‘s terms maieutic) qualities of fallacy analysis and criticism in general.  I’m teaching fallacies this term so I’ll let you know how it goes!