Getting started with Bailin & Battersby

I knew that Bailin and Battersby would provide good exercises and I anticipate (still only one class in) that their book will really engage students. The instructor manual turns out to pay a lot of attention to how to involve students, and the other resources are even better than I’d hoped: the slides provide opportunities for discussion and don’t simply repeat what’s in the textbook; plus Bailin and Battersby provide quizzes, which solves the huge problem of coming up with examples that mirror the style and difficulty of the textbook.

I really like the focus on inquiry in the first chapter too. It connects students’ own decision making with institutional research and epistemological norms.

I’m focussing on two skills today — the second class. The first is featured in a slide in the instructor materials but doesn’t get so much attention in the textbook, unfortunately. This is the question of identifying an issue (or controversy or question) and distinguishing it from a topic and a thesis. At the first-year level I think this is extremely valuable for students.  It will be obvious for some, but I have known students in later years who didn’t understand the difference between a topic and a thesis, so this discussion should assist with that obstacle to later learning.

Second, I’m focussing on identifying opportunities for inquiry. This is the subject of one of the exercises in the text, and it’s fairly straightforward to test.

I did notice that this book, as most good ones, demands students provide explanations for their identifications.  This is a basic academic skill, and it too deserves to be taught at the first-year level.  There is further discussion of explanation later in the book, but 51zbMkX0c+L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_students need an account of what they are supposed to do. In“>Biggs’s language, they need “alignment,” to be taught how to do what will be the basis for their evaluation.  So I’ve added a slide about the nature of explanation — using familiar language to make a case identifiable or applying a concept in detail to show how it characterizes an example. Of course, there is a large philosophical literature on explanation, but controversy hasn’t stopped critical thinking educators before. Nor do I think it should. I tend to think that bringing such debates into pedagogical context helps put such philosophy of science or philosophy of language controversies into a context that clarifies the scope and significance of those technical discussions.

I have another, more pointed criticism of this chapter.  The philosophical discussions of the nature and value of inquiry make a number of distinctions: nature, value, and features in particular.  These are all used to characterize inquiry without an explanation of what distinguishes and connects these different perspectives on the task. Partly as a result, I found the associated exercises useless. While I will do a little lecturing on the epistemological discussion that they parse in this vague way I do so only because I expect it to prime students for some of the lessons later in the book and because it connects their discussion with Gilbert’s book. I wish they had been clearer about these fundamental ideas and how they want students (and instructors) to apply them.


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.”

What’s wrong?

The main motivation for the Critical Thinking Squared website and this blog is to raise consciousness about critical thinking pedagogy in the discipline of philosophy.  There are a few ways in which scholarship has advanced in recent decades that textbooks continue to ignore.  Many of these advances come from argumentation theory, and here are the basic advancements in that field that I find textbooks tend to neglect:

  1. Arguments take place in dialogues.  Some theorists view the dialogue as a secondary aspect; but the consensus is that among the range of forms that argumentation can take, arguments take place between people.  They are not free-standing but audience-relative, an insight going back to Chaim Perelman and Stephen Toulmin.
  2. Fallacies are forms of argumentation. Without this assumption there is little hope of providing any coherent account of fallacies. While fallacy labels provide a longstanding method for teaching reasoning, the errors we count as fallacies take many different forms and until the development of the informal logic movement there was little method behind the lists of error names.  The depth of this problem has been set forth by Charles Hamblin in his book Fallacies (1970).  Since then, fallacies have been systematized in three different ways:
    1. The three aspects of an argument that may go wrong (acceptable premises, relevance of premises to conclusion, and sufficiency of premises in supporting the conclusion).  This analysis structures  the classic books by Johnson & Blair and Govier.
    2. Presumptive argumentation schemes that may work well or go awry.  Identification of the proper working of a presumptive scheme of argumentation, such as an appeal to authority or a generalization, one considers critical questions characteristic of the particular scheme.
    3. The pragma-dialectic approach treats fallacies as rule violations but that provides no systematic account of how they arise.

Many textbooks employ the first analysis, but many still lean on ad hoc lists of names and view most types as categorical problems despite the flourishing of epistemologies showing the relevance to reasoning of emotion, testimony, generalization, etc., all of which challenge such categorical dismissals.