Walking the walk

This term I’ll be teaching a first-year critical thinking course for the first time in years, indeed since I started this blog and developed the guide to critical thinking textbooks in philosophy that I call “Critical Thinking Squared.”  Now that I’ve been talking this talk for a while, I return to walking the walk.

This blog has not been very active lately, but I’m going to make use of it during this course to chronicle my successes and struggles. To start with, I’ve picked a main textbook based on argumentation scholarship, rather than simply the best intentions of someone with a philosophy graduate degree.  I’m using Sharon Bailin and Mark Battersby‘s Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking, 2nd edition (Hackett). I have not spent much time with this book yet, but I know that I share many of Bailin and Battersby’s philosophical commitments about reasoning, and I have great regard for their educational expertise.  I am already pleased to find vast resources in the book.  I’m also pleased to found extensive teaching resources available through Hackett, and Hackett texts are reasonably priced.bailin_reasoninbalance_webcover

The big question is how to select material that will work for a 12-week class at the first-year level.  I am skipping some of the deeper discussions of argumentation types and currently my plan is as follows:

  1. Chapters 1-3 on: inquiry; basic argument structure (premises and conclusions; subarguments); and induction and deduction.
  2. Michael Gilbert’s Arguing with People — more on that in another post.
  3. I have plotted a skip to the end of the book usings Chapter 7, 10 and 11 on issues, judgment, and dialogue
  4. We will then jump back to chapter 6 to address credibility and expertise. I’m excited to have our information literacy librarian Tamsin Bolton Bacon assisting with this.
  5. I will end with the chapter on philosophical (ethical) inquiry as this may be the only philosophy course most of the students take — and because I hope to encourage them to take more! Also on the final exam, students are required to reflect on one of the chapters 12, 13, and 14 that address inquiry in the natural sciences, social sciences, and arts relative to what they learned about philosophical inquiry. That should allow them to connect the course to whatever type of study constitutes their larger program (few if any will be philosophy majors).


I’m a philosopher and so untrained in methodology although my work in feminist epistemology intersects extensively with feminist methodology. A method of only a very rough sort thus can be found in how I choose textbooks for analysis in my the database.

  1. Textbooks are suitable for the database if intended for introductory philosophy courses. I exclude other disciplines to keep things manageable. What counts as critical thinking varies greatly from discipline to discipline, and often connects with the disciplinary methodology.
  2. I include introductory argumentation textbooks because that has become the standard way to teach critical thinking in philosophy, and only a few textbooks (Pinto, Blair and Parr and Kenyon, that I know of) do not focus on argumentation.
  3. However, books with 50% or more on formal logic do not make the table since that material tends to be covered in separate courses.  Likewise, textbook publishers tend to include argumentation skills under critical thinking and distinguish that from formal logic.
  4. I try to prioritize books by scholars in the field and academic publishers over commercial publishers.  My larger goal is to encourage adoption of the more scholarly textbooks, and I try to provide the resources to allow instructors to find their own way to those books.

Suggestions and advice are welcome!

Finding the topics you want

To help instructors make informed decisions about their critical thinking courses, my research assistant and I (see below) are developing a database of the current textbooks that analyzes their contents by topic.  At the moment you will find that we have covered 16 textbooks, and we still have a lot to go, even though we aim to cover only those in the discipline of philosophy in the English language.

The database should assist with Step Two of the CT² steps for choosing a text.  Once instructors have decided what sorts of things they’d like to teach, it will help them locate texts that cover those topics.

The analysis proceeds, left to right:

  1. The usual bibiographic details, plus the relevant expertise of the author, and our estimate of the country/culture to which the book is addressed
  2. General contexts for critical thinking
  3. The types of argument analysis provided
  4. Whether and how fallacies are covered
  5. Whether and how deductive and then inductive logic are covered
  6. Whether and how science is covered
  7. Whether and how language is covered
  8. Specialized forms of reasoning
  9. Developing one’s own thinking
  10. Special features distinguishing an individual text
  11. On-line resources

An “X” is used to fill the box, and where a topic receives only brief treatment only a single hash, “/,” is used. Any other keys can be found in the column header. We aim to limit the evaluative component of this analysis, and keep it descriptive. I confess that I hope the availability of information will help instructors find the textbooks written by scholars in the field.  Providing better understanding of the range of textbooks available may discourage new instructors from simply reproducing outdated views of critical thinking and argumentation.

Brigham Bartol is a smiling young man with curly hair and glasses in a shirt and tie
Brigham Bartol

We began with Oxford University Press because they offered to provide review copies. (I don’t want to pretend I plan to teach with all these texts.) However, we aim to feature books by scholarly and liberatory authors. I will also continue with scholarly presses before going to more commercial publishers.

I am not doing all this by myself and am very ably assisted by Brigham Bartol, courtesy of the University of Windsor Outstanding Scholars Program.  If you wish to be sure that your textbook is in our queue, please write to Brigham.  If you wish to send us a copy of your text, it should come to Hundleby’s address.

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.