Rhetoric, Critical Thinking, and Checking Your Premises

Rhetoric and critical thinking. In classical rhetoric, the central appeal is not to the emotions (pathos), but to reason (logos), and Aristotle’s rhetorical invention categories—his topoi—are heavily weighted to rational appeals (appeals to logic, evidence, comparisons, definitions, examples, and so on). You can have everything else going for you rhetorically—an interesting topic, thesis, and genre; an engaging title and opening paragraph; a tone and style that matches your audience’s sensibilities; and a thoughtful arrangement of paragraphs—but if you don’t reason well, your ultimate success will remain in doubt. Like poor grammar, poor reasoning clangs to the ear, leading the reader to say no outright to your statements or to murmur, “That doesn’t sound right.” Benjamin Disraeli once cast shade on another parliamentarian by saying, “I was with you, sir, till I heard your argument!”—suggesting that his fellow parliamentarian was doing his own argument damage by supporting it poorly. It is not always enough to appeal to an audience’s existing desires and prejudices, but to support your claims with good reasons. Thus argumentation entails the study of critical thinking.

Critical thinking. To write clearly is to think clearly, and to think clearly is to think critically. Critical thinking is the attempt to arrive, as nearly and objectively as possible, at the truth of a matter. In 1946, George Orwell, the author of the novel 1984, wrote an essay for London’s Tribune titled, “In Front of Your Nose,” in which he laid out a theory for why critical thinking is so hard: “In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality.” It’s a funny observation, and it rests on a powerful syllogism (two premises accompanied by a conclusion): (1) our deepest hopes and fears lead our reason; (2) they rarely match reality; therefore, (3) our conclusions rarely match reality. In the same essay, Orwell also writes the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” In these two sentences, Orwell provocatively suggests that the difficult part of critical thinking is not the act of concentrated attention to a problem, but of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. The struggle is to never look away; to face the truth without, Oedipus-like, plucking out one’s eyes.

Where to start objective thinking? Is there a First Idea that can assist one in reaching objectivity as reliably as in mathematics; something that can function as a North Star for reasoning, conferring on it powers of clarity for writing, and empowering individuals to begin a process of confidently and steadily thinking out issues for themselves, arriving at conclusions it would be unreasonable to ever doubt?

Well, no. Or, if there is, there’s never been a broad consensus as to what that First Idea might be, exactly. Perhaps if we agreed on that First Idea, we’d all reach the same conclusions—but then again, maybe not. For example, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and Protestant philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, all powerful minds and careful logicians (studiers of logic), started their reasoning with the ultimate Big Idea—God. In each of these thinkers’ thought, God functioned as the ground of being and for thought—and yet they did not reach the same conclusions as to what this Big Idea implied for the nature of their existence and what should be regarded, ultimately, as the true, the good, and the beautiful. Though they attempted to reason to a broader certainty in life by taking God’s existence as their First Certainty, they nevertheless ended their processes of reasoning in different places.

One reason for their diversity of opinion has to do with definition. None of these men defined God in exactly the same way, so they didn’t really start their arguments in exactly the same place. As with the butterfly effect in chaos theory (even a small flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Asia can make exact weather prediction on a particular date six months later in California uncertain), so a small difference in definitions or premises can have largescale effects for ultimate conclusions. Exact starting and stopping points for arguments are crucial to notice.

Noticing starting and stopping points. Oftentimes the Oz curtain of a person’s way of thinking, if it appears mysterious, confusing, or suspiciously unsupported, can be drawn back by simply asking, “Why did this person start his argument exactly where he did, and why did he stop it exactly where he did?” If this question cannot be inferred or explicitly answered to your satisfaction, it may be because the author has misread you, his audience, expecting you would treat his points of departure and conclusion as your points of departure and conclusion, granting his opening and closing claims as in need of no additional justification because you are, at those points, at yes with him. (Recall that rhetoric is about getting to yes with an audience.) Perhaps he assumes that you have the background knowledge he does, and are part of his community, sharing his general sensibilities, assumptions, and beliefs, knowing where questions can generally start and stop without a lot of justification or explanation. But perhaps you’re not part of his community. Perhaps you don’t share his way of talking about things, and so you’re unwilling to start and stop arguments where he does. If, for instance, you do not take as axiomatic (self-evident; foundational; something not in need of additional argument) that all human beings are created by God and created as equal, as Thomas Jefferson so famously claimed in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”), then you are in want of additional convincing. You have not reached yes with this message sender, sharing his premises.

What are premises? Premises are those explicit and implicit claims that support another claim or conclusion. They are the things you assume in argument—and that you hope your audience assumes. An example can be found in any enthymeme. Aristotle called a sentence containing a claim and support an enthymeme: “I didn’t get on the plane because grandma dreamed the night before that it would crash.” An enthymeme includes one premise and one conclusion, but relies on the reader to fill in the second premise: the dropped premise. In this case, the dropped premise is that the dreams of grandmas have predictive power—which is obviously a dubious argumentative assumption, and a nice reminder as to why one should always check a writer’s or speaker’s premises (including one’s own). Putting it more formally, an enthymeme is an argument that leaves the reader to supply the missing premise: “Grandma dreamed the plane would crash [first premise]; grandma’s dreams foretell the future [the dropped second premise]; therefore, I didn’t get on the plane [the conclusion].” Support is about getting to the because of your claim—and an enthymeme achieves this in a single sentence. Any sentence with because in it is an enthymeme (whether it appears at the beginning of the sentence or somewhere in the middle), and any sentence with because in it will have a dropped premise that the writer expects the reader to supply without the writer having to make it explicit.

Circular reasoning and question begging. If the writer means to communicate specifically to you, and yet fails to address your fundamental doubts, requests for clarification, or objections by offering additional and substantial premises, claims, or arguments to bring you into agreement with him, then you can rightly accuse him of circular reasoning or question begging (assuming as true what is not yet agreed on between the message sender and his audience): “How do you know all people are created equal?” “Because God created them that way.” “But how do you know God created them that way?” “Because they’re equal. God would only create people equal.” “But how do you know that?” “I just do.” Round-and-round it might go if no additional, substantial claims are on offer. If, however, the person is not talking to you (that is, if you’re an audience crasher, butting-in on an argument being made to another audience)—and the audience being addressed indeed accepts his initial claims as self-evident—then it’s not really fair to call the starting and stopping points for his arguments circular or question-begging, but as, rather, axiomatic (things neither he nor his audience call into question, such as, say, the reality of human equality, the authority of Jefferson, Buddha, or the Bible, etc.). As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wryly observed, “Arguments have to stop somewhere.

But also note that Wittgenstein’s claim itself can be question-begging if you don’t accept it, and he’s talking to you, and nowhere in his writings does he offer further justification for his claim. Question begging is audience dependent: it is question begging from the vantage of whom, exactly? Any explanation or justification might invite an additional flurry of “But why?” follow-up questions from somebody in an audience, as when a child asks a parent why, exactly, the sky is blue, again and again, never satisfied with the parental explanation. If you ignore the “But why?” question, or arrest it with something akin to “Because I say so,” or “Because that’s just the way it is,” you’re carrying on with your argument when premises are unclear to your audience or in dispute. You’re assuming what is, in fact, in question (and thereby begging the question). Begging the question begs a reader or hearer to go with your argument absent additional reasons or evidence; to grant your premises, even if just for the sake of argument.

But let’s say we agree with Wittgenstein; let’s grant him his premise: we’ve all got to start and stop our narratives and arguments somewhere. If so, then where an author begins and ends tells one a lot about what an author thinks can go without saying and when enough has been said—and what the author believes an audience will let him or her get away with. If you can’t say everything—or justify everything—then you’ve got to guess what can safely go unsaid.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, david hume, edward feser, philosophy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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