A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.1: Good Rhetoric Is In Need Of Critical Thinking

I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post starts chapter one. To have a look at other parts of chapter one–or of chapter two–click here

Concept 1.1. Good rhetoric is in need of critical thinking. In classical rhetoric—the art of persuasion—the central appeal is not to audience emotions (pathos), but to reason (logos). Reason might include appeals to such topics (topoi) as those identified by the ancient philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE): logic, evidence, comparison, definition, causation, and so on. In writing an essay, for instance, you can have everything going for you rhetorically—an interesting subject, thesis, and genre; an engaging title and opening paragraph; a tone and style that matches your audience’s sensibilities; a thoughtful arrangement of paragraphs—but if you don’t make rational appeals, and don’t reason well when you do, your ultimate success will be in doubt. Like poor grammar, poor reasoning clangs to the ear, leading your reader to say no to your statements or to murmur reluctantly, That doesn’t sound right. It has been said that Benjamin Disraeli once cast shade on another parliamentarian by saying, “I was with you, sir, till I heard your argument!” It’s not always enough to appeal to an audience’s existing desires and prejudices; sometimes you’ve got to support your claims with good, rational reasons. And so it is that argumentation entails critical thinking.

Critical thinking. To write clearly is to think clearly, and to think clearly is to think critically. In a first, naive pass at a definition, objectivity and truth would seem to be essential to it. One might thus define critical thinking in this way:

Critical thinking is the attempt to arrive as nearly and objectively as possible at the truth of a matter.

In 1946, George Orwell (1903-1950), 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.” Notice that Orwell is making a funny, ironic point, and observe that 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.

Writing 1.1.1. In a paragraph or two, reflect on how hope and fear interact with one’s reason. Why do you suppose, as Orwell suggests, our hopes and fears so rarely sync up with the way things actually are?


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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, critical thinking, education, edward feser, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, Uncategorized, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.1: Good Rhetoric Is In Need Of Critical Thinking

  1. Pingback: A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.2: Notice Where Arguments Start And Stop | Prometheus Unbound

  2. Rachel Jennings-Tafarella says:

    Love it. Just fix the sentence with “one’s” and “your”–it’s not parallel. Use one’s twice, or your twice. There’s no need to explain Disraeli’s statement. Orwell isn’t quoting–you are quoting him. So say “Orwell’s claim” instead of “Orwell’s quote. Great punchline ending analogy.

  3. Rachel Jennings-Tafarella says:

    P.S. Cite Orwell.

  4. Pingback: A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.3: Worldview | Prometheus Unbound

  5. Pingback: A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 4: Spanning The Bridge From Logical Possibility To Truth | Prometheus Unbound

  6. Vincent says:

    Here is my smorgasbord of thoughts on these things:

    Is it correct to say that critical thinking should be an objective reality based upon the concept that, like mathematics, is the ultimate truth and the only correct starting point? As you state, past thinkers start out with their personal correct starting point at God. Is there ever an ultimate true starting point in anything? Trying to find a starting point of existence leads to the mathematical nightmare of an infinite regression, leading to that great question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

    A hard question for materialists is the appearance of conscious beings springing from dead matter. It’s been said you need more than the laws of physics and mathematics to explain consciousness and maybe the “truth.”

    Truth and reality may just be relative to the social, economic, and political time it is being discussed.

    Does mathematical thinking lead to a belief in “absolutes?” That old saying: “there is no justice (even in conversation) in a universe of absolutes.”

    An absolute omniscience God must exist in a universe(s) of boredom. A constantly evolving God is not bored because of new novelty from other free will Gods or the creatures they produce. Is the purpose of existence reproduction as we see in most all things on this earth? Do Gods reproduce in an endless process of existence without there ever being a starting point because of self existing principles? (Brain freeze!)

    A materialistic mathematical belief is not an absolute if your mathematics goes into the quantum realm. It is now not absolutes but probability, ergo free will, novelty, new truths.

    If no absolutes, then are actions (even in conversation) judged in code ethics or situational ethics? Does all “truth” have to be an absolute?

  7. Santi Tafarella says:

    Fixed the things you suggested, Rachel. : )

  8. Santi Tafarella says:

    Hi Vincent,

    I like your idea on God and boredom. A shifting cosmos; a cosmos of becoming, is not boring. As to mathematics, I was thinking more of certainty, and less of the absolute, metaphysically. There are thinkers (I’m not one of them) who treat a priori reasoning with the confidence of findings in experimental science and mathematics. As to infinite regresses, good point. : )

  9. Pingback: A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.5: The Three Laws Of Thought | Prometheus Unbound

  10. Pingback: A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.6: Distinguishing The Logically Possible From The Physically Possible, The Technologically Possible, And The Actual Through Deductions, Inductions, And Abductions | Prometheus Unbound

  11. Pingback: A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.7: Distinguishing Best Explanation From Ad Hoc Explanation Using Occam’s Razor | Prometheus Unbound

  12. Keith says:

    This is a worthwhile project that I’m finding useful for myself, and I will recommend it to others. However, I think your definition of “critical thinking” is lacking, and it’s important to start with a good working definition. Lack of critical think plagues our modern discourse, both as writers and readers. I’m no expert, but I know enough about post-modernism to know that objectivity and getting to the truth of the matter are nearly impossible. Everything we think know depends on our vantage point and is inherently subjective. Many of the dictionary definitions talk about “objective analysis,” but they’re wrong. We can try to be more objective, but we can never eliminate all subjectivity. The Foundation for Critical Thinking has obviously put a lot of effort into the subject; here is their baseline definition:

    “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem-solving abilities, as well as a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.” http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/our-conception-of-critical-thinking/411

    They expand it much further on their website. They also have lots of nice quotes, like this one: “Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of imposture.” ~ Francis Bacon

    It seems to me that critical think is thinking about thinking, or meta-thinking. In any case, I recommend you take a look at their materials or some other credible source and revise your definition.

    One last point is that you might want to be careful about using controversial subjects as examples so you don’t offend anyone and thereby turn them off from reading any further. I think you handle matters of God and religion pretty well, but your example about Donald Trump in 1.2 might offend some. I happen to agree with the statement, but clearly not everyone does, even within your audience of college students.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Keith,

      Thanks for the helpful feedback. I agree that my first pass at defining critical thinking leaves much to be desired. It’s the difficulty of the first pass that I’m struggling with. I changed what I wrote in response to your critique. I do make it clear as the chapter proceeds that objectivity and truth are problematic concepts, but in that first definition, I feel like the naive, common sense notion of objectivity and truth have to be there as a starting volley.

      Thanks also for the critiques on God and Trump. I’m assuming a publisher will ask me to switch out the examples as well.

      In the part I link to below, I tried to make it clear that objectivity is problematic. : )

      If you have other critiques on these down the road, please share. Your perspective is helpful.


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