A Course for Critical Thinking

By Michael Boyle

In light of Dan Kaufman’s recent essay on the humanities, I’d like to sketch out an example of one kind of response, in one small humanities course, to some of the problems that he has identified. Not coincidentally, we are friends and colleagues, teaching in the same department, and so his concerns regarding the challenges facing humanities departments at large state universities like ours are also mine.

A number of years ago, I was assigned to teach the department’s Critical Thinking courses. At the time, the course was taught in a fashion not uncommon in the United States: lots of deduction and in general, a dry and boring class that did not engender much interest. Taking over the course, I decided to essentially redesign the content, having in mind a number of things that Dan K has pointed out, including a desire to make the class relevant to students’ everyday lives and to help them navigate a university system that does little to explain why the humanities are needed, beyond offering some boilerplate regarding moral virtue and good citizenship.

My goal, here, is simply to give an overall description of what I do in the course and why, so as to demonstrate one way of addressing some of the problems Dan highlighted in his essay. This is not intended as a general answer to the issues he raised, nor am I arguing that this approach is necessarily a template applicable to other classes.

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The first problem with many critical thinking classes is that there is far too much of an emphasis on deductive logic. This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, the primary form of reasoning we use in everyday life is induction. Thus, if a critical thinking class is supposed to enable students to apply reason in more productive ways in their own lives, spending too much  time on deduction is counterproductive. Secondly, when such content is taught in a dry and uninteresting fashion, it is easy for students to think that knowing how to deduce correctly means that they are now proficient critical thinkers. Students are thus left with a misimpression about what being a critical thinker is; that it is simply a matter of spitting out the right answer, in a disengaged fashion, sometimes known as the “banking model” of learning. Honors students today are especially susceptible to this.

I want to be careful to note, however, that I do cover the basic elements of deduction, although this is a minority of the total course content. The basic use which I see in teaching deduction is the same use that I see, ultimately, for of the rest of the material in the course, and that is for its dispositional effect. Some deduction is useful, insofar as it requires students to pay more attention to how sentences and arguments are structured and interconnected and what follows from what, encouraging the sorts of good habits, overall, that are essential for critical and reflective decision making and observation.

Another major problem with critical thinking courses, as they are typically taught, concerns the introduction of informal fallacies. As with much of deductive logic, it is easy for students to acquire the mistaken impression that identifying such things is a simple and uncomplicated matching exercise, and the result is commonly a depressing, mechanical application of these fallacies in arguments.  I try to get my students to see that this is a mistake.  After all, the correct application of these fallacies is highly sensitive to context, and some, depending on the circumstances, are not fallacies at all but rather, the opposite — as when I make an appeal to the authority of the car mechanic, when trying to figure out why my car won’t start.

Beyond these brief units on deduction and informal fallacies, the bulk of my course focuses on three topics, covered sequentially: 1) the use and misuse of language; 2) the workings of language, especially as described by the later Wittgenstein and 3) the structure of knowledge, focusing on distinctions between the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, in terms of things like fact vs. value and objectivity vs. subjectivity.

The Use and Misuse of Language

The section, on the use and misuse of language, centers especially on the emotive function of language; that is, the use of language to trigger emotional responses. With the demise of the Enlightenment model of rationality, in the wake of developments in social sciences (particularly psychology), which have demonstrated the often tenuous hold that reason has over us and the importance of irrational and often unconscious emotional factors in our behavior, introducing students to this aspect of language is crucial. Crucial for the development of self-awareness of their own vulnerabilities and for becoming more aware of the use of language and other means of communication, whose purpose is to trigger their behavior, via the activation of emotions. Among the materials we cover are selections from Edward Bernays’ Propaganda, Colin McGinn’s Mindfucking, and George Orwell’s 1984, as well as his essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

The work of Bernays lays out clearly the problems of a rational model of human nature, particularly in the modern industrialized world. First, Bernays makes clear that advances in psychology indicate that our reasons for action are often not at all transparent to us. This fundamental diagnosis has survived the decline of Freud’s theories of sexual psychodynamics and is being reinvigorated both by emerging research on the “New Unconscious” (basically backing up Freud’s essential insight with empirical data), as well as the incorporation of irrationality into Behavioral Economics. Aside from this (and even if people were as rational as the democratic myth says that they are), Bernays notes that there are structural limitations to the exercise of reason, given the time constraints on the ordinary person and the vast proliferation of products. Given this, he says, it makes sense for “special pleaders” to tap into “emotional currents” in order to narrow down one’s choices and steer the consumption of products.

In addition to the external time constraints and internal psychological limitations of the consumer, Bernays believed that advertising was also important for the maintenance of a healthy balance between supply and demand, especially given the vastly superior capacity of industrial technology to produce enormous amounts of goods. Advertising in terms of brand development and recognition was already in place by 1900, driven in part by the developments in continuous-processing technology whereby factories produced enormous amounts of goods which needed a corresponding demand. Bernays took these developments and argued for advertising not on the basis of simple repetition of brand names, but on the conscious manipulation of the emotions of the consumer, a more effective way to both increase and produce demand for goods.

Colin McGinn’s Mindfucking: A Critique of Mental Manipulation, published in 2014, is a self-conscious successor to Harry Frankfurt’s 2009 On Bullshit. McGinn identifies two broad uses of the term ‘mindfucking’: one is benign, signaling the acquisition of a new perspective on things (he thinks philosophy a paradigm example), while the other is negative, indicating the manipulation, via the emotions, of an individual. McGinn, invoking an unstated Kantian ethical framework of dignity tied to rationality, argues that mindfucking in its negative sense is fundamentally immoral and that the vulgarity of the term is indicative of the action. The connotation of involuntary penetration and domination is made explicit, as McGinn outlines how both the liar and the bullshitter of Frankfurt’s book operate at a cognitive level that does not require access to the emotions. The mindfucker, by contrast, is more dangerous and more adept, since his actions employ more “psychological machinery” and entail the victim not only believing something untrue, but also being fully engaged with the falsehood emotionally.

An additional element present in mindfucking but not, per se, in lying or bullshitting, is that the victim helps the aggressor, insofar as one is made vulnerable via one’s own emotions. McGinn puts this delicately: “This is not to blame the victim; it is merely to point out that he plays a non-trivial causal role in his own demise.” Acknowledging that “[w]e are all…more or less comprehensively mindfucked, from womb to tomb…,” McGinn is nevertheless hopeful, since he believes that multiple instances of the phenomenon in competition with one another can cancel much of their effect. Although it is made very clear in class that economically speaking, advertising involving the manipulation of emotions is useful and perhaps even necessary, given our modern models of business and the practical reasons adduced by Bernays, students are typically troubled by McGinn’s moral analysis, particularly when we then apply the same insights to children’s advertising in the US, which was deregulated in 1980.

The two works by Orwell touch on, respectively, the idea that language can directly impact thought by removing words from circulation and the less extreme notion that language and thought can at least mutually influence each other, in either a negative or positive feedback spiral.  The first is illustrated by a conversation, described in Chapter 5 of 1984, while the second is discussed in “Politics and the English Language.”

In the 1984 selection, the main action takes place in a canteen in England, now known as “Airstrip One,” which is part of a political super-state called “Oceania,” run by a totalitarian party (Ingsoc), modelled on Stalin’s USSR.  In this futuristic (as of the publication date, 1949) society, English (Oldspeak) is being transformed into a more “modern” dialect, called “Newspeak.” In its tenth edition, Newspeak is being revised for its 11th version, a parody of the great 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The conversation in the canteen is between the novel’s main character, Winston Smith, and one of the top bureaucrats working on this 11th edition, Syme.  Syme’s description of Newspeak indicates that it is essentially designed as a soft form of lobotomization, illustrated by Ingsoc’s motto (War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength) and by notions like doublethink (holding two contrary ideas in one’s mind simultaneously), both of which attack fundamental logical laws, like the Principle of Excluded Middle. Syme goes on to describe how the vast majority of the populace are subhuman and worthy of no consideration anyway. Toward the end of the chapter Winston describes a character I have dubbed “The Man With the Eyeless Face,” the description for which Orwell borrows directly from his own “Politics and the English Language” essay, published two years earlier in 1947. The character is someone else in the canteen spouting Ingsoc propaganda, as if on autopilot, with no evidence that any higher critical faculties are engaged. In effect, he is an example of someone lobotomized by way of the destruction of language.

In his “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell bookends the piece by describing the feedback spiral between language and thought, comparing the negative spiral to the case of a drunkard who, for reasons of misfortune, begins to drink and then, because the drink causes more misfortune, ends up drinking all the more. Highlighting a variety of compositional sins that render language opaque, Orwell is especially keen (given that the kind of language he is focused on is political) to push back against pseudo-scientific language in favor of shorter, clearer wordings with concrete imagery. As an example, he takes a famous passage from the Authorized Version’s translation of Ecclesiastes and reworks it using the sort of multisyllabic, quasi-technical speech he opposes, noting that the latter lacks both the precision and clarity of imagery contained in the original Jacobean text.

Opposed to the uses of clichés, because they numb one’s engagement with the matter at hand, Orwell compares political speech to a dummy that has words exiting his mouth but whose brain is disconnected from any original thought — this is the initial version of the Man With the Eyeless Face seen later in 1984. Moreover, meaning itself is often obscured in politics by the pernicious employment of euphemisms, whose employment re: the emotions is almost the inverse of the language used in advertising. In the latter, our emotions are tapped in order to create or expand desire; with political euphemisms, the emotions are lulled to sleep by vague speech which only obliquely indicates its denotation. Students understand this point immediately, when we apply it to the recent discussions in the United States of torture described as “enhanced interrogation.” At the end of the piece, Orwell argues that his purpose is not simply negative, but to argue for the positive feedback spiral. When we demand more clarity in our speech, our thoughts will be correspondingly clearer, which will then produce even more improved speech. This positive process, Orwell believed, was essential if democracy was to survive and flourish.

The Workings of Language

The second part of the course is an in-depth discussion of how language works, having as its centerpiece the work of the Later Wittgenstein, paired with selections from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Part of the purpose of this section is not only to discuss how language works, but also to have students gain a better appreciation for rules as expressions of agreements that are embedded in practices, which constitute what Wittgenstein calls a “Form of Life.” These agreements make up what Wittgenstein will call a “language game,” where ‘game’ is meant in the sense that the rules are determined like the rules in a game — by you and me. When seen in this way, rules cease being the often unchanging, static entities that today’s youngsters, buried in regulations up to their ears from pre-school on, often think they are.

In terms of rules embedded in practices, it is important for students to also appreciate Wittgenstein’s distinction, laid out in the Philosophical Investigations, between rule-following described as a sort of action/reaction behavior and rule-following in its fullest sense, what it means to actually follow a rule. The former description simply describes rule-following behavior in a stripped-down, causal way, as if one was describing the action of a circus animal. Humans, of course, are not circus-animals, so our rule-following is something more. Namely, it is exhibiting a practice by becoming party to an agreement (which is all rules are – repeated instances of agreement) that is part of a community. In this sense, all learning and education is a sort of process of initiation into the repeated agreements we call rules.

There is also the rule-following paradox highlighted by Wittgenstein, wherein he points out that future iterations of rule-governed behavior may diverge from those in the past. If a child learns the rule “+2”, and he writes down a series of numbers such that I am confident he knows the rule (i.e., has been successfully initiated into the agreements and hence practice of the community), how do I know he will continue this way on some future occasion? And how do I myself know how to go on? How do I know that the interpretation of the rule will be the same, that the meaning will be what I think it is? The solution, following John McDowell and Stanley Cavell, is that both we and the child know how to go on and how to interpret future occasions of the rule because we are members of a community that indicates what the correct interpretation of the rule (and any rule) is, via the public agreements to which we are parties.

The sense of vertigo, as McDowell calls it, that such a picture of rules and language use induces, is also present in Wittgenstein’s famous “Beetle in the Box” thought experiment, whereby he asks us to imagine language as if all of us were using the word beetle and all of us had a box but only we ourselves knew if there was a beetle, and no one else could look inside. Just like I cannot look inside anyone else’s head to see if what I think they are referring to or understand me as saying is really there, I can’t look inside anyone else’s box to see if there is really a beetle inside. The meaning of the word is thus not something communicated mind to mind via language, but rather refers to the use of the word, as per public agreement.

The upshot of this is to demonstrate that a private language is impossible, because meanings refer to public usage, not inner beetles that we can’t see. Even our private thoughts are really just applications of public agreements. The rule-following paradox is not designed to unsettle us, in terms of creating uncertainty as to whether we or others will go on in the same way in the future. It is to make us realize that the fact that we do go on unproblematically has to do with the public agreements governing meaning that are embedded in practices and which are part of our Form of Life. It is because we are part of a community with others that we have confidence we are communicating at all and that all of us know how to go on. Rules are not, as McDowell reminds us, magical rails which we dutifully follow. This is simply a “consoling myth.” We are responsible for meaning, for rules, and for the agreements of which they are a reflection.

The final Wittgenstein material introduced to my students is taken from his last work, On Certainty. Here, the idea of hinge propositions is introduced, the idea that there are many propositions/beliefs which we hold about the world, most of which we are largely unaware of, because they are simply assumed and part and parcel of our understanding of how the world works. For example, I believe that the earth has existed for a long time and that I did not pop into existence a few minutes ago. I am typically not even conscious of such a belief, although if pressed I would of course agree. These unspoken beliefs are the core of one’s understanding of the world, the hinges on which, if the rest of language is like a door, the door itself turns. This is why Wittgenstein argues that our beliefs are ultimately groundless, in the sense that our hinge propositions are axiomatic — taken for granted — and are thus not subject to proof, since they make all the rest of our system of knowlege possible.

There are a number of areas in which Lewis Carroll’s work helps to illuminate Wittgenstein’s ideas. The whole business of rules and what they are is a constant theme throughout, partly because of Alice’s difficulties with induction and with applying and remembering the rules of the primary world, but also because there are games within the story whose rules seem nonexistent or arbitrary. In addition, there are significant conversations that touch on the problem of private language, in which characters try to invent the meanings of words by themselves, which is impossible, for the reasons already discussed but also because, as Wittgenstein points out, one’s memory cannot be a criterion for correctness on pain of an infinite regress of memories. The Cheshire Cat, in the first book, and Humpty-Dumpty, in the second, try to do this.

A practical application of all this material from Wittgenstein is then given, by introducing the students to the ordinary understanding and public conception of the Fifth Amendment’s provision against self-incrimination, and the actual understanding and conception of this right by the judiciary. The amendment, contrary to what 99% of Americans believe, is as much for the protection of the innocent as the guilty. The invocation of such a right at trial, however, has exactly the opposite effect on the jury, given that they don’t understand this. The prosecutor knows, which is why he or she is happy for you to recite it in the usual fashion all day long, each time telegraphing to the jury that you are in reality the guilty party. Thus, we have an example of differing agreements resulting in different practices and language games, with often dire consequences for defendants.

The Structure of Knowledge

The last section of the course deals with the various divisions of knowledge at the university, focusing in particular on the humanities, natural sciences, and the social sciences. A central theme of this third section is the Two Cultures Debate, the 150 year-old quarrel between the sciences and the humanities. A number of different thinkers and works are discussed, from both philosophy and the humanities in general, including C. P. Snow (who coined the phrase “The Two Cultures” in the 1950’s), Lionel Trilling, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Nagel, and Norton Juster.  Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth is an American children’s book, published in 1961. It is particularly useful, since the entire book is about the quarrel of the humanities with the sciences, told via a classic quest narrative.

The purpose of the third section is to get students to pay more attention to the courses they take and in particular, the sorts of questions asked by the various disciplines of which the courses are a part. Which fields of study deal with facts and which with Ends and why? Which fields of study focus on the objective, external world and which investigate subjective experience? Why are questions of fact as well as of value important? This approach to understanding what they are doing in college is designed not only to help students comprehend the constituent divisions of knowledge at the university, but to give them a better idea of what they will be doing in the various courses required for general education.  The hope is to empower them to make more informed decisions about future coursework and degree trajectories.

Snow’s work, published in 1959, railed against the humanities-heavy curriculum of the Oxbridge of his day, and excoriated the humanities, while praising the sciences (particularly applied science) and the Industrial Revolution. According to Snow, the humanities had been out to lunch during the Industrial Revolution, pining for a Luddite paradise, they had ignored the Industrial Revolution, and the antipathy toward science made humanities people the equivalent of Stone Age men, when discussing modern science and technology.

The heart of Snow’s argument lies in his attempt to bridge the fact/value distinction, by arguing that science contains within it a positive, forward-looking moral core (“scientists have the future in their bones”) that aims for the betterment of humanity, simply in virtue of what it does. The humanities make  poor value judgements, while science has a positive vision of the future that is inherent to it. And since applied science is the foundation of the Industrial Revolution, the key to alleviating global poverty, and essential to bridging the Cold War divide (by virtue of science being a sort of universal language), it should take the lead both politically and in terms of Britain’s curriculum.

Notwithstanding the obvious philosophical difficulties of bridging the fact/value divide, basic errors in terms of literature’s alleged non- engagement with the Industrial Revolution (a point made by Trilling in detail), and the simplistic approach to politics, there are a number of positive things regarding Snow’s work. First is his emphasis on the importance of science, especially in light of the Industrial Revolution, which he correctly notes is the most significant global change in human life, since the domestication of plants and animals. In light of this, his plea for a greater knowledge of science will be readily endorsed by both Leavis and Trilling. Furthermore, in his analysis of the alleviation of poverty in the third world, he makes a prescient prediction regarding the next few decades. In particular, he sharply criticizes racist attitudes towards less developed, non-white nations, warning the West that industrialization and technological knowledge has no color barrier and that the speed of industrialization historically accelerates, as global industrialization progresses. The third world will soon be knocking on the doors of the first, so we had best get our educational house in order, which for Snow means more science.

Snow’s British critic, F. R. Leavis, went after him, in part, for his impoverished conception of Ends, which reduce the question of human flourishing to the lowest common denominator of material prosperity. This is the key ingredient in his counter-argument, regarding the importance of the humanities. Trilling, Leavis’ American counterpart, after sharply criticizing Snow’s mistaken view of literature’s response to the Industrial Revolution, turns the tables on the question of who exactly is out of touch. He reminds Snow that his picture of science taking the lead is naïve, since science only gets done once the political will is in place. And politics is itself an arena in which ends battle for supremacy. And in terms of Ends, there is no resource richer than the humanities.

The Lewis and Nagel readings are introduced to remind students that the subjective world that we often encounter, via the humanities, is just as important in terms of human experience as the objective world of science. Moreover, as both Lewis and Nagel argue, our current conceptions of objective explanations make it clear that a full description of subjective experiences eludes the objective net of scientific explanation.

Lewis, in his 1945 essay “Meditation in a Toolshed,” remarks that the most sophisticated external description of a young man in love (an objective description or what Lewis called “looking-at”), comes nowhere near explaining what the young man is actually experiencing (subjective experience or “looking- along”).  Moreover, Lewis also notes that all instances of looking-at presuppose looking-along, since even an objective observation is made while having a subjective experience. Both looking-at and looking-along are required, if we are to have a full understanding of the world.

Thomas Nagel’s famous 1973 article “What is it like to be a bat?” makes some similar points, although in terms of the problem of consciousness. Pointing out that consciousness is a phenomena that is presumably shared by other animals, he then asks if we can give a full, objective explanation of what it is like to be a bat, an animal he chooses to prevent the reader from cheating, by making an analogical analysis. That is, the bat uses sonar and so we won’t be able to simply say that his consciousness is sort of like ours but simpler, as we might with a cat or dog.

Simply mimicking a bat’s behavior is a non-starter, since that gets us no closer to what it feels like to be a bat. In addition, there is a larger problem touched on more than once by Nagel, which concerns a fundamental difficulty of explaining subjectivity objectively. Objective explanations involve a sort of 360 degree, omnidirectional view of a phenomenon, whereas subjectivity is unidirectional and unique to the individual. Moreover, the closer we get to an objective explanation, the further away we are from the very phenomenon we are trying to explain. Nagel hypothesizes that this may ultimately be a structural limitation on human beings such that subjectivity is a phenomenon we know but which we cannot fully explain in terms of an objective explanation.

Juster’s novel is an attempt to answer one basic question that causes a crisis for the protagonist, a young boy named Milo: why should I bother with knowledge and learning at all? Propelled on a journey to The Lands Beyond and picking up quest mates along the way, Milo’s journey is like a modern student’s Pilgrim’s Progress, with the entire quest full of characters and locations representing aspects of or obstacles to knowledge. His quest is to reunite the lands of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis (the Humanities and the Sciences), via the rescue of two princesses, Sweet Rhyme and Pure Reason. They are stepsisters of Azaz the Unabridged and The Mathemagician, two brothers, whose territories encompass the old kingdom of Wisdom. A recurring theme of the story is that both lands exhibit various signs of disorder, a disorder which will be rectified, once the princesses are rescued and the lands reunited.

One of the most powerful scenes in the book comes toward the end, when Milo wearily sits with the two sisters. He apologizes for all the mistakes that he has made, and they console him, each one giving him important advice. Sweet Reason, paragon of the sciences and of matters of fact, tells Milo not to fret over his mistakes, but to profit from them, by realizing why he made them. Sweet Rhyme, paragon of the humanities and of questions concerning Ends, also has some advice for the young hero. She tells him that what her sister advises is important, but that it is also crucial to know what one learns something for, the End of knowing something and more generally, of learning itself.

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This, then is a brief overview of selected materials, concepts, and themes which we cover in my Critical Thinking class, an introductory freshman- level general education course. Students are introduced to the use and abuse of language, the structure and mechanisms of language and rules, as seen through the work of the Later Wittgenstein, and the framework of knowledge itself, in terms of unpacking important distinctions amongst the disciplines, whose courses they are taking. It is my hope (a hope that has been confirmed in student evaluations, e-mail correspondence, and cards and letters) that such a course provides a bit of clarity to students in their university education, supplies them with tools for more effective critical thought in their engagement with everyday life, and begins to shed some light on why both the humanities and the sciences are their patrimony and essential for their own self-understanding as human beings.

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47 Comments »

  1. I don’t remember Critical Thinking being a thing when I was in school, and I’m still not sure what it is. From this essay, it kind of sounds like a mash-up of logic and cultural/media criticism. Is that close?

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  2. Hi Michael,

    Enjoyed the article, but I disagree with a substantial amount of it. Just for starters:

    This is why Wittgenstein argues that our beliefs are ultimately groundless,

    Does this include Wittgenstein’s belief that our beliefs are ultimately groundless?

    Or is that different?

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  3. Robin: You disagree with his reasons for teaching his own course?

    And yes, if you’ve read “On Certainty,” then the point applies to all of our belief systems. They all rely upon hinge propositions that cannot themselves be justified.

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  4. @glotzerg:

    The history is a bit complicated. I wrote an essay on Critical Thinking before WWII awhile back for theelectricagora, which you can find here: https://theelectricagora.com/2015/09/03/critical-thinking-before-the-second-world-war/

    After the war, research in this area continued. For a variety of reasons, one often finds such courses in the US either in Philosophy or Communications departments, and sometimes in English departments. In philosophy, critical thinking became big especially in the 1970’s-1980’s. I plan to do a further piece on two influential scholars (both philosophers), one of whom began impacting critical thinking in Communications beginning in the 1950-1960’s.

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  5. @Robin Herbert:

    The hinge propositions are those we typically don’t ask ourselves about but are very basic ones we assume in the context of our other uses of language. Wittgenstein uses three analogies to describe them: hinges that allow the rest of language to turn, an axis around which the rest of language orbits, and the riverbanks between which the rest of language flows. Let me quote a bit from On Certainty, where Wittgenstein gives numerous examples to clarify what he means:

    208. I have a telephone conversation with New York. My friend tells me that his young trees have buds of such and such a kind. I am now convinced that his tree is. . . . Am I also convinced that the earth exists?

    209. The existence of the earth is rather part of the whole picture which forms the starting-point of belief for me.

    234. I believe that I have forebears, and that every human being has them. I believe that there are various cities, and, quite generally, in the main facts of geography and history. I believe that the earth is a body on whose surface we move and that it no more suddenly disappears or the like than any other solid body: this table, this house, this tree, etc. If I wanted to doubt the existence of the earth long before my birth, I should have to doubt all sorts of things that stand fast for me.

    308. ‘Knowledge’ and ‘certainty’ belong to different categories. They are not two ‘mental states’ like, say, ‘surmising’ and ‘being sure’. …What interests us now is not being sure but knowledge. That is, we are interested in the fact that about certain empirical propositions no doubt can exist if making judgements is to be possible at all.

    314. Imagine that the schoolboy really did ask “and is there a table there even when I turn round, and even when no one is there to see it?” Is the teacher to reassure him–and say “of course there is!”? Perhaps the teacher will get a bit impatient, but think that the boy will grow out of asking such questions.

    315. That is to say, the teacher will feel that this is not really a legitimate question at all. And it would be just the same if the pupil cast doubt on the uniformity of nature, that is to say on the justification of inductive arguments.–The teacher would feel that this was only holding them up, that this way the pupil would only get stuck and make no progress.–And he would be right. It would be as if someone were looking for some object in a room; he opens a drawer and doesn’t see it there; then he closes it again, waits, and opens it once more to see if perhaps it isn’t there now, and keeps on like that. He has not learned to look for things. And in the same way this pupil has not learned how to ask questions. He has not learned the game that we are trying to teach him.

    316. And isn’t it the same as if the pupil were to hold up his history lesson with doubts as to whether the earth really….?

    317. This doubt isn’t one of the doubts in our game. (But not as if we chose this game!)

    341. That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were the hinges on which those turn.

    342. That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed [i.e., in our acts- MB] not doubted.

    343. But it isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.

    [note: ellipses in the original]

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  6. Michael Boyle,

    I’m not sure how to comment here. As a former composition teacher, I always took the position that a teacher’s curriculum was basically a guide for what she/he wanted to teach with the specific students in the course. So I never judged, except where the curriculum was particularly repellant (which only happened with curricula decided by administrators). As a former teacher, all I can say is, ‘sure, sounds fine to me.’

    So to comment, I rather have to go ‘meta’ here and address the broadest issues implicit in your article.

    The problem with rhetoric (which is what we are discussing here) is that it can always get us what we want, but is rarely what we want it to be.

    We want rhetoric to be controllable by reducing it to social protocol. That’s useless and untrue, despite the fact that this is the common teaching of it (eg., that’s the founding premise of ‘composition studies’).

    The supposition that there can be a clear distinction between rhetoric and traditional logic (which is the logic we commonly use in daily life) is false; and Aristotle noted that, which forms the basis of his “Rhetoric.” All modern studies on response patterns to common public argumentation (eg., behavioral responses to advertising or political speeches) seem to confirm this.

    If this is the case, then there can be no clear *discursive* distinction between ‘mindfucking bullshit’ and reasonable persuasion. And there isn’t. The distinction is between what the target audience of the former believe, and what the target audience of the latter believe. The problematic is not how target audiences are manipulated, but why it is they wish to be so manipulated.

    Rhetoric is simply the practice of using language to control the behaviors of others. And we all use it, specifically to that purpose. Thus our awareness needs concern ourselves, and the possible consequences of our discourse. We are fooling ourselves (and doing disservice to our young) to pretend otherwise.

    “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

    —–
    “Words are instructions or directions for behavior, and they may be responded to either appropriately or inappropriately, but the appropriateness or inappropriateness depends upon the judgment of someone.” Morse Peckham, “Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior,” U Minnesota, 1979.

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  7. There are certain self defeating statements.

    “There is no truth”, for example, or “There is no absolute truth” or “there are no necessarily true proposition”

    It seems to me that the statement “all beliefs are ultimately ungrounded” is just such a one.

    It implies that the belief that all beliefs are ultimately ungrounded, is ultimately ungrounded, in which case we can ignore it.

    And even if we were to ignore the self defeat, are we really saying that no beliefs are any more reasonable than any other? By the hypothesis, for Amy two beliefs A and B, the belief “A is more reasonable than B” would be ultimately ungrounded.

    But then we didn’t need Wittgenstein to tell us about the general problem of knowledge.

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  8. Thank you, Michael. That was much appreciated, and I’m glad to see that you’re introducing students to Wittgenstein. I have some slight reservations about your interpretation of Wittgenstein. May I pick you up on one point?

    In terms of rules embedded in practices, it is important for students to also appreciate Wittgenstein’s distinction, laid out in the Philosophical Investigations, between rule-following described as a sort of action/reaction behavior and rule-following in its fullest sense, what it means to actually follow a rule. The former description simply describes rule-following behavior in a stripped-down, causal way, as if one was describing the action of a circus animal. Humans, of course, are not circus-animals, so our rule-following is something more. Namely, it is exhibiting a practice by becoming party to an agreement (which is all rules are – repeated instances of agreement) that is part of a community. In this sense, all learning and education is a sort of process of initiation into the repeated agreements we call rules.

    I don’t understand the distinction you’re making here, or recognise it as Wittgenstein’s. (I should say that I have some familiarity with PI, and consider my view of language to be Wittgensteinian, but I’m no expert.) I find this passage difficult, because it seems unclear whether you’re aiming to distinguish two types of description or two types of rule-following. In any case, you go on to associate both of your cases with rule-following, but in the first sentence you suggest that only the second is concerned with “what it means to actually follow a rule”. Do you mean that only one type of description is actually telling us what it means to follow a rule? Or that only one type of rule-following is “actual” rule-following? I’m confused. I’m sorry for dwelling on what seems to be an unfortunate bit of wording, but you say this is an important point, and I’d like to understand you.

    It seems to me that Wittgenstein’s view of what it means to follow (“obey”) a rule is that it is just to engage in the appropriate behaviour (to go on in the right way). A circus animal that has been trained to obey the commands of its trainer is following a rule when it follows a command correctly, just as, in Wittgenstein’s thought experiment, the builder’s assistant is following a rule when he hands over the right item, or the student is following a rule when he adds 2 at the command “add 2”.

    You go on to suggest that the difference between your two cases lies in the presence or absence of “agreement”. What does this mean? We typically don’t consent to participate in our linguistic practices. We mostly pick up our language habits in a rather automatic way. To whatever extent (if any) we can say a young child agrees to follow the rules of its native language, we can also say that a circus animal agrees to follow the rules of its trainer. Of course, we can say that our language habits are “in agreement” if we only mean that we share common habits. But this puts no bounds on the complexity of the habits we may be talking about. Communities of animals share common habits of communication too. You could say that the habits of a circus animal and its trainer are not symmetrical, and so are not shared. The trainer has the habits of commanding, and the animal has the habits of obeying those commands. But they are in agreement in the sense that they correspond, as in the case of Wittgenstein’s builder and assistant, whose habits are asymmetrical too. (And the trainer may also sometimes sit at the command “sit”!)

    I can find no general distinction of Wittgenstein’s with respect to rule-following that draws a line between humans and animals, whether in the wild or circus-trained.

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  9. Hi Robin,

    Does this include Wittgenstein’s belief that our beliefs are ultimately groundless?

    I’m not sure that Wittgenstein used the expression “ultimately groundless”. Whatever specific words he used, he would not have meant that we generally cannot give any grounds for our beliefs, or that our beliefs are groundless in the ordinary sense, as when we say, “that belief is groundless”. There’s nothing wrong with the ordinary way that we give grounds for our beliefs, and distinguish between well-grounded beliefs and not-so-well-grounded beliefs. I think it’s helpful to think of being grounded (or justified or warranted) as a matter of degree, and not a simple binary grounded or not.

    If you read Wittgenstein I think you’ll find he’s pretty circumspect in his choice of words, and doesn’t give the sorts of formulaic general theories that are easily dismissed by such “gotcha” tactics.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Mpboyle,

    I really enjoyed this essay. I thought your approach to teaching critical thinking is original and simply much better than standard approaches. My first philosophy class ever was, actually, a course called “critical thinking.” We simply learned modus ponens, modus tollens, and about 100 fallacies. That was the entirety of the course. There was minimal discussion, no lesson on how fallacies are not the end-all of an argument, and no discussion on how language affects our thoughts, reasons, and actions.

    I really like your more broad-scope approach, and the addition of the unit on language seems particularly valuable to me.

    Nice!

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  11. @richardwein:

    The key portion is section 198 of PI:

    198. “But how can a rule shew me what I have to do at this point? Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule.”
    That is not what we ought to say, but rather: any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it
    any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning. “Then can whatever I do be brought into accord with the rule?” Let me ask this: what has the expression of a rule—say a sign-post—got to do with my actions? What sort of connexion is there here? Well, perhaps this one: I have been trained to react to this sign in a particular way, and now I do so react to it.
    But that is only to give a causal connexion; to tell how it has come about that we now go by the sign-post; not what this going-by-the sign really consists in. On the contrary; I have further indicated that a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign-posts, a custom.

    The circus animal model (this is just a short-hand term of my own) gives me, for example, a causal explanation of why the child writes down a series of numbers when given the rule, say, “+2.” However, it does not tell me what he is doing in a larger sense of rule following (“what his going by the sign-post really consists in”), namely demonstrating his membership in a community and engaged in a certain practice of that community. This is also what gives us confidence that the child will deploy the rule in the future the way we do, even with numbers he has not yet reached in the deployment of the rule. Animals are not members of our community in that sense. They are not parties to agreements. They are not engaged in a custom, but have been merely “trained to react.”

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  12. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the reply. I think you are reading more into Wittgenstein than he is saying. All he speaks of here is “a regular use of sign-posts, a custom”. He doesn’t say anything about “demonstrating his membership in a community” or “parties to agreements”, and I did address the subject of agreements in my earlier comment. I don’t see any attempt by Wittgenstein to distinguish between weaker and stronger senses of rule-following. The existence of a “regular use” is needed for any sort of rule-following.

    To clarify a point of interpretation. Would you agree that, when Wittgenstein writes the following, he is putting words into the mouth of his interlocutor, and not speaking for himself?

    – But that is only to give a causal connexion; to tell how it has come about that we now go by the sign-post; not what this going-by-the sign really consists in.

    The interlocutor is complaining that Wittgenstein hasn’t said enough. Wittgenstein replies that he has already said enough:

    – On the contrary; I have further indicated that a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign-posts, a custom.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Robin:

    “So the question then is, why would you ask anyone to found their critical thinking practices upon groundless beliefs?”

    Founded not in the sense of simply invented, but in the sense that ultimately, justification comes to an end. This is part of what it means to be a human being. Our reasons end and there are certain things in our deeds, our actions, that are presupposed. This point is not unique to Wittgenstein, but may be found in Hume, Reid, C.S. Peirce and so forth. The things presupposed are not amenable to proof or disproof, they are not cognitive conclusions as it were. They are what we start with in our actions. The part they play in rational inquiry is constitutive. That’s why he though Moore’s question about whether he knew he had two hands was excellent, but the answer less so.

    151. I should like to say: Moore does not know what he asserts he knows, but it stands fast for him, as also for me; regarding it as absolutely solid is part of our method of doubt and enquiry.

    152. I do not explicitly learn the propositions that stand fast for me. I can discover them subsequently like the axis around which a body rotates. This axis is not fixed in the sense that anything holds it fast, but the movement around it determines its immobility.

    153. No one ever taught me that my hands don’t disappear when I am not paying attention to them. Nor can I be said to presuppose the truth of this proposition in my assertions etc., (as if they rested on it) while it only gets sense from the rest of our procedure of asserting.

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  14. @ejwinner:

    “The distinction is between what the target audience of the former believe, and what the target audience of the latter believe. The problematic is not how target audiences are manipulated, but why it is they wish to be so manipulated.”
    ____________________________________________________________________________
    This sounds to me as if the manipulator is off the hook, and as if those manipulated wish to be so manipulated, which I don’t understand given that part of what we mean when we talk about this involves illegitimate power over another. Van Dijk describes manipulation in this way:

    “Manipulation not only involves power, but specifically abuse of power, that is, domination. More specifically, manipulation implies the exercise of a form of illegitimate influence by means of discourse: manipulators make others believe or do things that are in the interest of the manipulator, and against the best interests of the manipulated.

    “…in persuasion [i.e., with pathos not deployed to help undermine logos- MB] the interlocutors are free to believe or act as they please, depending on whether or not they accept the arguments of the persuader, whereas in manipulation recipients are typically assigned a more passive role: they are victims of manipulation. This negative consequence of manipulative discourse typically occurs when the recipients are unable to understand the real intentions or to see the full consequences of the beliefs or actions advocated by the manipulator.

    “…the overall strategy of manipulative discourse is to discursively focus on those cognitive and social characteristics of the recipient that make them more vulnerable and less resistant to manipulation, that make them credulous or willing victims to accept beliefs and do things they otherwise would not do. It is here that the essential condition of domination and inequality plays a role.”

    Teuna Van Dijk. “Discourse and Manipulation.” Discourse and Society 17:2, 359-383.

    http://www.discourses.org/OldArticles/Discourse%20and%20manipulation.pdf

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  15. It may be useful to note a point of language that sometimes causes problems. To say that a belief has not been justified (has not been given a justificatory argument) is not to say that it is unjustified (unwarranted). When I just looked at the clock and saw it was 15:45, I gave myself no justificatory argument for my belief that the time was 15:45, but that belief was not unjustified. It was justified by the evidence, despite my not having cited the evidence in support of my belief. So being justified does not necessarily mean being justified by a justificatory argument. And the absence of a justificatory argument does not necessarily mean that a belief is unjustified or groundless.

    I for one wouldn’t call Wittgenstein’s hinge propositions “groundless”. Neither would I call them justified or grounded. I would say rather that there is no point in trying to apply such words to them. Such language seems idle.

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  16. Sounds like a worthwhile introductory course, though perhaps the inclusion of Wittgenstein might be questioned in an introductory course. Even in this otherwise plainly stated post, he generates some confusion and controversy. I’m not sure whether anyone, including Wittgenstein himself, can be characterized as an expert on Wittgenstein. In my experience, it’s like bobbing for apples and reminded me of this post by Tim Madigan:

    https://philosophynow.org/issues/25/Philosophy_and_Humor

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  17. Thanks Michael, I enjoyed this description of your class.

    I find it really interesting how Wittgenstein uses the hinge metaphor in describing the necessity of having implicit beliefs and assumptions which generally go unnoticed. Zhuangzi used a similar metaphor. He spoke of the ‘pivot of the tao’, or the ‘axis’ or ‘hinge of the way’. For Zhuangzi the measure of an individuals capacity to respond with virtue to natures unfoldings corresponded with their ability to align themselves at this pivot point. The point of pivot moves with context, yet if we are centered there is a stillness or equanimity from which the best response will become clear.

    Zhuangzi; Ziporyn, Brook (2009-03-15). Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings, With Selections from Traditional Commentaries (p. 12). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.

    I agree that we always need beliefs to engage the world , but to often we do so with overly hardened unexamined and unnecessarily rigid views. Sounds like your class takes an interesting approach to addressing that issue. I’m wondering how much you do in terms of actual problem solving practices in your classes. Dan mentioned that he thought the practice was more beneficial than theory.

    Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  18. @Thomas Jones:

    Thanks! Wittgenstein can be gnomic at times and the ideas are often startling. But well worth it, I think. Loved the bit in the magazine about the cartoons on people’s doors. I confess, I have a bunch of Far Side cartoons on mine.

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  19. @Seth Leon:

    Thanks for the reference! I’ll definitely check that out. Re: problem solving, I certainly challenge them in terms of the different readings, working out the implications, presenting scenarios and so forth. What I’ve found from feedback that students have given me is that they not infrequently start applying the ideas we learn to their own lives.

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  20. The truth of “if A then B” does not depend in any way upon the truth of A, so our certainty about “if A then B” is completely independent of our certainty about A. The fact that A is groundless tells us nothing at all about whether or not “if A then B” is groundless.

    A lot of the talk about hinge propositions seems to miss this. The truths of mathematics depend in no way upon the truth of the axioms, the truth of the axioms is not the point – in fact it is largely meaningless to talk of the truth of the axioms.

    The other thing is that Wittgenstein’s examples are propositions upon which nothing hinges.

    If the schoolboy says “I don’t believe the Earth exists” the history teacher can say “Bully for you, but we have no need of that hypothesis here”. She might paraphrase Ernst Mach and say “if all of this was merely a dream, then all of science (including history) would go on the same, just as long as it was a self consistent dream.”

    The same with the question “is the table there when no one is looking?”, the teacher can say “why do you want to know? What difference does it make to anything?”.

    Wittgenstein says that we must assume the truth of these propositions, but that is wrong. We could assume they are false and it would have no bearing upon whether the questions of science or history are true or false.

    Those questions belong in the category of “is my green the same as your green?”.

    So what are the real hinge propositions? Certainly the axioms of identity and non-contradiction. What else?

    Often people say that induction and the scientific method are dependent upon the assumption of the regularity of nature. But can that be demonstrated? I have often asked people to show me at which stage of any scientific process one must make an assumption about the regularity of nature. They can’t. Having made observations and formed a hypothesis, designed experiments to test that hypothesis and carried them out, do scientists sometimes shout “Wait, we can’t publish, we will have to start from scratch – because I forgot to assume the regularity of nature!”. I don’t think so.

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  21. Mark,
    Thank you for the Van Dijk article; it is clear, erudite, and presents an interesting case. However, it is not without its problems, the chief of which is its failure to distinguish persuasive discourse (rhetoric) from discourse reaffirming the control over information dissemination (or simple lying). There’s a big difference between proposing ‘Iraq is a terrorist nation,’ which worked rhetorically on anxieties dating back at least to the Gulf War I, and stating ‘Iraq has WMD,’ which was simply a lie. But Van Dijk seems to dovetail the two claims, which actually confuses the issue. While the latter claim can be made to marry the former in enthymemically (and was), Rhetorical analysis requires that we keep the two issues separate, before we analyze how the Bush regime brought them together. It is important that Van Dijk acknowledges that the boundary between normative rhetoric and manipulative rhetoric is actually rather fuzzy: “This suggests that, cognitively speaking, manipulation is nothing special: it makes use of very general properties of discourse processing,” requiring additional criteria which thus feel uncomfortably like trying to find some means to get to a desired goal, rather than analyzing just what is.

    The Socratic notion, that language and knowledge can be melded together to cut through rhetoric, and thus delegitimate the powerful, seems to me on shaky epistemic and psychological ground – not to metion that there is a sociological problem, namely that the powerful will use any means necessary to maintain power; rhetoric, lies – or military force. We only have such discussions because we live in a culture where rhetoric and lies are fairly successful. But we have plenty of examples of cultures where discourse doesn’t really matter, because everyone knows the powerful will use military force.

    I’m not saying we need to avoid being critical of the powerful; on the contrary, I’m suggesting that we need to mount a rhetoric more powerful than they present – there is strength in numbers. But in doing so, we would be in a stronger position the more certain we are of our own motives, so that our rhetoric doesn’t catch us by our tails, so to speak.

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  22. Mark,
    As follow-up, on a tangent: The complete sentence Shakespeare has Cassius speak: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, *that we are underlings*.” The assumption of writers like Van Dijk is that most people would not be ‘underlings’ if they were better informed, and rhetoric better controlled. That’s unfortunately untrue.

    The two crucial speeches in “Julius Ceasar” are by Brutus and Antony. Brutus’ speech is modelled after Cicero, and is an impeccably reasoned appeal to the identification of the audience with the interests of the Roman city – an abstraction. Antony’s speech is an indirect appeal to the individual citizen’s immediate emotional response (probably modelled on the sermons of Shakespeare’s Reformation England). The ethical backdrop to these speeches is ambiguous (acceptable to Shakespeare’s audience, since Romans were pagans, thus doomed to hell) – Brutus has helped murder a man recognized as a capable governor, because of what he might have become; Antony seems to be revenging a beloved mentor, but has a hidden agenda.

    Ethically, both men are in the wrong: Thus their differing speeches need only be judged rhetorically as to their successfulness (and Antony’s clearly wins out).

    Shakespeare not only had a better grasp of rhetorical practice than Van Dijk, but also of rhetorical theory. The problem surfacing, surely, is that of how the audience sees its own interests, not what *is* in their best interest, reasonably assessed.

    One can’t ‘manipulate’ racists into engaging in racists acts. They are ready and willing to do so. Is racism in their interest? Unfortunately, they think so. So we begin undoing racism by undoing racists beliefs already held. Pretending they are being manipulated seems rather overly charitable.

    America invaded Iraq – because the American people wanted to do so. The Bush regime gave them the excuses they needed to feel satisfied in their personal identities as citizens of ‘the world’s only super-power,’ a ‘Christian nation’ sitting as a ‘City on the Hill,’ an ‘exceptional people’ with a ‘manifest destiny.’

    Fools do not fly in where angels fear to tread; they walk about daily, going to work, coming home, pretending they have a good idea of how the world works and what’s expected of them.

    My mother once said, that we are all born slaves; and once I asked her, if she had been hired to work at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, would she have taken such a position? She said ‘well, it would have been a job; of course.’ Part Jewish, and ‘it would have been a job, of course.’

    Before we are the ‘rational animal,’ we are the ‘rationalizing animal.’ Never underestimate that – especially when it comes to the power of rhetoric to persuade.

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  23. In order to make useful judgments about the course (which certainly incorporates some very interesting material) I think I would have to know a bit more than I do about the institutional context in which it is being taught and the broader context and standing of critical thinking as a discipline. I look forward to Michael’s future posts on the history of the subject.

    As Michael and others have pointed out, generally speaking higher education courses these days need to be justified in instrumental terms and arts and humanities courses (which have traditionally been seen as instrumental only in a very general and vague (civilizing?) sort of way) are obviously going to be under pressure. It’s a difficult task to ‘sell’ a more or less traditional arts/humanities approach as useful without either changing the approach beyond recognition (selling out?) or essentially misrepresenting what one is doing (and why).

    Michael Boyle (and others doing similar things) could be seen to be trying to navigate these difficult waters.

    One thing that makes me slightly uneasy is that in covering such a lot of ground and wide range of authors there is real danger that one distorts what a particular author might be saying in order to make it fit the themes of the course.

    The moralizing element (if I can use the term without its usual negative connotation) is what strikes me particularly here, and I don’t know that it meshes well with the approach of some of the authors being drawn on (Lewis Carroll? Wittgenstein?). To what extent is the intention to describe how things work, I wonder, and to what extent to advocate certain social ideals?

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  24. @richardwein

    If you read Wittgenstein I think you’ll find he’s pretty circumspect in his choice of words, and doesn’t give the sorts of formulaic general theories that are easily dismissed by such “gotcha” tactics.

    It is hardly a “gotcha tactic”. It is a fairly simple and obvious principle that any statement or line of reasoning which calls into question the general ability to know things or to form beliefs, also thereby calls itself into question.

    I can’t see how any kind of circumspection with ones language can avoid this.

    I would have thought that it was incumbent on anyone making this kind of claim to spend at least a little time explaining how they avoid the paradox their claim creates. And yet it seems that people become a little irritated with anyone who even raises the issue.

    Indeed there was a chap on Scientia Salon who became quite angry and abusive at anyone who wished to enquire why he thought that it would be possible to communicate the impossibility of communication.

    In a similar vein, it seems to me that if I expressed deep skepticism about the rationality of the human race then I think that I ought to spend at least a little time explaining why I think that I, personally, have managed to buck this trend and maintain sufficient rationality to be an adequate judge of the rationality of people in general.

    If I was expressing skepticism about aboutness then it would seem reasonable for me to explain why I think my words are about anything.

    If I was confidently doubting that there can be linguistic meaning then surely I would spend just a little time explaining why the words I am using to express this doubt, are miraculously exempt from the principle they express. Or if they are not, why the reader should bother to continue reading.

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  25. @richardwein:

    “Thanks for the reply. I think you are reading more into Wittgenstein than he is saying. All he speaks of here is “a regular use of sign-posts, a custom”. He doesn’t say anything about “demonstrating his membership in a community” or “parties to agreements”, and I did address the subject of agreements in my earlier comment. I don’t see any attempt by Wittgenstein to distinguish between weaker and stronger senses of rule-following. The existence of a “regular use” is needed for any sort of rule-following.

    To clarify a point of interpretation. Would you agree that, when Wittgenstein writes the following, he is putting words into the mouth of his interlocutor, and not speaking for himself?”
    _____________________________________________________________________________________________
    Yes, he’s putting words into the mouth of his interlocutor. He has to, since the interlocutor is his own creation. If what you mean is that this isn’t really a distinction for Wittgenstein, I disagree. You are correct that reading 198 in isolation might lead one to think so, but not in the larger context of what Wittgenstein says about language and primitive forms of language as simply reactions. In that larger context, it is clear that the interlocutor’s view is a real one, but not the one Wittgenstein identifies there as the strong sense he is trying to convey in terms of human language.

    From Baker & Hacker’s exegesis in their Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations, Vol. 2 (pp. 119-120):

    (ii) ‘I have been trained to react . . .’: cf. MS 165, 84f.:

    ‘One trains a child so that he should follow a rule: but does one also say: ‘If you’re following the rule, you must get there // write this //?’ ‘If you write anything else, then you have not understood or misunderstood the rule.’ Is that an empirical statement? You teach someone a rule, you train him to behave thus and so at a certain order. The ‘must’ says what will be acknowledged.’

    W.’s recurrent talk of training is not a manifestation of a stimulus/response conception of accord with a rule. It is a training in a normative activity. [***Note the two different sense of “training”- the mistaken view of the interlocutor above, which Wittgenstein below identifies as a real, but “primitive form,” and normative training] The pupil learns what to do, and also what is to be done, what is called ‘right’, ‘in accord with this rule’, ‘correct’ (cf. Z §300). But the very possibility of his training rests upon generally shared human reactions:

    ‘The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop.
    Language – I want to say – is a refinement, ‘in the beginning was the deed.’’ (CV 31) [***Here is the weaker sense. If language is a refinement, the more primitive form is more or less akin to something like my dog reacting in certain predictable ways to my words or actions. She reacts because she has been trained, not because she is following a rule in the sense of being party to an agreement.]

    (iii) ‘and so I now react to’: but only ‘in so far as there exists a regular use’. RFM 414 elaborates. The teacher interprets the rule for the pupil by the explanations and training he gives him:

    ‘And the pupil has got hold of the rule thus interpreted, if he reacts to it thus-and-so. But this is important, namely that this reaction, which is our guarantee of understanding, presupposes as a surrounding particular circumstances, particular forms of life
    and speech. (As there is no such thing as facial expression without a face.) (This is an important movement of thought.)’

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  26. One thing that makes me slightly uneasy is that in covering such a lot of ground and wide range of authors there is real danger that one distorts what a particular author might be saying in order to make it fit the themes of the course.
    ————————
    Why is it a danger to use part of a work for an end other than that intended by the author?

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  27. @Robin Herbert:

    “If the schoolboy says ‘I don’t believe the Earth exists’ the history teacher can say ‘Bully for you, but we have no need of that hypothesis here’. She might paraphrase Ernst Mach and say ‘if all of this was merely a dream, then all of science (including history) would go on the same, just as long as it was a self consistent dream.’

    This is not like Laplace’s conversation with Napoleon. On your description, there would be no problem if the students walked out and the teacher became unemployed. I doubt the teacher would accept that with equanimity, just like I doubt that if the public were to respond by withdrawing all science funding, scientists would accept that with equanimity.

    “Often people say that induction and the scientific method are dependent upon the assumption of the regularity of nature. But can that be demonstrated? I have often asked people to show me at which stage of any scientific process one must make an assumption about the regularity of nature. They can’t. Having made observations and formed a hypothesis, designed experiments to test that hypothesis and carried them out, do scientists sometimes shout ‘Wait, we can’t publish, we will have to start from scratch – because I forgot to assume the regularity of nature!’. I don’t think so.”

    Your literalist interpretation misses the point of hinge propositions. They are typically neither vocalized nor are we usually consciously aware of them, and yet such beliefs are the necessary prerequisites for our action. They are part of our picture of the world. When you look at a painting, part of what keeps the picture in place are the nails/glue holding the frame together. And it doesn’t matter if you can’t see them or are not aware of them. When they are pointed out to you, you assent to their necessity.

    342. That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed [i.e., in our acts] not doubted.

    163. …For whenever we test anything, we are already presupposing something that is not tested. Now am I to say that the experiment which perhaps I make in order to test the truth of a proposition presupposes the truth of the proposition that the apparatus I believe I see is really there (and the like)?

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  28. @richardwein:

    “I for one wouldn’t call Wittgenstein’s hinge propositions “groundless”. Neither would I call them justified or grounded. I would say rather that there is no point in trying to apply such words to them. Such language seems idle.”

    166. The difficulty is to realize the groundlessness of our believing.

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  29. ” It is important that Van Dijk acknowledges that the boundary between normative rhetoric and manipulative rhetoric is actually rather fuzzy….”

    Van Dijk, at least, believes that a key determinant of this is context and the positions of the relative parties.

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  30. “Often people say that induction and the scientific method are dependent upon the assumption of the regularity of nature. But can that be demonstrated? I have often asked people to show me at which stage of any scientific process one must make an assumption about the regularity of nature. They can’t. Having made observations and formed a hypothesis, designed experiments to test that hypothesis and carried them out, do scientists sometimes shout ‘Wait, we can’t publish, we will have to start from scratch – because I forgot to assume the regularity of nature!’. I don’t think so.”

    ———————————————–

    This represents a serious misunderstanding of the force of the problem of induction and more generally, on the relationship between skepticism and practice. The hypothetical scientists shouting is almost a caricature of such a misunderstanding.

    The belief in the external world ultimately has no rational warrant either, and yet people don’t walk into poles and doors and the like.

    Skepticism speaks to the ultimate grounds for rational warrant — it does not speak to whether or not someone should open a door or conduct an experiment. You may find such investigations useless — if so, don’t take philosophy courses — but that’s what investigations in epistemology are about.

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  31. @ Mark English:

    “To what extent is the intention to describe how things work, I wonder, and to what extent to advocate certain social ideals?”

    Not sure I would accept a hard and fast distinction here. Sometimes, what we accept as needing to work, requires other things. If one thinks a free society is worth having, then in order to work it requires certain other things. Why is it not appropriate to apply insights into how language works re: basic civil liberties to instances where the understanding of the judiciary and the ordinary person diverge, particularly when the result can very easily be unjust incarceration for decades?

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  32. Robin wrote
    “Often people say that induction and the scientific method are dependent upon the assumption of the regularity of nature. But can that be demonstrated? I have often asked people to show me at which stage of any scientific process one must make an assumption about the regularity of nature. They can’t. Having made observations and formed a hypothesis, designed experiments to test that hypothesis and carried them out, do scientists sometimes shout “Wait, we can’t publish, we will have to start from scratch – because I forgot to assume the regularity of nature!”. I don’t think so.”

    If you’re really interested in a discussion of this, I’d recommend chapter 2 of Elliott Sober’s book, Reconstructing the Past. Its a wonderful summary of the debate about whether induction presupposes “regularity” and argues that even though there is no ONE regularity assumption that all induction arguments make, every inductive argument presupposes some substantive background assumption or other. He draws on the work of the statistician I.J. Good in his debate with philosopher of science Hempel.

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  33. @mpboyle56

    On your description, there would be no problem if the students walked out and the teacher became unemployed. I doubt the teacher would accept that with equanimity, just like I doubt that if the public were to respond by withdrawing all science funding, scientists would accept that with equanimity.

    I am completely puzzled as to how you get this from anything I say.

    How would the teacher failure to believe that the Earth exists impact in any way upon on her ability to teach history? How do any of the facts of history depend upon the proposition “The Earth exists”?

    The students would walk out because the history teacher does not make acceptable metaphysical assumptions? Why? Are you aware of this happening?

    Does funding get withdrawn on the basis of people not being Materialists, or Realists? Again, not aware of it happening.

    Don’t remember any reports of people walking out on Erwin Schrödinger, who didn’t believe that the Earth (or the Universe for that matter) existed. Nor do I recall any funding being withdrawn on his account. I seem to recall that he made some quite useful contributions to physics.

    Mach himself remained employed as a scientist. Is there now a harder line against metaphysical incorrectness?

    @Daniel Kaufman

    I walk round poles and open doors when I am dreaming. Does this imply that I believe that the things I see in my dreams are real?

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  34. Michael, there may not be a “hard and fast distinction” between describing how things work and advocating for certain social ideals but there is a distinction!

    And my point really is that if the advocacy is the main driving force (as your answer suggests it is), then the description can easily be compromised.

    You write: “Sometimes, what we accept as needing to work requires other things…”

    I was talking about how things actually work (description), not how we might want them to work. The way you are putting it blurs this distinction.

    “… If one thinks a free society is worth having, then in order to work it requires certain other things. Why is it not appropriate to apply insights into how language works re: basic civil liberties to instances where the understanding of the judiciary and the ordinary person diverge, particularly when the result can very easily be unjust incarceration for decades?”

    I don’t know enough about this particular example to make an argument here. My query was a general one about the nature of the course. One could envisage a course in critical thinking that did not concern itself with issues of social justice at all. Or one which merely touched on these issues. But your course seems to be based around these issues to a large extent. This would be neither here nor there if it were an isolated instance. But we are talking here about a significant movement in education, are we not? It just happens to be a movement I have some reservations about.

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  35. Dan

    “Why is it a danger to use part of a work for an end other than that intended by the author?”

    Danger may not be quite the right word but I think, especially in the context of an introductory course, it is important not to misrepresent what an author, like Wittgenstein for instance, is saying. Note that Michael, in his responses to richardwein, is intent on defending the accuracy and appropriateness of his interpretation and use of Wittgenstein’s ideas. It is clear also that he intends his use of Wittgenstein to be very much in the spirit of Wittgenstein. So, quite appropriately in this context (I think), he is not seeking to use Wittgenstein’s work “for an end other than that intended by the author”.

    Often, of course, it’s quite harmless to use an author’s work in this way. Michael’s use of Lewis Carroll is probably in this category, i.e. his aims are different from the author’s, but in cases like this I concede that it doesn’t matter.

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  36. @ Mark English:

    Advocacy is not the driving force, I assure you. Certainly not in a course with Quine, Wittgenstein, Davidson, Fodor, Nagel, Grice, etc. (I gave only a selection of topics/readings in the essay). And my example (one of only three in the course) comes from the ABA’s own publication and an expert on the federal rules of evidence, a distinguished law professor at a conservative university. And yes, I was talking about how things actually work.

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  37. Re: scientists assuming the regularity of nature

    It seems to me that we sometimes take the so-called “propositional attitudes” in too narrow a way, taking them as entailing that the subject actually adopts a proposition. When we say “he thinks it’s going to rain”, we shouldn’t take this to entail that he has said or thought the proposition “it’s going to rain”, or any similar proposition, or that he has such a proposition stored in his head in any form. I see dark clouds when I’m leaving home, so I take my umbrella, possibly without thinking any words to myself. Someone observing me says later, “he thought it was going to rain”. Should I say to him, “You’re mistaken. I thought no such words”?

    Similarly, the assertion that “scientists need to assume the regularity of nature” doesn’t have to entail that they take some such proposition as “nature is regular” or “the future will resemble the past” as a premise in their reasoning. We can take it to mean no more than that scientists need to proceed as if nature is regular.

    Proceeding as if nature is regular, or as if the future will resemble the past, does not require anything more than going on as experience has habituated us to do. Animals do it too. A dog finds food in its bowl every day for a while and acquires the habit of going to its bowl, with the anticipation of finding food there. But it doesn’t reach that state by reasoning from the premise “nature is regular” or “there’s been food in my bowl every day so far”. When we observe such a dog heading for its bowl, saliva dripping from its mouth, we may say that the dog thinks/believes/assumes there will be food in its bowl. The behaviour and saliva speak as loud as words.

    We proceed as if nature is regular because we’ve evolved to do so. We don’t need to reason ourselves into doing it. For the most part we do it automatically.

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  38. re: “We proceed as if nature is regular because we’re evolved to do so”

    Well, we are open to the discovery of actual regularities. If dog food does in fact show up in a bowl around a certain time every day, this is the sort of thing we (and dogs) look for and note, should it occur.

    But re the sciences, they are successful just to the extent that there are regularities, and we are capable of grasping them. A discipline fails to live up to the ideal of science when, despite all attempts to use “scientific method”, no coherent body of regularities appear. This may just mean that humanity, due to lack of instruments or prerequisite concepts isn’t ready to tackle the discipline in a really scientific way; e.g. despite the obvious desirability of a science of medicine, very little worthy of the name emerged until pretty recently. If one tried to make a science of literary criticism, I think it would fail despite the most rigirous peer reviewing and even attempts to apply experimental methods.

    One might have doubted that any great regularity was to be found in chemistry until it really began to emerge from the mist in the mid to late 19c (Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten is a great telling of this story). This in turn lead to the stunning finding that there are a finite set of ultimate particles any two of the same kind being identical in properties (yes, it gets more complicated, but not with any real loss of regularity).

    Before we actually encountered one regularity after another (the mathematical laws of large scale physics being the first really great breakthrough), we not unreasonably took for granted a great deal of irregularity, and a view that the world was full of spirits making nature capricious and irregular

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