Critical Thinking Note 2: Tim on Intellectual Virtue

Tim Linnemann on Intellectual Virtue

This time we feature a discussion of some intellectual virtues by our adjunct instructor Tim Linnemann. I really like the intellectual virtues. They aren’t half as annoying as moral virtues and they really help us understand stuff.

First a quick addendum to our previous note: the coming changes to the place of Critical Thinking in the BC curriculum are entirely the result of decisions made at the state level.  BC administrators were very supportive of our effort to keep Symbolic Logic in the Direct Transfer Agreement (DTA) and I’d like to thank Joyce Carroll and Tom Nielsen in particular. There is nothing BC administrators could have done to preserve the old place of Critical Thinking in the DTA, but I’m confident they will be supportive of our efforts to find new roles for the critical thinking curriculum here at BC.

Now, here’s Tim:

Critical Attitudes

When students are asked to compose an argumentative essay, often the first major challenge is to form an intelligible opinion. And even after defining a clear thesis statement, there is the challenge in presenting actual arguments which can support that thesis as opposed to mere rhetorical advocacy. To ask that a student, in addition to all this, engage with opposing positions can feel like asking a bit much. However, ignoring competing perspectives not only weakens any argument, but it also skirts one of the most fertile areas for expanding one’s critical aptitudes.

Argumentation always implies the context of a debate. Arguments are the means by which we discriminate between competing beliefs. Thus, proper argumentative conduct demands that we understand and address the arguments of those perspectives and viewpoints that differ from our own. When we don’t address our opponents’ arguments we are more likely to engage in rationalization (merely making excuses for our beliefs) or straw-man arguments. Straw-man arguments make it easier to dismiss one’s opponents by making their arguments appear weaker than they are. When we don’t explore any of the reasons our opponents have for their positions, it is easier to pretend that they have little to say!

Ultimately however, we learn little when we only focus on reinforcing our pre-existing beliefs. When a serious opponent is in the room, we are forced to innovate and explore, or perhaps even change our mind! This is a dynamic opportunity for growth and the heart of why argumentation is important: to seek after the truth (which frequently is not what we started out thinking in the beginning!).

So how can we help our students avoid the pitfalls of myopic argumentative practices and to enjoy the possible benefits of dynamic critical engagement? It starts with attitude. There are two principles that frame our efforts here: the aforementioned Truth-Seeking Principle and the Charity Principle.

Truth-Seeking tells us that the purpose of an argument or a debate is to discover the truth or at the very least, what is the most justifiable position on an issue. This statement denies that our purpose should include other goals like proving ourselves right, convincing others to think the way that we do, or making ourselves look good (or our opponents look bad!). This seems obvious enough to go without saying, but a couple things make it worthy of emphasis.

First, many students seem to be under the impression that convincing an audience is the only goal of argumentative writing, without including a commitment to finding the truth. As a result, students submit papers that are chock full of rhetorical devices aimed at persuasiveness instead of clearly defined and substantial reasons that aim at justification. Second, when truth-seeking is given priority, it radically changes the entire way in which one goes about developing an argument. Rhetorical tricks, loopholes, smoke-screens, evasion, and a host of other argumentative fallacies lose their point. In their place we now have a positive reason to pursue clarity, sincerity, modesty, and many other rational virtues.

Preeminent among these rational virtues is the virtue of Charity. Charity is usually defined as giving your argumentative opponents the “benefit of the doubt,” to represent their arguments in the strongest possible light prior to evaluating their position. But charity is expressed not only by helping one’s opponents fix weaknesses in their arguments, but even by coming up with entirely new arguments on their behalf! A charitable thinker will not wait for their opponents to present arguments—they will seek the best their competitors have to offer. Charity means treating your enemy as your best friend, to see your relationship to them as cooperative instead of combative. When framed with the Truth-Seeking Principle, we can see exactly why this practice makes sense.

Our opponents push us to submit our own beliefs to critical examination; they reveal our flaws and our blind spots, encourage innovative responses, and in general provoke deeper exploration of questions. And of course, they may just happen to be right! Right or wrong, they give us one of the best gifts possible: a closer relationship with the truth.

All of this can seem like “advanced” critical reasoning skills, and the Truth-Seeking and Charity principles are two of the most demanding virtues for all of us to realize. However, even a modest introduction to this change in focus can transform a student’s entire approach to forming and evaluating arguments in a responsible and effective way. And it sets a frame for contextualizing the acquisition of all the other tools in the critical thinker’s tool belt.

In many cases, mere exposure to this alternative picture is enough to inspire students to make a change, but sometimes more is required. But there is ample opportunity. Teachers and students continually find themselves in contexts of disagreement and correction—the attitudes we take when approaching these settings speaks to the values we prioritize. Each of these moments is another opportunity for students to test out and develop their abilities with new ways of being and thinking. One very special context is feedback on writing samples. Walking students through identifying where their opponents can be found and determining the substantial contributions of those opponents are great hands-on ways of giving students a picture what it actually looks like to apply these principles. It also helps prevent correction from putting the students in a passive position of receiving insight. Identifying opponents opens up new lines of thought for them to explore. For any assignment where multiple drafts are a component, this technique can yield dramatic results. As a quick example, I’ve seen this kind of feedback inspire many students to voluntarily rewrite entire essays!

I’ve been discussing how Truth-Seeking and Charity contribute to the intellectual flourishing of our students, but there are also ethical stakes at play. Failing to cultivate these intellectual virtues doesn’t just make for sloppy arguments, but it also contributes to a tendency for argumentation to be abusive. The academic and intellectual arenas are a hotbed of opportunities for dogmatism, pride, ego, one-upmanship, etcetera, and on the other hand, insecurity, silencing, resentment, apathy, etcetera. With these risks, who would want to willfully make themselves vulnerable by openly participating in critical debate!? Prioritizing the cooperative framework for argumentation and the intellectual and critical virtues that embody it (like Truth-Seeking and Charity) can help unlock some of the more personal barriers that stand in the way of students’ efforts to succeed. And while none of us ever consciously intend to contribute to a culture that perpetuates these barriers, we can only really control our own contributions. Teaching these virtues helps students avoid creating these barriers for each other as well.

Thanks for reading. I welcome further discussion! You can email me at either address below.

Tim Linnemann

March 12, 2013

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