Critical Thinking Note 30: It’s not about Buying and Selling

Arguments are commonly regarded as tools of persuasion. Seen this way, arguments are sales pitches for believing something. In our consumer society, we are all skilled at negotiating the constant onslaught of sales pitches. Our default is the hard no. Any of us would soon be broke without rejecting the vast majority of sales pitches. And yet, we buy often enough. Whether we buy, consider, or reject a sales pitch, we make this determination in reference to ourselves, what we want, what matters to us. We are passive in our mode as consumers. We accept the sales pitch, or we don’t. Perhaps we step back and do some research when the stakes are high. Sellers would generally prefer that we not. And typically, there is no need to reach beyond ourselves, to actively engage the world beyond our needs and wants. We know how to operate as customers, it’s a comfortable space for us denizens of late-stage capitalism. It also misses the point of argumentation.

When we treat arguments as tools of persuasion, our default stance is to resist persuasion. Persuasion, after all, feels like an assertion of someone else’s will, which we will naturally want to resist unless it aligns with our own will. In such self-referential assent or dissent, our will is engaged in reactive mode. But reaction is not the same thing as exercising agency.

Our general reluctance to change our minds about things is known as epistemic conservativism. Perhaps without a healthy dose of epistemic conservativism, we’d be changing our mind all the time and wind up confused (or confusing). A degree of epistemic conservatism can be a healthy thing. But it is healthy only when we are reluctant to give up beliefs that are themselves rigorously examined and well supported by evidence and argument. Otherwise, epistemic conservatism leads straight to confirmation bias, the tendency to endorse or reject arguments on the basis of how we already feel about the conclusion.

How are things different for the critical thinker? A distinguishing mark of the skilled critical thinker is that she treats arguments as instruments of inquiry rather than instruments of persuasion. An argument is a set of premises offered as a reason for thinking some conclusion is true. We should find good arguments persuasive simply because it’s good to believe things that are true. What is operative for the critical thinker, though, is inquiry, the active search for truth and understanding. Not the passive consumer’s role of being persuaded, or “buying” the conclusion. The critical thinker may still want others to find her arguments persuasive, but only if they are good arguments. For the critical thinker, the desire to persuade is conditional on the quality of her reasoning being good, not on her own will.

Critical thinkers aren’t just concerned with determining whether the conclusion of an argument is true. Rather they are more broadly concerned with what can be learned from the argument. This starts with aiming to understand the viewpoint embodied in the argument. We aren’t in a good position to evaluate and argument without first clearly understanding what it says. Beyond this, learning from arguments often takes the form of learning from our mistakes. When the critical thinker finds a flaw in an argument, she will straight way consider whether is signals a compelling countervailing argument, or whether that flaw points the way to a better argument. Whether the conclusion of an argument is true or false is not the primary concern for the critical thinker. The primary concern is to see how the argument can help us get closer to understanding and truth, even if this only amounts to recognizing that some line of argument is a dead end.

Critical thinking is not really about figuring out what views to “buy” or “not buy.” It’s about building a robust understanding of the world and each other. It’s about getting clear on all sorts of issues, from those our well-being depends on to those that simply engage our wonder (though I’d argue that the latter is itself an aspect of well-being). The critical thinker is actively engaged in the project of building a mind that focuses and clarifies her understanding generally, including her understanding of herself, her interests, and values. The skilled critical thinker is not a consumer of arguments, ideas or beliefs. She is a gardener, cultivating her own mind, producing her own intellectual sustenance and delight, and nourishing her own community of fellow critical thinkers. Our ability to act in ways that realize our considered interests depends on engaging inquiry actively. In this regard, critical thinking replaces reactivity with agency.

One thought on “Critical Thinking Note 30: It’s not about Buying and Selling”

  1. Dear Professor Payne,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post from the point of view of the sales perspective; persuasion and critical thinking. In our current political climate it is easy to slip into argument as persuasion and then feeling left with a sense of powerlessness or misunderstanding or worse when we fail to articulate our argument or if we “lost” the argument. Your take on the argument from a critical thinking point of view reminds me of how imperative to be aware of our thinking – metacognition. When teaching creativity and innovation – we throw the term metacognition around as simply “the thinking of our thinking” which allows us to step outside of the programmed or autopilot we fall into and it leaves ‘space’ for maybe being surprised, or a growth mindset, or a mindset in which we allow “inquiry” to create novel ideas. The conversation of argument as persuasion leads also to the cultural dimension (Hofstede and Dr Stone’s work with the Globe Study) of the collective versus the individual – which in our western society is one that will likely disagree with you just because you are trying to “SELL ME” something.

    Thank you again for your insight and I look forward to more. All the best
    Pete Ophoven

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