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

Critical Thinking Note 1

Critical Thinking Note 1


Here is a critical thinking problem that will be familiar to many instructors. We ask students to give a reason for believing something and they answer with a single sentence, perhaps a rhetorical question or just a phrase. Their answer may be in some way relevant to the issue at hand, but it is the exception rather than the rule for students to give enough information to show how some conclusion follows from what they have said. The problem here is that relatively few of our students know what an argument is.  This is lesson one in critical thinking. Arguments consist of sets of complete sentences including premises which, together, are offered as a reason for accepting a conclusion.

Another problem familiar to many who teach is that students don’t often know what to do with an argument once it is fully spelled out. When students are asked if an argument is a good one or not, the typical responses are a nod of the head if they like the conclusion or some gesture towards a completely unrelated argument against the conclusion if they don’t like it. The problem here is that our students don’t know how to evaluate arguments on their own merits. Lesson two in critical thinking introduces the basic standards for evaluating arguments. Are the premises of the argument true and do they in fact support the conclusion.

Learning to identify, formulate and evaluate arguments are basic, essential, and often difficult critical thinking lessons. The basic anatomy and physiology of good argumentation can be clearly spelled out in well under an hour. But internalizing these lessons more often takes months of self-consciously working out details, looking at applications and practice, practice, practice. This is not remember-the-answers-for-the-test curriculum. Critical thinking is a skill, like cooking, carpentry or yoga. Learning to think critically is within reach for most people, but it requires some dedicated attention over an extended period of time. This is what a class in critical thinking is for.

Unlike cooking, carpentry and yoga, critical thinking is a very general skill. It has applications in a great many spheres of life, including cooking and carpentry, but perhaps not so much yoga. Business leaders know this and critical thinking skills are in high demand in the workplace.  Critical thinking skills are the key to solving problems in the work world we could never anticipate in the classroom. They transform students into life-long learners who can adapt to change and innovation in a broad range of professions.

Given all of this, one would expect an institution like ours to make a high priority out of teaching critical thinking.  In one way we do. We claim to teach critical thinking as an infused general education outcome.  But while there is ample opportunity for application and re-enforcement of critical thinking skills in our diverse curricula, there is usually not so much space for dedicated attention to the basic nuts and bolts of how to formulate and evaluate arguments. This is what a class in critical thinking is for.

For a long time we have had a class in critical thinking.  PHIL& 115, Critical Thinking, currently constitutes a quarter of the Philosophy Department’s offerings. But this class is about to lose its shelf in the BC curriculum. For well over a decade PHIL& 115 has satisfied the reasoning requirement in the DTA. However, changes to the math component of that requirement are about to result in the removal of PHIL& 115 from the list of QSR courses (quantitative and symbolic reasoning) in our DTA. Not only is this pretty much a done deal, but it is the best outcome we could have hoped for (Symbolic Logic, PHIL& 120 stays on the QSR list).

The imperatives that have led to removing Critical Thinking from the statewide reasoning requirement are complicated. But the implications are clear. As of Fall Quarter 2013, we will be teaching a lot less critical thinking at BC. This is a setback, not only for the Philosophy Department, but as much so for our students and the institution as a whole. This note is among the first of several steps the Philosophy Department will take in response to this setback. On a few initiatives, we may be seeking your collaboration. Our plan going forward includes the following:

  • We will periodically send out Critical Thinking Notes via email of which this is the first. Expect at least one per quarter but probably not more than one per month. The main purpose of these will be to better acquaint the campus community with the critical thinking curriculum and how to teach it effectively. We will also keep you up to date on other initiatives and progress via these notes.
  • We will produce a brief critical thinking handbook that will be copy left and editable. The idea here is to provide the campus community with a very concise critical thinking textbook that can be adopted at will or adapted to suit the needs of varying programs and courses.
  • We will conduct critical thinking curriculum development workshops for BC faculty through the BC Faculty Commons.
  • We will actively seek new shelves in the BC curriculum for our Critical Thinking course, PHIL& 115.

The goal of the BC Philosophy Department is to advance the critical thinking skills and habits of our students and the campus community at large. If you can think of other ways we might usefully serve this end, do let us know.


The BC Philosophy Department,

Russ Payne

Mark Storey

Steve Duncan

Ferdinand Tablan

Jason Benchimol

Meggan Padvorac

Tim Linnemann

Zoe Aleshire


February 18, 2013