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How We Reason

If you were asked to describe the most embarrassing of your class-room experiences,

If you were asked to describe the most embarrassing of your class-room experiences, you would probably cite the occasions when the instructor asks you a series of questions demanding close reasoning. As he pins you down to statement of facts and forces you to draw valid conclusions, you feel in a most perplexed frame of mind. Either you find yourself unable to give reasons, or you entangle yourself in contradictions. In short, you flounder about helplessly and feel as though the bottom of your ship of knowledge has dropped out. And when the ordeal is over and you have made a miserable botch of a recitation which you thought you had been perfectly prepared for, you complain that "if the instructor had followed the book," or "if he had asked straight questions," you would have answered every one perfectly, having memorized the lesson "word for word." This complaint, so often voiced by students, reveals the fundamental characteristic which distinguishes the mental operation of reasoning from the others we have studied. In reasoning we face a new kind of situation presenting difficulties not encountered in the simpler processes of sensation, memory, and imagery, and when we attempt to substitute these simple processes for reasoning, we fail miserably, for the two kinds of processes are essentially different, and cannot be substituted one for the other.

Broadly speaking, the mental activities of study may be divided into two groups, which, for want of better names, we shall call processes of acquisition and processes of construction. The mental attitude of the first is that of acquirement.

"Sometimes our main business seems to be to acquire knowledge; certain matters are placed before us in books or by our teachers, and we are required to master them, to make them part of our stock of knowledge. At other times we are called upon to use the knowledge we already possess in order to attain some end that is set before us." "In geography, for example, so long as we are merely learning the bare facts of the subject, the size and contours of the different continents, the political divisions, the natural features, we are at the acquisitive stage." "But when we go on to try to find out the reasons why certain facts that we have learned should be as they are and not otherwise, we pass to the constructive stage. We are working constructively when we seek to discover why it is that great cities are so often found on the banks of rivers, why peninsulas more frequently turn southward than northward." You readily see that this constructive method of study involves the setting and solving of problems as its distinguishing feature, and that in the solution of these problems we make use of reason.

A little reflection will show that though there is a distinct difference between processes of acquisition and of construction, nevertheless the two must not be regarded as entirely separate from each other. "In acquiring new facts we must always use a little reason, while in constructive work, we cannot always rely upon having all the necessary matter ready to hand. We have frequently to stop our constructive work for a little in order to acquire some new facts that we find to be necessary. Thus we acquire a certain number of new facts while we are reasoning about things, and while we are engaged in acquiring new matter we must use our reason at least to some small extent." The two overlap, then. But there is a difference between them from the standpoint of the student, and the terms denote two fundamentally different attitudes which students take in study.

The two attitudes may be illustrated by contrasting the two methods often used in studying geometry. Some students memorize the theorem and the steps in the demonstration, reciting them verbatim at class-hour. Others do not memorize, but reason out each step to see its relation to the preceding step, and when they see it must necessarily follow, they pass on to the next and do the same. These two types of students apparently arrive at the same conclusions, but the mental operations leading up to the Q.E.D. of each are vastly different. The one student does his studying by the rote memory method, the other by the road of reasoning. The former road is usually considered the easier, and so we find it most frequently followed. To memorize a table, a definition, or a series of dates is relatively easy. One knows exactly where one is, and can keep track of one's progress and test one's success. Some people are attracted by such a task and are perfectly happy to follow this plan of study. The kind of mind that contents itself with such phonographic records, however, must be acknowledged to be a commonplace sort of affair. We recognize its limitations in ordinary life, invariably rating it lower than the mind that can reason to new conclusions and work independently. Accordingly, if we wish to possess minds of superior quality, we see that we must develop the reasoning processes.

When we examine the mental processes by which we think constructively, or, in other words, reason, we find first of all that there is recognition of a problem to be solved. When we start to reason, we do it because we find ourselves in a situation from which we must extricate ourselves. The situation may be physical, as when our automobile stops suddenly on a country road; or it may be mental, as when we are deciding what college to attend. In both cases, we recognize that we are facing a problem which must be solved.

After recognition of the problem, our next step is to start vigorous efforts to solve it. In doing this, we cast about for means; we summon all the powers at our disposal. In the case of the automobile, we call to mind other accidents and the causes of them; we remember that once the spark-plug played out, so we test this hypothesis. At another time some dust got into the carburetor, so we test this. So we go on, calling up possible causes and applying appropriate remedies until the right one is found and the engine is started. In bringing to bear upon the problem facts from our past experience, we form a series of judgments. In the case of the problem as to what college to attend, we might form these judgments: this college is nearer home; that one has a celebrated faculty; this one has good laboratories; that one is my father's alma mater. So we might go on, bringing up all the facts regarding the problem and fitting each one mentally to see how it works. Note that this utilization of ideas should not consist merely of fumbling about in a vague hope of hitting upon some solution. It must be a systematic search, guided by carefully chosen ideas. For example, "if the clock on the mantle-piece has stopped, and we have no idea how to make it go again, but mildly shake it in the hope that something will happen to set it going, we are merely fumbling. But if, on moving the clock gently so as to set the pendulum in motion, we hear it wobbling about irregularly, and at the same time observe that there is no ticking of any kind, we come to the conclusion that the pendulum has somehow or other escaped the little catch that connects it with the mechanism, we have been really thinking. From the fact that the pendulum wobbles irregularly, we infer that it has lost its proper catch. From the fact that there is no ticking, we infer the same thing, for even when there is something wrong with the clock that will prevent it from going permanently, if the pendulum is set in motion by force from without it will tick for a few seconds before it comes to rest again. The important point to observe is that there must be inference. This is always indicated by the word therefore or its equivalent. If you reach a conclusion without having to use or at any rate to imply a therefore, you may take it for granted that you have not been really thinking, but only jumping to conclusions." This process of putting facts in the form of judgments and drawing inferences, may be likened to a court-room scene where arguments are presented to the judge. As each bit of evidence is submitted, it is subjected to the test of its applicability to the situation or to similar situations in the past. It is rigidly examined and nothing is accepted as a candidate for the solution until it is found by trial (of course, in imagination) to be pertinent to the situation.

The third stage of the reasoning process comes when some plan which has been suggested as a possible solution of the difficulty proves effective, and we make the decision; the arguments support or overthrow each other, adding to and eliminating various considerations until finally only one course appears possible.

As we said before, the solution comes inevitably, as represented by the word therefore. Little active work on our part is necessary, for if we have gone through these other phases properly the decision will make itself. You cannot make a wrong decision if you have the facts before you and have given each the proper weight. When the solution comes, it is recognized as right, for it comes tinged with a feeling that we call belief.

Now that we have found the reasoning process to be one of problem-solving, of which the first step is to acknowledge and recognize the difficulty, the second, to call up various methods of solution, and the third, to decide on the basis of one of the solutions that comes tinged with certainty, we are ready to apply this schema to study in the hope that we may discover the causes and remedies for the reasoning difficulties of students. In view of the fact that reasoning starts out with a problem, you see at once that to make your study effective you must study in problems. Avoid an habitual attitude of mere acquisition. Do not memorize facts in the same pattern as they are handed out to you. In history, in general literature, in science, do not read facts merely as they come in the text, but seek the relations between them. Voluntarily set before yourself intellectual problems.

Ask yourself, why is this so? In other words, in your study do not merely acquire, but also construct. The former makes use mostly of memory and though your memorizing be done ever so conscientiously, if it comprise the main part of your study, you fail to utilize your mind to its fullest extent.

Let us now consider the second stage of the reasoning process as found in study.

At this stage the facts in the mind are brought forward for the purpose of being fitted into the present situation, and the essential thing is that you have a large number of facts at your disposal. If you are going to reason effectively about problems in history, mathematics, geography, it is absolutely indispensable that you know many facts about the subjects. One reason why you experience difficulty in reasoning about certain subjects is that you do not know enough about them. Particularly is this true in such subjects as political economy, sociology and psychology. The results of such ignorance are often demonstrated in political and social movements. Why do the masses so easily fall victims to doubtful reforms in national and municipal policies? Because they do not know enough about these matters to reason intelligently. Watch ignorant people listening to a demagogue and see what unreasonable things they accept. The speaker propounds a question and then proceeds to answer it in his own way. He makes it appear plausible, assuring his hearers it is the only way, and they agree because they do not have enough other facts at their command to refute it. They are unable, as we say, to see the situation in several aspects. The mistakes in reasoning which children make have a similar basis. The child reaches for the moon, reasoning—"Here is something bright; I can touch most bright things; therefore, I can touch this." His reasoning is fallacious because he does not have all the facts. This condition is paralleled in the class-room when students make what are shamefacedly looked back upon as miserable blunders. When one of these fiascos occurs the cause can many times be referred to the fact that the student did not have enough facts at his command. Speaking broadly, the most effective reasoning in a field can be done by one who has had the most extensive experiences in that field. If one had complete acquaintance with all facts, one would have perfect conditions for reasoning. Thus we see that effectiveness in reasoning demands an extensive array of facts. Accordingly, in your courses of study you must read with avidity. When you are given a list of readings in a course, some of which are required and some optional, read both sets, and every new fact thus secured will make you better able to reason in the field.

But good reasoning demands more than mere quantity of ideas. The ideas must conform to certain qualitative standards before they may be effectively employed in reasoning. They must arise with promptness, in an orderly manner, pertinent to the matter in hand, and they must be clear. In securing promptness of association on the part of your ideas, employ the methods described in the chapter on memory. Make many logical associations with clearness and repetition. In order to insure the rise of ideas in an orderly manner, pay attention to the manner in which you acquire them.

Remember, things will be recalled as they were impressed, so the value of your ideas in reasoning will depend upon the manner in which you make original impressions. A further characteristic of serviceable ideas is clarity. Ideas are sometimes described as "clear" in opposition to "muddy." You know what is meant by these distinctions, and you may be assured that one cause for your failures in reasoning is that your ideas are not clear. This manifests itself in inability to make clear statements and to comprehend clearly. The latter condition is easily illustrated. When you began the study of geometry you faced a multitude of new terms; we call them technical terms, such as projection, scalene, theory of limits. These had to be clearly understood before you could reason in the subject. And when, in the progress of your study, you experienced difficulty in reasoning out problems, it was very likely due to the fact that you did not master the technical terms, and as soon as you encountered the difficulties of the course, you failed because your foundation laying did not involve the acquisition of clear ideas. Examine your difficulties in reasoning subjects and if you find them traceable to vagueness of ideas, take steps to clarify them.

Ideas may be clarified in two ways: by definition and by classification.

Definition is a familiar device, for you have had much to do with it in learning.

The memorization of definitions is an excellent practice, not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of effective reasoning. Throughout your study, then, pay much attention to definitions. Some you will find in your texts, but others you will have to make for yourself. In order to get practice in this, undertake the manufacture of a few definitions, using terms such as charity, benevolence, natural selection. This exercise will reveal what an exacting mental operation definition is and will prove how vague most of your thinking really is.

A large stock of definitions will help you to think rapidly. Standing as they do for a large group of experiences, definitions are a means of mental economy. For illustration of their service in reasoning, suppose you were asked to compare the serf, the peon and the American slave. If you have a clean-cut definition of each of these terms, you can readily differentiate between them, but if you cannot define them, you will hardly be able to reason concerning them.

The second means of clarifying ideas is classification. By this is meant the process of grouping similar ideas or similar points of ideas. For example, your ideas of serf, peon and slave have some points in common. Group the ideas, then, with reference to these points. Then in reasoning you can quickly place an idea in its proper group.

The third stage of the reasoning process is decision, based on belief, and it comes inevitably, provided the other two processes have been performed rightly.

Accordingly, we need say little about its place in study. One caution should be pointed out in making decisions. Do not make them hastily on the basis of only one or two facts. Wait until you have canvassed all the ideas that bear importantly upon the case. The masses that listen top eagerly to the demagogue do not err merely from lack of ideas, but partly because they do not utilize all the facts at their disposal. This fault is frequently discernible in impulsive people, who notoriously make snap-judgments, which means that they decide before canvassing all the evidence. This trait marks the fundamental difference between superficial and profound thinkers. The former accept surface facts and decide immediately, while the latter refuse to decide until after canvassing many facts.

In the improvement of reasoning ability your task is mainly one of habit formation. It is necessary, first, to form the habit of stating things in the form of problems; second, to form habits by which ideas arise promptly and profusely; third, to form habits of reserving decisions until the important facts are in. These are all specific habits that must be built up if the reasoning processes of the mind are to be effective. Already you have formed some habits, if not habits of careful looking into things, then habits of hasty, heedless, impatient glancing over the surface. Apply the principles of habit formation already enunciated, and remember that with every act of reasoning you perform, you are moulding yourself into a careless reasoner or an accurate reasoner, into a clear thinker or a muddy thinker. This chapter shows that reasoning is one of the highest powers of man. It is a mark of originality and intelligence, and stamps its possessor not a copier but an originator, not a follower but a leader, not a slave, to have his thinking foisted upon him by others, but a free and independent intellect, unshackled by the bonds of ignorance and convention. The man who employs reason in acquiring knowledge, finds delights in study that are denied to a rote memorizer. When one looks at the world through glasses of reason, inquiring into the eternal why, then facts take on a new meaning, knowledge comes with new power, the facts of experience glow with vitality, and one's own relations with them appear in a new light.

READINGS AND EXERCISES Readings: Adams (1) Chapter IV.

Dearborn (2) Chapter V.

Dewey (3) Chapters III and VI.

Exercise I. Illustrate the steps of the reasoning process, by describing the way in which you studied this chapter.

Reference book: How To Use Your Mind

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