Critical Thinking, also known as Dialectic, is the method of philosophy. It is a method applicable only to open questions, that is, questions that are not answerable by means of observation or calculation. In this regard it is applicable both to private open questions – which, because of their private, particular nature, cannot be considered philosophical – as well as public, or general question – that is, ones which require no special knowledge or information about particulars in order to be answered.
The method of Critical Thinking consists of a method of framing issues and testing conclusions which is similar to the deductive manner in which science frames theories and then tests hypotheses deduced from them. The main difference is that science deals only with questions that can be answered by observation and calculation, i.e. closed questions, while Dialectic only. deals only with open questions.
In a wider sense, critical thinking can be described as deductively framed argumentation. In this sense, the method of science is embraced within Critical Thinking.
The Dialectic Method/Essay Format
Philosophy proceeds by the presentation and development of arguments regarding controversial general open questions.
To “take a position for the sake of argument” means to present an argument for or against a controversial thesis, regardless of whether or not you’ve decided that you subscribe to that argument.
To present an argument means
- to state a thesis – negative or affirmative; and
- to state a rationale for that thesis.
A rationale is a set of premises which, together, entails the thesis, i.e. the conclusion of the argument. This means that the premises must be such that, if they are all true, then the conclusion has to be true as well.
There are two kinds of premise that are included in any rationale:
- formal, or “major” premise, and
- material, or “minor” premise.
A material premise is the evidence for the conclusion. It is the most likely kind of premise to be stated; the least likely to be a “hidden” premise.
A formal premise is a “connecting” premise: it connects the evidence deductively to the conclusion; i.e. it expresses the intended deductive relationship between the evidence and the conclusion.
A formal premise is the most likely kind of premise not to be stated, i.e. to remain “unstated” or “hidden”.
Every well-presented argument has at least one material premise and at least one formal premise.
The way to construct an argument is backwards:
- First, think of the conclusion you want to argue for – for the sake of argument.
- Next, think of the strongest evidence that there is to support that conclusion.
- Thirdly, express the deductive connection between the conclusion and the evidence.
To develop an argument is to defend it, then criticize it, then try to rebut the criticism against it, then assess whether the rebuttal effectively handles the criticism.
To defend an argument is to do two things:
- provide explanatory (not dictionary) definitions for pivotal terms in the premises.
- advocate for the truth of each of the premises.
- Each definition should be in a paragraph by itself, and each premise should be advocated for in a separate paragraph. You should try to defend more than one premise at a time.
- The conclusion is not to be defended, since it is already taken care of by the premises.
To criticize an argument is more succinct: it is simply to turn the tables and try to say why one of the premises of the argument – the one most vulnerable to criticism – may actually be false, or at least dubitable. This should take a good-sized paragraph. Be careful in your criticism to remain patient and not try to turn back to rebuttal of the criticism too quickly.
To rebut criticism is to turn the tables on the criticism and try to say how the criticism fails to refute the argument. This also should be a good-sized paragraph. It should be based on new insight and not merely be a restatement of the defense.
To assess an argument in this context is to judge whether the rebuttal overcomes the criticism or not. This can be done in a paragraph, either before or in concluding. If done in concluding, the concluding paragraph should be a good-sized paragraph.
This, in short, is the method of dialectic reasoning, and that is what justifies it as the format for philosophical essays. In real life the method is reiterative, where there may be several rounds of criticism and rebuttal, then revised presentation of the argument, etc.
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