Preface to the First Edition

Several things are, I hope, distinctive about A Guide to Good Reasoning. They fall into two main categories—the practical and the intellectual.

The book’s chief practical advantage is that it gradually unfolds for the student a single simple system—what amounts to a checklist of steps for clarifying and evaluating any argument. There is a standard format for clarifying the argument and a list of things to achieve in the clarification. And, there is a standard format for evaluating the same argument and a list of things to achieve there. The book also provides a handy test for clarifying (“imagine the arguer over your shoulder”) and for evaluating (“imagine a reasonable objector over your shoulder”). Useful features abound in support of this practical approach: highlighted guidelines at regular intervals, glossaries, and copious real-life exercises and examples. I have tried hard to achieve the additional practical advantage of writing the book in a clear and inviting style.

The major intellectual advantage is that the book does not treat critical thinking as a grab bag of tips and topics—that is, not merely as fodder for a course in “reasoning appreciation.” Rather, it treats it as a philosophical subdiscipline—applied epistemology is probably the best term for it—in which all the tips and topics fit together sensibly. The theory behind it is a simple one: good reasoning is ultimately a matter of cultivating intellectual virtues—of developing habits of thought that are conducive to knowledge. And this can best be done by cultivating skill in clarifying and evaluating arguments. Topics as diverse as definition, equivocation, truth, fallacies, deduction, and induction all fit naturally and coherently into such a system. This is not at the forefront of the book—my aim is to teach a skill, not a philosophical subdiscipline—but it is there. In addition, even though the book is written not for philosophers but for college freshmen, I have tried hard to maintain high standards of intellectual respectability throughout.

Several things not found in most such books are found here. There is an emphasis on judgmental heuristics, the quick and dirty shortcuts that psychologists have shown we constantly use in our reasoning. Intellectual virtues—especially intellectual honesty—are stressed, since cultivation of these virtues is ultimately the path to good reasoning. Conversational implicature (which, to make it easier on the students, I rename conversational implication) plays a significant part in the discussion of clarifying arguments. And I assign a prominent role to “conversational relevance” (failures of which include missing the point and begging the question) as a merit of arguments on a par with soundness and clarity.

On the other hand, a few things found in most similar books are not  found here. Argument diagramming (numbering sentences in a passage and connecting them appropriately with arrows) is displaced by the simple procedure of outlining an argument in standard clarifying format. Symbolic logic is not here because it belongs in a different course; nor are truth tables, since they do not reliably describe language as we ordinarily use it. Categorical syllogisms are only briefly treated, given that they are exceedingly rare in real life.

On almost every page I have resisted the temptation to provide a philosophical defense of the terms and strategies adopted there. This is a guide to good reasoning, not a grand unified theory of good reasoning. To adapt a line from Daniel Dennett, I am mainly trying to offer students some training in reasoning first aid, so they’ll know what to do until the doctor of philosophy arrives.

Many people have contributed significantly to this book. It would not exist without David Kaplan, who invented UCLA’s critical reasoning course in the 1970s, invited me to teach it (again and again), and imparted to me a vision for what the course—and consequently the book—ought to be. The book has benefited immeasurably from the suggestions of those who have served as my teaching assistants or have taught their own courses with these materials. Carol Voeller merits special praise for her extraordinary help, as does Amy Kind, who wrote the superb Instructor’s Manual. Many others are in this group: Adeofe Adeleke, Don Brown, Ron Condon, Keith DeRose, Simon Evnine, Bill Fitzpatrick, Roger Florka, Gary Gleb, Steve Gross, Dan Guevara, Yoram Gutgeld, Martin Hahn, Lisa Halko, Matt Hanser, Julie Heath-Elliot, Del Kiernan-Lewis, Andreas Koch, Maryann Kooij, Rob Koons, John Mandeville, Frank Menetrez, Adele Mercier, Laurie Pieper, Gary Rawnsley, Sam Rickless, Josie Rodriguez-Hewitt, Marco Ruffino, Joseph Vaughan, Jon Wilwerding, and Eric Wing. I am also indebted to David Rivette, and to the countless students who have shaped the book by their participation in the course.

This book would, likewise, not exist without Dorothy Raymond of McGraw-Hill. When she couldn’t sell me her company’s textbook on this subject, she sold me on writing one I liked better. I owe much to the remarkable McGraw-Hill editors, who have shown professionalism, intelligence, and patience throughout the project. Cynthia Ward began by establishing a matchless standard; Sarah Moyers and Alexis Walker matched it. I am also grateful for the assistance they brought in from elsewhere—Vicky Nelson made a big difference, as did their team of reviewers: David W. Benfield, Montclair State College; C. J. Cassini, Barry University; Leonard Berkowitz, Pennsylvania State University, York; Thomas Feehan, College of the Holy Cross; Ricardo Gomez, California State University, Los Angeles; Arnold Johanson, Moorhead State University; Robert Kirkpatrick, University of Southwestern Louisiana; Michael Levin, City University of New York, City College; Richard Miller, East Carolina University; Walter H. O’Briant, University of Georgia (who may not recall that in the early 1970s he gave me a B, probably better than I deserved, in my only undergraduate philosophy course); Michael F. Patton, Jr., University of Montevallo; George Rainbolt, Georgia State University; Robert G. Wengert, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Nancy E. Shaffer, University of Nebraska at Omaha; Peter Chad Finsterwald, Boston University; Frank C. Williams, Eastern Kentucky University; Arnold Wilson, University of Cincinnati; Sara Worley, Bowling Green State University; and Michael Wreen, Marquette University.

David Carl Wilson


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A Guide to Good Reasoning: Cultivating Intellectual Virtues Copyright © 2020 by David Carl Wilson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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