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HOW WE REASON






From: How to Use Your Mind

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.

Exercise 2. Try to define the following words without the assistance of
a dictionary: College, university, grammatical, town-meeting.

Exercise 3. Prepare a set of maxims designed to help a student change
from the "rote memory" method of study to the "reason-why" (or
"problem") method.





Next: EXPRESSION AS AN AID IN STUDY

Previous: CONCENTRATION OF ATTENTION



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