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


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.



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.

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