In the first part of the course, you studied the mechanics of how we collectively build knowledge: how we generalize (induction) and apply generalizations (deduction), the different kinds of statements we make (inference, fact, judgment) and how to support them, and how summarize and evaluate our reasoning (standard form). These form the “rules of the road” for logical and rational thinking.
The merit of these rules can be seen in their startling success. Collectively, in the last four hundred years, we’ve built an incredible and ever-expanding store of pretty reliable knowledge. (We’ve gotten ourselves into some trouble, too.)
But the 18th century writer Jonathan Swift made this important point about our species: that we humans are not an “animal Rationale” [rational animal] – we are “only rationis capax” – a creature capable of reason.
It’s a brilliant distinction, because it reminds us that we don’t operate on logic alone. Yes, we can and do apply rules of logic in order to arrive at truths. But we do it messily, inconsistently, and often reluctantly. It’s an effort. Quite often, we get the wrong end of the stick. And when we persuade others, we are as likely to try to suppress critical thinking as to invite it – either by manipulating, or sometimes downright bullying, our listeners.
So in this unit, you have been looking at some of the factors of unreason that can sometimes illuminate, sometimes cloud our critical thinking. Some are honest errors (making mistaken generalizations, becoming confused over statistics, being misled by a metaphor or analogy). Some are less-than-honest errors (manipulating people’s feelings, using pictures to skew information or stir emotions, or just painting listeners into a corner). Sometimes, we use these techniques in a good way, to engage people’s emotions and force them to think clearly – because just about all opinions involve our moral and aesthetic judgments. Sometimes, though, we use these techniques in ways that make it harder to think clearly. Sometimes, we use pictures to awaken people to reality; other times, we use pictures as if they offered evidence, when in fact they offer a kind of art.
Topic B – Do memes support good arguments, or harm them? Memes rule the internet. Just about any Twitter thread will include several responses that are almost wordless (except for the meme captions). Memes are often unfair, utterly misleading or downright untruthful; but they’re also often funny, pithy, and brisk. — Focusing on the memes you’ve discussed this week, as well as some memes you find yourself, discuss how memes differ from traditional reasoned discussion; and explore their effect on discourse, both good and bad.
CONTENT: Or, How to tackle this paper!
Whichever topic you choose, remember that you are addressing a big question by discussing specific examples in detail. So while your thesis might be grand (“Memes can be highly effective ways”), your topic sentences will make very down-to-earth points about these examples (“This meme, responding to Kinzinger’s leaving office, shows how memes can be very funny and make a meaningful point”).
Each topic choice includes a number of assigned readings, and suggested videos or pictures. You do not need to find resources outside the assigned material. You can also draw on material assigned in the discussion boards, including pictures, tweets and examples.
THE CRITICAL THINKING CONTEXT: This assignment asks you to contrast critical thinking with tools of non-rational persuasion:
Components of logic: Distinguish between components of reason (standard form, deduction & induction etc.) and unreason (pictures, appeals to feeling, fallacies, persuasive techniques)
Epistemology: An understanding of how we make knowledge, both as individuals and as a community; an understanding of how unreason might complement or hinder building that knowledge
Clear thinking and expression: An ability to express ideas clearly and plainly, to make them intelligible to readers; the ability to cite appropriate evidence to support claims; the ability to evaluate your own ideas critically, as well as other people’s.