Elements of Reasoning
The Elements of Reasoning are a list of factors that are designed to make people aware of the different elements involved in the process of reasoning. The Elements of Reasoning framework is developed by the Foundation for Critical Thinking.1 Within this framework reasoning is understood as a process where people use data, information and assumptions to infer conclusions from a perspective, in attempting to answer a question or solve a problem, with consequences then resulting from the conclusions drawn. From this definition can be drawn a number of elements to the reasoning process, including; purpose, problem, assumptions, information, concepts, point of view, inference and consequences.
Reasoning is purposeful in nature. A central part of reasoning is a deliberate effort to construct inferences so as to reach justifiable conclusions.2 This differs from other cognitive activities such as daydreaming in which the mind operates without focus on achieving some result. Reasoning is a concerted activity that requires a degree of effort. Because it is goal-oriented it is something that can be done with varying degrees of success. One may or may not succeed in the given purpose of solving a problem, understanding something, forming a plan, proving one’s case etc. In this respect also it differs from daydreaming, where the concepts of success and failure do not really apply. Thinking is a skill. It is a skill that everyone has to some degree, but it is also a skill that everyone can improve.3 In this respect effective reasoning involves; choosing significant and realistic purposes; taking time to state one’s purpose clearly; distinguishing the given purpose from related purposes; checking periodically to be sure one’s activities are still aligned with the overall purpose of the reasoning process.4
Everyone thinks, almost all of the time. However reasoning is a particular kind of mental activity that is focused in some way on solving a problem; planning an action, studying for an exam, defending a position on a controversial issue etc. To reason means to figure out with standards. All reasoning is an attempt to figure something out or to resolve a question.
This involves a number of factors; taking time to clearly and precisely state the question at issue; possibly breaking the question into subquestions; expressing the question in several ways to clarify its meaning and scope; Identifying if the question has one right answer, is a matter of opinion, or requires reasoning from more than one point of view.5
Not everything can be questioned all of the time, all reasoning is based on some assumptions. People who think critically seek a clear understanding of the assumptions they are making and the assumptions that underlie the reasoning of others. They are able to distinguish between assumptions that are justifiable in the context and those that are not.
It is necessary to note that assumptions generally function at the unconscious or subconscious level of thinking and thus typically have not been critically examined by the thinker. Assumptions are often the grounds for prejudices, stereotypes, biases, distortions and other errors in one’s reasoning that one would not like to be aware of. Effective reasoning means assessing these assumptions, as well as those of others, to determine whether those assumptions are based on sound reasoning and evidence and if not attempting to reconstruct them so.
People must want to seek out, in their thinking, unjustifiable assumptions generated and maintained through naive egocentric or sociocentric tendencies. To achieve high standards in thinking one must try to clearly identify one’s assumptions and determine whether they are justifiable. In doing this it is necessary to exercise balanced judgment in considering how assumptions are shaping one’s point of view.
Point of View
All reasoning is done from some point of view. The world is complex and any given phenomena may be understood from many different dimensions. If we take just a single individual person and try to give definition to them, one will note the many ways in which we could do this, social, psychological, economic, biological etc. all of which would lead to different processes of reasoning and different conclusions.
One’s reasoning will only ever be a partial account of the world and it is important to identify what is the main point of view that we are using and make this explicit. In identifying points of view, one can seek other perspectives and identify their strengths as well as weaknesses. In presenting one’s point of view and assessing the perspectives of others, inclusiveness, open-mindedness, empathy and balance of judgment are required.
In contrast with preference, which is only ever a partial subjective interpretation, in seeking objective reasons one is looking for a balanced assessment or judgment of different subjective accounts while maintaining an awareness to one’s own perspective in reconstructing and judging them.
All reasoning is based on data or information of some kind. A reason is fundamentally based on evidence given and that evidence is ultimately information of some kind. Whenever we construct a case, whether we are a researcher, a manager, a lawyer, or just a child wishing to obtain more pocket money from their parents, if this is done through reasoning then it will be based on information of some kind. An argument is only ever as good as the premise and the information contained in those premises. Claims should be restricted to those supported by the information provided. Information comes in varying degrees of quality, thus it is necessary to always ask where the information is coming from and make some assessment to its potential validity and accuracy. Search for information that opposes one’s position as well as information that supports it. Make sure that all information used is clear, accurate, and relevant to the question at issue. Make sure sufficient information has been gathered to present a balanced case.6
All reasoning is ultimately created by concepts and ideas. Being able to identify and express clearly the abstract ideas used within the process of reasoning is of fundamental value. Conceptual frameworks are what give structure to reasoning, by defining well the concepts, categories and the interrelationships being used we can create sound, clear and coherent reasons that can be easily communicated.
Concepts are the building blocks of reasoning and they need to be well built, i.e. well defined. It is important to identify the concepts being used and the definitions of those concepts; concepts should be used with care and precision. Likewise to avoid confusion and miscommunication concepts need to be used in keeping with established usage. Different concepts mean and do different things, it is important to understand the precise meaning of concepts and how they will shape the case being formulated.
Effective reasoning involves the use of abstraction in order to define different levels to a conceptual framework, with higher more abstract concepts used to structure lower more concrete ideas. Understanding the use of abstraction enables the appropriate structuring and categorization of an argument and thus the capacity to present complex issues in an accessible, intelligible and coherent form.
All reasoning contains inference through which we draw conclusions. The inference is the logical set of connections that take us from one place (the premise) to another (the conclusion), without inference there is no reasoning. The statement “I like butter cookies because I like them” involves no reasoning and is not a rational argument because the premise and the conclusion are essentially the same; there is no logical inference between them. Reasoning contains inferences by which we draw conclusions and give meaning to data.7
Effective reasoning involves the process of thinking about something in a logical way in order to infer a conclusion or judgment based upon information.8 Thus it is important to not only identify the information and concepts being used but also the logical connections that are being drawn between them. It is the way that we interrelate the information that gives new meaning to the conclusion that may make the argument of value.
The processes of inference are studies within logic, they may be deductive formal processes that involve certainty, where the conclusion follows for certain from the premises, or they may involve varying degrees of uncertainty as studied within informal logic. Either way, it is important to be aware as to how the case is constructed through understanding its logical inference.
Reasoning leads somewhere and has implications and consequences. Thinking that leads nowhere has no value. Reasoning starts somewhere and takes up somewhere else; to a new conclusion on an issue and these conclusions have implications. For human beings, our thinking governs what we say and do which in turn have implications; when we reach new conclusions these will have new implications. If someone constructs an argument that there are for sure aliens on a planet nearby and convinces others, then the implication of this is that people will invest their time and energy in search for them. If we construct an argument for history as a linear process leading to ever greater progress then we will expect the future to be such and act accordingly; thinking has implications.
We often construct arguments and theories that are designed specifically to achieve certain outcomes that we desire without considering what other implications are entailed within that reasoning, or what would happen if it was generalized to all. Being responsible for our thinking and actions means tracing out the implications and consequences that follow from one’s reasoning, taking things to their natural conclusions and asking would that lead to a rational outcome for all. For example, jumping in one’s car all the time to go places may seem rational for the individual but it often leads to irrational outcomes when generalized, i.e. traffic jams, air pollution, excess greenhouse gasses. In tracing out the implications of our reasoning it is important to actively search for negative as well as positive implications in the consideration of all possible consequences.