Bob Corbett

PHIL 1010 01: June 5th until July 28th, 2000

Class lecture by Bob Corbett.

Two preliminary notes:

  1. Criticism may be negative (to show that the argument is inadequate) or positive, (to argument that the argument is quite correct). I will take up positive criticism later on. What is below is a basic introduction to negative criticism.
  2. Above in the title I have carefully called this the "art" of criticism. There are no mechanical rules for criticism. One can learn the skills, and I try to explain some. But, just as one may learn dance steps in a studio, how one uses them to achieve a "success" is as much art as rule following. Criticism is an intellectual art, limited by certain rules. I don't think I can teach the art, only the skills.

When criticizing an argument in critical thinking it is CRUCIAL to recognize we are not criticizing the THESIS, but the ARGUMENT. The point is to show that:

  1. Some reason or consideration for the thesis is inadequate as support for the thesis,

  2. That the logical relation between the reasons and/or considerations for the thesis and the thesis itself does not work.

It is NOT a criticism of an argument to simply ignore the argument, say that the thesis is wrong and try to argue for another thesis. All of what one says in such work may be perfectly true and defensible, but it is NOT criticism of a particular argument. Rather, that is to simply ignore the argument you are faced with and choose, instead, to write a different position. That may be a fine tactic to use, but it is NOT criticism. To criticize an argument is to stay INSIDE that argument and criticize either adequacy of the reasons and considerations or the logic of the connections.

What sort of criticisms show that a reason or consideration is inadequate?

  1. There is one level of criticism that is legitimate, but often a cop-out for more serious work: that is criticism which focuses on some unclarity of the expression or confusion of terms etc. Such a criticism doesn't address the truth of the claim, but stays in the vaguer area of clarity.

    Such criticism may be very important and lead to a great improvement of the argument. However, in my experience in teaching critical thinking it is much too often used by beginning students as a way of avoiding the very hard work of dealing with the TRUTH of an argument.

    Thus, again, without disparaging this form of criticism in more sophisticated use, I am going to ask the students in this course to absolutely avoid this form of criticism. Did deeper and deal with issues of truth of claims.

  2. Thus a second mode of criticism is to show that some reason or consideration for the thesis is simply mistaken and not at all as the author has said. This requires an analysis of the reason or consideration. Treat it as a mini-argument inside an argument. You may then reduce the mini-argument to a thesis and supporting set of reasons or considerations. Then you show that this argument is inadquate. Next you would need to reflect on the ORIGINAL or MAIN thesis to assess the "damage" of your criticism. If the criticism is as you say, and this particular reason or consideration for the thesis is inadequate, then what IMPACT does this have on the central argument? How much does it weaken the argument?

    If, for example, the author were to accept your criticism and completely give up this PARTICULAR reason or consideration and just eliminate it altogether, would the thesis still stand without that reason or consideration?

    To summarize: if your form of criticism were to be to attack the truth or adequacy of some one reason or consideration you need to do the following:

    1. Analyze the reason or consideration to point out what it says. Treat it, itself, as an if / then argument.
    2. Clarify what is the thesis of the reason or consideration.
    3. Show why the reasons and considerations in favor of this mini-argument are inadequate and thus why the thesis (the reason or consideration in the larger thesis) is inadequate and thus why it must be rejected.
    4. Lastly, you must go back and assess just what damage your mini-argument has done to the reliability of the central argument in question.
  3. Within that particular structure of #1, one of the specific tactics is to show a "paradigm case" against the reason or consideration under consideration. That is, you try to raise some concrete case which amounts to a denial or rejection or complete incompatibility, or strong opposition to the reason or consideration. This case raised as a "paradigm case" or "counter-example" (another name for virtually the same thing) must be a case which, itself is so obvious and unquestionable, that virtually no reasonable person would raise an objection to it.
    If you then show:
    1. The existence of such a paradigm case or counter-example,
    2. That the paradigm case or counter-example shows the reason or consideration is itself thus inadequate, then you have shown the reason or consideration to be unsatisfactory.

    It would only require that you then return to the MAIN argument and assess the damage this criticism does to the central argument.

  4. Another very powerful tool of criticism is to show that some reason or consideration for the thesis is just FACTUALLY mistaken. You would need to do the same analysis of the reason or consideration as above, converting it into a mini-argument. Then you delve into this alleged fact and build an argument to show that the reason or consideration is rooted in some factual error.

    After this is done, then one must return to the original MAIN argument and assess the damage this criticism does to the main argument.

    I can give you a concrete example of this later. I recently wrote an argument defending the historical existence of a small railroad's having existed in my neighborhood between 1902 and 1905. The existence of such a railroad had been virtually unknown or unheard of until I wrote this article.

    One of my reasons for believing this was the ALLEGED reports of eye-witnesses. It turns out that my factual claim was somewhat weak (but not necessarily false) since:

    1. I did not talk with these people myself, but got the reports second hand. [Most of the witnesses are dead.]
    2. Some of the witness stories were already second hand, having been handed down in family lore.

    Further, there were alternative explanations. One person reported having seen people "wave" from this railroad -- a potentially very power piece of evidence that a railroad existed. However, given there were clay mines all over the area, it is certainly plausible there was a confusion, and that it wasn't people waving from a RAILROAD, but only from a local small track carrying mining cars from the mines to the brick factories.

    At minimum such a criticism would show that THAT particular reason I gave for my thesis (the thesis is that the railroad existed), would have to be regarded as very weak (at least) on the basis of this factual criticism.

    Now, in going back to assess: how much does that weaken the MAIN ARGUMENT itself would have shown that, at most, if I 100% accepted the criticism (which I don't), and if, therefore, I completely pulled that reason out of my argument, then virtually nothing would change; just this interesting bit of folk history would have to be pitched. The OTHER considerations and arguments are strong enough on their own to carry the whole argument to the thesis without that one reason even existing.

    The criticism is quite valuable. It calls one reason I gave into question. That's valuable criticism. But, it turns out in this case, that such a criticism, even if accepted, wouldn't do much damage to the argument as a whole.

    All of this must be assessed in criticism.

  5. Another very important tactic of criticism is to try to show that some piece of knowledge just doesn't at all fit with known facts.

    Suppose, for example, in the case above, there was a very large brick and stone building standing EXACTLY where I maintain the railroad had to go to get from Manchester Avenue to the World's Fair grounds. And suppose the critic could show that we can clearly document the existence of such a building.

    This criticism might place an obstacle of enormous significance into the path of my whole thesis. If it turned out it was impossible to have a route to get there without this one route, and this building was there….. well, the entire argument would be in serious question. [Fortunately for my argument no such building exists. :)]

  6. Another important tactic is to show that some future consequence would have to be different or come out in a way that is impossible or simply didn't happen.

    Suppose someone made an argument that if only a person had invested in the Groovy Corporation in 1950, then by the year 2000, he or she would have made a million dollars for every dollar invested in 1950 (thesis) and that person gave reasons and considerations to show why this was so.

    But, I am able to document Bill Jones, who invested $10.00 in 1950 and never touched the stock. But, that today, there are reasons to show Bill's stock is only worth $70.95. To document this CONTRAFACTUAL outcome would be an extremely damaging criticism of the original argument.


We could go on and on and on.

However, this is an introductory course and I am hitting highlights here. So, in summary, here are the main avenues of criticism.

  1. Criticism by showing systematic or misleading unclarities. This is a useful and often valuable form of criticism. However, with people new to criticism, this is often a way of avoiding the hard work of doing other forms of criticism. While calling attention to this form and its value, I will ask you NOT to make this a form of criticism you use in this course.
  2. Criticism of facts which are in the reasons and considerations for the thesis. This is perhaps the largest and most important form of criticism. I highly recommend it to you.
  3. Criticism by means of calling attention to a paradigm case or counter-example which itself is so clear as to be undoubtable, and yet is seen as a serious challenge to one of the reasons or considerations offered in defense of the thesis.
  4. Criticism by showing that there are known factual considerations which stand in the way of some one of the reasons or considerations for the thesis being true.
  5. Criticism by showing that if some reasons or consideration were as the author has said, then something about the present or future would have to be in ways that good reasons (give them) suggest is not or will not be the case.

There are more modes. I would urge you to stick with these 4 now (exclude # 1) and practice these before we would move to more sophisticated ones.

Please note that from this point onward when you write criticisms, including the responses you write to other student papers, I will expect you to use THESE skills above and not others, and most particularly, to complete avoid the easy-out of criticism of vagueness and other such things. Deal with the TRUTH of the claims.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett