Class lecture by Bob Corbett.
Two preliminary notes:
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:
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?
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.
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:
If you then show:
It would only require that you then return to the MAIN argument and assess the damage this criticism does to the central argument.
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:
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.
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. :)]
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.
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.
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