Reasoning: New Essays on Theoretical and Practical Thinking - Book Review

Indy Neogy
Indy Neogy
6 min read

As with a previous book review, this is as much an exploration of issues as a straight review. If you are not engaged in philosophy and the subfield of philosophy around "reasoning" then while this book is interesting, I can't recommend it because it is priced for academic libraries - around £60 (GBP).

So why did I get a copy? This book is a useful update edited by some thoughtful philosophers on what we understand about "reasoning." They, like I, think there is more to be understood, especially about what they call "practical reasoning." It's also useful to see where even these philosophers draw the line - leading me to think there is something like "practical thinking" which takes in even more issues than reasoning alone.

The book is a collection of chapters from different authors introduced by the editors Magdalena Balcerak Jackson and Brendan Balcerak Jackson. I'm going to concentrate on that introduction as going in depth on the chapters is a much larger project. The introduction begins with an assertion dear to the heart of the Mind Atelier project, that to answer the interesting/important/useful questions in life "we need to engage in cognitive labor, and especially cognitive labour in the form of reasoning." One of the big enemies of this moment is a desire to use complexity as an excuse to avoid this work. We cannot know or control as much as we would wish (much less, everything) but there is still value in examining how things might work or be understood.

The editors later say: "reasoning as a distinctive cognitive capacity has not yet received the systematic attention it deserves in philosophy" and make an analogy: "Perhaps one reason is that reasoning is like baking: something that we all do (at least from time to time), and something that is so familiar that we seldom stop to notice how little we understand about how it really works."

A major part of the book is devoted to some key questions about "reasoning" and "practical reasoning" which are important, but I think are only the starting point - at least some of the challenges involve a wider realm that for today I'll call "practical thinking." The work these philosophers are doing is valuable in itself, but in the end I'm writing about it because it sets the stage for this Mind Atelier project exploring "practical thinking" or "thinking in life."

Thus, when they say: "Philosophers certainly do not understand reasoning as well as patissiers understand baking." I have to admit I'm to be found nodding. They go on to list a number of issues they feel are not well addressed so far and I'll return to a couple of them later on. They then turn to why these items have not found the attention they feel they deserve:

"For a very long time, the philosophical investigation of reasoning tended to focus on reasoning of a very specific kind: explicit basic deductive reasoning that is governed by formal rules, the kind of reasoning exercised by a logician or mathematician explicitly spelling out a proof." I find this to be an issue not only in philosophical works (which is to some degree understandable) but also in a lot of books meant for the rest of us which aim to lay out ideas about rational debate or critical thinking. It is always easy to find people either intentionally or accidentally playing fast and loose with the basic units of logic, especially for political purposes. However, a lot of the problems we face where people invoke "critical thinking" as a solution involve building something more in our minds than "if A is true, B is true, we find A to be true, so B is too." How we build that something more is for future posts, but it seemed worth mentioning here.

The editors continue, cataloguing some further technical issues before saying: "the important observation for present purposes is that they leave the majority of our everyday reasoning, and even of reasoning by experts, entirely untouched. This is because most of it is not explicit, conscious reasoning in accordance with basic deductive rules, but is rather some more or less complicated form of reasoning that is not fully explicit, and whose relationship to deductive patterns of inference is not at all clear."

They then give some examples: "We know which students will come late to class today, because we have a visual track record of them entering class late stored in our memory, and this forms a basis from which we infer what will happen tomorrow. ... We decide to go on a family trip to Vietnam, because after considering the alternatives, we conclude this will be the best experience for everyone in the family." I think we can recognise these as some of the kind of thinking we do every day and that we might want to get better at, even if some of them have greater consequences for our lives than others.

Moving on to some specific issues that have chapters in the book. In Chapter 2 Susanna Siegel argues that "inference does not always work according to the canonical reckoning model, because there are cases of inference where the thinker is not aware of the factors that lead her to reach her conclusion." You may have encountered this substance this issue before in Daniel Kahneman's concept of System One and System Two thinking (in short, subconscious quick processing vs slower, laid out reasoning) - but in raising the issue Siegel reminds us that for almost any complex decision, both "Systems" are used. Life is such that even the most rigorous of us would simply be paralysed if we had to bring every aspect of a complex thought or decision to conscious, formal processing. (Siegel has different concerns, but as with many things in this piece I leave those for the real philosophers amongst you.)

In Chapter 6, Mark Richard takes on the issue of subconscious processing from the angle of agency. If a substantial portion of reasoning is subconscious, then is "the reasoner" an appropriate "target of epistemic evaluation" - do they have the agency to be responsible? As the editors note in the introduction: "Richard argues otherwise: a factory manager can be held responsible for the production of widgets in her factory even though she does not personally operate the machines or control the workers, and in the same way a thinker can be responsible for beliefs of hers that are produced by processes that are outside her direct control." Having mentioned Kahneman it won't surprise some of you that for me this brings to mind Gary Klein. Our subconscious processes are for Klein not beyond our influence or improvement and I think that the factory manager analogy is a good metaphor for how we can improve. We can look at any given output of the factory and veto it - perhaps in favour of a more formal effort. We can also work to improve the conditions and workings of the factory for the future. We can invest in how we perceive and process the world. To make another analogy, like an archer or golfer, we can train our muscle memory in various ways ready for the big events.

In Chapter 7, Paul Boghossian is focussed on the central role of the psychological process of inference in epistemology, but for me what is interesting is that along the way he states that: "the other feature is that reasoning is distinct from mere associative thinking; in cases of genuine reasoning, but not associative thinking, the thinker deliberately establishes one belief as the epistemic basis of another." This is why the Mind Atelier project is focussed on thinking as a superset that includes reasoning, rather than reasoning alone. It seems to me that a complex process of thinking may well include episodes of associative thinking. Indeed one can argue that you can't proceed to reasoning (which Boghossian articulates as an establishment of a kind of causality) without first establishing what some might call correlation, or association. Before we see how some things are related, we might need first to notice that they are (or appear) related. At times we may skip this step (or at least integrate it) but many times we do not.

One danger of the genre of academic publishing this book belongs to is that it does not have a central thesis to argue for or against, beyond the contention of the editors (which I agree with) that philosophers can benefit from paying more attention to the details of reasoning. I extend that with the idea that we non-philosophers can benefit from paying more attention to thinking. I have noted that from the book I draw some lessons - that thinking is more than reasoning alone; that the integration (and improvement) of both conscious and subconscious thought need attention; and that the some of the thinking here gives us some clues to move forward.

To move forward then I would point to this week's other piece, which is a work in progress exploration of different mental states or modes.

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Indy Neogy

Indy Neogy is the main author of Mind Atelier. He is a coach, consultant and thinker about better thinking using tools, spaces and principles for thought.