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12.2: Criteria for Framing Definitions- It’s all about Context and Audience

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    Before getting into any of the more analytic details of logical reasoning, let’s consider the ways in which ideas ‘play out’ in the world, and the way we arrive at most of our beliefs. Most textbooks on modern logic assert that the basic unit of logic is the statement – a simple sentence which can be either true or false. But it seems to me that statements have to come from somewhere, and that they do not emerge from nothing. People do not come to believe things at random, or by magic. To my mind, the most obvious places where statements are born are one’s intellectual environments, one’s problems, and the questions that you and others in your environment tend to ask. Good thinking also begins in situations which prompt the mind to think differently about what it has taken for granted so far.

    Intellectual Environments

    Where does thinking happen? This may sound as if it’s a bit of a silly question. Thinking, obviously, happens in your mind. But people do more than just think their own thoughts to themselves. People also share their thoughts with each other. Thoughts do not remain confined within your own brain: they also express themselves in your words and your actions. I’d like to go out on a bit of a limb here, and say that thinking happens not only in your mind, but also any place where two or more people gather to talk to one another and share their ideas with each other. In short, thinking happens wherever two or more people could have a dialogue with each other. In that dialogue, at least two people (but possibly many more) can express, share, trade, move around, examine, criticize, affirm, reject, modify, argue about, and generally communicate their own and each other’s ideas. The importance of dialogue in reasoning is perhaps most important, and also most obvious, when we are reasoning about moral matters. The philosopher Charles Taylor (Malaise of Modernity, pg. 32) said:

    Reasoning in moral matters is always reasoning with somebody. You have an interlocutor, and you start from where that person is, or with the actual difference between you; you don’t reason from the ground up, as though you were talking to someone who recognized no moral demands whatever.

    What Taylor says about moral reasoning also applies to other things we reason about. Whenever you have a conversation with someone about whether something is right, wrong, true, false, partially both, and so on, you do not start the conversation from nothing. Rather, you start from your own beliefs about such things, and the beliefs held by your partner in the conversation, and the extent to which your beliefs are the same, or different, as those of the other person. It is not by accident that Plato, one of the greatest philosophers in history, wrote his books in the form of dialogues between Socrates and his friends. Similarly, French philosopher Michel Foucault observed that especially among Roman writers, philosophy was undertaken as a social practice, often within institutional structures like schools, but also through informal relations like friendships and families. This social aspect of one’s thinking was considered normal and even expected:

    When, in the practice of the care of the self, one appealed to another person in whom one recognised an aptitude for guidance and counseling, one was exercising a right. And it was a duty that one was performing when one lavished one’s assistance on another... (Foucault, The Care of the Self, pg. 53)

    So, to answer the question ‘Where does thinking happen?’ we can say: ‘any place where two or more people can have a conversation with each other about the things that matter to them’. And there are lots of such places. Where the Romans might have listed the philosophy schools and the political forums among those places, we today could add:

    • Movies, television, pop music, and the entertainment industry
    • Internet-based social networks like Facebook and YouTube
    • Streets, parks, and public squares
    • Pubs, bars, and concert venues
    • Schools, colleges, and universities
    • Mass media
    • Religious communities and institutions
    • The arts
    • The sciences
    • Courtrooms and legal offices
    • Political settings, whether on a small or large scale
    • The marketplace, whether local or global
    • Your own home, with your family and friends
    • Can you think of any more places like this?

    In each of the places where thinking happens, there’s a lot of activity. Questions are asked, answers are explored, ideas are described, teachings are presented, opinions are argued over, and so on. Some questions are treated as more relevant than others, and some answers meet with greater approval than others. It often happens that in the course of this huge and complicated exchange, some ideas become more influential and more prevalent than others. You find this in the way certain words, names, phrases or definitions get used more often. And you find it as certain ways to describe, define, criticize, praise, or judge things are used more often than others. The ideas that are expressed and traded around in these ways and in these places, and especially the more prevalent ideas, form the intellectual environment that we live in. Most of the time, your intellectual environment will roughly correspond to a social environment: that is, it will correspond (at least loosely) to a group of people, or a community that you happen to be part of. Think about all the groups and communities that you belong to, or have belonged to at one time or another:

    • Families
    • Sports teams
    • The student body of your college
    • The members of any social club you have joined
    • The people at your workplace
    • Your religious group (if you are religious)
    • People who live in the same neighbourhood of your town or city
    • People who speak the same language as you
    • People who are roughly the same age as you
    • People who come from the same cultural or ethnic background
    • People who like the same music, movies or books as you
    • People who play most of the same games as you
    • Can you think of any more?

    An intellectual environment will have a character of its own. That is, in one place or among one group of people, one idea or group of related ideas may be more prevalent than other ideas. In another place and among other people, a different set of ideas may dominate things. Furthermore, several groups may have very similar intellectual environments, or very different ones, or overlapping ones. Also note that you probably live in more than one social environment, and so you are probably hearing ideas from more than one intellectual environment too. An intellectual environment, with its prevalent ideas, surrounds everyone almost all the time, and it profoundly influences the way people think. It’s where we learn most of our basic ideas about life and the world, starting at a very early age. It probably includes a handful of stock words and phrases that people can use to express themselves and be understood right away. This is not to say that people get all of their thoughts from their environment. Obviously, people can still do their own thinking wherever they are. And this is not to say that the contents of your intellectual environment will always be the same from one day to the next. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre observed that an intellectual tradition is often a continuity of conflict, and not just a continuity of thought. But this is to say that wherever you are, and whatever community you happen to be living in or moving through, the prevalent ideas that are expressed and shared by the people around you will influence your own thinking and your life in profound and often unexpected ways. By itself, this fact is not something to be troubled about. Indeed, in your early childhood it was probably very important for you to learn things from the people around you. For instance, it was better for a parent to tell you not to touch a hot barbecue with your bare hand, than for you to put your hand there yourself and find out what it feels like. But as you grow into adulthood, it becomes more and more important to know what one’s intellectual environment is really like. It is very important to know what ideas are prevalent there, and to know the extent to which those ideas influence you. For if you know the character and content of the intellectual environment in which you live, you will be much better able to do your own thinking. You might end up agreeing with most, or even all of the prevalent ideas around you. But you will have agreed with them for your own reasons, and not (or not primarily) because they are the ideas of the people around you. And that will make an enormous difference in your life. Some intellectual environments are actually hostile to reason and rationality. Some people become angry, feel personally attacked, or will deliberately resist the questioning of certain ideas and beliefs. Indeed, some intellectual environments hold that intellectual thinking is bad for you! Critical reasoning sometimes takes great courage, especially when your thoughts go against the prevalent ideas of the time and place where you live.

    World Views

    Eventually, the ideas that you gathered from your intellectual environment, along with a few ideas of your own that you developed along the way come together in your mind. They form in your mind a kind of plan, a picture, or a model of what the world is like, and how it acts, and so on. This plan helps you to understand things, and also helps you make decisions. Philosophers sometimes call this plan a world view. Think for a moment about some of the biggest, deepest and most important questions in human life. These questions might include:

    • What should I do with my life? Where should I go from here? Should I get married? What career should I pursue? Where is my place in the world? How do I find it? How do I create it?
    • Is there a God? What is God like? Is there one god, or many gods? Or no gods at all? And if there is, how do I know? And if there’s not, how do I know?
    • Why are we here? Why are we born? Is there any point to it all?
    • What is my society really like? Is it just or unjust? And what is Justice?
    • Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be?
    • What does it mean to be an individual? What does it mean to be a member of society?
    • What happens to us when we die?
    • What do I have to do to pass this course?
    • Just what are the biggest, deepest and most important questions anyway?

    These are philosophical questions. (Well, all but one of them.) Your usual way of thinking about these questions, and others like them is your world view. Obviously, most people do not think about these questions all of the time. We are normally dealing with more practical, immediate problems. What will I have for dinner tonight? If the traffic is bad, how late might I be? Is it time to buy a new computer? What’s the best way to train a cat to use the litter-box? But every once in a while, a limit situation will appear, and it will prompt us to think about higher and deeper things. And then the way that we think about these higher and deeper things ends up influencing the way that we live, the way we make choices, the ways that we relate to other people, and the way we handle almost all of our problems. The sum of your answers to those higher and deeper questions is called your ‘world view’. The word ‘world view’ was first coined by German philosopher Albert Schweitzer, in a book called “The Decay and Restoration of Civilization”, first published in 1923. Actually, the word that Schweitzer coined here is the German word Weltanshauung. There are several possible ways to translate this word. In the text quoted above, as you can see, it’s translated as “theory of the universe”. It could also be translated as “theory of things” or “world conception”. Most English speakers use the simpler and more elegant sounding phrase “world view”. Here’s how Schweitzer himself defined it:

    The greatest of the spirit’s tasks is to produce a theory of the universe. What is meant by a theory of the universe? It is the content of the thoughts of society and the individuals which compose it about the nature and object of the world in which they live, and the position and the destiny of mankind and of individual men within it. What significance has the society in which I live and I myself in the world? What do we want to do in the world? What do we hope to get from it? What is our duty to it? The answer given by the majority to these fundamental questions about existence decides what the spirit is in which they and their age live. (Schweitzer, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, pg. 80-1)

    Schweitzer’s idea here is that a world-view is more than a group of beliefs about the nature of the world. It is also a bridge between those scientific or metaphysical beliefs, and the ethical beliefs about what people can and should do in the world. It is the intellectual narrative in terms of which the actions, choices, and purposes of individuals and groups make sense. It therefore has indispensable practical utility: it is the justification for a way of life, for individuals and for whole societies. In this sense, a world view is not just something you ‘have’; it is also something that you ‘live with’. And we cannot live without one. “For individuals as for the community,” Schweitzer said, “life without a theory of things is a pathological disturbance of the higher capacity for self-direction.” (Schweitzer, ibid, pg. 86) Let’s define a world view as follows: A world view is the sum of a set of related answers to the most important questions in life. Your own world view, whatever it is, will be the sum of your own answers to your philosophical questions, whatever you take those questions to be, and whether you have thought about them consciously or not. Thus your world view is intimately tied to your sense of who you are, how you want to live, how you see your place in your world and the things that are important to you. Not only your answers to the big questions, but also your choice of which questions you take to be the big questions, will form part of your world view. And by the way, that’s a big part of why people don’t like hearing criticism. A judgment of a world view is often taken to be a judgment of one’s self and identity. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some world views are so widely accepted by many people, perhaps millions of people, and are so historically influential, perhaps over thousands of years, that they have been given names. Here are a few examples:

    • Modernism: referring to the values associated with contemporary western civilization, including democracy, capitalism, industrial production, scientific reasoning, human rights, individualism, etc.
    • Heliocentrism: the idea that the sun is at the center of our solar system, and that all the planets (and hundreds of asteroids, comets, minor planets, etc.) orbit around the sun.
    • Democracy: the idea that the legitimacy of the government comes from the will of the people, as expressed in free and fair elections, parliamentary debate, etc.
    • Christianity: The idea that God exists; that humankind incurred an ‘original sin’ due to the events in the Garden of Eden, and that God became Man in the person of Jesus to redeem humanity of its original sin.
    • Islam: The idea that God exists, and that Mohammed was the last of God’s prophets, and that we attain blessedness when we live by the five pillars of submission: daily prayer, charity, fasting during Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, and personal struggle.
    • Marxism: The idea that all political and economic corruption stems from the private ownership of the means of production, and that a more fair and just society is one in which working class people collectively own the means of production.
    • Deep Ecology: The idea that there is an important metaphysical correlation between the self and the earth, or that the earth forms a kind of expanded or extended self; and that therefore protecting the environment is as much an ethical requirement as is protecting oneself.
    • The Age of Aquarius/The New Age: The idea that an era of peace, prosperity, spiritual enlightenment, and complete happiness is about to dawn upon humankind. The signs of this coming era of peace can be found in astrology, psychic visions, Tarot cards, spirit communications, and so on.

    And some of these world views may have other, sub-views bundled inside them. For instance:

    • Democracy
      1. Liberalism
      2. Conservatism
      3. Democratic Socialism
    • Buddhism
      1. Mahayana
      2. Theravada
      3. Tibetan Bon-Po
      4. Zen

    Clearly, not all world views are the same. Some have different beliefs, different assumptions, different explanations for things, and different plans for how people should live. Not only do they produce different answers to these great questions, but they often start out with different great questions. Some are so radically different from each other that the people who subscribe to different world views might find it very difficult to understand each other. In summary, your world view and the intellectual environment in which you live, when taken together, form the basic background of your thinking. They are the source of most of our ideas about nearly everything. If you are like most people, your world view and your intellectual environment overlap each other: they both support most of the same ideas. Sometimes there will be slight differences between them; sometimes you may find differences so large that you may feel that one of them must be seriously wrong, in whole or in part. Differing world views and differing intellectual environments often lead to social and personal conflict. It can be very important, therefore, to consciously and deliberately know what your own world view really is, and to know how to peacefully sort out the problems that may arise when you encounter people who have different world views.

    This page titled 12.2: Criteria for Framing Definitions- It’s all about Context and Audience is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Noah Levin (NGE Far Press) .