The Context Toolbox

In considering the six questions of context, question #5 (General Context) was the least “developed,” because it dealt with a number of secondary questions. Here, we want to delve into some of those questions, specifically how to formulate them and what we can get out of them. These can be used on written texts, but are perhaps most functional in a discussion setting, where the questions we have can be addressed by a speaker directly. As per P4C (philosophy for children), these kinds of questions are intended to be understood as part of a toolbox of understanding and communication.

We will use the terms “statement,” “idea,” and “claim” as synonyms.

  1. What do you mean by that? We are often faced with a statements that elicit a strong reaction – positive or negative. However, often enough the issue comes from phrasing, or word choice – not the meaning. This question should be the most common part of your tool-box for understanding context. It tries to look behind the façade of words and phrases, to get at the heart of content.
  2. Can you say that in a different way? Piggybacking off the previous question, and for the same reasons, asking for a clarification in different terms is a very useful tool for making sure the terms used are what we assume them to mean. This question is particularly good at getting past jargon and other technical language, and simplifying the statement or idea.
  3. Can you give an example? While it may not work on every kind of an idea, examples are a great way to imagine the concept in practice. It both helps us as the audience to wrap our heads around the idea, and it also helps the speaker by making them put the idea into practical terms. This kind of direct “application” also allows us to better imagine some consequences and other issues that are at the core of some later questions.
  4. Why do you think that? Where the first three questions focused on clarifying the idea itself, this one turn to the speaker’s justification for their belief. Instead of asking for the description of the building, we’re asking about its foundations. By doing so, we can examine the claims that hold up the idea. Some foundations are solid, others are less so. Poor foundations make for shaky buildings, and it is often more profitable to go after the foundations of a claim than the claim itself. This is true whether we’re looking to break the claim or to fix it.
  5. Are absolute terms used? Absolute terms (never, always, must, can’t, etc.) make the claims absolute – also known as categorical. While they can make the arguments awesome, they are also supremely dangerous. Against an absolute claim, we only need one counter-example to make the whole thing collapse. As a general rule, outside of mathematics we want to stay away from absolute claims. Even the universal speed limit of light was, apparently, broken in the nanoseconds after the Big Bang, so to claim that it is impossible to go faster than the speed of light (a categorical claim) would be false.
    1. A lot of categorical claims can be softened, by couching them in relative terms. For example, “Following the big bang, we do not believe that it is possible to break the speed of light.” The underlined sections couch the claim in a way that lets us treat the speed of light as a functional absolute, while not setting up the claim for total collapse in case some new discovery proves us wrong.
  6. Can you think of a case where the statement is not true? This question is primarily directed at you, as the audience. If you can think of a case where the claim is not true, then you have additional material to work with. The initial question, however, depends on the type of claim. If a claim is historical, then you probably cannot use a hypothetical counter-example. If the claim is abstract, then you can use both historical and hypothetical examples. If you can come up with a counter-example, then you have to look at the context of that example, to make sure it fits the context of the original idea. For example, if the initial claim is that smart people do not make dumb mistakes, your counterexample has to make sure that the “smart person” is smart in the field where they made the mistake – otherwise, they’re still a dumb person, and the counter-example does not work.
  7. If the claim is true, what else must be true? By asking this question, we’re trying to draw out the implications of the original claim. Sometimes the claim is solid, but the “side-effects” still cause serious problems. An easy way to think of this, is in terms of ideas that are good on paper, but that fail miserably in reality. The failure in reality does not come from the claim itself, but from the implications that are unresolved.
  8. If the claim is true, what can’t be true? The flip side of the previous question, this question looks at the implications that are supposed to make certain ideas impossible – if the claim is true. For example, the idea that electing a woman president means the society is not sexist, indicates that any society where women ruled should not have any sexism. That is, if you find sexism in such a society (let’s specify: sexism against women) then the claim is false. We can then look at Pakistan, India, Indonesia, etc. and see that the claim is false (all had female Prime Ministers, all have major sexism issues).
    Questions 7 and 8 seem almost identical. However, I like to present them as separate questions, to get you to think about the different implications separately and focus on them specifically. Too often, when we combine these into a single step, we gloss over and do not pay nearly as much attention as we should.
  9. What if the claim is/is not true? Perhaps the biggest question here, this one forces both the speaker and audience to consider the implications of being wrong. What would we do, if the claim was proven/disproven? What would it mean for us – personally – for society, for the field of study? We have to ask this question directly, and without accidentally going off on a tangent. You may have heard the counter-atheist question, “but what if there is a god?” That’s too specific. Against, say, someone who takes science as a solution to everything (a wrong approach to dealing with science, but anyway), the right question is “what if there are questions that are not subject to science, but which we must answer anyway?” The mistake of the original phrasing is that we’re not asking about the person being wrong, but about us being right – which are two different things. Always stick to the most direct version of the question.
  10. What kind of evidence do we need? Depending on the kind of idea/claim being presented, the kinds of evidence necessary will differ. What is important is to first decide what kind of proof is necessary for the claim, and then take a look at what is available (next question). We often get this process in reverse, and as a result, we are swayed by our biases to believe or disbelieve. If we want to believe, then we’ll find a way to make the lack of evidence somehow sufficient. If we want to disbelieve, then we’ll always ask for more proof. The trick to critical thinking is not just critically examining others; it is also critically examining ourselves. By establishing the requirements of proof needed first, we can curb our biases when we look at the actual proof offered.
  11. What kind of evidence is available? By looking at the available evidence, we can make critical judgments about claims. Working from the previous question, we can measure the evidence available against evidence necessary, and draw a clear conclusion. We can also note what evidence is missing, and determine whether this kind of evidence might reasonably be found with some additional effort. This is actually the process of developing new ideas. We come up with an idea, check its meaning and implications, and then check its evidence. If we’re seeing strong indicators that evidence may be available, or that we might generate it by doing work ourselves (surveys, compiling data, etc.) that tells us that our project may be a good idea to pursue. If the indications are weak, or have no way of pursuing evidence, then we have good reason to think of the project as non-functional.

 

As you have no doubt noticed, some of these questions are for the author/speaker, others are for you as the audience. Critical thinking is a reciprocal activity: both sides need to participate. You can also use these questions as guidelines for building your own arguments. By anticipating these questions, you can speak or write in a way that helps address these questions before they’re brought up. In writing, this also helps you clarify your thinking, by forcing you to answer these questions in a way that would be satisfactory to others. If you cannot answer them, your position is weak, and needs to either be fixed or abandoned.

For written texts, the process is a bit more difficult, because we have to read through very carefully, focus on word choice, focus on literary structure, etc. in order to draw out the answers. Sometimes, we get lucky, and can find an interview with the author, where some of these questions were asked. Most times, we have to engage in thorough reading and charitable reading, and even then, the results are not guaranteed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *