November 1997 — Volume 3, Number 1
Language, Reason and Argument
Thinking from A to Z
Nigel Warburton (1996)
Pp. ix + 138
ISBN 0-415-09686-3 (paper)
Anne Thomson (1996)
Pp. iv + 177
ISBN 0-415-13205-3 (paper)
Nigel Warburton, a lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University and author of the Routledge best-seller, Philosophy: The Basics (1995), has again published a book which is, arguably, brilliantly clear and clearly brilliant for most readers across the disciplines. It is a cross-genre reference book as much as it is a study skills or philosophy book. Although it is not meant specifically for the ESL/ELT market, it is one of those books which nonetheless are of great potential benefit to the ESL/EFL student and teacher. Cross-referenced with exemplary consistency and depth, it can be highly recommended to all students with a good intermediate level of English working on sharpening their language and cognitive skills, and those focusing on Academic English and Study Skills in particular.
Thinking from A to Z works at many different levels for many different people, with or without a teacher. It is an excellent self-study cum reference book to have on one’s bookshelf, whether one is a teacher or a student of ESL/EFL, a native or non-native speaker of English. It is a basic and indispensable tool for anyone having to do any arguing or thinking–which includes most of us, since some form of thinking and therefore arguing is the stuff of everyday life. ESL/EFL students and professionals with special interest in any sort of business negotiations, in legal or political debate or academic writing will particularly find it a handy and entertaining companion to have around.
And literally, you can have it around you; it is not bulky, a mere 135 pages, and (almost) fits in your pocket. I know musicians–both native and non-native speakers–for example, who find it an ideal read during rehearsals while they are waiting for their cues. Because of its relatively brief entries, extended via an exciting network of cross-references, it is perfect to dip into whenever you [-1-] have a moment to spare, without feeling interrupted or frustrated. If you find it absorbing (and I can quite safely promise you will) and want to do more reading in this field, Nigel Warburton provides you with the list of titles he himself found helpful while writing this gem of a book.
Its language, as well as its layout and typography, is impressively accessible. And yet, ESL/EFL students are bound to expand their vocabulary with colourful words like humptydumptying, gobbledygook, kowtowing, and expressions such as shifting the goalposts and biting the bullet. They will also learn the difference between a red herring and a straw man, and the many types of fallacies, including gambler’s fallacy and Van Gogh fallacy.
The sentence structures are kept simple. Each term is described and illustrated with mostly enjoyable and memorable examples. Kowtowing, for instance, is demonstrated by Nietzsche’s pronouncement on women: “When thou goest to a woman take thy whip” (p. 80). However one may respect Nietzsche as a thinker, to be uncritical about this particular idea of his would be an obvious case of kowtowing to him, i.e., being overly deferential, which leads nowhere but to the stagnation of the mind. Or consider the simple and seductive example of formal fallacy, the well-known argument of the witch hunt: “All witches keep black cats. My neighbour keeps a black cat. So my neighbour must be a witch” (p. 58). Can the language or the structure get much simpler than that, and yet stick in your mind?
Broadly speaking, entries fall into four categories. Firstly, there are the common moves in arguments; secondly, reasoning errors; thirdly, techniques of persuasion and avoidance; and last but not least, psychological factors which may impinge upon clear thinking. Latin terms are treated in the best possible way: avoided if possible, included if necessary, with succinct and clear explanation in English. For example, post hoc ergo procter hoc is first translated as “After this therefore because of this.” It is, however, also spelt out fully as “whatever happened after this must have happened because of this” (p. 94).
Thinking from A to Z carries a John Searle quote as its front page motto: “If you can’t say it clearly, you don’t understand it yourself,” arguably true. This book is for anyone, including ESL/EFL teachers and students, concerned with clear thinking and its language, certainly true.
The only reason I felt Thinking from A to Z could be frustrating for some readers is anticipated by the author himself. The book is great for clarifying in one’s own mind the structures and moves of thinking and arguing. However, there is still the leap between acquiring the knowledge of thinking about thinking and the [-2-] practical fluency of applying it in reality, in interaction with minds other than your own. To feel confident in the application of this invaluable knowledge, one probably needs practice in actually doing it. This book does not help with that; nor is it its brief. But there is no reason why there could not be an accompanying workbook which sets out to do just that. One puts down the book in the wish that there were an accompanying workbook by the same author to pick up.
Routledge may have had thoughts similar to these, since very soon after the publication of Thinking from A to Z in September, they published Critical Reasoning by Anne Thomson in December.
Anne Thomson seems to start off where Nigel Warburton finishes in setting out to create an opportunity for us to practice our reasoning skills. And she does so clearly, critically, and in a way which is wholly transferable from one discipline to another. Again, like Thinking from A to Z, Critical Reasoning is not published as an ESL/EFL book per se, but a lot of it can be of considerable benefit to us in the field.
It is primarily intended for self-study (the key is supplied in the back of the book), but also for work in the classroom or in the seminar. The texts to be analysed are mostly taken from two British broadsheets in the centre/left of centre: the Independent and the Guardian. The topics are of general interest and do not require any specialist knowledge. There are delightfully controversial choices such as Richard Dawkins’s piece about science and theology–it jumps at you from the page. Inevitably, not all the texts are as engaging as this and some of them most definitely make it difficult to keep a sustained interest in them. On second thought, is this really inevitable?
Critical Reasoning is structured around five major chapters. The first deals with recognising reasoning and identifying conclusions, reasons and assumptions. The second focuses on evaluating reasoning, evidence, and identifying flaws in reasoning. The third offers practice in recognising the implications of an argument, the fourth in making your language clear and precise, and in summarising arguments, with the final chapter giving further exercises with longer passages of reasoning. There are altogether twenty exercises and their respective answers at the back of the book, along with a bibliography, suggestions on further reading, and an index, which could be more detailed and helpful. (Interestingly, there is only one title which is suggested for further reading by both Anne Thomson and Nigel Warburton in their respective lists: The Logic of Real Arguments by Alec Fisher (1988). The design of the book could be more imaginative; the grey background to the texts to be analysed is bland to say the least. [-3-]
Definitions and explanations are regularly illustrated by examples. This is of course very useful, indeed imperative. However, one cannot help feeling there ought to be more interesting examples than “The bus is late. It must have broken down” (p. 6). And “You ought to take a Happitum travel sickness pill when you go on the ferry. They are very effective against seasickness, and you have always been sick in the past when you have travelled by sea” (p. 42). Or “All the Norwich city buses are red. So if the vehicle you saw wasn’t red, it wasn’t a Norwich city bus” (p. 41). (Although not an ESL/EFL book, it seems to read like one at times when it comes to examples.) On the other hand, some of the examples to identify reasoning flaws are authentic test questions of the Law School Admission Council, Newtown, Pennsylvania, USA, which are rather stimulating.
Be it any discipline, Thinking from A to Z is undoubtedly useful and absorbing for any ESL/EFL student or teacher concerned with thinking, language and argument. Critical Reasoning could have been a necessary follow-up to it. It is indeed helpful and could be of great benefit to readers in general. However, it is less engagingly presented and it is much more dense; therefore its use in general, and its application for ESL/EFL purposes in particular, is more in need of the mediation of a lively teacher.
Fisher, A. (1988). The Logic of Real Arguments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Warburton, N. (1995). Philosophy: The Basics (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
University of East London
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Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work. [-4-]