I started Think Again: How to Reason and Argue with a mix of curiosity and genuine interest. In the past, I have often come across bad reasoning and although I learned to identify some items from the long list of fallacies, I am not confident that I can formulate my own arguments in a well-structured way when in spontaneous situations.
Also, I’m currently reading Thinking, Fast and Slow and I felt like attending “Think Again” might work well in conjuction, even though they are about different subjects: the latter is about psychology in general while this course is about arguments and reasoning.
However, after just finishing the video lectures and excercises for the second week, I’m positively surprised by how well-made and entertaining it is.
As usual, the lectures in the first week were very basic: defining the subject of the course (“What is an Argument?”) and giving a bit of background information on what arguments are used for: justification and explanation. Personally I found the last part to be the most interesting: the differentiation between linguistic acts, speech acts and conversational acts.
I’m not sure how it will tie into the rest of the course but I certainly enjoyed the corresponding lectures. Especially the mention of Buffalo buffalo Buffalo totally cracked me up. It’s a great example how one can perform a linguistic act (i.e. stringing together a couple of words into a meaningful sentence) without it being conversational since it cannot actually be understood by the audience. This so far seems to be a recurring motive in the lectures: words and sentences can take on completely different meaning and function, depending on where and how they are used.
Also, the introduction to the Gricean maxims was very interesting. Wikipedia cites some criticism of the concept but it is my personal conviction that, of course, communication should be intended to be constructive and cooperative, so following these maxims would be a good idea.
Back to the course itself, the second week become more hands on. After introducing argument standard form, a number of argument markers and elements were presented, followed by about 40 minutes of applying these using a newspaper article. What struck me as somewhat strange was the part about avoiding the skeptical regress. While it is obvious that one doesn’t want to needlessly challenge every premise, I stumbled over the bit where the professor mentioned that assuring your audience using authority can be a good thing. Even or - due to confirmation bias and other psychological phenomena - especially someone very familiar with a given topic can be prone to erroneous judgement. So I missed some kind of interjection that, given evidence for doubt, one should always follow up on skeptical objections to premises. Just countering with a reference to authority cannot be the solution.
Nevertheless, the course so far is highly entertaining and very interesting. It’s still possible to join in, but in case you currently don’t have the time or are still unsure, whether it’s for you, make sure to follow the blog for updates in the coming weeks.
At the moment, there are 126.000 students attending the course. Let’s see how many will stay with it. For the moment, I definitely want to.