The Limits of Critical Thinking

Part of the Argumentation Library book series (ARGA, volume 2)


I believe in the value of critical thinking in dealing with even the most controversial issues. This essay discusses a challenge to my faith by Robert Fogelin (1986). I am intrigued by his challenge because it is based on a conception of argumentation with which I am sympathetic. But I am troubled by his conclusion that a conflict, such as the one over abortion or affirmative action, may not be rationally resolvable. Although he does not make an explicit reference to critical thinking, it is clear that he is arguing for the existence of conflicts where it cannot be determined which position is best by a consideration of the arguments for each position.


Conceptual Framework Critical Thinking Affirmative Action Unwanted Pregnancy Shared Belief 
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  1. 1.
    The need to clarify what is meant by “resolution” was pointed out by Richard Feldman who, like Andrew Lugg, was a referee for an earlier version of this essay.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Richard Feldman, in his capacity as a referee, objects to this point by suggesting that the belief that the ensoulment that makes someone a person takes place at conception (or quickening?) is just such a metaphysical framework proposition. I’m not sure why he thinks it to be metaphysical at all. But the real problem is with how it could be a framework proposition, when co-religionists have disagreed about when ensoulment takes place (or even whether it takes place). By no stretch of the imagination could the conviction that a fetus acquires a soul at conception be considered the kind of proposition that must be exempt from doubt in order for doubt to be possible. Of course, Fogelin could have something else in mind, and the next section of this essay considers such a possibility.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The term is borrowed from Andrew Lugg (1986). He suggests that when the deriving of conclusions is treated as rule-governed then it is “depsychologized” (p. 50). Ironically, he claims that Fogelin sees deep disagreement as a problem only because Fogelin treats argumentation as depsychologized. The irony is that Fogelin is at great pains to insist that argumentation should not be depsychologized, and we are taking him at his word in interpreting him to be saying that the key premise in the abortion argument must be understood as part of a system of beliefs and preferences. Lugg’s diagnosis is discussed in some detail in the last section of this essay.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See, for example, Thomson (1971), an essay which has dominated the philosophical discussion of abortion. Thomson begins her essay with the premise that the fetus is a person from conception. The question that interests her is how the conclusion that an abortion is impermissible follows from this premise. She shows no interest in why the person giving the argument is interested in the problem of abortion, i.e., in what I am calling the “rhetorical context” of the argument.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Mahkom and Dolan (1981, pp. 182–98) for an expression of this attitude.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Luker (1984) for a detailed examination of the beliefs and values of right-to-lifers.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of OregonEugeneUSA

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