Headspace People

Dennett’s ‘seven tools for thinking’

In 2009, I had the great pleasure of sharing a number of meals and pub-sessions with Dan Dennett, when he visited South Africa for a series of lectures. The picture below is of his first encounter with something called a “bunny chow” – a hollowed-out section of bread, filled with curry. Since meeting him then, he’s always been exceedingly generous with his time and thoughtful input when requested, as I’m sure any of you who have dealt with him would concur.

In case you hadn’t noticed, he has a new book out which looks well-worth our time and attention. It’s titled “Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking“, and is certainly next in line for consumption on my Kindle.

The Guardian recently carried an excerpt detailing “seven tools for thinking”. Number two on that list is certainly one I wish more of our “community” would take to heart, and deals with the tendency to caricature our opponent’s positions. I’ll paste a snippet below, but please go and read the rest – we could do with a reminder in many of these respects.

Begin quote:

The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

4 replies on “Dennett’s ‘seven tools for thinking’”

i think probably more than just “your community” should take more notice of the second point. “My community” would do well to read the book and adopt the principles. Then perhaps we have a point of departure for proper rational debate.

I just heard DD talk about this on podcast Point of Inquiry.

Yes Rapoport’s Law seems a reasonable rebutting technique when one skeptical or freethinking blogger wishes to criticize a peer using nuance. Otherwise I’m afraid it’s rather too much like an academic exercise.

I suggest we, the nonphilosophical public, mostly aren’t blogging & tweeting with the intention of persuading our interlocutor at all — merely to amass hordes of influential bystanders. Or let off a little steam.

Evidently we netizens largely don’t much care for formal debating (enumerable websites for such pass times, dwarfed by billions of facebook tiffs). We slacktivists might however take some pride in the pleasurable parrying n thrusting of slightly sturdier strawmen, after we’re properly armed with DD’s philosophical “tools”.

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