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Essay Writing – Using Reasoning to Support the Thesis
Reasoning satisfies the human need for justification and the sense of ‘rightness’ that all intelligent communication needs, especially in the essay.
What is “reasoning” anyway? When we talk about the meaning of reasoning, we can get too quickly into confusing philosophical questions. So let’s start with a basic definition of inference as a process—
Reasoning involves a conscious attempt to discover what is true and what is best. Reasoning thought follows a chain of cause and effect, and the word reason can be synonymous with cause.
According to this definition, reasoning involves causal relationships, whether it is a single causal relationship or a chain of causal relationships. But what is causation?
Cause and effect is a relationship in which one thing, called a cause, causes something else to happen, and that “something else,” that result, is called an effect. For example, a boy hits a ball with a bat and the ball goes through the window and breaks it. In this case, the cause is the boy hitting the ball, and the result is the window breaking.
Cause-and-effect thinking is something we all use every day, whether we’re particularly aware of it or not. So I’m sure you’ll recognize these common, informal rules of cause and effect:
1. Sequence— The cause is coming firstand the effect follows after.
2. the present— When the cause presentthe effect is always present.
3. Absent— When the cause absentthe effect is always absent.
Here’s a real, generally accepted, but typically loose example of those rules being applied to a historical situation—
For centuries, only white swans were seen in Europe. All sightings, records and information about swans in Europe showed that they were always white. So it was okay to claim as truth that “All swans are white.” (Another way to put it: “If it’s a swan, it’s white.”)
The cause in this case is this: since Europeans kept and followed records—anecdotes, diaries, family stories, histories, journals, legends (local, regional, cultural), memoirs, myths, oral history, story-telling—they knew swans only as white. No other color of swan was ever known in Europe, and no world traveler ever brought back from his travels in Europe that there had ever been a swan of any other color than white.
Because of all that experience and evidence, the effect was that Europeans believed that all swans everywhere in the world were white. It was a good argument, based on centuries of accumulated evidence across a wide geographic area and across cultures.
But guess what? A Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh, discovered the black swan in Australia in 1697, overturning a century of European observation, experience and thought about the color of swans.
One lesson from the black swan incident is that reasoning works most of the time, but not always, because we can’t really question the entire world about any particular issue or fact (at least not yet; but the world’s science and technology keeps advancing, however…) . And that is what it takes to authoritatively say, “always present” or “always absent.” Of course, in the absence of all knowledge, we will all continue to use reasoning to fill in our knowledge gaps, which is why it is so important to understand the proper use of reasoning in essays.
Let’s look at three popular essays to see how they use the rules of causal reasoning to support their original ideas or statements of new views. Let’s start with the simplest essay, “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell (you can get free online copies of each of these essays by putting quotes around their titles into Google).
In his essay, George Orwell presents his new view of reverse cause and effect in his second paragraph:
If one gets rid of these [bad language] habits one can think more clearly, and thinking clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and not the exclusive concern of professional writers.
Let’s break it down into a series of causes and effects:
CAUSE: If one gets rid of these [bad language] habits
EFFECT: can be thought more clearly,
CAUSE: and clear thinking is a necessary first step towards it
EFFECT: political regeneration
We should add this to make the old view clear—
CAUSE: political regeneration is a necessary step towards this
EFFECT: reverse the decadence and collapse of civilization
……………..(reversed from the accepted old view that language must degenerate and perish along with civilization)
As you can see, that first EFFECT becomes the second CAUSE, and the second EFFECT becomes the third CAUSE, making a short chain of causal reasoning.
Now let’s see how well Orwell fulfills the rules of cause and effect to support the new view in his thesis:
Order— firstget rid of bad language habits
……………………(POORLY SHOWN on two small examples)
……………………afterto think clearly and reverse civilizational decadence
……………………(NOT SHOWN by any story or example; only claimed to be true)
the present— when the use of political language is good present,
……………….clear thinking and advancement of civilization is always present
……………….(NOT SHOWN by any story or example; claimed as true)
Absent— when the use of political language is good absent,
……………..clear thinking is always absent
……………..(many examples of old views show clear thinking as always absent)
Did you notice that I entered “POORLY DISPLAYED” for the first part of the sequence rule, based on Orwell’s following two short examples for removing “bad language habits”–
Two recent examples were to investigate every road and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the sneers of a few journalists.
As for showing how those two examples had the effect of helping politicians “think clearly and reverse the decadence of civilization” for the latter part of the Sequence rules, that is definitely “NOT SHOWN”. No stories, examples, or explanations are given to support that effect.
And “NOT SHOWN” for the current rule? Wow! Orwell does not use any stories or examples or specific speculations to show that what he proposes actually works or will work – or even worked at any time or place in history.
And, although Orwell shares his 6-point formula for eliminating bad language toward the end, he doesn’t provide any story, example, or concrete speculation to show that any of those suggestions actually work or have any sort of positive effect.
Wow! How does he get away with it? Why don’t we notice this when we read his essay?
After much thought, I think I’ve discovered the reason – it’s the amount of time Orwell spends supporting his old view of all those examples of bad language used by politicians.
We can see that what he says is true about each of those examples. But there are so many that it’s—well, it’s very much like a slick salesman bending our ear with such a barrage of words that we tire ourselves mentally trying to follow what he’s saying. And then we’re just grateful that we got to the end of the whole conversation without mentally filtering out all the reasoning behind what was said.
I think that’s it. However, I honestly don’t think Orwell was trying to put something on our end. He simply had no examples of the effects of his new viewpoint thesis to share with us because what he was suggesting had not yet been implemented by a large group of people, so there were no effects to see. And maybe, just maybe, he got tired of all his examples too!
What Orwell should have done was to give some examples of the specific effects he predicted would occur, and how they would progressively, logically occur, if his six propositions were followed. I think that would be good.
Interesting, don’t you agree?
Teachers and publishers generally seem to like Orwell’s essay despite its flaws – why? Because of the important new insight, the new view, that Orwell provides, that’s why. Orwell’s principle ‘good language makes good thinking’ rings true to all of us, although his argument for it is rather weak and does not provide new examples of viewpoints.
It just goes to show you what a really great new view thesis—plus a huge number of solid examples of the old view—can do for you, right? (See my next article to complete this discussion with an analysis of two more published essays.)
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