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Making Your Mind MatterReview - Making Your Mind Matter
Strategies for Increasing Practical Intelligence
by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
Review by Kevin M. Purday
Jan 20th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 3)

This book is very much down the philosophy end of the psychology-philosophy spectrum although it is littered with psychological insights. International Baccalaureate teachers would instantly recognise this book as being about part of the Theory of Knowledge course. For others, to describe it as being about critical thinking is the most useful way of explaining its contents.

The author has led an interesting life having been a social caseworker, an industrial engineer and a humanities professor. The main thrust of his published work has been about our need to use our faculty of reason rather than unthinkingly adopt the opinions and beliefs of others. He is very concerned that so many of us can be so easily persuaded by advertising, television in particular but also the media in general and how we literally thoughtlessly absorb ideas and values from other people. This book is the latest in a series on that general theme, the earliest being his 1971 Elements of Rhetoric.

The book is made up of an introduction, seven chapters, an appendix, a set of scholarly endnotes and a good bibliography. The book is clearly intended for an audience of people who are prepared to be self-critical. The introduction starts with an attack on the American education system. He argues that the system has failed its students for the past hundred years or so by insisting that students ingest ‘facts’ from their teachers and then regurgitate them in the form of answers to multiple choice questions or, at best, in essay form although even here it is desirable for students to merely parrot what their teachers have given them. The author argues that students have not been encouraged to use their brains to solve problems or to resolve issues. He goes on to give the background to this undesirable situation. He makes a good case for blaming the movement he labels ‘Positivism’ and its offshoots Social Darwinism and Hereditarianism. He argues that these have created an atmosphere in which education has treated children as containers to be filled with facts and in which their intelligence has been viewed as a fixed and quantifiable entity rather than as something to be developed. He links this attack on Positivism with an equally strong assault on Romanticism which he blames for what he regards as an excessive reliance on feelings and an obsession with subjectivity. He cogently argues that these polar opposite views have together made the American educational system into an unhealthy amalgam of rote memorisation and a baseless feel-good factor. His seven chapters then go about demolishing this amalgam and suggesting an alternative model.

The first chapter, ‘Understanding Thinking’, tries to clear the undergrowth by clarifying what it really means to think. He reveals the axioms underlying his argument: truth is objective rather than subjective and discovered rather than created; if two statements are mutually contradictory, one must be false; the human mind is fallible; ideas have consequences. He then proceeds to look at the reflective, creative and critical dimensions of thinking. The second chapter, ‘Overcoming Obstacles’, deals with those factors which hinder true thinking: egocentrism, the mine-is-better perspective, self-serving bias, inflated self-esteem, face saving, mental sloth, gullibility/conformity, bias for the majority or minority, bias for or against change, preconceptions, reliance on feelings and first impressions, etc. The third chapter, ‘Resisting Manipulation’, first looks at the how the media dupe us for much of the time and then goes on to look in detail at how we are manipulated: repetition, the bandwagon technique, slogans, stacking the deck, etc.  The fourth chapter, ‘Testing Ideas’, is all about distinguishing fact from opinion and how to weigh up evidence. The fifth chapter, ‘Recognizing Errors in Reasoning’, is a list of some of the major fallacies in reasoning: oversimplification, false analogy, the straw man, etc. The sixth chapter, ‘Analyzing Arguments’, is about deductive reasoning i.e. the use of syllogisms, although the author does not use that technical term, to produce a conclusion which, so long as the premises are true and the conclusion logically follows from those premises, is also true. Chapter seven, ‘Making Ethical Judgments’, sees the author wading into the extremely difficult territory of moral judgments and trying, with some success, to come up with a set of guidelines. Finally, the appendix, ‘Making Discussion Meaningful’, is a list of practical do’s and don’ts: leave egotism and personal agendas at the door, contribute but don’t dominate, etc.

The author obviously deliberately sets out to avoid technical jargon although this is sometimes rather irritating. If he is happy to call parts one and two of a deductive argument ‘premises’ and the third part the ‘conclusion’, why does he not tell us that this type of argument is called a syllogism? However, that is a very small complaint because the author is clearly aiming at the general public and he does not want to overwhelm them with jargon. Likewise, he avoids any mention of Kant’s categorical imperative although that clearly lies behind the chapter on making ethical judgments. The author has tried to steer a course between the Scylla of producing a trite and superficial book on the one hand and, on the other hand, the Charybdis of bringing out another technical philosophical treatise on logic. He has to a large extent, in the opinion of the reviewer, succeeded in that attempt. Teachers of the International Baccalaureate course Theory of Knowledge will find this book an invaluable source of material for the logic section precisely because it covers all the major aspects while eschewing the technical jargon. The book would also form an excellent companion to an American High School elective on good thinking habits. The general reader who is looking for a non-technical book to help her/him refine her/his thinking skills would do well to put this book on the shopping list.

When the book goes into its second edition, it could do with some careful proof reading as some typos have crept in. For example, on page 13, line 6 it should read ‘same’ rather than ‘shame’ and on the same page line 20 it should read ‘than’ rather than ‘that’. Hopefully the book will get its second edition so that these minor blemishes can be removed. It deserves a wide readership.

 

 

Kevin M. Purday is Head of the Cambridge International High School in Jordan and recently completed the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.


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