Reasoning satisfies the human need for justification and a sense of ‘rightness’ that all intelligent communication needs, especially in an essay.
What is “reasoning,” anyway? When talking about the meaning of reasoning, we can get into confusing philosophical issues much too quickly. So let’s start with a down-to-earth definition of reasoning 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 a synonym for cause.
By this definition, reasoning involves cause-and-effect relationships, whether it be a single cause-and-effect relationship or a chain of cause- and-effect relationships. But what is a cause-and-effect relationship?
Cause and effect is a relationship in which one thing, called the cause, makes something else happen, and that “something else,” that result, is called the effect. For example, a boy hits a ball with a bat and the ball goes through a window, breaking it. In this instance, the cause is the boy hitting the ball, and the effect is breaking the window.
Cause-and-effect reasoning is something we all use every day, whether we’re particularly conscious of it or not. So I’m sure you’ll recognize these common, informal rules of cause and effect:
1. Sequence— The cause comes first, and the effect follows after.
2. Present— When the cause is present, the effect is always present.
3. Absent— When the cause is absent, the effect is always absent.
Now, here’s a true, commonly accepted, yet typically loose, example of those rules being applied to an historical situation—
For centuries in Europe, only white swans were ever seen. All sightings, records, and information on swans in Europe showed that they were always white. So it was okay to assert as a truth that, “All swans are white.” (Another way to put it: “If it’s a swan, it’s white.”)
The cause in this instance is this: Ever since Europeans had kept and tracked records—anecdotes, diaries, family hand-me-down stories, histories, journals, legends (local, regional, cultural), memoirs, myths, oral history storytelling—they had known swans as only white. No other color of swan had ever been known in Europe, and no world traveler had ever brought word from their travels to Europe that there was ever 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 good reasoning, based on centuries of accumulated evidence throughout an extensive geographical region and across varied cultures.
But guess what? A Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh, discovered a black swan in Australia in 1697, undoing centuries of European observation, experience, and thought involving the color of swans.
One lesson from the black swan incident is that reasoning does work most of the time, but not always, because we cannot actually examine all the world on any particular question or fact (at least, not yet; but the world’s sciences and technologies do keep advancing, however… ). And that’s what it takes to authoritatively say, “always present” or “always absent.” Of course, in the absence of having all knowledge, all of us will continue using reasoning to help fill in our gaps of knowledge, and that’s why it’s so important to understand the proper use of reasoning in essays.
Let’s look at three popular essays to see how they use cause-and-effect reasoning rules to support their original ideas, or new view thesis statements. Let’s start with the simplest essay, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (you can bring up free Internet copies of each of these essays by putting quotes around their titles in Google).
In his essay, George Orwell presents his new view of a reverse cause and effect in his second paragraph:
If one gets rid of these [bad language] habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.
Let’s break that down into a series of causes and effects:
CAUSE: If one gets rid of these [bad language] habits
EFFECT: one can think more clearly,
CAUSE: and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards
EFFECT: political regeneration
We should add this, too, to clearly establish the old view—
CAUSE: political regeneration is a necessary step towards
EFFECT: reversing the decadence and collapse of civilization
………………(reverse of the accepted old view that language must degenerate and collapse, along with civilization)
As you can see, that first EFFECT becomes the second CAUSE, and that second EFFECT becomes the third CAUSE, which forms a short chain of cause-and-effect reasoning.
Now let’s see how well Orwell fulfills the rules of cause and effect to support the new view in his thesis:
Sequence— first, get rid of bad language habits
……………………(WEAKLY SHOWN by two small examples)
……………………after, think clearly and reverse civilization’s decadence
……………………(NOT SHOWN by any story or example; merely asserted as true)
Present— when good political language usage is present,
……………….clear thinking and improving civilization is always present
……………….(NOT SHOWN by any story or example; asserted as true)
Absent— when good political language usage is absent,
………………clear thinking is always absent
………………(many old view examples show clear thinking as always absent)
Did you notice that I entered “WEAKLY SHOWN” for the first part of the Sequence rule, based on Orwell’s following two brief examples of getting “rid of bad language habits”–
Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists.
As far as showing how those two examples had the effect of helping politicians “think clearly and reverse civilization’s decadence” for the after part of the Sequence rule, that’s definitely “NOT SHOWN.” No stories or examples or reasoning is provided to support that effect.
And “NOT SHOWN” for the Present rule? Whoa! Orwell does not use any stories or examples or specific speculations to show that what he is proposing actually works or will work-or even has worked at any time or place in history.
And, although Orwell shares his 6-item formula for getting rid of bad language usage towards the end, he supplies no story or example or specific speculation to show any of those suggestions really working or actually having some sort of positive effect.
Wow! How does he get away with that? Why don’t we notice that when we’re reading his essay?
After much thought, I think I discovered the reason-it’s the amount of time Orwell spends propping up his old view with all those examples of poor language usage by politicians.
We can see what he is saying is true about each one of those examples. But there are so many of them that it’s-well, it’s very much like a slick salesman who bends our ear with such a torrent of words that we get mentally tired trying to follow what he’s saying. And then we’re just grateful to get to the end of all the talk, without mentally filtering all the reasoning of what’s being said.
I think that’s it. However, I honestly don’t think Orwell was trying to put anything over on us. He just didn’t have examples of the effects of his new view thesis to share with us because what he was suggesting hadn’t been implemented by a large group of people yet, so there were no effects to see. And maybe, just maybe, all his examples tired him out, too!
What Orwell should have done is supply some examples of specific effects that he predicts would happen, as well as how they would progressively, logically happen, if his six suggestions were followed. That would have done the trick, I think.
Interesting, don’t you agree?
Teachers and publishers, in general, seem to love Orwell’s essay despite its faults-why? Because of the important new insight, the new view, that Orwell provides, that’s why. Orwell’s principle of ‘good language makes for good thinking’ rings true to all of us, even though his reasoning support for it is rather weak and he provides no new view examples.
Just goes to show you what a truly great new view thesis-plus an overwhelming number of solid old view examples-can do for you, right? (Please see my next article to finish this discussion with the analysis of two more published essays.)