Narratives and Reasoning

This post was inspired by and draws from “The Truth About Language” by Michael C. Corvallis.  The brilliant William James, the founder of American psychology, made a distinction between two types of language, narratives and reasoning. Here is what William James wrote, “To say that all thinking is essentially of two kinds—reasoning on the one hand, and narrative, descriptive, contemplative thinking on the other—is to say what every reader’s experience will corroborate.”

In terms of usage, narratives account for the vase majority of language use.  Many healthy memory posts have spoken of memory as a vehicle for time travel.  We process information incorporating it into memory.  Then we use it  to decide upon course of action in the future.  We imagine future outcomes and draw upon our memories to determine which is most desirable.

Language uses our memories to form narratives.  We tell stories about ourselves and others.  Descriptions of events  take the form of narratives.  The majority of our conversations are narratives with each of the participating parties making contributions.  Narratives can be true, false, or some combination.  Narratives might capture history or traditions of a people.  They can also be for our entertainment as plays, television shows, movies, novels, and short stories.  Indeed these are large, commercial enterprises.  There are standards for narratives.  Are they interesting or entertaining?  Are the funny?  Do they hang together?  Are they coherent?  Do they convey some larger message?  We could go on and on with this.

However, reasoning is much less frequently used, and it is used for different purposes.  Reasoning is needed for critical thinking, for induction, deduction, and abduction.  The objective is to determine whether something is true or internally consistent.  Legal arguments are, or should be, largely a matter of reasoning.  Reasoning often calls upon data or experimental research.

Sometimes specialized languages need to be used such as symbolic logic or mathematics.  Reasoning can be both extensive and intensive.  Reasoning is mental work that can become quite difficult.

A sound argument can be made that faulty reasoning is the source of most problems.  Insufficient or faulty critical thinking is done.  In Kahneman’s terms, reasoning is System 2 processing requiring cognitive effort.

Unfortunately, understanding reasoning is also mentally demanding.  Good narratives will trump good reasoning most of the time for the majority of people.  It is quite likely that the amount of reasoning a person does is dependent both on educational level and the areas of study.

The ability to reason and to think critically is especially important for the members of a democracy.  Unfortunately, politicians with the most appealing narratives will likely win, even when critical thinking would reveal the unappealing aspects of the narratives.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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