Critical Reasoning questions evaluate a test taker’s ability to understand, analyze, criticize, and complete arguments. The arguments are contained in short passages taken from a variety of sources, including letters to the editor, speeches, advertisements, newspaper articles and editorials, informal discussions and conversations, as well as articles in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences .
Most Critical Reasoning questions focus on arguments, which are sets of statements that present evidence and draw a conclusion on the basis of that evidence. These arguments are generally short and self-contained.
Usually arguments have two very important parts; the first is part is often called the evidence (sometimes also referred to as ‘premise’), the second part is called the conclusion.
The force of the evidence often decides the force of the argument; also, the reasoning involved in the argument brings out the persuasiveness of the argument. We weaken the argument by finding flaws in the reasoning used by the author, or by finding some weakness in the evidence presented. Likewise, we strengthen the argument by supporting the reasoning involved in the argument, or by finding additional strengths in the evidence provided by the author.
Consider this basic example:
Rakesh is well-qualified, and the hiring committee is very familiar with his work. Therefore, he will probably receive a job offer.
This is a simple argument. Two pieces of evidence are presented.
The first evidence is: Rakesh is well-qualified.
The second evidence is: The hiring committee is very familiar with his work.
These are the premises of the argument. These premises are offered in support of the view that Rakesh will probably receive a job offer. This is the conclusion of the argument.
Let’s look at a second case:
Computer Whiz is a well-respected magazine with a large readership, so its product endorsements carry a lot of weight in the computer electronics marketplace. The X2000 display monitor was recently endorsed by Computer Whiz. It is therefore likely that sales of the X2000 monitor will increase dramatically.
In this argument, information about the magazine’s reputation and large readership serves as a basis for reaching an intermediate, or subsidiary, conclusion: that its endorsements are very influential in the marketplace. This intermediate conclusion in conjunction with a premise that reports that the X2000 was recently endorsed by the magazine provides the grounds for the prediction of an increase in sales. This prediction is the main, or overall, conclusion of the argument.
In short, an argument may not always have one conclusion only. It is quite possible that an argument might have one main conclusion along with a subsidiary or an intermediate conclusion, which in turn could be of some use in strengthening or weakening the argument. The example discussed above is one such example.
Identifying the parts of an argument:
An argument can be analyzed by identifying its various parts and the roles that those parts play. The most basic parts of an argument are premises and conclusions. As we have already seen, an argument may have one or more intermediate conclusions in addition to its overall conclusion.
Premises come in a variety of forms. Some premises are specific matters of fact, some are definitions, and others are broad principles or generalizations. What all premises have in common is that they are put forward as true without support (THE PREMISE IS PRESUMED TRUE; ONE MUST NEVER QUESTION OR DOUBT THE PREMISE). That is, there is no attempt within the argument to prove or justify them. In contrast, a conclusion is not simply asserted. A conclusion is presented as being justified by certain premises. Thus, the conclusion of an argument is open to the challenge that it is not adequately supported by the premises. (Premises, of course, can also be challenged, on grounds such as factual accuracy, but such challenges are not matters of logic.)
One thing to remember about premises and conclusions is that they can come in any order. Premises are presented in support of a conclusion, but this does not mean that premises always precede the conclusion. A conclusion may be at the beginning, middle, or end of an argument.
Consider the following examples:
Nishant is far more skillful than Pritam is at securing the kind of financial support the Volunteers for Literacy Program needs, and Nishant does not have Pritam’s propensity for alienating the program’s most dedicated volunteers. Therefore, the Volunteers for Literacy Program would benefit if Nishant took Pritam’s place as director.
Nishant is far more skillful than Pritam is at securing the kind of financial support the Volunteers for Literacy Program needs. Therefore, the program would benefit if Nishant took Pritam’s place as director, especially since Nishant does not have Pritam’s propensity for alienating the program’s most dedicated volunteers.
The Volunteers for Literacy Program would benefit if Nishant takes Pritam’s place as director, since Nishant is far more skillful than Pritam is at securing the kind of financial support the program needs and Nishant does not have Pritam’s propensity for alienating the program’s most dedicated volunteers.
These three examples all present the same argument. In each example, the conclusion is that the Volunteers for Literacy Program would benefit if Nishant took Pritam’s place as director, and this conclusion is supported by the same two premises. But each example expresses the argument in a different way, with the conclusion appearing in the final, middle, and initial position, respectively. It is important, then, to focus on the role each statement plays in the argument as a whole. Position within the argument simply doesn’t matter.
Another thing to keep in mind is the presence of indicator words that mark the roles that statements play in arguments. For example, “therefore” often precedes a conclusion; it is a common conclusion indicator. So are “thus,” “hence,” “consequently,” “it follows that,” “it can be concluded that,” and various others. Similarly, premises are often preceded by indicator words, the most typical being “since” and “because.” However, do not rely uncritically on these indicator words. They can be misleading, especially in the case of complex arguments, which might contain one or more subarguments. There is no completely mechanical way of identifying the roles that various statements play within an argument.
It is worth noting that people, in making arguments, often do not confine themselves to presenting just the conclusion and the statements that support it. Likewise, the short arguments in Critical Reasoning questions often include statements that are neither premises nor conclusions. This includes statements that indicate the motivation for making the argument, statements that convey background information, and statements that identify the position the argument comes out against. So don’t assume that everything that is not part of the argument’s conclusion must be functioning as support for that conclusion.