Reasoned Inquiry

Given the challenges to truth seeking described on the previous page, much scholarly work has been done by philosophers analyzing how knowledge can be validly obtained. Early in the twentieth century, traditional notions of scientific objectivity were brought to exquisite and brilliant refinement in the work of the logical positivists, only to be undermined a few years later by devastating criticisms – some of them by the same authors who had originally proposed them (e.g. Carnap, 1935, 1955). This was one of the factors contributing to the rising influence of the postmodernist critics of objectivist theories of truth. Other critics, however, went in a different direction, developing conceptions of logic and empiricism that were radically more robust and flexible than those of the positivists. These were philosophers studying informal logic and argumentation (e.g. Toulmin, 1958; Habermas, 1990). These philosophers emphasized the foundational role of long-recognized principles of argumentation such as the following:

(1) claims about knowledge must be based on – or at least consistent with – empirical evidence (i.e., they must be based on observations of real events in the real world);

(2) the analysis of such claims must be expressible as rational argumentation (that is, one’s inferences and reasoning must be arguably valid); and

(3) the participants in the knowledge-gathering process must apply the principles of argumentation fairly and equally to all persons, including themselves, in a process of mutual critique, reexamination, and refinement.

The analyses of these philosophers differed from those of their predecessors in an important respect: they emphasized that the tentative knowledge that results from informal logic and argumentation is not inferior to the objective knowledge obtained by the methods and procedures of the hard sciences; rather, the latter are derived from the principles of argumentation and are always subject to further revision according to them. This insight amounts to a recognition of the relationship between the narrow and broad conceptions of science mentioned earlier. The foundational role played by informal logic and argumentation in both the narrow and the broad conceptions of science, as well as in other forms of knowledge acquisition including moral, political, and social discourse, is what I believe the American Association of University Professors is referring to when it designates the mission of academia as “reasoned inquiry.”

The foundational nature of reasoned inquiry would seem to provide an answer to the skeptics of social science, for it suggests how valid knowledge can be progressively accumulated. But this answer is only a partial one at best, for the skeptic may reasonably ask just what is meant by terms like “evidence,” “valid,” and “fairly” in the above stated principles. Terms like these are notoriously difficult to define and often subject to dispute. To some extent, this question is based on a misunderstanding because the process of argumentation being described here is a dynamic not a static one. It presupposes that the meanings of the terms and the criteria by which they are established are themselves open to examination and potential negotiation through the very same process of reasoned inquiry. We assume that such a process, honestly followed, will move toward a truth that is independent of the biases of the participants and that will be increasing likely to gain acceptance. True, this is only an assumption, but it is not a groundless one. Habermas and other writers have pointed out that the movement of reasoned inquiry is governed, in part, by forces inherent in the nature of rational discourse itself and that any participant who departs from those principles will necessarily be delegitimized and deauthorized by the “performative contradiction” of attempting to make a rational argument through irrational means (this is something like the self-contradictory nihilism described on the previous page).

Another problem that needs to be considered, however, is a more immediate one that has already been alluded to on previous pages: what happens if the participants who are engaged in reasoned inquiry simply cannot come to an agreement? This question is not merely an academic one, for, as noted on the previous page, some kinds of inquiry – particularly, research into social, political and moral issues – may require definitions, descriptions and observations that entail assumptions about the social world that are inherently value-laden and that may not be universally acceptable. This problem will be discussed on the following page.