Learning Skills

Critical Thinking: Identifying Discourse Problems


Web Resources for This Assignment

For General Education 110

Early Christianity

For General Education 111

Modern Japan



Discourse   We're now about to introduce you to a fancy term: discourse. Simply defined, a discourse is a set of rules for using language and representing the world. When we distinguish between discourses , i.e., scientific discourse, literary discourse, political discourse, we're not talking about the context or even the content. For instance, scientific issues can be dealt with in scientific discourse (your chemistry textbook, for instance), literary discourse (popular science non-fiction, or science fiction), or political discourse (political debates about cloning, for instance). Each of these discourses deals with the same content and often in the same contexts; what distinguishes them are the rules of speaking and writing.
   These rules are extraordinarly complex and you master them almost imperceptibly. Without thinking about it, you can easily distinguish between all the discourses that you've been exposed to: political discourse, legal discourse, scientific discourse, symbolic discourse, religious discourse, political discourse, and so on. Going over all the rules that each discourse follows is a long, long project; that's what postmodernist English professors are for. You should, however, be able to critically examine a discourse on one particular account: the way the discourse formulates problems to be solved.


Problems   You've studied much about arguments and theses. The key part of any argument, however, is determining the problem that the argument will solve. All arguments do this: they select an argument to solve, they ignore other arguments (even if they're important), and they decide on a discourse in which to deal with the argument.
   Identifying the problem that a particular argument or discourse bases itself on is the most fundamental aspect of critical thinking. Whenever you are faced with an argument or a presentation of information, the first question you should be able to answer is: "what problem does this writer see as necessary to solve? on what problem is this discourse based?" The writer or speaker will rarely answer this question for you. The next most important question to ask is: "what problem is this person ignoring? what fundamental issues is the writer or speaker leaving out as not part of the problem?" For instance, suppose you were reading a presentation of why people were attracted to fascism. The "problem" that the discourse is dealing with is: "why were people attracted to fascism?" Suppose you read the account and all the information that is presented to you deals with men. The writer or speaker has decided that the only relevant problem is: "why were men attracted to fascism?" Is that the entire story? Are women a non-issue in the understanding of fascism as a social phenomenon? The closer you look, the more fundamental problems or issues are being left out of arguments. Leaving these issues out often seriously undermines the quality of the presentation or argument.
   More often than not, the problem that a writer or speaker deals with is determined by the discourse that they're using. Do you find it odd that history textbooks have little to say about world view? That's because the "rules" of historical discourse tend to find historical "problems" in areas other than world view. Discourses, however, are constantly changing, that is, their "rules" are constantly changing. What is seen as a problem at one time is no longer considered a problem later; what is ignored in a discourse often becomes a central problem later. So questioning how a writer or speaker chooses their "problems" has great influence over the future; if enough people decide that a discourse or discipline is ignoring a fundamental issue, eventually that issue becomes fundamentally a part of that discourse or discipline.


The Assignment

For General Education 110

   On this assignment, I want you to examine your textbook's discussion of foundational and early Christianity. You are to identify what the textbook sees as the central problems about the early history of Christianity that need to be explained. After you've identified those problems, I want you to determine why the writer believes these to be problems. Since the writer is coming from a world view deeply informed by the social and other ideas from early and foundational Christianity, how does that perspective determine what that writer believes are the "problems" that need to be explained in early Christian history? What "problems" does the writer leave out? What do you think are fundamental issues that the writer doesn't believe are problems?

For General Education 111

   On this assignment, I want you to examine your textbook's discussion of modern Japan. You are to identify what the textbook sees as the central problems about modern Japan that need to be explained. After you've identified those problems, I want you to determine why the writer believes these to be problems. Since the writer is approaching modern Japan from the perspective of a European-American, how does that perspective determine what that writer believes are the "problems" that need to be explained in modern Japanese history? What "problems" does the writer leave out? What do you think are fundamental issues that the writer doesn't believe are problems?


World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 4-6-97