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On the Universality of Argumentative Reasoning

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According to the argumentative theory of reasoning, humans have evolved reasoning abilities (usually known as ‘system 2’ or ‘analytic’ reasoning) for argumentative purposes. This implies that some reasoning skills should be universals. Such a claim seems to be at odd with findings from cross-cultural research. First, a wealth of research, following the work of Luria, has shown apparent difficulties for illiterate populations to solve simple but abstract syllogisms. It can be shown, however, that once they are willing to accept the pragmatics of the task, these participants can perform at or near ceiling. Second, historical, sociological and anthropological research has been used to claim that some Eastern cultures have not developed argumentation. These claims are the result of oversimplifications and of a selective view of the data. A closer looks reveals instead very elaborate forms of argumentation, in Chinese culture particularly. Third, cross-cultural psychologists have carried out an extensive research program aimed at showing that Easterners do not rely on the principle of non-contradiction and that they use holistic rather than analytic thinking. A review of these experiments shows that no qualitative difference emerges in the way Easterners and Westerners deal with argumentation and that in the proper context both populations can easily have recourse to holistic or analytic thinking. It is possible to conclude from this critical review that the reasoning skills involved in argumentation seem to be universal even though they can be used in different ways in various cultural contexts.

Affiliations: 1: Philosophy, Politics and Economics Program, University of Pennsylvania 313 Cohen Hall, 249 South 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 USA


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