Episode 6: Hidden Premises 1
This sixth episode of Critically Minded FINDS Nick and Dave discussing HIDDEN premises.
Nick: You are listening to Critically Minded.
Dave: Critical Thinking For 2nd Language Learners. We’re your hosts, Dave . . .
Nick: And Nick. In our earlier episode we discussed the basic organization of arguments. We talked about how conclusions need to be supported by premises. Or, in other words, how you need to have reasons for what you believe.
Dave: And those reasons need to lead logically, or reasonably, to that belief.
Nick: So a typical organization of a basic argument is quite simple. A premise, another premise, and a conclusion.
Dave: You may be wondering why do we need a second premise? Isn’t one premise enough? Why do I need two reasons to believe something? But, in fact, it would be very difficult, and maybe impossible to think of an argument with only one premise. One of the most famous arguments, by the 17th Century philosopher named Rene Descartes went like this: I think. Therefore, I am.
Nick: Actually David, this example is far more complicated than it seems. But from a very simplistic point of view of the structure, we have “I think,” that’s one premise, and “I am,” the conclusion. But that’s…
Dave: Yes, it looks like one premise one conclusion, but arguments commonly have what are called hidden or unstated premises.
Nick: Oh, of course. The hidden premise, or unstated premise. That is usually a premise which is considered to be so widely known that it is not necessary to say it. Like in our earlier episode, when we said, “Tom is human. Therefore, Tom will die.” And we didn’t directly mention the fact that “all humans die” because it’s common knowledge. Everyone knows that.
Dave: Right. So in this argument, “I think. Therefore I am,” what could be the unstated premise? Well, an argument usually includes at least one premise about specific facts and at least one premise about general facts. In this argument, what is the specific fact?
Nick: Would that be “I think.” – a specific person, for example me, and what I do, which is think.
Dave: Right, that’s easy enough. But what general claim is hidden in the argument, a claim so widely believed that it isn’t necessary to say it.
Nick: I suppose that would be the general belief that only things that exist can think. And to return to the argument, “I think. Therefore, I am.” The unstated premise here is: “Things that think exist.”
Dave: I think. So, I exist. That is ‘I am.’ Which is fairly obvious. Just think how boring conversations would be if we had to mention every fact again and again.
Nick: And that’s why we don’t do it. Well, not usually. Let’s look at an example that has more connection to everyday life: We should not use Pal Sweet because artificial sweeteners aren’t natural.
Dave: So what you are saying here is, Pal Sweet is an artificial sweetener. Therefore, it shouldn’t be used. The spoken premise is that Pal Sweet is an artificial sweetener. And the conclusion is that it shouldn’t be used.
Nick: And the hidden premise, which is unspoken is that we should reject sweet things not found in nature.
Dave: Okay, so I think we understand hidden premises now. Say, Nick, at the party last night, why didn’t Sachiko come? I wanted to meet her.
Nick: Well, you know the deadline for her graduate thesis is on Monday.
Dave: So? The party was on Saturday?
Nick: Well, you see, David, generally speaking, when people have extremely important deadlines to meet, they don’t usually go out drinking a day-and-a-half before.
Dave: Oh, I see. So the hidden premise here is that she hadn’t finished her graduate thesis and that she needed time to finish it.
Nick: Spot on.
Dave: So, listeners, I think you can see that a hidden premise is one that does not need to be spoken, because most of us understand the situation.
Nick: By the way, do you remember we started this podcast with Rene Descartes’ “I think. Therefore I am?”
Dave: Yeah, and that the hidden premise was that “thinking things exist.”
Nick: That’s right. Do you know how that ends?
Nick: Well, Rene walks into a bar and orders a drink—
Dave: Wait, is this a joke?
Nick: So, Rene walks into a bar and orders a drink. The bartender brings him a drink. After a while the barman notices his glass is near empty, and says, “Another drink, Mr. Descartes?”
“I think not, says Rene.”
And as soon as he says ‘not’, he disappears.
Dave: Which goes to prove that sometimes things are best left unsaid.
Nick: So on that fascinating note–
Dave: This has been, Critically Minded: Critical Thinking for 2nd Language Learners.
Episode 6: Hidden Premises 1