Bob Corbett

PHIL 1010 01: June 5th until July 28th, 2000

What is a thesis and how does one find it?

In my earlier paper on critical thinking I spoke of the ARGUMENT being the central unit of speech. Note that this is somewhat different than normal English. In English generally the central unit of speech is the sentence. Most people are used to speaking and even thinking in sentences. To do critical thinking well you will have to come to do what people do who speak a foreign language:

you decide which language you will speak.

When I'm in Vienna, which is often, I usually choose to speak German. Obviously I'm most used to speaking English. It is my native tongue, I speak it quite well; my German is very bad, I speak it poorly. Nonetheless, I CHOOSE to consciously switch to German. It may be that I have to if I want to communicate. My correspondent may not speak English, and German is the only language we have in common.

With critical thinking this latter notion will not often happen. Anyone who can "speak" critical thinking can speak sentences. But, to begin to take the truth of an idea seriously, is to consider the important step of switching out of "sentence" English into "argument" English.

I have already responded to one student's question about argument and debate. As I explained there, "argument" is a technical term in critical thinking, not a disagreement or a debate. But that will be my next lecture-essay. In this one I want to deal with what is a thesis and how to find it.

An argument has two parts:

  1. A thesis.
  2. A set of reasons or considerations for why one thinks the thesis is true.

The first distinction that I must make is between a thesis and a topic.

First some synonyms:

When we say thesis, we might also mean: belief, claim, conclusion, point, truth, …. you can help me build this list.

When we say topic, we might also mean: theme, problem, interest… again, help me build this synonym list.

There is a good deal of discussion on the news these days about the fluctuations of the stock market. Many people are having their say. But what are they saying?

If one says: "I'm going to address the fluctuations in the stockmarket." That is a theme. It tells us what area the person will talk about. We don't yet know what the person believes.

But, if the person says: "I'm going to show that the market will flatten out in the next month and then grow at a 5% rate for a year." that is a THESIS. It is a specific claim, a belief. We know what the conclusion of this person's thinking is.

So the thesis tells us the central belief. The theme tells us what the area of concern the person is addressing.

Take another example. Someone says: "I believe in God." Now this is a bit curious. It looks like a thesis. It is a central claim, we know what the person holds -- it is much like the stock market claim that the market will flatten out and grow at 5%. But it isn't quite.

The first claim is a statement of (alleged) truth about the market. The second claim is a statement of (alleged) truth about the belief of the speaker.

Critical thinking is not much concerned with knowing about the speaker's beliefs.
Critical thinking is concerned with knowing about the truth of the world.

So, we could change the second person's claim from:

"I believe in God." to
"God exists." This is, indeed, a thesis.

It doesn't tell us about the inner state of a person, it claims the universe is such that there is an existing God in it.

It is crucial to come to see and understand the difference between a thesis and a theme.

In Corbett's first paper the THEME is critical thinking. Wheeee, the thesis -- well, that's a tough one. I won't address that yet.

Note that we may identify themes and theses in both oral or written positions. No big difference. I much prefer written work, it doesn't "weasel" out on one. In oral material it is often very difficult to keep a large body of it in mind. Further, in my experience people often will claim to change what I think they have said earlier. I don't mean they are cheating, though often they are, but rather, even the speaker can't keep large blocks of talk in mind and honest mistakes are made.

The written word in more reliable for critical thinking analysis. It is there in front of us, the words are what they are. This does not mean that we can always agree on the MEANING of the words immediately in front of us. We certainly don't, and there are texts of Aristotle and Plato written more than 2000 years ago, studied by some of the greatest minds ever living on earth and there are still major disagreements as to what is the best critical analysis of some text.

But, the written word is at least there for us in a more permanent form than the spoken argument. Obviously, given that this is an internet course, we will deal 100% with the written word. Oh my, do I love that!

Now, how does one find a thesis and why do I think finding the thesis of my first paper, the introductory essay, is hard?

In any given work there may be quite a number of THESES. Dozens, even hundreds. Some books have many hundreds if not thousands. There is some vague sense in which every declarative sentence is a thesis.

But recall: Corbett's central claim about the course: critical thinking's central unit is the ARGUMENT. An argument has two parts -- a thesis and a set of considerations or reasons for thinking the thesis is true.

Thus we can look at some work and try, though careful and often FREQUENT rereadings, of a piece of writing, to come to recognize some one central belief or thesis that is the organizing principle for what follows. This is the thesis. I will talk about the REST of the argument (reasons and considerations for believing the thesis) in the next lecture-essay. But note that the reasons I have for some belief, may be complex and controversial so I will give reasons for the reasons, in which the higher level reasons function like theses.

Whee. That's a mouthful. Let me illustrate. I'll create a simple argument, but one with a few of these complexities.

I will use [ brackets like this ] to comment ABOUT the argument as I go.

I am writing a history of my neighborhood "Dogtown" here in St. Louis. The most common question I'm asked is why is it called Dogtown? Here is an argument -- please note, my own REAL argument is a bit more complex that this, I am making up a simplified one, so don't take this as my real position.

Why is "Dogtown" called Dogtown? [theme]

I believe the best reply is the watchdog theory. [thesis] [I only WISH and DREAM that writers would begin with the thesis!!]

By watchdog theory I mean the view that the neighborhood had many dogs which were there to protect the women and children. The community was a mining community and in the day time the men were away at the Clay mines, some of them in Forest Park, others in the neighborhood, but underground. Since there was a lot of railroad traffic on Manchester at the brick making factories which lined the street, many hobos came in on the trains and walked into the neighborhood. The dogs were to protect the families of the miners. This was all in the mid and late 19th century.

[This is one "consideration" for the thesis. It consist of some clarification as to what the "watchdog theory" means, and some reason to show that there grounds for thinking the actually happened. But note, this is rather slim "evidence," it would be important to fluff it out with more detail and historical evidence given to be a really strong reason.]

Actually there is only one competing theory and I believe it is quite weak. It is the Igorot theory. [Note two things here: First, this is a second consideration for the thesis, by trying to show that there are really only two theories known and advanced in history, and that this second one is much weaker than the first.]

[However, toward the point I am making here about finding the thesis -- now I have to give evidence that the Igorot theory is weak. So now my thesis becomes not: "The watch dog theory is the reason for the name Dogtown." But, the SECONDARY thesis: Here is the reason why the Igorot theory is NOT a good reason. That's the point. There are main theses and subsidiary theses in any complex argument, and this one is a terribly argument.]

To finish:

In the 1904 World's Fair, one of the most popular "exhibitions" was from the Philippines Islands. It was a tribe of indians called the Igorots. The Igorots ate dog and they contracted with the city of St. Louis to provide dog meat, in which the city used dogs from the dog pound. But, pressures were brought to bear on the city by residents who, hearing of this, were horrified at dogs being killed and eaten over on Wydown Blvd, where the Igorot village was. Thus a battle raged. The Igorots threatened to go home; it was the most popular "exhibit" at the Fair and the city officials compromised; but the populace complained and on and on. The Igorots never had enough dog.

But, to the east was this mining community and about 3500 people lived there. The story is that the Igorots would slip out of their village at night and raid this neighborhood and steal dogs for eating. Thus the name Dogtown.

[Note here again, I give clarification and explain the reason advanced in favor of the Igorot theory.]

I think this theory is a bad one. There are three main reasons for this. [Here I have a minor thesis -- the thesis that the Igorot theory is not to be believed. I even announce the number of reasons I will give to defend that thesis]

[Here I give reasons NOT for the thesis -- The name Dogtown comes from the watchdog theory -- but this is a set of reasons to defend the minor thesis, the notion that the Igorot theory is NOT the grounds of the name -- which is itself a reason for the main thesis.]

Okay, the point of that little side lesson in Dogtown history was to make the point that finding a thesis means going for the HIGHEST level of abstraction that the piece of writing will offer. The question: what is the thesis of this essay, really means: what is the ultimate central thesis of the essay. Along the way there may be dozens of "lesser" theses, supporting somewhat more important theses in the logic of the whole piece.

So what is the secret? How does one find this illusive thesis in a longer piece? There is no fixed rule. One must read carefully, internalize the argument and figure it out. I would recommend beginning with the THEME, not the thesis. It is usually easier to recognize. Then ask: what is the author's MAJOR belief about this theme? I often ask students to do this. You are reading this work (an article, a book, whatever) and a good friend comes by and sees it and says: "This looks interesting. But, I can't visit, I'm in a great rush. In 15 words or less, what is the main belief the author's is defending in this work?"

The answer to that question is the thesis.

Questions are welcome.

My Philosophy Page Webster U. Philosophy Department

Philosophy for Children Critical Thinking Current Semester Education Existentialism
Miscellaneous Topics Moral Philosophy Peace Issues Voluntary Economic Simplicity


Bob Corbett