Have you ever heard an argument that you found unconvincing? Has anyone ever tried and failed to persuade you of something? If so, then you have already identified critical weakness: that vulnerable element in somebody’s argument that renders it untenable. Accordingly, looking for critical weakness relates to discriminating between the plausible and implausible, between well argued and poorly argued ideas. Indeed, we all do this on a regular basis. If we did not, we would accept every half-baked notion placed before us; which of course we do not. In fact, we are constantly analysing and evaluating the information we are presented with; accepting and rejecting points accordingly based on strengths and weaknesses. When engaged in scholarly work, the same dynamic is at play, only on a more technical and nuanced level. In order to spot critical weakness, then, you essentially need to locate the least persuasive dimensions of an argument. Critical weakness can come in many forms. For instance, it might come in the shape of a poorly reasoned premise, a glaring omission, a lack of evidence, an appeal to dubious authority, or, indeed, diverse other manifestations. Hence you are not necessarily looking for the presence of a particular critical misstep; rather, you are looking, more generally, for the absence of consistency, logic, insight, substantiation or other necessary attributes of academic rigour. A critical weakness, then, is constituted as much in what is excluded as what is presented.
The next thing to bear in mind is that no scholarly argument is immune from critique. Even the most lauded and renowned academic writers may be taken to task if done so justly and critically. In consequence, you want try and approach each scholarly work, with a degree of critical distance. Just because a certain author is in vogue does not mean they are irreproachable or even correct in their views. Aristotle may be one of the fathers of modern philosophy but he still believed that slavery was justified and even necessary. Again, you need to discriminate good ideas from bad. Having established that no text is beyond fault, it will be easier to tune in to critical weak spots. One of the first and most obvious issues to look out for is logical fallacy. A fallacy is an error in reasoning which leads to false beliefs. A text lacking critical rigour is likely to be full of logical fallacies – of which there are a diverse many.
Here are some common examples. The False Dichotomy, where a set of alternatives is erroneously presented as exclusive; as in, “Either your with us or your with the terrorists” (of course, you can be for neither faction). The Straw Man, where counter views are mischaracterised or even travestied to make them easier to attack; as with, “Aristotle advocated slavery, therefore was evil, so his views on logic are suspect” (the situation was far more complex; slavery was an established institution throughout Antiquity; logic and morality are not mutually inclusive). Begging the Question, where a point which is yet to be established is taken for granted; as in, “I know telepathy is real because my friend told me it was real; this truth was revealed to her telepathically by a psychic”. Note the circularity of the reasoning; the revelation of this “truth” is supposedly “revealed” by the very means which are in dispute. This is not a proof; it is an evasion of proof and a glaring critical weakness. Bear in mind, here, that to “beg the question” specifically denotes the above fallacy and should be used in no other context. Hence wherever you find (as occurs surprisingly frequently in scholarly writing) an academic asserting “this begs the question”, when what they mean is “this raises the question”, they have made a rather sizable error. Such verbal clumsiness is a sign of haphazard thinking; and this raises the question of what other critical weaknesses the text in question may reveal.
With a little bit of mental training you will soon be able to spot critical weaknesses very readily and, so long as your exercise rigour, this will be a great asset to your scholarly composition. As an undergraduate, being able to pinpoint intellectual shortfalls within the established scholarly corpus is a sign of academic excellence; this will translate to very good grades. Read up on other logical fallacies (a great many have been codified) and use this knowledge to ensure such faulty reasoning does not make its way into your own work.
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