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Critical Reasoning

Questioning the Assumptions Underlying an Author's Argument or Ideas

It is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse without making some assumptions. A passage may clearly state or imply its assumptions in ways that inform the reader. For example, newsletters from politicians, brochures of commercial ventures, and appeals from charitable organizations are normally titled or labeled so clearly that the reader has no difficulty in identifying their underlying assumptions.

At times, however, a passage will not explicity inform the reader of the assumptions which support its statements, opinions, and arguments. In such instances, the assumptions must be identified by the reader. These assumptions actually provide the basis for making judgements about the accuracy and value of the passage.

Whether the assumptions of a passage are explicity or implicitly given, they are excellent clues for the reader seeking to understand the message of the author. Explicitly stated assumptions should be noted. If none are present, the reader must do some investigating to uncover those that are not stated. Some implicit assumptions are readily apparent and the author need not state them. On the other hand, implicit assumptions may be so questionable that the author would rather not acquaint the reader of their existence. This is especially true when a passage is intended to convince or persuade the reader to take some action or accept some belief.

To identify assumptions that are not explicity stated,

Look for statements that are more opinion than fact. Implicit assumptions may be used to support opinions that are illogical, incomplete, or invalid. Stereotypes or false assumptions are used in some passages to gain reader support.

Implicit assumptions may be introduced by strong, slanted, colorful language. Emotional language may capture readers’ interest without addressing the underlying assumptions.

Language that contains implicit assumptions often use conditional words like might, can, rather than, will, and should.

Generalizations rather than specifics may be employed to disguise implicit assumptions. For example, a passage may contain a sentence such as:

“Juvenile delinquents take law-abiding people for all they’ve got.”

Instead, the author could have written:

“A sixteen-year-old male stole $25 from his neighbor.”

Notice that the words "juvenile delinquents" and "law-abiding people" introduce very different assumptions than "sixteen-year-old male" and "neighbor."

Examples of passages which contain few implicit assumptions may be seen on the news pages of any major metropolitan newspaper. What section of the newspaper is more likely to contain articles with implicit assumptions? Click the "Next" button when you have answered.