How We Think

Chapter 8: Judgment: the Interpretation of Facts

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I. The Three Factors of Judging

Good judgment

A MAN of good judgment in a given set of affairs is a man in so far educated, trained, whatever may be his literacy. And if our schools turn out their pupils in that attitude of mind which is conducive to good judgment in any department of affairs in which the pupils are placed, they have done more than if they sent out their pupils merely possessed of vast stores of information, or high degrees of skill in specialized branches. To know what is good judgment we need first to know what judgment is.

Judgment and inference

That there is an intimate connection between judgment and inference is obvious enough. The aim of inference is to terminate itself in an adequate judgment of a situation, and the course of inference goes on through a series of partial and tentative judgments. What are these units, these terms of inference when we examine them on their own account? Their significant traits may be readily gathered from a consideration of the operations to which the word judgment was originally applied : namely, the authoritative decision of matters in legal controversy the procedure of the judge on the bench. There are three such features : (I) a controversy, consisting of opposite claims regarding the same objective situation; (2) a process of defining and elaborating these claims and of sifting the facts adduced to

(102) support them; (3) a final decision, or sentence, closing the particular matter in dispute and also serving as a rule or principle for deciding future cases.

Uncertainty the antecedent of judgment

I. Unless there is something doubtful, the situation is read off at a glance; it is taken in on sight, i.e. there is merely apprehension, perception, recognition, not judgment. If the matter is wholly doubtful, if it is dark and obscure throughout, there is a blind mystery and again no judgment occurs. But if it suggests, however vaguely, different meanings, rival possible interpretations, there is some point at issue, some matter at stake. Doubt takes the form of dispute, controversy; different sides compete for a conclusion in their favor. Cases brought to trial before a judge illustrate neatly and unambiguously this strife of alternative interpretations; but any case of trying to clear up intellectually a doubtful situation exemplifies the same traits. A moving blur catches our eye in the distance; we ask ourselves: "What is it? Is it a cloud of whirling dust? a tree waving its branches? a man signaling to us? " Something in the total situation suggests each of these possible meanings. Only one of them can possibly be sound; perhaps none of them is appropriate; yet some meaning the thing in question surely has. Which of the alternative suggested meanings has the rightful claim? What does the perception really mean? How is it to be interpreted, estimated, appraised, placed? Every judgment proceeds from some such situation.

Judgment defines the issue,

2. The hearing of the controversy, the trial, i.e. the weighing of alternative claims, divides into two branches, either of which, in a given case, may be more conspicuous than the other. In the consideration of a legal dispute, these two branches are sifting the evidence and

(103) selecting the rules that are applicable; they are "the facts" and "the law" of the case. In judgment they are (a) the determination of the data that are important in the given case (compare the inductive movement); and (b) the elaboration of the conceptions or meanings suggested by the crude data (compare the deductive movement). (a) What portions or aspects of the situation are significant in controlling the formation of the interpretation? (b) just what is the full meaning and bearing of the conception that is used as a method of interpretation ? These questions are strictly correlative; the answer to each depends upon the answer to the other. We may, however, for convenience, consider them separately.

(a) by selecting what facts are evidence

(a) In every actual occurrence, there are many details which are part of the total occurrence, but which nevertheless are not significant in relation to the point at issue. All parts of an experience are equally present, but they are very far from being of equal value as signs or as evidences. Nor is there any tag or label on any trait saying: "This is important," or " This is trivial." Nor is intensity, or vividness or conspicuousness, a safe measure of indicative and proving value. The glaring thing may be totally insignificant in this particular situation, and the key to the understanding of the whole matter may be modest or hidden (compare P. 74). Features that are not significant are distracting; they proffer their claims to be regarded as clues and Cues to interpretation, while traits that are significant do not appear on the surface at all. Hence, judgment is required even in reference to the situation or event that is present to the senses; elimination or rejection, selection, discovery, or bringing to light must take place.

(104) Till we have reached a final conclusion, rejection and selection must be tentative or conditional. We select the things that we hope or trust are cues to meaning. But if they do not suggest a situation that accepts and includes them (see p. 8 1), we reconstitute our data, the facts of the case; for we mean, intellectually, by the facts of the case those traits that are used as evidence in reaching a conclusion or forming a decision.

Expertness in selecting evidence

No hard and fast rules for this operation of selecting and rejecting, or fixing upon the facts, can be given. It all comes back, as we say, to the good judgment, the good sense, of the one judging. To be a good judge is to have a sense of the relative indicative or signifying values of the various features of the perplexing situation; to know what to let go as of no account; what to eliminate as irrelevant; what to retain as conducive to outcome; what to emphasize as a clue to the difficulty.[1] This power in ordinary matters we call knack, tact, cleverness; in more important affairs, insight, discernment. In part it is instinctive or inborn; but it also represents the funded outcome of long familiarity with like operations in the past. Possession of this ability to seize what is evidential or significant and to let the rest go is the mark of the expert, the connoisseur, the judge, in any matter.

Intuitive judgment

Mill cites the following case, which is worth noting as an instance of the extreme delicacy and accuracy to which may be developed this power of sizing up the significant factors of a situation. "A Scotch manufacturer procured from England, at a high rate of wages, a working dyer, famous for producing very fine colors, with the view of teaching to his other workmen the same

(105) skill. The workman came; but his method of proportioning the ingredients, in which lay the secret of the effects he produced, was by taking them up in handfuls, while the common method was to weigh them. The manufacturer sought to make him turn his handling system into an equivalent weighing system, that the general principles of his peculiar mode of proceeding might be ascertained. This, however, the man found himself quite unable to do, and could therefore impart his own skill to nobody. He had, from individual cases of his own experience, established a connection in his mind between fine effects of color and tactual perceptions in handling his dyeing materials; and from these perceptions he could, in any particular case, infer the means to be employed and the effects which would be produced." Long brooding over conditions, intimate contact associated with keen interest, thorough absorption in a multiplicity of allied experiences, tend to bring about those judgments which we then call intuitive; but they are true judgments because they are based on intelligent selection and estimation, with the solution of a problem as the controlling standard. Possession of this capacity makes the difference between the artist and the intellectual bungler.

Such is judging ability, in its completest form, as to the data of the decision to be reached. But in any case there is a certain feeling along for the way to be followed; a constant tentative picking out of certain qualities to see what emphasis upon them would lead to ; a willingness to hold final selection in suspense; and to reject the factors entirely or relegate them to a different Position in the evidential scheme if other features yield more solvent suggestions. Alertness, flexibility, curios-

(106)-ity are the essentials; dogmatism, rigidity, prejudice, caprice, arising from routine, passion, and flippancy are fatal.

(b) To decide an issue, the appropriate principles must also be selected

(b) This selection of data is, of course, for the sake of controlling the development and elaboration of the suggested meaning in the light of which they are to be interpreted (compare p. 76). An evolution of conceptions thus goes on simultaneously with the determination of the facts; one possible meaning after another is held before the mind, considered in relation to the data to which it is applied, is developed into its more detailed bearings upon the data, is dropped or tentatively accepted and used. We do not approach any problem with a wholly naive or virgin mind; we approach it with certain acquired habitual modes of understanding, with a certain store of previously evolved meanings, or at least of experiences from which meanings may be educed. If the circumstances are such that a habitual response is called directly into play, there is an immediate grasp of meaning. If the habit is checked, and inhibited from easy application, a possible meaning for the facts in question presents itself. No hard and fast rules decide whether a meaning suggested is the right and proper meaning to follow up. The individual's own good (or bad) judgment is the guide. There is no label on any given idea or principle which says automatically, "Use me in this situation " as the magic cakes of Alice in Wonderland were inscribed " Eat me." The thinker has to decide, to choose; and there is always a risk, so that the prudent thinker selects warily, subject, that is, to confirmation or frustration by later events. If one is not able to estimate wisely what is relevant to the interpretation of a given perplexing or doubtful issue, it avails

(107) little that arduous learning has built up a large stock of concepts. For learning is not wisdom ; information does not guarantee good judgment. Memory may provide an antiseptic refrigerator in which to store a stock of meanings for future use, but judgment selects and adopts the one used in a given emergency -and without an emergency (some crisis, slight or great) there is no call for judgment. No conception, even if it is carefully and firmly established in the abstract, can at first safely be more than a candidate for the office of interpreter. Only greater success than that of its rivals in clarifying dark spots, untying hard knots, reconciling discrepancies, can elect it or prove it a valid idea for the given situation.

Judging terminates in a decision or statement

3. The judgment when formed is a decision; it closes (or concludes) the question at issue. This determination not only settles that particular case, but it helps fix a rule or method for deciding similar matters in the future; as the sentence of the judge on the bench both terminates that dispute and also forms a precedent for future decisions. If the interpretation settled upon is not controverted by subsequent events, a presumption is built up in favor of similar interpretation in other cases where the features are not so obviously unlike as to make it inappropriate. In this way, principles of judging are gradually built up; a certain manner of interpretation gets weight, authority. In short, meanings get standardized, they become logical concepts (see below, p. 118).

2 . The Origin and Nature of Ideas

Ideas are conjectures employed in judging

This brings us to the question of ideas in relation to judgments.[2] Something in an obscure situation sug-

(108)-gests something else as its meaning. If this meaning is at once accepted, there is no reflective thinking, no genuine judging. Thought is cut short uncritically; dogmatic belief, with all its attending risks, takes place. But if the meaning suggested is held in suspense, pending examination and inquiry, there is true judgment. We stop and think, we de-fer conclusion in order to in-fer more thoroughly. In this process of being only conditionally accepted, accepted only for examination, meanings become ideas. That is to say, an idea is a meaning that is tentatively entertained, formed, and used with reference to its fitness to decide a perplexing situation, a meaning used as a toot of judgment.

Or tools of interpretation

Let us recur to our instance of a blur in motion appearing at a distance. We wonder what the thing is, i.e. what the blur means. A man waving his arms, a friend beckoning to us, are suggested as possibilities. To accept at once either alternative is to arrest judgment. But if we treat what is suggested as only a suggestion, a supposition, a possibility, it becomes an idea, having the following traits: (a) As merely a suggestion, it is a conjecture, a guess, which in cases of greater dignity we call a hypothesis or a theory. That is to say, it is a possible but as yet doubtful mode of interpretation. (b) Even though doubtful, it has an office to perform; namely, that of directing inquiry and examination. If this blur means a friend beckoning, then careful observation should show certain other traits. If it is a man driving unruly cattle, certain other traits should be found. Let us look and see if these traits are found. Taken merely as a doubt, an idea would paralyze inquiry. Taken merely as a certainty, it would arrest

(109) inquiry. Taken as a doubtful possibility, it affords a standpoint, a platform, a method of inquiry.


Ideas are not then genuine ideas unless they are tools in a reflective examination which tends to solve a problem. Suppose it is a question of having the pupil grasp the idea of the sphericity of the earth. This is different from teaching him its sphericity as a fact. He may be shown (or reminded of) a ball or a globe, and be told that the earth is round like those things; he may then be made to repeat that statement day after day till the shape of the earth and the shape of the ball are welded together in his mind. But he has not thereby acquired any idea of the earth's sphericity ; at most, he has had a certain image of a sphere and has finally managed to image the earth after the analogy of his ball image. To grasp sphericity as an idea, the pupil must first have realized certain perplexities or confusing features in observed facts and have had the idea of spherical shape suggested to him as a possible way of accounting for the phenomena in question. Only by use as a method of interpreting data so as to give them fuller meaning does sphericity become a genuine idea. There may be a vivid image and no idea; or there may be a fleeting, obscure image and yet an idea, if that image performs the function of instigating and directing the observation and relation of facts.

Ideas furnish the only alternative to "hit or miss" methods

Logical ideas are like keys which are shaping with reference to opening a lock. Pike, separated by a glass partition from the fish upon which they ordinarily prey, will -so it is said butt their heads against the gl 'ass until it is literally beaten into them that they cannot get at their food. Animals learn (when they learn at all) by a " cut and try " method; by doing at random

(110) first one thing and another thing and then preserving the things that happen to succeed. Action directed consciously by ideas -by suggested meanings accepted for the sake of experimenting with them -is the sole alternative both to bull-headed stupidity and to learning bought from that dear teacher chance experience.

They are methods of indirect attack

It is significant that many words for intelligence suggest the idea of circuitous, evasive activity often with a sort of intimation of even moral obliquity. The bluff, hearty man goes straight (and stupidly, it is implied) at some work. The intelligent man is cunning, shrewd (crooked), wily, subtle, crafty, artful, designing -the idea of indirection is involved.[3] An idea is a method of evading, circumventing, or surmounting through reflection obstacles that otherwise would have to be attacked by brute force. But ideas may lose their intellectual quality as they are habitually used. When a child was first learning to recognize, in some hesitating suspense, cats, dogs, houses, marbles, trees, shoes, and other objects, ideas conscious and tentative meanings -intervened as methods of identification. Now, as a rule, the thing and the meaning are so completely fused that there is no judgment and no idea proper, but only automatic recognition. On the other hand, things that are, as a rule, directly apprehended and familiar become subjects of judgment when they present themselves in unusual contexts: as forms, distances, sizes, positions when we attempt to draw them; triangle, squares, and circles when they turn up, not in connection with familiar toys, implements, and utensils, but as problems in geometry.

3. Analysis and Synthesis

Judging clears up things: analysis

Through judging confused data are cleared up, and seemingly incoherent and disconnected facts brought together. Things may have a peculiar feeling for us, they may make a certain indescribable impression upon us; the thing may feel round (that is, present a quality which we afterwards define as round), an act may seem rude (or what we afterwards classify as rude), and yet this quality may be lost, absorbed, blended in the total value of the situation. Only as we need to use just that aspect of the original situation as a tool of grasping something perplexing or obscure in another situation, do we abstract or detach the quality so that it becomes. individualized. Only because we need to characterize the shape of some new object or the moral quality of some new act, does the element of roundness or rudeness in the old experience detach itself, and stand out as a distinctive feature. If the element thus selected clears up what is otherwise obscure in the new experience, if it settles what is uncertain, it thereby itself gains in positiveness and definiteness of meaning. This point will meet us again in the following chapter; here we shall speak of the matter only as it bears upon the questions of analysis and synthesis.

Mental analysis is not like physical division

Even when it is definitely stated that intellectual and physical analyses are different sorts of operations, intellectual analysis is often treated after the analogy of physical; as if it were the breaking up of a whole into all its cQn3tituent parts in the mind instead of in space. As nobody can possibly tell what breaking a whole into its parts in the mind means, this conception leads to the further notion that logical analysis is a mere enumeration and listing of all conceivable qualities and relations.

Misapprehension of analysis in education

(112) The influence upon education of this conception has been very great.[4] Every subject in the curriculum has passed through-or still remains in-what may be called the phase of anatomical or morphological method: the stage in which understanding the subject is thought to consist of multiplying distinctions of quality, form, relation, and so on, and attaching some name to each distinguished element. In normal growth, specific properties are emphasized and so individualized only when they serve to clear up a present difficulty. Only as they are involved in judging some specific situation is there any motive or use for analyses, ie. for emphasis upon some element or relation as peculiarly significant.

Effects of premature formulation

The same putting the cart before the horse, the product before the process, is found in that overconscious formulation of methods of procedure so current in elementary instruction. (See p. 60.) The method that is employed in discovery, in reflective inquiry, cannot possibly be identified with the method that emerges after the discovery is made. In the genuine operation of inference, the mind is in the attitude of search, of hunting, of projection, of trying this and that; when the conclusion is reached, the search is at an end. The Greeks used to discuss: " How is learning (or inquiry) possible? For either we know already what we are after, and then we do not learn or inquire; or we do not know, and then we cannot inquire, for we do not know what to look for." The dilemma is at least suggestive, for it points to the true alternative: the use in inquiry of doubt, of tentative suggestion, of experimen-

(113)-tation. After we have reached the conclusion, a reconsideration of the steps of the process to see what is helpful, what is harmful, what is merely useless, will assist in dealing more promptly and efficaciously with analogous problems in the future. In this way, more or less explicit method is gradually built up. (Compare the earlier discussion on p. 62 Of the psychological and the logical.)

Method comes before its formulation

It is, however, a common assumption that unless the pupil from the outset consciously recognizes and explicitly states the method logically implied in the result he is to reach, he will have no method, and his mind will work confusedly or anarchically; while if he accompanies his performance with conscious statement of some form of procedure (outline, topical analysis, list of headings and subheadings, uniform formula) his mind is safeguarded and strengthened. As a matter of fact, the development of an unconscious logical attitude and habit must come first. A conscious setting forth of the method logically adapted for reaching an end is possible only after the result has first been reached by more unconscious and tentative methods, while it is valuable only when a review of the method that achieved success in a given case will throw light upon a new, similar case. The ability to fasten upon and single out (abstract, analyze) those features of one experience which are logically best is hindered by premature insistence upon their explicit formulation. It is repeated use that gives a method definiteness; and given this definiteness, precipitation into formulated statement should follow naturally. But because teachers find that the things which they themselves best understand are marked off and defined in clear-cut ways, our schoolrooms are pervaded

(114) with the superstition that children are to begin with already crystallized formulae of method.

Judgment reveals the bearing or significance of facts: synthesis

As analysis is conceived to be a sort of picking to pieces, so synthesis is thought to be a sort of physical piecing together; and so imagined, it also becomes a mystery. In fact, synthesis takes place wherever we grasp the bearing of facts on a conclusion, or of a principle on facts. As analysis is emphasis, so synthesis is placing; the one causes the emphasized fact or property to stand out as significant; the other gives what is selected its context, or its connection with what is signified. Every judgment is analytic in so far as it involves discernment, discrimination, marking off the trivial from the important, the irrelevant from what points to a conclusion; and it is synthetic in so far as it leaves the mind with an inclusive situation within which the selected facts are placed.

Analysis and synthesis are correlative

Educational methods that pride themselves on being exclusively analytic or exclusively synthetic are therefore (so far as they carry out their boasts) incompatible with normal operations of judgment. Discussions have taken place, for example, as to whether the teaching of geography should be analytic or synthetic. The synthetic method is supposed to begin with the partial, limited portion of the earth's surface already familiar to the pupil, and then gradually piece on adjacent regions (the county, the country, the continent, and so on) till an idea of the entire globe is reached, or of the solar system that includes the globe, The analytic method is supposed to begin with the physical whole, the solar system or globe, and to work down through its constituent portions till the immediate environment is reached. The underlying conceptions are of physical wholes and physical

(115) parts. As matter of fact, we cannot assume that the portion of the earth already familiar to the child is such a definite object, mentally, that he can at once begin with it; his knowledge of it is misty and vague as well as incomplete. Accordingly, mental progress will involve analysis of it emphasis of the features that are significant, so that they will stand out clearly. Moreover, his own locality is not sharply marked off, neatly bounded, and measured. His experience of it is already an experience that involves sun, moon, and stars as parts of the scene he surveys ; it involves a changing horizon line as he moves about; that is, even his more limited and local experience involves far-reaching factors that take his imagination clear beyond his own street and village. Connection, relationship with a larger whole, is already involved. But his recognition of these relations is inadequate, vague, incorrect. He needs to utilize the features of the local environment which are understood to help clarify and enlarge his conceptions of the larger geographical scene to which they belong. At the same time, not till he has grasped the larger scene will many of even the commonest features of his environment become intelligible. Analysis leads to synthesis; while synthesis perfects analysis. As the pupil grows in comprehension of the vast complicated earth in its setting in space, he also sees more definitely the meaning of the familiar local details. This intimate interaction between selective emphasis and interpretation of what is selected is found wherever reflection proceeds normally. Hence the folly of trying to set analysis and synthesis over against each other.


  1. Compare what was said about analysis.
  2. The term idea is also used popularly to denote (a) a mere fancy, (b) an accepted belief, and also (c) judgment itself. But logically it denotes a certain factor in judgment, as explained in the text.
  3. See Ward, Psychic Factors of Civilization, p. 153.
  4. Thus arise all those falsely analytic methods in geography, reading, writing, drawing, botany, arithmetic, which we have already considered in another connection. (See p. 59.)

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