Dishonest or ‘crooked’ arguments are nothing new, but recently our fractious politics coupled with the invention of the Internet have lent them a fresh intensity, and a wider reach. Would that Straight and Crooked Thinking, written by Robert H. Thouless and first published in 1930, was now more widely read and taught in schools. This little book would not solve all our problems, of course, but it might help us see through partisan propaganda, take on unprincipled Internet warriors, persuade others honourably, defend our own beliefs effectively and (crucially) change our minds when necessary.
Part guide to rhetoric, part logic primer, Straight and Crooked Thinking was written in plain language for a general readership and produced with the support of the Workers’ Educational Association – one of many clues to the author’s own political leanings. Born in 1894, Robert Henry Thouless became a Fellow of Corpus Christi, Cambridge, went on to become Head of the Department of Psychology at Glasgow University, and then returned to Cambridge as a Reader. He died in 1984.
A devotee of the then revolutionary teachings of Sigmund Freud, Thouless was an idealist, as well as an evangelist for clear, logical thinking. He believed that a scientific approach to the public conversation around politics and economics would usher in a golden age of rationality, prosperity and accord between nations. ‘We can solve the problems of war and poverty if we approach them in the same scientific spirit as we have now learned to apply to disease,’ he writes. ‘A really educated democracy, distrustful of emotional phraseology and all the rest of the stock-in-trade of the exploiters of crooked thinking, devoid of reverence for ancient institutions and ancient ways of thinking, could take conscious control of our social development and could destroy these plagues of our civilization – war, poverty and crime . . . but the revolution must start i
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