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The Philosopher's Toolkit: How to Be the Most Rational Person in Any Room

The Philosopher's Toolkit: How to Be the Most Rational Person in Any Room

Professor Patrick Grim Ph.D.
State University of New York, Stony Brook
Course No.  4253
Course No.  4253
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Thinking is at the heart of our everyday lives, yet our thinking can go wrong in any number of ways. Bad arguments, fallacious reasoning, misleading language, and built-in cognitive biases are all traps that keep us from rational decision making—to say nothing of advertisers and politicians who want to convince us with half-truths and empty rhetoric.

What can we do to avoid these traps and think better? Is it possible to think faster, more efficiently, and more systematically?

The Philosopher’s Toolkit: How to Be the Most Rational Person in Any Room offers the skills to do just that. Taught by award-winning Professor Patrick Grim of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, this applied philosophy course arms you against the perils of bad thinking and supplies you with an arsenal of strategies to help you be more creative, logical, inventive, realistic, and rational in all aspects of your daily life, from the office to the voting booth.

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Thinking is at the heart of our everyday lives, yet our thinking can go wrong in any number of ways. Bad arguments, fallacious reasoning, misleading language, and built-in cognitive biases are all traps that keep us from rational decision making—to say nothing of advertisers and politicians who want to convince us with half-truths and empty rhetoric.

What can we do to avoid these traps and think better? Is it possible to think faster, more efficiently, and more systematically?

The Philosopher’s Toolkit: How to Be the Most Rational Person in Any Room offers the skills to do just that. Taught by award-winning Professor Patrick Grim of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, this applied philosophy course arms you against the perils of bad thinking and supplies you with an arsenal of strategies to help you be more creative, logical, inventive, realistic, and rational in all aspects of your daily life, from the office to the voting booth.

Unlike courses in other disciplines, which are descriptive, this course is normative.
That is, instead of merely describing how we do think, the focus of this course is how we should think. Along the way, you’ll meet some of history’s greatest thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Einstein and John von Neumann. In addition to looking at what they thought, you’ll study how they thought—what strategies did they employ to come up with their great ideas? What tools can we adopt to make us better thinkers?

With a blend of theoretical and hands-on learning, these 24 stimulating lectures will sharpen your critical thinking skills and get the creative juices flowing with such topics as

  • the symbiotic role of reason and emotion;
  • conceptual visualization and thinking with models;
  • Aristotle’s logic and the flow of arguments;
  • heuristics and psychological biases;
  • polarization and negotiation strategies;
  • advertising and statistics; and
  • decision theory and game theory.

Study What You Didn’t Learn in School

Philosophy provides the foundations for an array of other intellectual fields. As Professor Grim explains, philosophy—“the love of wisdom”—is historically the core discipline of them all. Other fields have branched out from it over the centuries. And while we learn in school about these other disciplines—including mathematics, physics, economics, psychology, and sociology—the material in The Philosopher’s Toolkit is seldom taught, and has never been taught in quite this way.

But the material should be taught because it has an amazing, practical value. Whether you’re trying to decide which wine to bring to a dinner party or weighing the sides of a political debate, these lectures will help you think more rationally so that you can always make the optimal choice. In this course, you’ll

  • build problem-solving skills for greater efficiency at work;
  • become a savvier consumer by staying alert to common advertising tricks;
  • learn heuristics to make better decisions in a pinch;
  • and develop self-knowledge through awareness of built-in cognitive biases.

In addition to illuminating rational thinking, this course sheds new light on all the fields you studied in school. Professor Grim says that philosophy is best practiced with an eye to other disciplines, what he calls the children and grandchildren of philosophy. For example, when Pythagoras came up with his famous theorem about right triangles, he didn’t have a geometry textbook full of equations. Rather, he employed visualization, looking at literal squares to calculate areas.

To take another example, one of the most important ideas in the history of physics—special relativity—is a remarkably simple concept to visualize, but it took a visual thinker like Einstein to discover it. No matter what the field, The Philosopher’s Toolkit provides the clarity and insight necessary for success.

Systematic, Practical Lectures

As you would expect from a course about rationality, the material is presented systematically, with basic concepts building step by step toward advanced applications. Many of the concepts, such as Aristotle’s square of oppositions or the rigors of scientific experimentation, are intellectually challenging, but Professor Grim’s careful, clear presentation makes the material easy to understand. Over the course of these lectures, you’ll

  • see how words refer to concepts that build propositions that form arguments;
  • move from visualization to thought experiments to thinking with models;
  • analyze Aristotle’s airtight logic, then study the flow of syllogisms and the variety of logical fallacies;
  • explore the source of polarization, and how to negotiate between extreme positions; and
  • study the difference between science and pseudoscience and how to put your ideas to the test through factual experiment.

While the emphasis of this course is to think more rationally, one of the most interesting topics is the relationship between reason and emotion—“cool rationality” and “hot thought.” While rationality is certainly crucial for good decision making, it turns out that emotion is equally important.

Particularly when there is no time for careful deliberation, emotions, gut reactions, and rules of thumb are the way to go—just ask any firefighter, or a pilot who has been forced to land a plane in an emergency. But whether you need a heuristic for fast action or clear eyes for careful rumination, The Philosopher’s Toolkit gives you the strategies you need for both occasions.

Thinking from a New Perspective

Unlike other courses on logic and rationality, the interactive nature of this course hones your critical thinking with a series of mental calisthenics. This is not a passive course, and you’ll love the many hands-on examples Professor Grim provides throughout. In fact, he even presents one lecture as a “workshop” in creative, sideways thinking. In his words, creative thinking can’t be taught, but it can be cultivated through practice.

In nearly every lecture, he encourages you to hit "pause" to think through problems such as

  • the Tower of Hanoi game;
  • the Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory;
  • the ultimatum game in behavioral economics;
  • the bicycle problem, which even tripped up mathematician John von Neumann; and
  • the three-stage model for the Hobbesian state.

With a sardonic wit and a healthy mistrust of authority, Professor Grim is the ideal guide for a normative course on rational thinking. He takes you on a tour of great minds through the ages, bringing them down from their lofty vantage points and showing you how they employed the strategies of The Philosopher’s Toolkit to develop their magnificent ideas. When you complete this course, you, too, will immediately be able to apply these strategies to nearly every aspect of your daily life—helping you simplify problems, think more creatively, and make better decisions.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    How We Think and How to Think Better
    Thinking is fundamental to our daily lives, and this introduction surveys the philosopher’s toolkit, strategies to improve our thinking—visualization, simplification, the principles of debate, and techniques for social reasoning. Because the best philosophy is done in conjunction with other disciplines, you’ll apply these tools to economics, psychology, and more. x
  • 2
    Cool Rationality and Hot Thought
    Which is a better tool for decision making, reason or emotion? As this lecture argues, both cool rationality and hot emotion have their place. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each can help us make better decisions, both in the heat of a moment and during long-term analysis. x
  • 3
    The Strategy of Visualization
    Pull out your pen and paper and put “conceptual visualization” to work. Humans excel at pattern recognition, and what we see in our mind’s eye can aid us in solving even the most daunting of puzzles, from the Pythagorean theorem to Special Relativity. You’ll see how sketches and matrices are powerful aids for information management. x
  • 4
    Visualizing Concepts and Propositions
    Explore the most basic elements of thought to prepare for the coming lectures. Concepts are the atoms of thought, expressed by words and illustrated by Venn diagrams and concept trees. Words form sentences—or propositions—which are the molecules of thought. Together, concepts and propositions provide a structural framework to express thought and convey information. x
  • 5
    The Power of Thought Experiments
    Harness the power of your imagination with this hands-on lecture, which introduces several strategies for solving real-world problems with thought experiments. As lessons from economics, business, ethics, and physics show, the imagination is one of our finest tools for exploring reality. x
  • 6
    Thinking like Aristotle
    So far, the course has emphasized visual techniques for logical thinking. In this lecture you’ll discover one of the greatest developments of human thought. Aristotle’s “square of oppositions” is the core of our logical system and provides a bridge to connect visualization with the flow of rational argument. x
  • 7
    Ironclad, Airtight Validity
    What makes an argument valid? Continue your study of Aristotelian logic by looking at how propositions form airtight arguments. By mapping out the logic of syllogisms with Venn diagrams, you’ll enhance your deductive reasoning skills—and you’ll see that the unfortunate trade-off for an absolutely airtight syllogism is that it doesn’t really offer any new information. x
  • 8
    Thinking outside the Box
    Creativity can’t be taught, but it can be cultivated. Take a break from the traditional lecture with this enjoyable workshop on creative, sideways thinking. Here you’ll participate in a number of engaging exercises designed to break your standard habits of thought and help you solve problems by thinking outside the box. x
  • 9
    The Flow of Argument
    Ironclad, deductive syllogisms won’t get us very far in terms of new information, so this lecture looks beyond that simple framework and introduces you to the flow of complex arguments. By understanding logical “flow,” you’ll have the tools to determine an argument’s strengths and weaknesses. Is the conclusion inescapable, or merely probable? How “sound” is the argument? x
  • 10
    Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart
    Dive into the world of heuristics, simple rules of thumb that guide us through immediate decisions when we lack the time needed for logical analysis. You’ll reflect on the wisdom of crowds, find out why German college students do better than Americans on U.S. demographic quizzes, and consider the utility of “good enough” solutions. x
  • 11
    Why We Make Misteaks
    The bad news is that to err is human. Thanks to information biases, selective memories, and unreliable heuristics, systematic error is built into the way we think. The good news is that once we become aware of these biases, we can compensate for them. This lecture shows you how. x
  • 12
    Rational Discussion in a Polarized Context
    How do you have a rational discussion with someone with a radically different viewpoint? Political polarization is real, and media gives us instant access to slanted sources. Here you’ll unpack several negotiation strategies to reconcile two sides in an argument—and examine the signs of a hopelessly irrational discussion. x
  • 13
    Rhetoric versus Rationality
    Guard yourself against the perils of rhetoric. By learning the ins and outs of ethos, pathos, and logos, you’ll be prepared to parry manipulative rhetoric as it comes—especially from the broadcast media. You’ll also develop your ability to visualize patterns of exchange, which can assist you with making persuasive presentations. x
  • 14
    Bogus Arguments and How to Defuse Them
    Tour the world of bad arguments. From ad hominem attacks to false alternatives and hasty generalizations, this lecture presents the most common logical fallacies and offers you the chance to test your knowledge against a myriad of examples. But be forewarned: There’s no guarantee that a bad argument is committing just one fallacy. x
  • 15
    The Great Debate
    Continue to hone your argumentative skills by evaluating a debate over the future of freedom and democracy. You’ll analyze the rhetoric and see the strategies at work in a real back-and-forth, and you’ll come away with a sharpened ear for appeals to emotion, syllogisms, and other rhetorical techniques of persuasion. x
  • 16
    Outwitting the Advertiser
    Recommended by doctors! Low fat! Call today! The world of advertising is filled with psychological manipulation, misleading half-truths, and magic words designed to get us to buy. This lecture cuts through the spin to show us the advertiser’s favorite techniques, from beautiful spokespeople to empty messaging. x
  • 17
    Putting a Spin on Statistics
    Facts and stats are clear and objective, right? Of course not. Statistics are great because they give us information in an easy-to-understand way, but they can also be dangerously misleading. Something as simple as the choice between mean, median, and mode can skew the facts. The ability to evaluate statistics allows you to draw your own conclusions. x
  • 18
    Poker, Probability, and Everyday Life
    Life is filled with chance, and unfortunately it’s not as easy to navigate as counting face cards. This survey of probability will allow you to deal with chance more rationally. You’ll study the law of large numbers, how to calculate the probability of one or more events, and the gambler’s fallacy that keeps casinos in business. x
  • 19
    Decisions, Decisions
    Turn your attention to decision theory, the surefire way to make the most rational decision with the evidence you have. The key is to maximize expected utility. Doing so can tell you everything from which wine to buy for a dinner party to how to respond to an influenza outbreak. Pascal even used decision theory to determine his belief in God. x
  • 20
    Thinking Scientifically
    What’s the difference between real science and pseudoscience? What’s wrong with astrology and phrenology? Find out how to build your own pseudoscience, complete with ambiguous phenomena and post-hoc modifications, so you’ll know what to watch out for when you’re presented with something that looks like science but doesn’t pass the test of a rigorous scientific theory. x
  • 21
    Put It to the Test—Beautiful Experiments
    Analyzing the structure of scientific experiments is an important part of the philosopher’s toolkit. The risks, power, and limits of experimentation can help you back your own claims and evaluate the claims of others. Here you’ll examine the parts of a good experiment—control groups, randomized testing, and what to do with unexpected results x
  • 22
    Game Theory and Beyond
    Where decision theory leaves off, game theory begins. This lecture walks you through the techniques of decision making in a social context. You’ll look at the cooperation and competition inherent to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and you’ll reflect on behavioral economics, a field that studies irrational action. x
  • 23
    Thinking with Models
    Synthesize the earlier lectures on visualization, simplification, and thought experiments and check out the benefits of thinking with models. The three-stage model—input, mechanism, and output—is a great way to put your toolkit strategies to work, whether you want to predict tomorrow’s weather, explain why the moon exists, or understand segregated neighborhoods. x
  • 24
    Lessons from the Great Thinkers
    Conclude the course with a journey through the minds of great thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Darwin and Einstein. You’ll consider what made them great thinkers, and you’ll pick up a few tips to improve your own thinking. x

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Patrick Grim
Ph.D. Patrick Grim
State University of New York, Stony Brook

Dr. Patrick Grim is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He graduated with highest honors in anthropology and philosophy from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was named a Fulbright Fellow to the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, from which he earned his B.Phil. He earned his Ph.D. from Boston University. Professor Grim is the recipient of several honors and awards. In addition to being named SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor, Dr. Grim has been awarded the President and Chancellor's awards for excellence in teaching and was elected to the Academy of Teachers and Scholars. The Weinberg Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan in 2006, Professor Grim has also held visiting fellowships at the Center for Complex Systems at Michigan and at the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Grim, author of The Incomplete Universe: Totality, Knowledge, and Truth; coauthor of The Philosophical Computer: Exploratory Essays in Philosophical Computer Modeling; and editor of the forthcoming Mind and Consciousness: 5 Questions, is widely published in scholarly journals. He is the founder and coeditor of 25 volumes of The Philosopher's Annual, an anthology of the best articles published in philosophy each year.

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Reviews

Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 17 reviewers.
Rated 3 out of 5 by Too basic for my taste This is the first series I have returned. I worked my way through the first five or six lectures but found them too obvious and at what I would consider a middle school or junior high school level. I was hoping for undergraduate level. If I had received this in first year university, I would have complained and withdrawn. The examples are just too obvious. I did skip ahead to a later lecture on statistics and data representation but did not find it challenging enough. It covered things like adjusting scale on a diagram and how it misrepresents facts - way too simple. Why three stars? The professor is superb. His mannerisms and explanation are the best I've seen on a TTC course. He is direct and ambiguous and a pleasure to listen to and watch. I just didn't learn anything that common sense hadn't already told me; I got no new insights. My kids would have liked this in Grade 9 or 10. January 12, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Tedious start; Brilliant finish I found the first six lectures so tedious that I almost discontinued the course. However, I persisted and found the subsequent eighteen lectures to be brilliant. The final lectures; bogus arguments, use of statistics, use of probability in game theory and decision-making, explanation of the scientific method, and finally--lessons from the great thinkers--were brilliant! One lesson from the great philosophers--be persistent. I am glad I persisted with this excellent course. December 31, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Substantial! In this series of lectures, Professor Patrick Grim succeeds in presenting simply the various facets of rationality: Aristotelian logic, heuristics, probability, the scientific method, etc. He also discusses irrational approaches, such as many found in advertising and rhetoric in general. His lectures not only include presentations but are also based on a workshop approach whereby he introduces questions or problems and asks the listener to press the ‘pause’ button and think things through. This original feature certainly enhances what one actually retains from the course. The potential buyer should be aware that the audio version is in fact the soundtrack of the video edition and that many references to tables and charts are therefore lost and require an additional effort by the listener. Overall, however, this series is very worthwhile and should prove interesting to all. December 25, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Brilliant The best thing I've found anywhere on rhetoric, logical thinking and discernment. Pair it with a general grammar course and call it the Trivium. November 21, 2013
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