To Reason Why:
Making Sense of Our Reason-Giving

“I wish he would explain his explanation,” wrote Lord Byron in response to the obscurantist poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like Byron, we often find ourselves unsure of why people provide the explanations they do; an explanation of the explanation is needed. In his new book “Why?” Columbia University scholar Charles Tilly attempts to illuminate why we explain the way we do, or as reviewer Malcolm Gladwell says, to “make sense of our reasons for giving reasons.” In his intriguing review for The New Yorker, Gladwell outlines Tilly’s four general categories of reasons:

1. Conventions — conventionally accepted explanations.
2. Stories — specific accounts of cause and effect that limit the number of actors and actions and elevate the personal over the institutional.
3. Codes — high-level conventions, formulas that invoke sometimes abstruse procedural rules and categories.
4. Technical accounts — stories informed by specialized knowledge and authority.

To illustrate Tilly�s classification, Gladwell uses the “orgy of reason-giving” that followed Vice-President Dick Cheney’s quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry Whittington:

Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were making way too much of it. “Accidents happen,” they said, relying on a convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into the camera and said, “The image of him falling is something I’ll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there’s Harry falling. And it was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life.” Cheney told a story. Some of Cheney’s critics, meanwhile, focused on whether he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They retold the narrative of Cheney’s accident, using their specialized knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have done that. Had Cheney’s shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn’t nearly good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.

As Gladwell notes, all four explanations are relational and reveal something about the person who uses them. Those who wanted to excuse Cheney used the disengagement offered by convention. The Vice President, wanting to convey concern and regret without admitting to procedural wrongdoing, chose to explain himself with a story. Cheney’s critics desired to pin him to an absolute standard which comes from adherence to a code. For the hunting experts who wanted to display their singular expertise, the technical account provided the perfect form for an explanation.

Tilly contends that we tend to make two common errors when it comes to understanding reasons. The first is the assumption that some kinds of reasons are always better than others–that there is a hierarchy of reasons, with conventions (the least sophisticated) at the bottom and technical accounts at the top. The reasons people give aren’t a function of their character–that is, there aren’t people who always favor technical accounts and people who always favor stories. Rather, reasons arise out of situations and roles.
Examining these “situations and roles” can often lead us to a broader understanding of an issue we thought we had understood. An Scriptural example of this is found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). When confronted by a religious expert who asks what must be done to inherit eternal life, Jesus turns the question back on his interlocutor by asking, “What is written in the law?” The theologian replies with a convention (“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”). When Jesus agrees, the expert asks, “And who is my neighbor?”
At this point, Jesus could have responded by offering a code, convention, or technical account as an explanation. Each of these would have appealed to the legalistic mind of his questioner. But in a artful move, Jesus replies by way of a narrative. He tells a story of a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan and ends it with a question rooted in his parable: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (v.36). When the legal expert replies (“The one who had mercy on him�) he finds that the narrative explanation has illuminated and expanded his understanding of a previous convention (“‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”).
Like the Jewish theologian in this story, we often expect explanations to take a form that we find most palatable. In debates and discussions we have a tendency to elevate our particular favorite, denigrate other categorical forms, or make stereotypical assumptions about the people who use them.
Examine, for instance, the popular perception of the way in which Christians compare our understanding of Scripture: Emergents prefer stories (i.e., narratives, testimony), Reformed theologians prefer codes (e.g., creeds), while Baptist laymen opt for technical accounts (e.g., doctrinal statements). All of these styles have their place and can have valid uses. But we tend to latch onto one mode and feel most comfortable with others who subscribe to our preferred explanatory style.
Examples can be found for almost every subject on which humans offer reasons and take sides. Proponents of abortion, Gladwell points out, often rely on a convention (a woman’s choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester) while abortion opponents turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Immigration offers another pattern, with some people giving more weight to convention (Illegal aliens are breaking the law) and others relying on story (“But my nanny is a hard-working”).
Once we become aware of our preferences, though, we can make an effort to be more open to understanding what roles and situations shape the reasons of those with whom we disagree. Reason-giving, says Tilly, reflects, establishes, repairs, and negotiates relationships. By being more receptive to our neighbor’s reasons for giving reasons, we could all become better Samaritans.

Published by

Joe Carter

Joe Carter founded Evangelical Outpost in 2005. He is the web editor for First Things and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. A fifteen-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously served as the managing editor for the online magazine Culture11 and The East Texas Tribune. Joe has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign and as a director of communications for both the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicaton.

  • Matthew Goggins

    Very strong, interesting post.
    When someone makes a statement or offers an argument, we can take the statement at face value and address it specifically on its own merits. And we can also take a step back and analyze the statement-maker’s perspective and motivations and social role(s).
    Both approaches are useful and productive.
    I have a suggestion though.
    It might be tempting, when using the second approach, to discount what a person is actually saying. It can be all too easy to characterize and label an argument without actually listening to it and addressing it on its own terms.
    Conducting a “reason-giving” analysis of someone’s perspective or dialectical preferences is useful, but only in conjunction with an analysis of what that person is actually saying.
    For example, don’t use the label “conventional” reason as an excuse to dismiss someone’s argument as unworthy of serious consideration. I’m not saying you’re doing that, but I think it’s a trap to avoid when focusing on personalities as opposed to actual content.

  • Jeff Blogworthy

    I must admit, I am distrustful of the storytelling method of persuasion. So much of the time, these stories appeal to emotion instead of reason. At least in Jesus’ example, one is led to a logical conclusion. A story it may be, but the conclusion is logical. In the Cheney example, we are told how Cheney felt, and I suppose we are expected to empathize with him. This falls short of good storytelling and is not persuasive. It is also typical of the kinds of “political stories” we hear today. (I will note for the record that the author is selective in choosing Cheney’s words. I think he also said something along the lines of “I take full responsibility for what happened.”)
    I think we have all heard stories that are not normative used to evoke an emotional response. This is why I am usually suspect of this form of reasoning. A good story should appeal to reason, and to what is known by the listener from the “code.”
    “Technical accounts” are also suspect for the same reason. It is well known that one can find an “expert” who will say virtually anything. This extends to preachers as well as politicians and scientists. In the case of appeal to an expert, it is often best to choose one from antiquity who has stood the test of time.
    Just my 2 cents.

  • Bryan K Mills

    Good post, Joe.
    “By being more receptive to our neighbor

  • Jemison Thorsby

    Great post, Joe. I also agree with the caveats from Jeff. Storytelling is great when it illustrates and clarify principles, but is often misused to drive emotional appeals that may or may not be principled in themselves.

  • AndyS

    It’s nice to have marshall multiple forms to support one’s position. Often cold, hard reasoning can seems callous, too narrow, or too general, (or for some people just too opaque) so providing illustrative stories is very useful. There’s also a case to made that many people retain better the lessons learned from stories.

  • pgepps

    Hey, Joe, just a lit note. STC’s poetry may be “obscure,” but it’s not “obscurantist.” T. S. Eliot’s early poetry, such as The Wasteland, is “obscurantist.”
    The difference is whether one is trying to obscure meaning, or whether one simply finds meaning in out-of-the-way places.
    Browning is another poet often called “obscure,” but again he’s not “obscurantist.” Owen Barfield, OTOH, is “obscurantist.”
    Of course, way too many people these days think they can turn an ordinary adjective into a super-pejorative just by putting “-ist” on the end, which is sad and silly; but you’re more literate than that, so I imagine you just typoed.

  • Gordon Mullings

    A very useful post. I think we need to think about the ways in which arguments persuade, as Aristotle outlined in his THe Rhetoric:

    Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker [ethos]; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind [pathos]; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself [logos]. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible . . . Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile . . . Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question . . . .

    After some reflection and a lot of coming to terms with realities of a world in which a real proof is often unpersuasive, on this and other issues, I have come to the conclusion that we have to reckon at least with:

    1. Facts and Logic: Strictly, only the appeal to “facts” and “logic” actually has the potential to prove its conclusions [within limits . . . ]. For, the mere intensity of our feelings or even the depth of our feeling of “certainty” [or for that matter, our degree of doubt] cannot ground any conclusions. Likewise, no authority is better than the facts, assumptions and reasoning behind his or her opinions. This is why we should examine claimed facts and inferences from them carefully, to see if such