Modes of Reasoning


Strategies used to derive or validate insights based on established insights

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible interpretation
  • Knowing is … considered thought and action
  • Learner is … a thinker (individual)
  • Learning is … reasoning
  • Teaching is … challenging (to think)


Ancient (entrenched in the language)


Modes of Reasoning refers to a range of conscious processes used to derive and/or validate assertions based on established understandings:
  • Reason (Rational Thinking) – most broadly conceived, any systematic means to interpret a situation or draw a conclusion. More narrowly, and reflecting its shared roots with the word “rational,” Reason is often used narrowly as a reference to the formal logical argument.
Two broad, often-complementary categories are generally acknowledged:
  • Analysis (Analytic ThinkingAnalytical Thinking; Analytic Approach) – any method of reasoning or investigation that involves breaking down a phenomenon into fundamental aspects. Analytic Thinking assumes that the whole is the sum of its parts, and so it is best suited to logical and mechanical systems that can be reduced to their components. The term traces back to the Greek analusis “dissolving."
  • Synthetic Thinking (Synthetic Approach; Systemic Approach; Systemic Thinking) – any method of reasoning or investigation that involves the blending or merging of various aspects into a more complex whole. Synthetic Thinking assumes that the functional possibilities of the whole can exceed the sum of the possibilities of the individual components.
Humans actually use a range of Modes of Reasoning to generate their truths, including the following:
  • Abductive Reasoning (Abduction; Abductive Inference; Case-Based Reasoning; Retroduction) – an explanation-oriented mode of reasoning that moves backward from facts/events to plausible explanations of those facts/events. It is concerned with reasonableness rather than certainty, and it might be described in terms of seeking simple and likely explanations.
  • Analogical Reasoning (Analogy) – an interpretation strategy that involves drawing (figurative) associations between a familiar phenomenon (the analog, source, or source domain) and a new phenomenon (the target, or target domain). Specific types of Analogical Reasoning include analogies, metaphors, similes, allegories, parables, and exemplification. (See Conceptual Metaphor Theory.)
  • Bounded Rationality – associated with Pragmatism, and about making good-enough (vs. optimal) decisions, taking into account such constraints as time pressures, problem complexity, resource availability, and cognitive limitations.
  • Categorical Thought (Abstract Thinking) (Jean Piaget, 1950s) – a mode of thinking involving the uses of generalized ideas, concepts, or classifications
  • Commonsense Reasoning – highlighted by research into Artificial Intelligence, Commonsense Reasoning spans the fluid, flexible, but hard-to-mimic abilities to derive meaning, infer intention, and anticipate possibilities within complex situations, based on lifetimes of experiences using cultural tools to make sense of the physical world with others
  • Conditional Reasoning (If–Then Reasoning; Inferential Reasoning) – a mode of reasoning that moves from explicit premise to sensible inference (e.g., If my printer stops working, then it must be out of toner.)
  • Deductive Reasoning (Deductive Logic; Logical Deduction; Top-Down Logic) – a formal process of moving from premises to a logically certain conclusion. Specific rules apply.
  • Genealogy (Friedrich Nietzsche, 1930s) – a historical technique that rejects linear narratives and causal logic (contrast, e.g., Great Man Theory of History, under Paradigm Shifts), attempting instead to consider the ranges of social and political influences during the time under study. Related notions include:
    • Bifurcation (Brent Davis, 2000s) – a historical technique that rejects Dichotomous Thinking (see below) and focuses instead on the conceptual origins of commonly invoked dyads (e.g., “hot v cold” might be linked in the notion of “temperature ranges tolerated by humans”). The word Bifurcation is from the Latin bi- + furca “two forks.” It was chosen because the two prongs of a bifurcated fork come together to point to their common root.
  • Inductive Reasoning (Bottom-Up Logic) – making generalizations on the basis of specific examples. It occurs when, based on a pattern of events or premises, one anticipates future events or implications. Inductive Reasoning has to do more with expectation than certainty.
  • Logic – formally: the study and application of systems of rules used to assess the validity of conclusions that are based on sets of initial propositions. (See Rationalism for a list of some types of Logic.)
  • Moral Reasoning – any process by which one attempts to determine proper courses or action and/or to distinguish been “right” and “wrong,” typically by using some manner of Conditional Reasoning, Inductive Reasoning, or Analogical Reasoning.
  • Paradoxical Thinking (Paradox Mindset) – employing the opposite of Deductive Reason or other Mode of Reasoning that might be considered appropriate to a situation. Used deliberately, Paradoxical Thinking can be effective for reframing problems and supporting creative thinking. Less deliberate manifestation of Paradoxical Thinking are sometimes indicators of psychological disorders, especially if accompanied by other thought processes that are not well fitted to the context.
  • [Law of] Parsimony (Economy Principle; Epistemic SimplicityPrinciple of Economy; Principle of Parsimony) – based on a metaphor of frugality (i.e., the intended meaning of both parsimony and economy in this case), the suggestion that the simplest explanation of a phenomenon is the desirable explanation. While not technically a Mode of Reasoning, the Law of Parsimony is embraced across most defensible modes. Associated notions include:
    • Elegant Solution – the solution to a problem that leads to the desired result with minimum conception effort and material requirements
    • Occam’s Razor (William of Occam, early 1300s) – the principle that, when presented with multiple plausible explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest one (i.e., with the fewest assumptions, concepts, etc.) is the preferred one
  • Practical Reason (Practical Rationality) – a term that reaches across all modes of engaging systematically with novel questions and problems in everyday life. The “practical” of the term refers to both pragmatic focus and action orientation.
    • Instrumental Rationality – an aspect of Practical Reason that is focused on means and ends – specifically, the efficient use of available resources to attain desires
      • Consequentialism – any perspective on knowledge, behavior, and/or morality founded on the principle that rightness or wrongness of one’s actions is determined by the consequences of those actions. That is, it is the outcome that counts, not the intention. (Contrast: Intentionalism, below.)
    • Value Rationality – an aspect of Practical Reason that is focused on one’s motivations for acting, whether noble or not. That is, the desired outcome is a factor in one’s decisions, but the actual outcome is immaterial.
      • Intentionalism – any perspective on knowledge, behavior, and/or morality founded on the principle that rightness or wrongness of one’s actions is seen to reside in one’s intentions. (Contrast: Consequentialism, above. Note: This meaning of Intentionalism is different from the one used in Psychology, where the term is sometimes used as an alternative name for ACT Psychology.)
  • Pragmatic Reasoning Schema Theory (Patricia Cheng, Keith Holyak, 1980s) – a model of Conditional Reasoning (see above) that spells out implicit and situation-specific rules of inference that are rooted in experience – whereby situations triggers rules, which become bases for reasoning
  • Probabilistic Thinking – based on an assumption that the universe obeys the laws of probability, Probabilistic Thinking is a model of reasoning and decision-making that involves calculating (or reasonably estimating) the likelihoods of identified outcomes to specific actions. Ironically, proponents of Probabilistic Thinking generally concede that, even among the small portion of people capable of calculating (or reasonably estimating) probabilities, just a tiny subset is able to act on those results.
  • Scientific Reasoning – a mode of reasoning that includes clearly specifying a problem, developing hypotheses, and conducting replicable tests of those hypotheses
There is broad debate over the relative importance of each of type of reasoning. Over the last century, among the most significant realizations about human thinking is that Analogical Reasoning is more than creative flourish. Rather, it is ubiquitous – and, in fact, infuses and enables the other modes. Situational dimensions of Modes of Reasoning have also been acknowledged:
  • Fuzzy Trace Theory (Charles Brainerd, Valerie Reyna, 1990s) – a theory that attempts to account for observed anomalies in memory and reasoning with the suggestion that humans create two types of mental representations for past experiences: fuzzy ones and precise ones. Relying exclusively on one or the other can give rise to tensions or inconsistencies with reasoned action.
  • Polylogism (Ludwig von Mises, 1990s) – a recognition that preferred or privileged Modes of Reasoning may vary from one sociocultural group to another – depending on, for example, era, rates of literacy, levels of education, and prominence of religion
The backdrop of all of the above is the realization that human thinking is a far-from-unified phenomenon. In that regard, lapses of and tactics to avoid coherent Modes of Reasoning include:
  • Allusive Thinking (Cognitive Looseness; Loose Associative Processing) – contriving “meaningful” and resilient associations among random or unrelated events, thus potentially confounding oneself and bewildering acquaintances
  • Dichotomous Thinking (Black-and-White Thinking; Dualistic ThinkingPolarized Thinking) – framing a thought or argument in terms of two non-overlapping categories or extreme opposites (i.e., rejecting alternative frames, shades of grey, or middle positions)
  • Doublethink (George Orwell, 1940s) – Orwell introduced the term Doublethink in the book 1984 to refer to one’s ability manage memories by choosing what to forget. The word has come to refer to one’s ability to hold contradictory beliefs at the same time, even when one or both of those beliefs might be at odds with one’s experience.
  • Fallacious Reasoning (Fallacy; Fallacious Argument; Logical Fallacy; Specious Reasoning) – basing an argument on an error or a false move, thus giving a ring of truth when it is actually unsupported. Many dozens of types of Fallacious Reasoning have been catalogued, including “Straw Man Fallacy,” “Circular Reasoning,” “Ad Hominem Fallacy,” and “False Dichotomy.” (Note: Fallacious Reasoning is often confused with, but is distinct from, Cognitive Bias, which is about nondeliberate patterns of interpretation, such as errors of perception, habits of association, and uncritical generalizations.) Prominent types include:
    • Circular Reasoning – a type of Fallacious Reasoning is which the conclusion is actually just a rephrasing of an initial assumption
  • Irrationality – literally, the “absence of rationality/reason” – which, as might be inferred from the many Modes of Reasoning listed above, is a problematic construct because it relies on (usually unstated) assumptions of what might constitute acceptable reasoning in a given context
  • Loaded Language (Emotive Language; High-Inference Language; language-Persuasive Techniques; Loaded Terms) (Charles Stevenson, 1930s) – vocabulary and phrasing intended to appeal to emotion rather than reason, such as “regime” instead of “leadership,” or “lecturing” instead of “explaining”
  • Mind Traps (Cognitive Distortions; Negative Automatic Thoughts; Thinking Errors; Thinking Traps; Thought TrapsUnhelpful Thoughts) – an umbrella category of non-rational and typically obsessive thoughts that can negatively channel attentions, impact emotions, tip decisions, and trigger actions
  • Naturalistic Fallacy – a logical error, most often encountered in moral arguments, that is due to the assumption a value (e.g., “goodness”) has a real, tangible existence
  • Obscurantism – a conscious opposition to reasoned argument, often rooted in a desire to preserve religious, political, or cultural convictions
  • Paralogism – a fallacy or flawed argument. The term is most often applied to those that are nondeliberate and subtle.
  • Scientism – an uncritical and/or exaggerated trust in the science as the best or only route to unimpeachable fact
  • Thought-Terminating Cliché (Bumper-Sticker Logic; Cliché Thinking; Semantic Stop Sign; Thought-Stopper) (Robert Jay Lifton, 1960s) – a brief, familiar statement that is deployed to end terminate discussion or debate, such as “Let’s agree to disagree” or “It is what it is.”
  • Two-Plus-Two Phenomenon – the unjustified leap from observed events and/or unquestioned assumptions to a certain conclusion, with no critical questioning or logical analysis. The name is an implicit analogy to the obviousness and certainty of “2 + 2 = 4”.


The biggest issue with Modes of Reasoning is that they are notoriously difficult to study – since, to do so, they need to be applied to themselves. A simple fact that should give pause is it has only been recently that humanity has realized that what most defines our thinking capacities is not Deductive Reasoning (which is trivial with computers), but Analogical Reasoning (which is notoriously difficult to simulate). That development might be taken as an indication that there is still much to learn about how humans think.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Modes of Reasoning are properly understood as theories of learning. Each is a mode of generating and/or confirming new understandings – which is an interpretation of “learning” that fits across most discourses.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Modes of Reasoning do not constitute a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Modes of Reasoning are associated with extensive philosophical and empirical research.


  • Abductive Reasoning (Abduction; Abductive Inference; Case-Cased Reasoning; Retroduction)
  • Abstract Thinking (Categorical Thought)
  • Allusive Thinking (Cognitive Looseness; Loose Associative Processing)
  • Analogical Reasoning
  • Analysis (Analytic Approach; Analytic Thinking; Analytical Thinking)
  • Bifurcation
  • Bounded Rationality
  • Circular Reasoning
  • Commonsense Reasoning
  • Conditional Reasoning (If–Then Reasoning; Inferential Reasoning)
  • Consequentialism
  • Doublethink
  • Elegant Solution
  • Dichotomous Thinking (Black-and-White Thinking; Dualistic Thinking; Polarized Thinking)
  • Deductive Reasoning
  • Fallacious Reasoning (Fallacy; Fallacious Argument; Logical Fallacy; Specious Reasoning)
  • Fuzzy Trace Theory
  • Genealogy
  • Inductive Reasoning
  • Instrumental Rationality
  • Intentionalism
  • Irrationality
  • Law of Parsimony (Economy Principle; Epistemic Simplicity; Principle of Economy; Principle of Parsimony)
  • Loaded Language (Emotive Language; High-Inference Language; language-Persuasive Techniques; Loaded terms)
  • Logic
  • Mind Traps (Cognitive Distortions; Negative Automatic Thoughts; Thinking Errors; Thinking Traps; Thought Traps; Unhelpful Thoughts)
  • Moral Reasoning
  • Naturalistic Fallacy
  • Obscurantism
  • Occam’s razor
  • Paradoxical Thinking (Paradox Mindset)
  • Paralogism
  • Polylogism
  • Practical Reason (Practical Rationality)
  • Pragmatic Reasoning Schema Theory
  • Probabilistic Thinking
  • Reason (Rational Thinking)
  • Scientific Reasoning
  • Scientism
  • Synthetic Thinking (Synthetic Approach; Systemic Approach; Systemic Thinking)
  • Thought-Terminating Cliché (Bumper-Sticker Logic; Cliché Thinking; Semantic Stop Sign; Thought-Stopper)
  • Two-Plus-Two Phenomenon
  • Value Rationality

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Modes of Reasoning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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