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STEP THREE: Identifying Underlying Assumptions

An authorʹs main points arenʹt usually too hard to find, but underlying assumptions are a different story. Occasionally theyʹre plainly stated at the outset but more often theyʹre taken for granted; after all, theyʹre ʺunderlying,ʺ not on the surface. To find them requires you to think and imagine more than to read and examine. Your guiding question during this activity is, ʺWhat else has to be true before the main points can be true?ʺ

For example, if a plane crash survivor writes a memoir claiming that God saved her life, she has to first believe in God. If the person in the seat next to her was a scientist, his central point might be about physics and how the aircraft designersʹ foresight spared their lives. Sheʹd never say ʺI believe God intervenes in human affairs, therefore...ʺ or he say, ʺI believe in the laws of physics, therefore...ʺ They would both just take their starting assumptions for granted. How do you discover what the author of the document in front of you takes for granted?

1. Write down the main points or central propositions you identified in step two. Then ask yourself, what would a person have to believe first in order for those statements to be true?

2. Consider the intended audience. Does that group hold any values in common that the author would take for granted? Speeches about abortion given at ʺRight To Lifeʺ or ʺReproductive Freedomʺ rallies would start from different assumptions because their audiences do. If an author knows the audience already shares many values, beliefs, or desires, these may not be plainly stated in the document; theyʹll be taken for granted

3. Look for the authorʹs values: what he or she considers good and bad, desirable and undesirable. If a main point is ʺDonʹt take drugsʺ then one of the authorʹs values must be that drugs are bad.

4. Values are always established by some standards: something is the best, something is the worst, and everything else spreads out in between. What words are used to describe the very best outcome, characteristic, or situation? What is held up as the biggest obstacle or greatest threat to that?

5. Look for the authorʹs biases and prejudices: the values that are so important that the author doesnʹt even explain or defend them. These are sometimes easy to spot, as when an author forcefully denounces an opposing point of view without offering much, or any, evidence. Strong statements that arenʹt backed by explanation or evidence are usually biases.


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