Critical Thinking – what is it?

Making my way through the library of Paul Monk’s essays that I recently discovered, I came across this passage in the essay Expert Knowledge and Scientific Thinking are Under Siege:

The most important of…intellectual capabilities and the one most under attack in American universities is critical thinking: the ability to examine new information and competing ideas dispassionately, logically and without emotional or personal preconceptions.

This may or may not be true. My own efforts are directed towards improving people’s thinking and decision-making, but only because I think this is a worthy pursuit and that more can be done in this area, not because I think that quality thought is under attack.

But what caught my attention was the definition of critical thinking provided by the author:

the ability to examine new information and competing ideas dispassionately, logically and without emotional or personal preconceptions

Is this critical thinking?

The question arises because, in preparing my material, I’ve never once come across a definition that I think has been adequate. Take, for instance, this definition provided on Infogalactic’s page on critical thinking:

Critical thinking, also called critical analysis, is clear, rational thinking involving critique. Its details vary amongst those who define it. According to Barry K. Beyer (1995) critical thinking means making clear, reasoned judgments. During the process of critical thinking, ideas should be reasoned and well thought out/judged.[1] The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking[2] defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

What on earth does all of that mean – clear? rational? involving critique? ‘reasoned and well thought out/judged’? What a hodge-podge of value statements. As for The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, their definition looks to me like a definition of human reasoning in toto. Is critical thinking a part, or subset, of human reasoning, or is it the whole thing? And if it’s the whole thing, why have a separate term for it – why not just call critical thinking ‘human reasoning’?

Here is the section from the Infogalactic page on definitions:

Critical thinking is variously defined as:

  1. “the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion – “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence”
  2. “reasonable, reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do”
  3. “purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based”
  4. “includes a commitment to using reason in the formulation of our beliefs”
  5. in critical social theory, it is the commitment to the social and political practice of participatory democracy; willingness to imagine or to remain open to considering alternative perspectives; willingness to integrate new or revised perspectives into our ways of thinking and acting; and willingness to foster criticality in others.
  6. the skill and propensity to engage in an activity with reflective scepticism (McPeck, 1981)
  7. disciplined, self-directed thinking which exemplifies the perfection of thinking appropriate to a particular mode or domain of thinking (Paul, 1989, p. 214)
  8. thinking about one’s thinking in a manner designed to organize and clarify, raise the efficiency of, and recognize errors and biases in one’s own thinking. Critical thinking is not ‘hard’ thinking nor is it directed at solving problems (other than ‘improving’ one’s own thinking). Critical thinking is inward-directed with the intent of maximizing the rationality of the thinker. One does not use critical thinking to solve problems — one uses critical thinking to improve one’s process of thinking.

My goodness, what a mess! The definitions are, in order:

  1. too broad to provide useful information;
  2. too broad and too vague to provide useful information;
  3. too broad and too vague to provide useful information;
  4. meaningless;
  5. irrelevant in the first part, and in the second part mistaking criticality for open-mindedness and Bayesian updating;
  6. vague;
  7. incomprehensible;
  8. bizarre and overly-prescriptive in a way that misdirects the reader away from beneficial uses of critical thinking.

The definition that comes closest to what I think critical thinking is, is the definition offered by McPeck – the skill and propensity to engage in an activity with reflective scepticism. I say comes closest, because I don’t think it hits the nail on the head, but it at least mentions one of the important qualities of critical thinking – scepticism.

From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of critical

1a :  of, relating to, or being a turning point or specially important juncture criticalphase: such as (1) :  relating to or being the stage of a disease at which an abrupt change for better or worse may be expected; also :  being or relating to an illness or condition involving danger of death critical care a patient listed in critical condition (2) :  relating to or being a state in which or a measurement or point at which some quality, property, or phenomenon suffers a definite change critical temperature b :  crucialdecisive critical test c :  indispensablevital critical waterfowl habitat a component critical to the operation of a machined :  being in or approaching a state of crisis critical shortage critical situation

2a :  inclined to criticize severely and unfavorably His critical temperament cost him several friends. b :  consisting of or involving criticism critical writingsalso :  of or relating to the judgment of critics The play was a critical success. c :  exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation critical thinking critical commentary on the mayor’s proposal d :  including variant readings and scholarly emendations critical edition

3a :  of sufficient size to sustain a chain reaction —used of a mass of fissionable material critical mass b :  sustaining a nuclear chain reaction The reactor went critical.

Relevant to our discussion is the second definition, in particular:

c :  exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation critical thinking critical commentary on the mayor’s proposal 

So, going purely by definitions, critical thinking would be, I think:

thought which involves careful judgment or judicious evaluation.

Again, we’re left with a word-salad full of question-begging value judgments (‘careful’, ‘judicious’).

In the face of this mess, I decided to go my own way. For me, critical thinking involves questioning thoughts, hypotheses, proposals, beliefs, judgments – all the matter that makes up our mental worlds – from whatever source, in order to assess their epistemological / knowledge rationality – ‘are they accurate?’ – and their instrumental / action rationality – ‘will they get us to where we want to go?’. This sort of thinking can be described as critical, because it involves our seeking to evaluate propositions through questioning. Only when we are satisfied that a proposition can answer our questions in a way that is satisfactory to us, will our critical thinking come to an end.

The requisite attitude for employing critical thinking is therefore one of scepticism, and the requisite behaviour is investigative questioning. The more sceptical one is of a proposition, the more questions one is likely to ask of that proposition.

Critical thinking can be applied to any mental matter – our own thoughts, beliefs, judgments, hypotheses and propositions, but especially those proposed to you by other people, many of whom want you to believe something because it is in their own interests for you to do so. It is therefore perfect for solving problems, puzzles and dilemmas, and most powerful when combined with other habits of clear and effective thought.

Critical thinking is best summed up, for me, in this stanza from a Kipling poem:

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

These six questioning words motivate the investigative engine of critical thinking. The only limit on their employment is the imagination and knowledge of the questioner.

This, readers, is critical thinking.

*  *  *

Not only is the author wrong in his definition of critical thinking. I don’t even think it’s possible:

The most important of…intellectual capabilities and the one most under attack in American universities is critical thinking: the ability to examine new information and competing ideas dispassionately, logically and without emotional or personal preconceptions

It’s not possible to conduct any thought dispassionately, and without emotional or personal preconceptions. As scientific research has shown, when we think, we bring all of our emotions and personalities to our deliberations. It’s how we think. The only things that reason dispassionately, logically, and without emotional or personal preconceptions, are computers. That’s not us.

I understand where the author is coming from. He’s worried about the direction of education in the United States, wants to do something about it, and sees encouraging critical thinking as one way to improve the current situation. I agree! But it’s important to know precisely what it is that we want to do.

Critical thinking is just one part of clear and effective thinking. Open-mindedness, understanding the rules of logic, an ability to generate insights, an ability to defer judgment and suppress the tendency to jump to conclusions – these are aspects of thought complementary to critical thinking. But in order to appreciate them and develop them, it is important to teach them alongside of critical thinking. Subsuming them under the label of critical thinking makes this difficult.

 

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About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
This entry was posted in Critical Thinking, Epistemic Rationality, Instrumental Rationality, Thinking Course. Bookmark the permalink.

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