Critical Thinking – Part 1

What is ‘critical thinking’? Why is it important? Why should anyone try to be a critical thinker? What does critical thinking have to do with secularism and humanism and naturalism?

There are two main ideas to consider behind the term ‘critical thinking’. First, and most obviously, we should consider the ordinary meaning of the word ‘critical’. Second, and less obviously, we should consider the use of the term ‘critical’ in relation to various philosophical theories/viewpoints (i.e. ‘critical idealism’, ‘critical realism’, and ‘critical theory’), to look for further clues about the meaning of this word.

Before we get into constructing a careful definition of the term ‘critical thinking’, a more general idea is worth thinking about: a critical thinker is a GOOD thinker, someone who thinks well, who does a good job at thinking. In other words, ‘critical’ is a positive term, it implies a positive evaluation of a person’s thinking.

Some Initial Thoughts about Critical Thinking

Being a critical thinker contrasts with being a fool, a dupe, a credulous person who believes too quickly and too easily. It contrasts with being unrealistic, engaging in wishful thinking, being overly optimistic, as well as with being overly cautious, timid, and overly pessimistic. It contrasts with being a closed-minded or dogmatic person, as well as with being overly tolerant and indiscriminate. It contrasts with being illogical, irrational, and unreasonable. It contrasts with being prejudiced and biased and with thinking that jumps hastily to conclusions that are not well supported by the available evidence. We call a person a ‘critical thinker’ only if he or she thinks well, at least most of the time on most subjects. It is probably the case that no one thinks well all of the time on all subjects. We all have times and topics in which our thinking is unreasonable or less than fully rational.

The Ordinary Meaning of the Word ‘Critical’

The American Heritage Dictionary (1981) gives nine different definitions of ‘critical’:

1. Inclined to judge severely; given to censuring.

2. Characterized by careful and exact evaluation and judgment.

3. Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of critics or criticism.

4. Forming, or of the nature of, a crisis; crucial.

5. Fraught with danger or risk; perilous.

6. Designating materials and products essential to some condition or project but in short supply.

Definitions 7, 8, and 9 are technical uses of the word relating specifically to medicine, mathematics, and chemistry & physics. Since ‘critical thinking’ is a general term that is used across various disciplines and areas of specialization, and beyond disciplines and areas of specialization, these last three technical uses can be ignored.

Definitions 4, 5, and 6 can be quickly set aside as well. Concerning definition 4, critical thinking can be useful in a crisis, but the usefulness of critical thinking extends beyond dealing rationally with a crisis. Further, thinking critically does not amount to a crisis in one’s thinking; ideally thinking critically should be an ordinary everyday mode of thinking that one engages in frequently.

As for definition 5, it is sometimes dangerous and risky to think critically (especially if one lives in a country with a totalitarian government and one publishes or promotes ideas that conflict with the party line), but more often it is dangerous and risky to think uncritically or to just act on instinct and impulse without any attempt at thinking (“Should I drive home even though I have just had four beers?”). Furthermore, one can think critically about questions which do not have an immediate or direct impact on one’s health or safety, so definition 5 does not apply.

Definition 6 concerns things that are essential to a condition or project. Thinking critically about how to succeed in a project requires that one identify the things that are essential to the success of that project, but one can also think critically about things that are NOT essential to the success of a project (such as things that would help to reduce costs or increase the positive impacts of the project), and one can think critically about things other than projects (“Now that I have lost 20 pounds and achieved my target weight – by a weight-loss project – how can I stay this same weight over the coming years – maintain this weight for the rest of my life?”), so definition 6 does not apply.

Definition 1 can also be rejected. One who is “inclined to judge severely”

and who is “given to censuring” has a kind of bias or prejudice towards negativity. Critical thinking or good thinking is balanced thinking; it is neither overly optimistic nor overly pessimistic; it is realistic thinking. As a matter of fact, there are few things, if any, that are completely bad or perfectly evil. Even Hitler who was clearly an evil and despicable person, had his good points. So, if one is rational, objective, and balanced in one’s thinking, one will usually have some positive things to note even of something or someone who is, overall, very bad.

That leaves us with just two relevant definitions of the word ‘critical’:

2. Characterized by careful and exact evaluation and judgment.

3. Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of critics or criticism.

Definition 2 is the most helpful of the two, giving us a couple of adjectives and a couple of nouns:

careful and exact

evaluation and judgment

Critical thinking is careful thinking. Critical thinking is exact thinking.

Critical thinking ends up with an evaluation or a judgment.

Strong-Sense Critical Thinker vs. Weak-Sense Critical Thinker

Richard Paul distinguishes between a strong-sense critical thinker and a weak-sense critical thinker. A weak-sense critical thinker is someone who has mastery of basic skills and concepts and tools of thinking, but who only employs these skills, concepts, and tools from time to time, but not regularly and constantly, or who employs the skills, concepts, and tools regularly, but typically does so in order to serve self-interest or to serve the interests of a particular in-group (my family, my church, my company, my country). A weak-sense critical thinker may be very good at spotting problems and errors in the thinking of others, particularly those with whom he/she disagrees, but may be very poor at spotting problems and errors in his/her own thinking or in the thinking of those with whom he/she agrees.

A strong-sense critical thinker, on the other hand, employs the skills, concepts, and tools of thinking regularly, even constantly, and typically uses these skills, concepts, and tools in the service of truth and fairness, and is aware of natural temptations towards bias and prejudice and closedmindedness in himself or herself (such as egocentrism and sociocentrism) and makes efforts to avoid, reduce, and mitigate these natural irrational tendencies.

In short, a strong-sense critical thinker not only has the intellectual skills and knowledge necessary to think objectively and fairly, but has developed intellectual virtues so that he or she thinks critically on a regular basis, and often succeeds in resisting natural tendencies towards irrationality, bias, prejudice, oversimplification and closedmindedness. Critical thinking in the strong-sense implies that the aims of truth, objectivity, rationality, and fairness have an anchor in the motivations and character of the thinker.

To be continued…