Classic Definition Of Critical Thinking

It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills ("as an exercise") without acceptance of their results.

Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one's groups’, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fairmindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of "idealism" by those habituated to its selfish use.

Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Its quality is therefore typically a matter of degree and dependent on, among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking or with respect to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through-and-through, but only to such-and-such a degree, with such-and-such insights and blind spots, subject to such-and-such tendencies towards self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor.


Another Brief Conceptualization of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair-minded way.   People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, empathically.    They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.   They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.   They use the intellectual tools that critical thinking offers – concepts and principles that enable them to analyze, assess, and improve thinking.   They work diligently to develop the intellectual virtues of intellectual integrity, intellectual humility, intellectual civility, intellectual empathy, intellectual sense of justice and confidence in reason.   They realize that no matter how skilled they are as thinkers, they can always improve their reasoning abilities and they will at times fall prey to mistakes in reasoning, human irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest.   They strive to improve the world in whatever ways they can and contribute to a more rational, civilized society.    At the same time, they recognize the complexities often inherent in doing so.   They avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues and strive to appropriately consider the rights and needs of relevant others.   They recognize the complexities in developing as thinkers, and commit themselves to life-long practice toward self-improvement.   They embody the Socratic principle:   The unexamined life is not worth living , because they realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.               ~ Linda Elder, September, 2007

Why Critical Thinking?

The Problem
Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.

A Definition
Critical thinking is that mode of thinking - about any subject, content, or problem - in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and
imposing intellectual standards upon them.

The Result
A well cultivated critical thinker:

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It presupposes assent to rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native egocentrism and sociocentrism.  

(Taken from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008)

Critical Thinking Defined by Edward Glaser

In a seminal study on critical thinking and education in 1941, Edward Glaser defines critical thinking as follows “The ability to think critically, as conceived in this volume, involves three things: ( 1 ) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences, (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods. Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. It also generally requires ability to recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems, to gather and marshal pertinent information, to recognize unstated assumptions and values, to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination, to interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments, to recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions, to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, to put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives, to reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life. 

(Edward M. Glaser, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941)

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Modern educators love to talk about “critical thinking skills,” but not one in a hundred even knows what he means by this term. Every time our country goes through an education reform spasm-which it has experienced about every twenty-five years since the 1920s- the education establishment trots out a set of slogans that always sound good but don’t really mean anything.

In fact, the next time you hear an educator use the term “critical thinking skills,” ask him what he means and see what happens. You get the same reaction you would get if you were to politely interrupt a cheerleader in the middle of her routine and ask, “When you say ‘rah-rah, sis-boom-bah,’ exactly what do you mean?” You would get a blank stare. The words have no substance in themselves; they are meant merely to elicit positive emotions. It is the same with the term “critical thinking skills.” It is the educational equivalent of shaking pom-poms. To say you are in favor of critical thinking skills is the educational equivalent of saying, “Have a nice day.”

I recently participated in a televised debate on national science standards being implemented in my home state of Kentucky. I pointed out that the standards did nothing to encourage the acquisition of a knowledge of nature. There is a pronounced tendency in progressive education to downplay basic factual knowledge- particularly if such knowledge is gained through that process which is anathema to progressive educators: memorization. In the science standards, students are never asked to name, identify, classify, or describe any natural object. In fact, the words “mammal,” “fish,” “reptile,” and “amphibian” are never mentioned in the standards- nor are such basic scientific terms as “hormone,” “kinesis,” lymphatic,” “neuron,” “nucleotide,” “osmosis,” “Celsius,” “Farenheit,” “plasma,” “vaccine,” “protozoa,” or “enzyme.”

When I pointed this out during the debate, my two opponents, one a college biology professor and the other the chairman of the State House Education Committee, argued that the reason for excluding these things was that they were trying to teach students “critical thinking skills.” It is a little frightening when educational policymakers think that, in order to teach thinking skills, they need first to exclude knowledge. I said that I doubted whether they even knew what “critical thinking skills” were. And as it turned out, they couldn’t give a definition. When the moderator of the debate asked me what my definition of critical thinking skills was, I answered: “Logic.”

It is an interesting fact that the people who say that they want to improve our schools spend so much time talking about “critical thinking skills” and so little about logic. One of the reasons is undoubtedly that the word “logic” is much more concrete. It implies learning and being able to use a specific system of rational rules that can be taught- what the ancients called an “art.” Logic has an actual history of having been taught, and taught in a certain way. It is not nearly so amorphous as the term “critical thinking skills.”

But for propoganda purposes, it is less useful to use exact words. Vague words with indeterminate meanings are much to be preferred. “Thinking skills, thinking skills, rah-rah-rah!” In fact, “thinking skills” is only one of the terms in a constellation of vague promotional phrases used by education reformers. Others include “problem-solving skills,” “inferencing skills,” main idea finding,” and “higher-order skills.” Again, these sound good, but what exactly do they mean?

And these share with “critical thinking skills” the same problems. Not only are they ill-defined, but in a sense they really don’t exist, at least not as separate areas of study.

Knowledge is unnecessary, goes the thinking of progressive educators, because the only thing necessary is skills. And so we think we can divorce skills from knowledge. Here is what the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance has to say about the idea that skills can be taught and learned in a content vacuum:

Research clearly rejects the classical views* on human cognition in which general abilities such as learning, reasoning, problem solving, and concept formation correspond to capacities and abilities that can be studied independently of the content domains.

In E. D. Hirsch’s recent book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Education Theories, he makes the case that psychological and educational research is fairly unanimous on this point: Skills are “domain-specific.” In other words, you have to study skills in the context of some specific subject.

And “problem solving”? “There exists,” Hirsch says, “no consistent all-purpose problem-solving skill, independent of domain-specific knowledge.” Hirsch cites study after study showing that, on tests of particular skills like “reading skills,” students with less developed skills but who know the subject of a text outperform those who have more developed reading skills but who don’t know the subject. Knowledge matters.

When the television moderator asked me the question about what “critical thinking skills” were, instead of merely mentioning logic, I could just as easily have said “the liberal arts” (of which logic is a part). The liberal arts include the trivium (the three language subjects) and the quadrivium (the four mathematical subjects). But they are arts taught as subjects, each with their own unique content. The term “liberal arts” doesn’t fit into a cheer routine very well. But that shouldn’t really matter.

*The term “classical views” here means “standard views” of the subject that were prevalent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher  Winter 2018 edition

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