What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is a virtue that we recognize as supremely necessary as we are inundated with greater amounts of information. We want our university graduates to be independent and critical thinkers. The words “critical thinking” seem to be on the lips of many in the field of education. What do we mean by “critical thinking?” To adopt the virtue and pass it on to the next generation, we must be very clear about what critical thinking is, and what it is not.

Critical “Thinking”
Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, a book about the nature of being, begins with a discussion of the laws of thought. The laws of thought are also the laws of being. These laws are the law of identity, which states that a is a; the law of noncontradiction, which states that something cannot be both a and non-a in the same respect and at the same time; and the law of excluded middle, which states that something is either a or non-a. These laws deserve a more detailed treatment in a future post, but these laws need mention here because they are necessary for all thought. If a statement violates a law of thought, then it is meaningless and cannot be true. The laws of thought are the cornerstone of critical thinking.

What is the activity of thinking? In his Organon, Aristotle defined three aspects of thinking, which are logically ordered from more basic to less basic. The most basic, and perhaps most important, level of thinking is forming concepts. We form concepts, according to Aristotle, when we grasp the essential nature of a thing. Grasping the essential nature of a thing requires understanding what a thing is. It involves understanding what is an essential feature and what are accidental features of a thing. When we grasp a concept, we express it with words, terms, or symbols that allow for communication of concepts with others. Words are either meaningful, or they lack meaning. Meaning is the category for evaluating concepts. Meaning is prior to truth, and without understanding the meaning of the words we use with one another, we cannot agree on whether what we say is true or not.

We may make errors in falsely identifying what a thing is. We may fail to understand the words that others use to communicate concepts to us. Critical thinking begins at the level of concept formation and concept communication. Often, we must ask one another “what do you mean?” when discussing. For example, two people may say that “God is love” but have very different understandings of the concept “God” and “love.” This level of critical thinking requires that we carefully define our terms, and seek agreement on our definitions. If we fail to find agreement here, the next level of thinking will result in an inability to understand one another, and frustration in communication.

Following concept formation in the act of thinking is making judgments. A judgment is not a bad thing. It is an unavoidable activity. Every time we are engaged in thinking or saying “x is y” we are making a judgment. For example, “the horse is brown,” “tomorrow is Thursday,” “God is love,” and “the marker is blue” are all examples of judgments. Judgments are either true or false. If we do not first know the meaning of the concepts being used in a judgment, such as “God” and “love,” then we cannot know whether a judgment is either true or false. Pausing for clarification and understanding is what it means to say that meaning is more basic or is logically prior to, truth. Critical thinking involves understanding the meaning of the terms used in a judgment, but it also involves assessing the truth claim being made in a judgment, since judgments are either true or false. We should note that some judgments are neither true nor false, but are matters of taste, such as the claim “ice cream is better than pie.” To think critically, one must also be skilled at identifying those judgments that are neither true nor false.

Judgments that are either true or false ought to be supported by giving an account. Plato says in the Theaetetus that knowledge is true belief “tied down” with an account. The word for “account” that Plato uses is logos, which is translated as “reason.” Knowledge is true belief supported by reason. In the Theaetetus, Socrates demonstrates by example what it is to support a judgment by reason. He does this by asking for and giving arguments for the judgments that he and his interlocutors make. Theaetetus begins the dialogue by making the judgment that knowledge is perception. “Knowledge is perception” is a judgment that is either true or false. In effect, Socrates asks young Theaetetus to “prove it.”

Proving a judgment requires an argument. An argument uses premises (judgments) to support a conclusion (a judgment). One of the most famous arguments goes like this:
Major Premise: All men are mortal
Minor Premise: Socrates is a man
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal
Arguments may be tested (this is the function of the discipline of Logic) for validity and soundness. The validity of an argument is a way to test the form of an argument. Some argument forms are invalid and thus cannot possibly support the conclusion. Soundness of an argument is a way to test the form and truth content of an argument. If an argument is valid, and the premises are true, then the conclusion will necessarily be true. A necessary truth is equivalent to knowledge. It is a true belief with an account.

Some people will object that we cannot prove everything, or that necessary truths are rare and do not prove much. To respond to the first objection, it is true that not all judgments will need support by an argument. Determining which judgments do, and which do not require an argument is a crucial role for critical thinking because it requires that we have the ability to identify assumptions. Philosophical assumptions and judgments require support using an account, proof, or an argument. Non-philosophical assumptions and judgments may require some other kind of support or evidence. If I claim that “saturated fat is healthy,” I would be more likely to prove my point by providing empirical data than a syllogism. Critical thinking requires us to be able to identify different kinds of assumptions, which require different kinds of support, evidence, or account, and then supplying the proof when necessary.

The Goal and Means of Critical Thinking
Why do we so highly value critical thinking? What is the goal of thinking critically? It seems pretty clear that the goal of critical thinking is to reject what is false and to arrive at what is true. The truth is the goal of critical thinking. We want the judgments that we accept to accord with reality. Also, we want to grow in our understanding of what is true. If Aristotle is correct, then all men by nature desire to know. Critical thinking is the means by which we come to know.

How is critical thinking a means to attain knowledge? We have to begin with self-knowledge. Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living. The unexamined life is a failure of self-knowledge. It is to go through life with little to no reflection upon who we are, and what makes for a good life. The unexamined life is a life lived according to unexamined assumptions, or what we often call biases. The most basic assumptions we carry with us are our philosophical assumptions. We may have picked up these assumptions from our upbringing, our culture, our education, our religion, etc.. Our philosophical assumptions are the uncritically examined answers that we provide to the following questions: How do I know things? What is ultimately real? And what is the good life? We have all answered these questions. Answers to these questions are what stir our emotions and drive us to action. Poor assumptions lead to unruly emotions and bad actions. Critical thinking begins with self-examination about our answers to these basic philosophical questions. Why do we believe as we do? What reasons, proof, or evidence do we have for believing as we do? Have I ever considered alternatives to what I believe? What reasons, proof, or evidence is there for alternative positions? Going beyond self-examination, can I thoughtfully articulate my beliefs and reasons with my parents, peers, or professors? Critical thinking begins with self-examination regarding our philosophical assumptions.

Beyond our assumptions, critical thinking enables us to identify and analyze philosophical assumptions and biases all around us in the media, online, in what our fellow human beings say. Every time we speak, we speak from a philosophical position. Anytime anyone speaks, they speak from a philosophical position. Are those positions well founded and supported by reason? Are they true? Critical thinking helps us to identify assumptions and then test those assumptions for meaning, or rational consistency. We start with concepts, are they meaningful? Then we examine judgments made, are they true? If they are true, we should be able to support them with a sound argument. Critical thinking is essential for meaningful human communication in pursuit of the truth.

Several virtues and attitudes accompany critical thinking in pursuit of truth. To find the truth, one must look for it. The attitude of seeking for truth, what Socrates attributes to “wonder,” is necessary for obtaining the truth. The truth may be hidden; it may need searching out, like a rare hidden treasure, it requires digging and dedication. But the truth is much more valuable than gold. So, if we are willing to work hard for gold, we must be all the more willing to work hard for truth and the wisdom that results from knowing the truth.

Critical thinking requires humility. Socrates, when told by the oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man, did not accept the judgment. First, he asked, “I wonder what the oracle means?” Then he set out to show that someone else was wiser than he. When he could not find one wiser, he realized that his wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he did not know. Humility rests in our knowledge that we don’t know as we should, that our understanding is limited, and that as finite beings we will always be growing either in truth or falsehood. Let us hope that we are engaged in critical thinking and growing in understanding in the truth. This growth may require grace, a gift that we don’t always talk about in philosophy, but a gift about which Socrates knew. He attributed his philosophical pursuit to a calling from the god. Grace is a gift from outside of ourselves, either from the Divine or from our fellow human beings that helps us to grow. As social beings, we are meant to live in a community. The community is meant to help us to achieve the good life. Grace is for this purpose.

Critical thinking requires courage. It’s hard to examine oneself. It is difficult to subject one’s views to others who may not extend the gift of grace and may instead criticize. Self-examination is uncomfortable. Courage, the willingness to move forward in the face of difficult challenges, is necessary for thinking critically about one’s presuppositions. But, courage is also needed to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, in every area of life, for the whole of one’s life.

“Critical” Thinking
Having spent some time discussing thinking, we should address the “critical” part of critical thinking. To think critically is to be engaged in rational analysis. It begins first with understanding what a statement means. We then analyze arguments presented in support of the statement given. In addition to this, we must recognize that truth is not piecemeal but fits into a system of truth. To think critically is also to think systematically. How do the truths that I hold, that I have rational support for, fit together coherently? If the foundational beliefs in our system of beliefs are faulty, the structure that we build upon those foundational beliefs will be unsupported. Critical thinking helps us to lay a strong foundation, to analyze the supports and pillars, to construct a strong and beautiful house from which to live a rich, meaningful, and fulfilling life.

Critical thinking enables us to reject what lacks meaning by means of reason. We cannot discern what is meaningful or meaningless based on emotion, prejudice, pragmatism, tradition, ideology, what goes by the name of science but is not science, and what goes by the name of reason but is not reason. Emotion, will, and experience may be aspects of human life, but they are not critical thinking, nor can they substitute for the pursuit of meaning and truth.

Critical Thinking and Assumptions
Knowing the truth would be relatively easy if we would seek after truth and we could recognize assumptions in ourselves and others. Recognizing assumptions requires training, practice, and the lifelong habit of self-examination. We must get into the habit of asking ourselves “what do I think about x?” and “why do I think that about x?” Self-examination is hindered by our not seeking after truth, and by our thinking that we are doing okay. We are self-deceived about our seeking to know. Who in their right mind says “I do not want to know what is true.” We all like to think that we are interested in the truth, but if we were, wouldn’t there be a lot more people who were producing sound arguments for the judgments that they make? In addition to self-deception, we tend to justify ourselves. We have other goals besides knowing the truth that motivates our communication and action. Perhaps our motivations are pleasure or power. We justify what we do with rationalizations rather than reason. Rationalization is just another word for self-justification. Self-examination would help us to cut through our lack of knowledge and the excuses we make for ourselves for not knowing.

Self-examination would be easier if we recognized that some things are clear to reason. When the truth is clear, and we do not see it, we should repent. Repentance is a change in mind, thinking, or direction. If we are going down the wrong path, we should turn around and show the results in our way of thinking and living. Being self-aware of our tendency to be deceived about our interest in seeking the truth will help us in a forward moving direction. Engaging in dialogue with others with the goal of understanding ourselves and others will help us to overcome self-justification in the pursuit of philosophical justification (i.e., knowledge).

The Ethics of Critical Thinking
Aristotle tells us that we are rational, political, animals. With this nature comes moral responsibility. We are responsible for the use of reason to the fullest. Failure in the use of reason to the fullest is dehumanizing and destructive to ourselves and directly leads to the harm of others. It leads to intellectual stupor and societal decay.

We are political beings. We live in society and have moral obligations to one another. We are a society of rational beings and participation in, or separation from society is predicated on our use or non-use of reason. We are morally obligated to one another to give an account for what we say and what we do because what we say and do affects us all. Also, we are morally accountable for upholding the dignity and responsibility of every rational being regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc..

We are animals. We have bodies and sensations. We are embodied rational beings, but we are not merely animals. We have sensations, but we do not merely have sensations. Our rationality is what distinguishes us from other animals. It is what makes us different and what gives human dignity. To reduce human beings to mere animals is to dehumanize. Reason is to rule over our animality or our senses. We cannot deny the demands, needs, and joys of the body, but we can rule over them. This rule requires critical thinking.

Rational political animals require critical thinking to rule over our physical nature, to thrive in human society and to have a thriving society, and to achieve what is good for all human beings – knowing the truth. Knowing the truth results in happiness and a fulfilling life. Therefore, critical thinking is a means to the highest end. It is our most valuable tool. Let us encourage one another in the virtue of critical thinking in pursuit of what is true and good.

To sum up: Critical thinking begins with using reason to identify the meaning of the words that we use, assess the truth of judgments that we make, and to prove the judgments that we make with arguments. We cannot substitute critical thinking with emotion or bypass it for pragmatic reasons. The goal of critical thinking is knowledge of the truth. Knowing the truth is a communal activity. Therefore, critical thinking is for the good of the individual and the common good.

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