John Stuart Mill touched on a key aspect of critical thinking: seeking out opposing viewpoints and evaluating their merit. He demonstrated this when he observed, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little.” This post marks the start of a very exciting series on critical thinking that essentially seeks to inform everyone regarding how to think, not what to think. In this post I will define critical thinking, and in future posts I will discuss how to critically think. So: what is critical thinking?
“Critical thinking is 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. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness…”
~ A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, 1987.
“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 attempt, with consistent and conscious effort, to live rationally, reasonably, and 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 strive never to think simplistically about complicated issues and always to 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
“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 lives 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” (The Foundation for Critical Thinking).
Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it. It is not only the ability to assess and evaluate claims, but it is also the willingness to do so in an objective and impartial manner. Such evaluations should be based on well-substantiated (philosophical or empirical) reasons and evidence, rather than tradition, authority, myths, emotions, and anecdotes.