Critical Thinking

I. Definition

Critical thinking is the ability to reflect on (and so improve) your thoughts, beliefs, and expectations. It’s a combination of several skills and habits such as:

  • Curiosity, the desire for knowledge and understanding. Curious people are never content with their current understanding of the world, but are driven to raise questions and pursue the answers. Curiosity is endless — the better you understand a given topic, the more you realize how much more there is to learn!
  • Humility, or the recognition that your own understanding is limited. This is closely connected to curiosity — if you’re arrogant and think you know everything already, then you have no reason to be curious. But a humble person always recognizes the limitations and gaps in their knowledge. This makes them more receptive to information, better listeners and learners.
  • Skepticism, a suspicious attitude toward what other people say. Skepticism means you always demand evidence and don’t simply accept what others tell you. At the same time, skepticism has to be inwardly focused as well! You have to be equally skeptical of your own beliefs and instincts as you are of others’.
  • Rationality or logic. The formal skills of logic are indispensable for critical thinkers. Skepticism keeps you on the lookout for bad arguments, and rationality helps you figure out exactly why they’re bad. But rationality also allows you to identify good arguments when you see them, and then to move beyond them and understand their further implications.
  • Creativity, or the ability to come up with new combinations of ideas. It’s not enough to just be skeptical and knock the holes in every argument that you hear. Sooner or later you have to come up with your own ideas, your own solutions, and your own visions. That requires a creative and independent mind, but one that is also capable of listening and learning.
  • Empathy, the ability to see things from another person’s perspective. Too often, people talk about critical thinkers as though they’re solitary explorers, forging their own path through the jungle of ideas without help from others. But this isn’t true at all. Real critical thinking means you constantly engage with other people, listen to what they have to say, and try to imagine how they see the world. By seeing things from someone else’s perspective, you can generate far more new ideas than you could by relying on your own knowledge alone.

 

II. Critical Thinking vs. Traditional Thinking

Critical thinking, in the history of modern Western thought, is strongly associated with the Enlightenment, the period when European and American philosophers decided to approach the world with a rational eye, rejecting blind faith and questioning traditional authority. It was this moment in history that gave us modern medicine, democracy, and the early forms of industrial technology.

At the same time, the Enlightenment also came with many downsides, particularly the fact that it was so hostile to tradition. This hostility is understandable given the state of Europe at the time — ripped apart by bloody conflict between different religions, and oppressed by traditional monarchs who rooted their power in that of the Church. Enlightenment thinkers understandably rejected traditional thinking, holding it responsible for all this violence and injustice. But still, the Enlightenment sometimes went too far in the opposite direction. After all, rejecting tradition just for the sake of rejecting it is not really any better than accepting tradition just for the sake of accepting it! Traditions provide valuable resources for critical thinking, and without them it would be impossible. Think about this: the English language is a tradition, and without it you wouldn’t be sitting there reading these (hopefully useful) words about critical thinking!

So critical thinking absolutely depends on traditions. There’s no question that critical thinking means something more than just accepting traditions; but it doesn’t mean you necessarily reject them, either. It just means that you’re not blindly following tradition for its own sake; rather, your relationship to your tradition is based on humility, creativity, skepticism, and all the other attributes of critical thinking.

 

III. Quotes about Critical Thinking

Quote 1

“If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” (Isaac Newton)

Until Einstein, no physicist was ever more influential than Isaac Newton. Through curiosity and probable skepticism, he not only worked out the basic rules for matter and energy in the universe — he also realized that the force causing objects to fall was the same as the force causing celestial objects to orbit around each other (thus discovering the modern theory of gravity). He was also known for having a big ego and being a little arrogant with those he considered beneath his intellect — but even Newton had enough humility to recognize that he wasn’t doing it alone. He was deeply indebted to the whole tradition of scientists that had come before him — Europeans, Greeks, Arabs, Indians, and all the rest.

Quote 2

“It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses… and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.” (Carl Sagan, The Burden of Skepticism)

In this quote, Carl Sagan offers a sensitive analysis of a tension within the idea of critical thinking. He points out that skepticism is extremely important to critical thinking, but at the same time it can go too far and become an obstacle. Notice, too, that you could replace the word “new” with “old” in this quote and it would still make sense. Critical thinkers need to be both open to new ideas and skeptical of them; similarly, they need to have a balanced attitude toward old and traditional ideas as well.

 

IV. The History and Importance of Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has emerged as a cultural value in various times and places, from the Islamic scholars of medieval Central Asia to the secular philosophers of 18th-century America or the scientists and engineers of 21st-century Japan. In each case, critical thinking has taken a slightly different form, sometimes emphasizing skepticism above the other dimensions (as occurred in the European Enlightenment), sometimes emphasizing other dimensions such as creativity or rationality.

Today, many leaders in science, education, and business worry that we are seeing a decline in critical thinking. Education around the world has turned increasingly toward standardized testing and the mechanical memorization of facts, an approach that doesn’t leave time for critical thinking or creative arts. Some politicians view critical and creative education as a waste of time, believing that education should only focus on job skills and nothing else — an attitude which clearly overlooks the fact that critical thinking is an important job skill for everyone from auto mechanics to cognitive scientists.

 

V. Critical Thinking in Popular Culture

Example 1

Although video games are sometimes simply a passive way to enjoy yourself, they sometimes rely on critical thinking skills. This is particularly true of puzzle games and role playing games (RPGs) that present your character with puzzles at critical moments. For example, at one stage in the classic RPG Neverwinter Nights, your character has the option to serve as a juror on another character’s trial. In order to save the innocent man, you have to talk to people throughout the town and, using a combination of empathy and skepticism, figure out what really happened.

Example 2

In one episode of South Park, Cartman becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories and sings a song about needing to think for himself and find out the truth. The show is poking fun at conspiracy theorists, who often think that they are exercising critical thinking when in fact they are simply exercising too much skepticism towards common sense and popular beliefs, and not enough skepticism towards new, unnecessarily complicated explanations.

Quiz

1.
Which of the following is NOT one of the dimensions of critical thinking discussed in the article?

a.

b.

c.

d.

2.
What is the relationship between critical thinking and traditional thinking?

a.

b.

c.

d.

3.
In European history, critical thinking is associated with…

a.

b.

c.

d.

4.
Critical thinking means…

a.

b.

c.

d.

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