Ask a Philosopher: I often get questions in emails about my blog or books. I have been replying to these on email but decided I might also start posting answers as part of a series “ask a philosopher.” Who wouldn’t want to ask a philosopher something?
Question: All of my classes talk about critical thinking. What is critical thinking?
Reply: I’ve been in education all of my life and teaching at the college/university for nearly 20 years. Critical Thinking is one of those perennial terms that is used and always encouraged. But what does it mean? In educational settings it is often connected to learning to think for yourself. In other words, critical thinking means to be able to assess messages and knowledge claims that are presented to you in order to know what they mean and if they are true or false. And learning to think for yourself is an important part, perhaps the fundamental part, of education. It is the most basic kind of freedom. Without this freedom we aren’t truly free in any other way. It is a kind of freedom that you must have for yourself and cannot be taken away from you by someone else. Those who aren’t free in this way aren’t aware of their bondage and coming to recognize the need for this freedom is connected to knowing yourself and leading the examined life. Thinking you are free is not sufficient as one could believe he/she is free and yet not be free from uncritically held assumptions.
What is “thinking?”
My own studies and research have been about the structure of thinking and the origin of thinking. That means I look at some of the formative thinkers that have studied this like Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and Foucault. We will think about thinking as the formulation of concepts, judgements, and arguments. Aristotle, in his Prior Analytics, begins by defining the parts of thought. He speaks of premises, terms, and syllogisms, or, concepts, judgments, and arguments. To understand critical thinking we must begin with thinking. It is self-evident that we think. To deny that we think would involve thinking. It is also self-evident that there are laws of thought. These are what distinguish thought from non-thought. Each of the laws themselves are self-evident and involve us in self-referential absurdity if we attempt to deny them. They are not “proven” because they are the basis for proof. Care must be taken to avoid moving from the cognitive realm of thought into the non-cognitive realm of the mystical or practical when doing critical thinking.
Aristotle, in his Posterior Analytics, helps us think about how our thoughts are ordered. Our thoughts, or beliefs, have assumptions. Thinking is ordered from less basic (not basic) to more basic to most basic. This is where critical thinking comes in. Let’s call this presuppositional thinking. We can recognize that our beliefs have presuppositions. So for instance, the belief “I think,” presupposes that “I am,” which presupposes being (existence), which presupposes the distinction between eternal being and temporal being. This is an example of a clear distinction (eternal/temporal, or always/not always). We can say something is clear to reason because we can distinction a from non-a or eternal from not eternal. It is self-referentially absurd to assert that nothing is clear to reason (one would use reason to distinguish this claim from its opposite). Any any belief requires concepts and concepts are distinguished by reason.
We can apply critical thinking to organize our presuppositions. Let’s call this the conceptual map. It is a map of beliefs to show their relationships and allow us to see what can be known and what can be ruled out as impossible. For example, if we were to map our beliefs about what is eternal we would have these four: 1) all is eternal; 2) none is eternal; 3) some is eternal; 4) some is not eternal. We can ask of ourselves “what do I believe is eternal” and so locate ourselves on this map. We can also do this about the world’s religions and belief systems and find what each says about what is eternal. In doing this we can then understand how they relate to each other and to the basic concept “eternal.” For instance, there are belief systems that claim “all is eternal” like Philosophical Materialism, Hinduism, and Greek Dualism. Then there are those that say only some is eternal like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Have you ever been disappointed in someone for not doing what they said they would do? Or found that a person is inconsistent and they don’t seem to care? Integrity is that concern for consistency between our beliefs and between what we say and do. Integrity requires critical thinking. If we have integrity we have a concern for consistency and we will want to analyze our presuppositions for meaning. We can call this rational presuppositionalism to distinguish it from reasoning without presuppositional thinking (rationalism), sense data or acquaintance (empiricism and mysticism), practical rationality (pragmatism), the claim that nothing is clear (skepticism), belief without understanding (fideism). In the history of philosophy there are debates about the origins of our concepts and thoughts (Plato/Aristotle, Descartes/Locke) but these debates can also be thought about presuppositionally in terms of what is assumed about knowledge and being. To have integrity means to live consistently with the conclusions we reach. It means to put into practice what we preach.
Philosophers and Critical Thinking:
Earlier I mentioned Aristotle’s influence on helping us think about thinking. There is no part of Aristotle’s system that some latter philosopher hasn’t criticized. And yet we can benefit from Aristotle’s insight that there are some things which are self-referentially absurd to deny. We begin thinking about thinking with concepts, judgments, and arguments. In his Novum Organum, Francis Bacon is responding to the use of Aristotle’s logic especially in the natural sciences. In part, this involves an empirical question about the origin of ideas and the use of induction, and in part this involves a method for how to interact with the world so as to gain knowledge. However, like Plato and Aristotle before him, and Descartes and Locke after, Bacon starts by affirming that we must begin by asserting that syllogisms are made up of propositions, which are made up of notions (concepts), and when these become unclear we can make no progress. Critical thinking therefore begins by getting clear about our basic concepts. From these we form our basic beliefs and can offer arguments.
In his Third Meditation Descartes discusses innate ideas (not from experience) and in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke argues that there are no innate ideas and instead all of our ideas originate in experience. Plato addresses a similar problem in the Meno by suggesting we get our ideas from a previous life. Closer to our time, Critical Theory uses practical rationality to critique the purposes and structure of social institutions like the state and family. Foucault, in books like The Order of Things, raises questions about social and historical influence on our formation of concepts. These are critical in raising questions about assumptions but don’t get to our most basic presuppositions and their critique requires that some things are clear to reason.
What is happening in these cases can help us with critical thinking as presuppositional thinking. Each of these thinkers affirms the clear distinction between ideas but their explanation of their origins reflects the other presuppositions they have about human nature and being. Integrity requires that we analyze these presuppositions before moving on to think about the origin of ideas.
Integrity, Knowing, and Showing
One of the quickest ways to stop someone from boasting about what they know is to say “prove it.” If we had integrity we would be able to show what is clear. This might be true of any knowledge claim but here I am simply focusing on what is clear to reason. It might seem contentious because we claim to know many things that we don’t or can’t show. We have to be careful not to accidentally ambiguate the word know. We might use it to be know how as in how to ride a bike. Even then we could show it by doing it. We might use it to mean know by acquaintance as in recognizing a person. Even then we could show it by pointing out the person. Here we are talking about knowing the truth of a proposition or judgment. If we say “God is eternal” is true then we are presupposing the meaning of these terms and that they go together in a way that results in truth. We all have beliefs about what is eternal but we may never have spent much time thinking about them or critically analyzing them for meaning.
As mentioned above, an example of what is clear is the distinction between eternal (always) and not eternal (not always). This is the application of the laws of thought to our most basic concept. Critical thinking requires that we are able to identify our own belief about what is eternal and analyze it for meaning. To analyze something for meaning is more basic than asking if it is true. If we don’t know what it means we can’t know if it is true. In analyzing a belief for meaning we are looking to see if the concepts involve contradictions.
An Example: None is Eternal
Have you ever heard “you can’t get something from nothing?” As an example of this consider the following application of critical thinking: “none is eternal” cannot be true because it means “being from non-being.” Let’s thinking about why this is. “None is eternal” means “all is temporal.” This is just the rearrangement of the negative terms. And “all is temporal” means “all had a beginning.” This is just to replace “temporal” which what it means. And “all had a beginning” is to say “all came into being.” Again, this is just to clarify what it means to have a beginning. And “all came into being” means “all came into being from non-being.” This is because if all came into being then it cannot have come from another being since this too came into being. It cannot be a beginningless series of beings coming into being since then this series did not come into being and yet the claim is “all” came into being.
To say that being came from non-being is an example of the most fundamental confusion of concept. It is to blur the distinction between being and non-being. It is to say that distinction is not clear. We can get an egg from a chicken, but both are beings. To say that we can get being from either being or non-being is to deny that, on this point, they are different. Or, it is to affirm that they are the same. But being and non-being (existing and not existing) are fundamentally different, or, this is a clear distinction and to deny it is to deny that anything else can be clear (since all other claims presuppose being). If “none is eternal” cannot be true then its contradiction, some is eternal, must be true. Something must be eternal. And we can remember above how the divisions between the world’s beliefs systems are on this exact point: what is eternal? And the thinkers I’ve spoken about here (Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Foucault) have disagreements about what is eternal which then affect the rest of their system.
Conclusion Critical Thinking
Aristotle begin his Metaphysics affirming that all humans desire to know. In thinking, our goal is knowledge. And even more than that, at its most basic level thinking is about being. We think about what is. Other questions that motivate us are about what is: Does God exist? Why is there evil? What is a good life? In clarifying what critical thinking is my goal is to help us as we think about these big questions and in doing this become free to think for ourselves.
Here we have defined “critical thinking,” and discussed what it means for something to be clear and why the laws of thought are self-evident. We then thought about the role of integrity in critical thinking and how we apply critical thinking to basic beliefs about what is eternal. Critical thinking might be hard in one sense, but it is also getting us to what is clear to reason. Much of what goes on in the name of critical thinking does not get us back to basic assumptions and their meaning. We should expect both that we can learn to think critically and that it is a lifelong pursuit. Returning to the idea of freedom: critical thinking allows us to be free because it allows us to identify the beliefs that shape our choices and therefore shape our lives. We can critically analyze these for meaning.