Critical Thinking Note 6: A Broader View of Critical Thinking


Critical thinking is purposeful thinking. But just what is the purpose of critical thinking? Why think critically? As a branch of human inquiry, philosophy has a pretty clear view of the purpose of critical thinking. But once we get clear on the aims of critical thinking in inquiry, we might begin to worry that the resulting conception of critical thinking is too narrow. Or so I’ll suggest.

Scientists and philosophers want to know how things are. The purpose of our thinking is truth oriented. Of course, we often pursue the truth with the expectation that the best we can hope for is incremental progress in the form of clearly delineating the various ways things might be, perhaps ruling out the most problematic views and then sorting out the logical implications of the remaining contenders. This is hardly cause for despair. Not being fully attainable may even be typical of the standards most worth striving towards. Consider being fit, being good, shaping a just society or designing a better mouse trap. Woe be the carpenter who won’t let a cabinet leave his shop until it is absolutely and totally perfect. This is not a master craftsman but rather a poor wretch who will soon require anti-depressants. Purposeful activity often aims at standards of excellence that needn’t themselves be fully and perfectly attainable.

I often characterize philosophers as “one trick ponies.” We pretty much just formulate, clarify and evaluate arguments. That’s about all we’re good at, so we try to stick to that fairly specific and occasionally useful task. The characterization is not entirely fair, but it helps students get focused on the central tasks in doing philosophy without feeling entirely overwhelmed. When the purpose of critical thinking is to figure out how things are, this perhaps overly simple characterization of what philosophers do also gets cleanly at the main elements of critical thinking for the purpose of inquiry. Where our purpose is to know or at least better understand, critical thinking will largely be focused on formulating, clarifying and evaluating arguments. An argument is just a reason for taking its conclusion to be true. So if we can get at the best arguments and know that they are the best arguments, then we have attained or made good progress towards the purpose critical thinking in inquiry.

Given our orientation towards inquiry, perhaps it is no surprise that critical thinking textbooks, written and taught mainly by philosophers, tend to be heavily focused on formulating, clarifying and evaluating arguments. But this neglects any role critical thinking might have when we have other purposes in mind. Consider, for instance, good design, elegant problem solving or effective communication. It might turn out that critical thinking as it applies to inquiry requires only minor tweeks in order to suit these and other appropriate purposes. Or perhaps substantially different models are called for. But for now, a modest first step might be to try to formulate a broader conception of what critical thinking is, one that can accommodate a broader range of purposes than just inquiry.

Being a purposeful activity, thinking critically implies that we are oriented toward meaningful standards of success or excellence. That is, it will always make sense to ask if we have attained our purpose or at least made good progress in that direction. Any attempt to answer that question ushers us towards the “critical” part of critical thinking. Thinking critically requires that we evaluate our progress towards the standards implied by our purposes. Putting these few pieces together gives us a pretty broad but still substantive way to understand critical thinking. Critical thinking is purposeful thinking that is actively evaluated according to standards of success or excellence appropriate to its purposes. In the interest of thinking critically about critical thinking, this proposal should be taken as an invitation for critical evaluation. My suspicion is that this proposal is now too broad. But we try, evaluate the results, and try again.

Russ Payne

October 4, 2013

Leave a Reply