Chapter Two: Characterizing Critical Thinking



I.    Introduction

A book devoted to a specific subject should supply a general characterization of that subject, and the earlier, the better. In Chapter One, I made strides toward this goal by extracting a provisional formulation of critical thinking from cases in which it was clearly on display. In this chapter, I intend to fill out this characterization more completely and thereby discharge my obligation. I will do so, however, by approaching critical thinking from a different perspective, viz., the perspective of theoretical treatments it has been given in philosophy and education.

I begin by reflecting on the specific words in our term, 'critical' and 'thinking'. I then analyze a sampling of definitions on offer for 'critical thinking'. The goal of this analysis is two-fold: first, it will tie the approach we adopt in this handbook into the literature on critical thinking, enabling those who wish to explore other treatments of the subject to get their bearings; second, it will yield a more detailed description of the subject matter of this handbook, a description that will give shape to the discussion in subsequent chapters. After calling attention to two central assumptions that underpin our characterization of critical thinking, I close this chapter by emphasizing once more the value of our subject as we have understood it.

II.    Critical Thinking as Subject Matter

One way to get at critical thinking is to find it out in the world of our experience. This is done in two stages: (a) locate episodes where we intuitively recognize its presence, and (b) detail the aspects of these cases that support our intuitive reactions. We adopt this grassroots, bottom up approach in Chapter One, and the result is this formulation: critical thinking is thinking that involves the application of standards and criteria in evaluating options, both practical and theoretical. There is much to be said for this approach. For one thing, it allows us to focus on those cognitive traits that incline us to value this type of thinking in the first place; for another, it does justice to the feeling we may have that while we may be unable to define critical thinking, we definitely know it when we see it. However, without guidance, this approach can lead to misplaced emphasis and skewed results, as when a newcomer to the arts concludes that the gallery intends to feature all of the fancy frames. One way to avoid this in our case is to check our formulation against other available formulations of critical thinking. On this top down approach, critical thinking is described in advance on the basis of certain assumptions about thinking and criticism, and the result is then confirmed or disconfirmed on the basis of how well it works when applied to particular cases. In this chapter, we adopt the top down approach. As we will see, our provisional formulation from Chapter One will be supported by considerations drawn from theoretical treatments of critical thinking.

II.1 Terminological Analysis

When first introduced to the term 'critical thinking', people often think of unpleasant episodes from their past in which they were on the receiving end of negative criticism. While it is true that remonstrances from mom and "feedback" from the boss can demonstrate critical thinking, these are not the only or the best illustrations of critical thinking. It is a mistake to tie critical thinking too closely to destructive criticism of others, a mistake grounded in misinterpretation of the word 'critical' in our term. This mistake reveals the need to fix the meaning of the two words that our term comprises.

First, consider 'thinking.' The meaning of this is obvious enough, it would seem--thinking is just what happens when we let our mind do its thing. It is what we do when we deliberate, reflect, ponder, explore, interpret, create, consider, and engage in a host of additional cognitive processes. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary ( supplies us with this suitably general definition: "to form or have in mind." Fortunately, we needn't spend too much time with this term--any exercise of our cognitive faculties that could involve evaluation is germane to our investigation. Before leaving this word, however, it is worth notion that we will concentrate in what follows on conscious thinking--i.e., thinking of which we are aware. While it is hoped that the skills which constitute critical thinking will become habitual, influencing us even at a sub-conscious level, this must be a consequence of the sustained conscious application of those skills.

Of the two component words, 'critical' is the one requiring more attention, as it is the one that misleads. Once again, we can turn to the dictionary for a relevant sense of 'critical': "exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation." In this sense, it is closely related to the Greek word 'kriterion,' or standard for judging. As defined, 'critical' is essentially concerned with thinking, as judgment and evaluation are types of thinking. Further, the definition focuses attention on types of thinking that involve the consideration of an option (viz., evaluation) or options (viz., judgment) relative to standards that serve to identify the relevant ideal. So understood, the term is free from the negative connotations that rise like spectres when you first consider the term. Instead, it applies without prejudice to evaluative thinking wherever it might be found.

II.2 An Analysis of Definitions

Critical thinking is the subject of a plethora of book-length treatments, 792 of which are still in print, according to The subject is typically developed in these books from one of two perspectives. Either it is developed with an emphasis on argument and logic, in the tradition of informal logic, or it is developed with an emphasis on rhetoric and thinking strategies, in the thinking skills tradition. The former is home to many works by philosophers and the latter to many works by educators. (For a brief and rather random annotated bibliography of some of these books is included in the Applications section of this chapter.) As one would expect, authors in these traditions have supplied a wealth of characterizations, emphasizing various aspects of the episodes in which critical thinking is found. A random but more or less representative collection of these characterizations follows, divided into groups based on the perspective of the books from which they are drawn.

    1. Informal Logic

      1. "The primary focus of critical thinking skills is on determining whether arguments are sound, i.e., whether they have true premises and logical strength" (Hughes 1996, 21).

      2. "A critical thinker is someone who uses specific criteria to evaluate reasoning and make decisions" (Diestler 1998, 2).

      3. "Critical thinking is evaluating whether we should be convinced that some claim is true or some argument is good, as well as formulating good arguments" (Epstein 2000, i).

      4. "Critical thinking is the careful, deliberate determination of whether we should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim--and of the degree of confidence with which we accept or reject it" (Moore & Parker 1998, 6).

      5. "The ability to correctly validate or refute claims presented for our belief" (Kiersky & Caste 1995, 3).

    2. Thinking Skills

      1. "Critical thinking is consciously observing, analyzing, reasoning, and evaluating according to proven standards" (Mayfield 1997, 6).

      2. "A unique kind of purposeful thinking in which the thinker systematically and habitually imposes criteria and intellectual standards upon the thinking, taking charge of the construction of thinking, guiding the construction of the thinking according to the standards, and assessing the effectiveness of the thinking according to the purpose, the criteria, and the standards" (Paul 1993, 21).

      3. "... reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do" (Ennis).

      4. "Active, persistent and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends" (Dewey)

      5. "Critical thinking is correctly defined as the review, evaluation, and revision of previous thinking" (Stratton 1999, 10).

Each of these presupposes thinking as a basic activity and then supplies conditions that must be satisfied by thinking if it is to count as critical thinking. These definitions point to four salient aspects of the relevant type of thinking. First, as Dewey explicitly asserts, the type of thinking we're after is active--a critical thinker must be in charge of her thought processes, controlling their application to the subject at hand. This points to the second prominent aspect, viz., that critical thinking is purposeful thinking, an aspect that is featured in the definitions of Diestler, Moore & Parker, Paul, Ennis, and Stratton. In all of them, though, critical thinking is conceived as leading to conclusions, an essentially purposeful endeavor. Third, critical thinking is principled thinking, where this must be understood in two ways: (a) it is itself principled, being systematic, "reasonable," "careful," and conducted "according to proven standards"; and (b) it involves the application of principles to claims, arguments, beliefs, "previous thinking," courses of action, and the like. The first of these senses underwrites the ability to evaluate particular cases of critical thinking as better or worse, as we did in Chapter One. The second calls attention to the fact that critical thinking is rarely done in a vacuum; rather, it is typically done in specific substantive contexts, e.g., in the auto dealership, the biology laboratory, the forest, etc. The principles one must apply in these cases are drawn largely from the topic at issue. This point is closely related to the fundamentally evaluative character of critical thinking, the last of the salient aspects on display in these definitions. When you apply principles in an active fashion for the purpose of generating a conclusion about some topic, you are generally engaged in evaluation, i.e., in determining whether the topic is good or bad, right or wrong, relevant or irrelevant, adequate or inadequate, etc.

Armed with these aspects, we can revisit and assess the provisional formulation we identified in the first chapter. The idea of activity is implicit in that formulation, but the purposive nature of critical thinking deserves more emphasis than it is given there. The second sense in which the thinking must be principled, and the closely associated aspect of evaluation, are given privilege of place, but the first sense in which it must be principled is not expressed in the formulation. Thus, the top down approach reveals the need to enlarge our working definition, which we can express as follows:

Working Definition: Critical thinking is thinking that involves the principled application of standards and criteria in the evaluation of practical and theoretical options for the purpose of reaching conclusions about those options.

So understood, critical thinking is clearly a species of the broader genus of thinking. It is not, for instance, creative thinking. Creative thinking is marked by the production of ideas which can then be regarded practical or theoretical options available for critique. For example, the process of brainstorming, which involves the unchecked production of ideas on a particular topic, is creative and explicitly non-critical. Of course, no good critical thinker can avoid creative thinking, since one is often called upon to generate the options that are then subjected to critical assessment, as well as reasons for or against those options. Hearkening back to the examples at the beginning of Chapter One, consider the process of creative scheduling that Monica must engage in if she is to achieve her goal of graduating in four years, or the creativity demonstrated by Kristine as she generates a relevant list of reasons for and against granting China Most Favored Nation status. In fact, most episodes thinking in which we are interested involve the symbiotic interaction of creativity and criticism, a constant interplay of production and evaluation--of making and shaking, so to speak. Nevertheless, conceptual considerations force us to recognize the difference between these two species of cognitive activity.

Other species that are categorically different from critical thinking include what we might call procedural thinking, which involves applying and following a protocol or recipe, and dogmatic thinking, which is marked by unwavering adherence to a creed or set of guidelines. Both of these are static in an important sense, involving thinking that is insensitive to the variety of results that evaluation can yield. By contrast, critical thinking requires to recognize and appreciate differences of context and complexity, always remaining open to the possibility that previously identified conclusions might be set aside in favor of others.

It is important to call attention to two assumptions that underpin the project of explicit instruction in critical thinking skills as it is developed here. First, as noted above, critical thinking primarily occurs in contexts that serve up standards that are specific to the subject matter considered and methodology employed. Thus, one must have factual knowledge about the domain in which one is working if one is to be an effective critical thinker. If one is to teach critical thinking, one must call attention to the fact that the specific principles applied are grounded in specific domains, and therefore the principles will vary with the domain. (The situation is more complicated than this, actually. Subject matter and methodology do not line up with one another--if you hold subject matter fixed, methods will vary, and vice versa. For example, philosophical subject matter receives both empirical and a priori  treatment, and the same is true of the social sciences and the sciences. Given this variation, one must know where one is in the logical space determined by the interaction of subject matter and methodology if one is to know what principles and criteria to apply.)

Second, the variation of principles notwithstanding, we presume that there are general cognitive skills that are employed in any domain where critical thinking is found. Thus, skills like argument reconstruction and logical analysis, problem identification and solution, and so forth are applicable across the wide spectrum of contexts within which thinking is critical. This is not a point on which there is universal consensus; indeed, members of the critical thinking community have expressed deep doubts about the existence of such general skills. (See McPeck.) For now, we will press onward in spite of these reservations, but I will return to them in Appendix Two, developing them in detail and supplying an argument intended to undercut them.

III.    Critical Thinking as Technology

Critical thinking is a tool that all of us have in our cognitive toolbox. However, possession does not imply mastery in this case. (Compare: I own a piano, but you don't want to hear me play it.) If a person spends time studying it, then they can develop mastery, in which case the tool becomes very useful indeed. It is applicable whenever there are arguments to be constructed, evaluated, or destroyed. When you are asked to change your belief system by accepting or rejecting some claim, it's time to bust open the toolbox and think critically about what it is you are being asked to do. Your persuasion should only follow on your endorsement, and this demands that you assess and then endorse the claim you are being asked to believe. As with most tools, critical thinking must be applied wisely. There are contexts in which its application is appropriate and contexts where it is not. Recall the example of brainstorming mentioned above--there it is better to refrain from critical evaluation and let everything in at first so that the pool of candidate ideas is as large and as varied as possible. The better part of wisdom is knowing how to pick your spots, and this is certainly true of critical thinking.

We apply principles and make evaluations daily, even hourly. Thus, we think critically all the time. In many of these cases, poor evaluations could lead to discomfort or worse. Given this, pursuit of the good life requires that we be good critical thinkers. Actually, it is too strong to say that it requires this, as the good life could be had by a shoddy but exceedingly lucky critical thinker. However, unless you wish to place your bets and risk significant losses, it is better to have some measure of control over the direction that life takes you. This can be achieved through the explicit study of these skills. Beyond mastering the skills associated with critical thinking, such study results in the cultivation of the "critical spirit", i.e., a willingness to think critically on a regular basis when the situation calls for it. Critical thinking can be conceived as technology, i.e., as a tool we apply to improve our lives, but it is important to see it as essential technology--it forms a part of who we are and how we view the world. When you train your students to think critically, you help them develop skills, but in addition, you influence their sense of self and their worldview.

IV.    Critical Thinking Skills: An Annotated List

It is useful to have in hand a list of the relevant skills that you will enhance through explicit instruction in critical thinking. However, there is no standard list, and what stands out as a relevant skill often depends on the type of context within which critical thinking is to be done. Further complicating matters is the fact that theoretical perspectives lead people to emphasize different patterns and, as a result, generate different lists. Critical thinking ability is a many jointed beast, and there are many ways to carve it cleanly. As a consequence, any list is bound to seem incomplete.

Even so, a list of specific skills is valuable. My efforts in this section are guided by the working definition we now have in place. This definition points to three general types of activity comprised by critical thinking: goal pursuit, criteria application, and option evaluation. Critical thinking is purposeful thinking, i.e., thinking that is intended to get us somewhere, and so it requires exercise of goal pursuit skills. This goal is achieved through the application of standards and criteria, both general and subject-specific, and there are certain skills associated with this type of activity. Finally, standards and criteria are applied for the purpose of evaluating the relevant options, and the process of evaluation is one that requires a large suite of skills. As should be clear, the skills in these groups are not only in the business of supporting critical thinking. For instance, there is nothing about the pursuit of goals that requires critical thinking, as my goal of following the waffle recipe exactly illustrates; likewise, we could apply criteria out of curiosity, without having any interest in evaluation. While individually they are not wedded to critical thinking, they relate to one another in a way that yields critical thinking. Specifically, they are nested: if the type of goal pursuit centrally involves criteria application, and if criteria application is done for the purpose of option evaluation, then you have an episode of critical thinking.

In what follows, I use the three types of activity as a framework for organizing critical thinking skills. Some of the classificatory decisions are somewhat arbitrary, as several of these skills have a home in more than one of the sections. For example, observation and recollection, listed under criteria application, certainly figure into the other activities as well. Nevertheless, I’ve attempted to align specific skills with the activities that seem most closely related to them.

IV.1 Goal Pursuit Skills

These skills comprise those involved in the formation of goals and the maintenance of the plans formed to achieve those goals.

Goal Formation: If one is to pursue a goal, one must first have a goal. We form goals in all manner of circumstances and for many reasons; however, there are certain circumstances in which we form goals that require the exercise of critical thinking skills. Often this is nested inside the pursuit of other goals, given that goals are often achieved only after accomplishing sub-goals; in such cases, problem definition follows on criteria application and option evaluation, and so forms a seamless part of the exercise of the whole array of critical thinking skills. Two of those are:

Problem Definition: What is the problem that you are required to solve? Problems require solutions, and solutions serve as goals for whom the problems are troubling.

Question Formulation: This is related to problem definition. Questions spur answers, which are held up as goals to pursue.

Quality Control: When you set a goal, you create a plan that you then execute as you pursue the goal. Plan maintenance and execution depend on the exercise of certain quality control skills. Principle among these are:

Coherence Assurance: Are the means of accomplishing the goal logically and logistically coherent with the goal? Do the sub-goals cohere with one another? If you accomplish all the sub-goals in order, will you thereby achieve the goal?

Completion: Is the plan complete? Are there parts that must be filled out before the plan as a whole is executed?

IV.2 Criteria Recognition Skills

Included in this category are skills associated with recognition of the need for criteria application and with identification of the relevant standards.  

Observation: What criteria do the circumstances require? Are there specific criteria associated with the subject matter under consideration? Does the plan, with its constituent goals and sub-goals, require specific criteria? Is there a pattern of appearance or behavior into which the option and attendant circumstances fit? You must be able to observe the situation and identify criteria germane to pursuit of your goal in that situation.

Recollection: Given observations about the goal and the circumstances, what is the nature of the criteria that are relevant? How are they to be applied? One must be able to recollect these details. (Note that if you don’t recollect them, research might be required; however, since research is a full-blown context for the complete exercise of critical thinking, research skills do not all fit into the category.)

IV.3 Option Evaluation Skills

Included in this list are all those skills (and there are many) associated with analysis of an option into aspects, inspection of those aspects in light of the relevant criteria, and synthesis of the results into a decision about the option. The skills on this list have application in each of these stages, depending on the circumstances. They are listed alphabetically.

Classification: What category does an aspect of an option or the result of a particular inspection fall into? How do these categories relate to one another?

Comparison: How do the various elements compare to one another? How does the element in question compare to the ideal described by the applied standard? How do the results of the inspections relate to one another?

Discrimination: What are the parts (spatial, temporal, etc.) of the option? What is the structure that binds these parts together?

Elaboration: How can the description of an aspect of an option or inspection be increased in detail without undermining their character?

Experimentation: Can the options be tested in different contexts to establish that they are in fact relevant?  This includes both physical experimentation and thought experimentation.

Inference: What follows from the explicit aspects of the option or inspection? That is, what do they imply? Are these implied aspects relevant to the evaluation?

Ordering: How should the results of inspection be ordered—should one be given logical or thematic or political or ... prominence over others?

Prediction: What should follow if this option is believed or acted upon? (This forms a part of the thought experimentation that often figures into inspection of options, experimentation designed to determine the effects of a belief or course of action. Identification of these effects will often influence the results of an inspection.)

Restructuring: Can the analysis be accomplished in a different way? Can the inspection? Is there a different and preferable way to synthesize the results of inspection into an acceptable result?

Verification: Has the analysis been conducted correctly? The inspection? The synthesis?