Core 105: The Monsters We Make

Fall 2004


I.  Just What is Critical Thinking?

When you hear "critical thinking", it is natural to think of criticism---that is, of unpleasant episodes involving your parents or your boss.  One can think critically in episodes like these, but the term applies to many others as well. Critical thinking is evaluative thinking---it involves evaluating options for the purpose of reaching conclusions about those options.  Alongside writing and speaking, it is one of the most important intellectual skills you possess.  Of course, you have been thinking critically since around the time you could walk, but you've also been speaking since then and writing for just about the same length of time.  Still, you are expected to take courses in speaking and writing because these skills can be enhanced.  The same is true of critical thinking, and this worksite is devoted to helping you enhance this important skill.

We can say a bit more about how it is intended to enhance your critical thinking ability.  Good critical thinkers are clear, careful thinkers who can work their way through difficult, complex problems and locate effective solutions.  People with this ability can apply it in a variety of different, consequential circumstances---that is, they are flexible and sensitive to differences between problems.  It is useful to compare them to good mechanics.  Good mechanics can solve many different automotive problems---they are also flexible and sensitive to differences between problems.  Typically, this depends on their training.  When confronted by an engine problem, they can work through the problem consciously, calling on their experience with problems of that sort and their knowledge of the engine in question.  Notice that this depends on knowledge---they must be able to call to mind the different techniques that are appropriate both to the problem and to the engine.  This worksite will help you learn the nuts and bolts of problems that call for critical thinking, along with the various techniques that effective critical thinkers employ.  It aims to provide you with working knowledge that you can apply whenever you need to think critically. 

II.  A Roadmap

When your beliefs are at stake, it's time to think critically.  These are the times when what you believe is on the line---when you are attempting to convince others of some point or someone is attempting to convince you.  At these times, there is a claim that put forward, along with reasons for it.  At this worksite, we think of these situations as involving arguments, that is, opinions accompanied by reasons for those opinions.  So understood, an argument has two parts: a conclusion (that is, the main opinion or claim that is being pressed), and reasons (that is, claims offered in support of the conclusion).  Arguments are everywhere, both within the university and without.  You will deal with arguments in every class you take, and the better you are at this, the better you will do in these classes.  Outside the classroom, you run into them in advertisements, spam,  newspapers, web pages,  movies, books, etc. Effective critical thinking consists in the effective analysis and evaluation of arguments. 

At this worksite, we concentrate on argument analysis.  This involves three stages:

  • Argument Identification:  The first step in argument analysis is knowing that you are in the presence of an argument.

  • Argument Reconstruction: The second step is reconstructing the reasoning in an argument so that you know for sure what you're up against.

  • Argument Evaluation: Once you have the argument in hand, you can evaluate it, deciding for yourself whether you are persuaded by its conclusion or not.

In the next three sections, we develop each of these stages, exercising your mastery of them element by element.  It should all be familiar, as you have analyzed arguments for most of your lives.  But by the end of your work here, what has been unconscious should be conscious and available for quick and flexible employment in the future.


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