Critical Thinking is Always FOR Something
Here’s a common myth about critical thinking.
It’s the belief that there’s a general faculty of critical reasoning that can be expressed in terms of a method, or procedure, for approaching and solving problems.
I get this all the time from bright, well-meaning people who are looking for an all-purpose critical thinking system, or think they’ve found such a system.
Unfortunately, there is no all-purpose critical thinking system for solving problems.
There are some general, high-level thinking skills, but these are almost never applied by themselves to solve problems.
The rule is that a given critical thinking task, or context, requires a constellation of skills, working together, to solve a problem successfully.
Some of these skills will be highly context-specific, and some will involve unconscious reasoning processes. None of these can be captured in a general method for problem solving.
The Critical Thinker’s Toolbox
Here’s a better analogy.
The skills and background knowledge and habits of thought that are relevant to critical thinking are like tools in a toolbox.
Deductive logic is one tool. Inductive logic is another. Your knowledge of fallacies or cognitive biases is another tool. Your background knowledge, in all its various dimensions, is a set of tools. Your skills at argumentation and persuasion are another set of tools. The values that motivate you and guide your inquiry are tools also.
What you’re learning when you improve your thinking skills, when you learn to make better judgments and decisions, is how to use these tools to solve the problems that you encounter in the world.
Different Tools for Different Jobs
Just like with a real toolbox, different jobs require different tools. The tool set that I need to build a deck is different from the one I need to fix a car or repair a computer.
Some tools are useful for lots of different tasks, and they’ll show up in almost every toolbox. Most toolboxes are going to have a ruler and a screwdriver and a hammer and a wrench and pliers.
But an electrician’s toolbox is going to include tools that aren’t in a carpenter’s toolbox or a car mechanic’s toolbox, because the tasks specific to electrical work require specialized tools, and vice versa.
In fact, it’s the task that determines which tools are appropriate and should be a part of a given toolbox.
Critical thinking is like this. Yes, there are some general thinking skills, but specific critical thinking tasks require specific tools, and so the toolbox is going to look different for different tasks.
Think about the critical thinking skills I need to, say, diagnose my son’s physical symptoms as he’s lying in bed complaining about his stomach.
And compare those with the skills I need to solve a logic puzzle. Or decide when to fold in a game of poker. Or pick a cell phone plan. Or figure out the best route to get downtown during rush hour. Or determine who to vote for in the next election. Or decide whether I should act on the investing advice that my brother-in-law is giving me. Or figure out the right thing to say to my kid after I discover pot in their bedroom. Or plan how to organize my weekly schedule so that I can have a first draft of my novel written before the end of January.
These are very different tasks, and they require different skill sets to successfully manage.
Part of the challenge of critical thinking is learning what skill sets are actually required for different tasks, what your toolbox should look like if you want to get better at those tasks.
And the other challenge is learning how to use the tools in the toolbox. It takes practice to learn how to swing a hammer or use a hacksaw or strip a wire, and it also takes practice to use those tools together to perform specific tasks, like tighten up the brakes on a ten-speed bike, or install a new bathroom sink, or use an ultrasound to determine the condition of a fetus.
Critical Thinking is Always FOR Something
So, just as with a real toolbox, it’s the critical thinking task that determines what tools belong in your critical thinking toolbox, and what sorts of training or instruction are needed to get better at using those tools.
Another way to say this is that critical thinking is always FOR something.
When people ask me how they can improve their critical thinking skills, I always follow up with this question: What are the sorts of problems or situations or issues that you want to become a better critical thinker about?
Sometimes people don’t know, they just have a sense that they want to improve their thinking skills. But more often they have something in mind.
Maybe they’re involved in a lot of religious debates and they want to get better at engaging with people on these issues.
Maybe they’re a mature student coming back to school after being away for a number of years, and they want to brush up on their critical reading and writing skills.
Maybe a person has a history of making bad decisions and wants to become more self-aware about their own thinking so they can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
Maybe a person is struggling with how to effectively communicate with the people who work with her in her business.
Maybe a person is starting law school and wants to learn more about argumentation in a legal or courtroom setting.
Or maybe a person is just very thoughtful and is preoccupied with certain issues, and they want to be better at articulating and defending their own thoughts.
All of these are descriptions of people who I’ve encountered and chatted with over the years.
Obviously, the recommendations I would give to one aren’t necessarily what I would give to another. They’re tailored to the critical thinking context and the goals that each person has.
Now, that said, do I wish that all these people had some background in basic logic and argumentation, before coming to see me? Of course. Do I wish they all knew something about cognitive biases? Absolutely.
These are part of basic critical thinking literacy, they’re important for everyone, and it would make it much easier to recommend further resources if I could assume some basic literacy in these areas.
Designing a Program of Instruction in Critical Thinking
The upshot is that the way to design a program of instruction in critical thinking is to first get clear on what your goals are, what sorts of questions you want answers for, what sorts decisions you want to make, what sorts of problems you expect to encounter, and so on. What is it you want to accomplish?
When this is clear (or at least, clear enough) then you can work backwards and think about what sorts of critical thinking tools would be appropriate to meeting those goals. What kind of background knowledge is important? What issues are important to understand?
And here’s an important question. Is the task something that people can manage individually, or does it require interventions at an institutional level, or higher?
If, for example, the critical thinking task is “what, if anything, we should be doing now to mitigate the negative effective of climate change?”, that’s a task that requires collective social action on a very large scale.
The critical thinking toolset for that task is going to look very different from the toolset for deciding whether I should renovate the kitchen before putting up the house for sale, or whether I should believe what that guy on Dr. Oz is telling me about the benefits of a dietary supplement for weight loss.
Ask yourself, what is the purpose or the goal of the critical thinking that I’m interested in?
Then work backwards to figure out what kind of resources you need to think clearly and effectively about the task that you’re setting yourself.