The Natures of Criticism and Thinking

Criticism involves finding both the good and the bad in things. The film critic tells us what works in a great film and what doesn’t work in a sub-standard one. Similarly, as critics of thinking, we will be evaluating what works well in good arguments, and finding the places where poor arguments could be improved.

Thinking is both analytic and constructive (sometimes called “synthetic”, in philosophical terms). In an analytic sense, when we think, we take arguments apart and inspect and evaluate the materials that make them up, as well as the relationships between those materials. In a constructive sense, we craft our own materials and establish relationships between them, all with the aim of creating good inferences and reliable recommendations. The techniques developed here will help you better express the results of your considered judgements.

We encounter a wide range of grammatical variation with “thinking” words. For example, it suddenly occurs to me that I forgot your birthday. I think we should check the weather before we ride our bicycles. I will have to think your proposal over. Your gift was exactly what I needed; how very thoughtful. We can figure out how to fix the bicycle's shifters if we think it through.

In each of the above examples, we could just as easily substitute “consider” (or a synonym) for “think” and make the same points: I will have to consider your proposal. Your gift was exactly what I needed; how very considerate. We can figure out how to fix the bicycle's shifters if we consider how they are supposed to work. This simple observation shows us much about “thinking” already: it comes in many forms.

Given this, we might wonder why we don’t call this text “Critical Considering”? In this text, we privilege “thinking” by convention and refer to our task as “Critical Thinking”. But there’s nothing special about the word in and of itself. Our concern is with the skills we usually bundle together and call “thinking skills”.

We can describe thinking activities just as well with synonyms. And importantly, thinking verbs suggest related adverbs. We deliberate, but we also perform actions deliberately. We think, and also perform actions thoughtfully. We argue, and also behave argumentatively. We convince, and sometimes speak convincingly. Doing and describing, verb and adverb, are closely connected.

The point of these examples is to illustrate the inherent squishiness in the concepts we employ to talk about thinking. The concept of thinking arises from our capacity to recognise patterns in the actions, behaviours, demeanour, and dispositions of the people around us. This capacity is nothing more than our ability to analyse and synthesise various bits of information. The possibility of using the term “thoughtful”, for example, arises from our judgements about the world around us, judgements we necessarily all share as foundations for human communication.

Last modified: Wednesday, 7 February 2018, 9:32 PM