Paying Attention and Standards
Almost any activity might involve “thinking” under the right circumstances. To most of us, watching a film is like listening to a story. It’s casual. Probably relaxing, possibly exciting. But for a film critic, there’s much to be noticed: camera technique, editorial decisions, lighting, costumes, continuity from scene to scene, and so forth. The critic is well-trained in spotting technical failures as well as cinematic successes, while the rest of us enjoy a little leisure time.
Similarly, for most of us, petting a dog is little more than moving our hands across its fur, but for the trainer or the professional handler, strokes are deliberate and communicative. The handler's motions calm the dog during competition. She teaches the dog to tolerate children or to obey an owner's commands.
In both cases, those involved pay attention to details in a specialised way. Also, in both cases, there are standards against which we can evaluate whether the film critic got it wrong (the car was missing a hub cap in only the first shot of the scene), or whether the dog trainer's work has been effective (Chico no longer snaps at the postman). In this text, our interest in thinking is akin to the film critic’s interest in camera technique or dog trainer's interest in petting. We pay attention to thinking in a specialised way.
Our task is to express our thinking precisely, and to craft arguments that meet high expectations. We’ll transform an ordinary sense of “thinking” into a specialised topic, which we can develop into a comprehensive and effective system of argument analysis and construction.
Thinking is not a singular process. Instead of investigating its parts, we examine processes, activities, and expressions that, when taken together, are “thinking”. We keep the concept of thinking intact, allowing it to arise from our ordinary language by identifying and dealing with what we call “thoughts” in the world.
Our purpose in distinguishing this from that, or this kind of thing from that kind of thing, is to create categories or taxonomies that we can use to help us find patterns in our reasoning. I might notice that every time I whistle at my dog he looks at me. My friend’s dog acts the same. I might generalise these experiences into a pattern: dogs look at people who whistle. Patterns are useful tools in critical thinking, helping to create short cuts in both argument analysis and argument creation.
There is no single tool to do every analytical job, and having a taxonomy to describe the sorts of jobs that we might do will help us figure out which tools will serve us best. This is why we make many distinctions in our study of critical thinking.
A good foundation in systematic, critical thinking will enhance how efficiently you work and produce results, and how effective you are at what you do. The framework we develop here can be applied to a wide range of scenarios, from building houses to crafting public policies and procedures, from medical diagnoses to figuring out why your car won’t start.