Learning how to manage the thinking process – to think critically – is the most important thing any person can do.
Mention the words “thinking critically,” or “critical thinking” to most people and you will get responses ranging from noncomprehension, to panic, to outright boredom — it all sounds so academic, complicated, and tedious. But, a case can be made that centuries of focus on how we think, by some of the greatest minds the world has known, is important in that thought has been instrumental in evolving our social systems. As such, a short paraphrased history may be useful to show how that evolution transpired.¹
The etymology of critical thinking is derived from the Greek word for critic, “kritike,” meaning the art of judgment, and it is an area that drew much attention from people such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, thinkers whose approaches have greatly influenced Western thought.
Critical thinking, from the beginning, included not only examination of the words and actions of others but also the examination of one’s own thoughts and actions, a constant cognitive monitoring intended to make ones thinking self-correcting. It is in this context that we should consider Socrates statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Socrates (470-399 BC) believed controlled and structured thought, dramatized through a process of rigorous questioning, was the best way to lead to reason in the interest of finding truths. His dialectics, in which he used questions as tools to elicit deeper and broader thinking, forced others to challenge and defend fallacious thinking and empty rhetoric. For example, it is easy to see the mental machinations one would have to undertake to answer these questions: “You believe one should always be truthful. What if telling a falsehood would save another person’s life? Is truth nobler than life?”
The durability of Socrates’ influence is evident in the fact that Socratic questioning, and its concern with clarity and logic, is still widely employed by academics in educational settings from kindergartens to post-secondary institutions to this day. Socrates was followed by Plato, Aristotle, and other thinkers of that era, all of whom placed emphasis on the fact that the human mind is not only capable, but entirely willing to pervert incoming stimuli and that only trained minds have any chance of isolating and deciphering the real from the distorted.
The Greek traditions of seeking deeper understandings, relationships, and realities through systematic thought get credit for influencing the subsequent contributions of most of the great thinkers who followed, and there was a long drought, apparently, because the next significant influence of critical thinkers is not apparent through history until the middle ages from the written accounts of men such as Thomas Aquinas.
Aquinas warrants the rubric of critical thinker by virtue of the fact that he constantly tested his thinking by systematically anticipating, considering, and answering all the likely criticisms of his ideas that he could conceive. By so doing, Aquinas established an appreciation for the process of fact-based reasoning and also for the wisdom of systematic cross-examination of self to help ensure self-correction and self-regulation of thinking.
Sixteenth century Englishman, Francis Bacon, also believed people misuse their minds, and he was a strong proponent of the need for evidence and keen observation based on experience—the basis of reason. As such, he is widely credited with laying the foundation for modern science with his emphasis on the crucial role of proof.
Next came Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who called into question all assumptions about the reliability of the human mind and of the ways we believe we acquire knowledge. Descartes was the great doubter and as a result of his persistent questioning, and flowing from his book, Rules For the Direction of the Mind, he revealed the need for systematic mental discipline to guide thinking that would be based on solid foundations and challenged assumptions.
At about the same time, Sir Thomas Moore conceived a new social order, Utopia. Moore, too, challenged the status quo by critiquing and criticizing almost everything — again the role of doubt leading to questioning and radical analysis is evident as a means of achieving change and advancement. History clearly reveals that it was the critical thinking contributions of thinkers from the Renaissance and post-Renaissance eras that fostered the emergence of modern science, and the development of democracy, human rights, and freedom of thought.
Included in this roster of Renaissance thinkers, of course would be Machiavelli, and his most well-known work, The Prince, in which he exposes the hidden agendas of politicians and juxtaposed against the contradictions and inconsistencies of the hard, cruel, world of his day.
The direction of critical thought continued with people such as Robert Boyle (in the 17th Century) and Sir Isaac Newton (in the 17th and 18th Century). Boyle challenged the science and theories of chemistry that had preceded him, and Newton challenged almost everything in the then egocentric view of a naturalistic world and by suggesting that all that had gone before must be abandoned in favor of views based on verifiable evidence and sound reasoning.
Further contributions to critical thinking were made by the thinkers of the French enlightenment: Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot, who believed that the human mind, when disciplined by reason, is better able to figure out the nature of the social and political world. These men also believed that thinking must be turned inward — self reflection — in order to determine weaknesses and strengths of thought.
In the 19th Century, critical thought was extended even further into the domain of human life and propelled by the growing momentum of doubt, of questioning, and of quantifiable science. From this period emerged treatises from the likes of Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, and in the area of the machinations of the subconscious mind, Sigmund Freud. Critical thinking began to spread its influence and approaches into everyday culture, leading to the establishment of the fields of anthropology and linguistics.
In 1906, William Graham Sumner, published Folkways, monumental research into the foundations of sociology and anthropology. Sumner saw great danger in the fact that our school systems produced very uncritical thinking by fostering social indoctrination:
“Schools make persons all on one pattern, orthodoxy. School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe…An orthodoxy is produced in regard to all the great doctrines of life. It consists of the most worn and commonplace opinions which are common in the masses. The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations. (p. 630).
Sumner supported critical thinking in life and in education, and believed that effective thinking is dependent on education and training, on “mental habit and power.”
John Dewey, an early 20th century American academic, is widely credited with sparking the contemporary critical thinking movement with his books How We Think (1910), an application of his theory of knowledge to education, and Democracy and Education. Dewey popularized the words “reflective thinking” and “inquiry,” and solidified them as vital parts in all critical thinkers’ arsenals.
Dewey proposed that people interact with the world through self-guided mental processes that coordinate and integrate sensory and motor responses. It may seem odd to people today, but at a time when Darwin’s theory of evolution was still widely discounted as heresy, Dewey, too, was considered radical because he believed that humans did not passively perceive, but instead that our perceptions are shaped by our own active manipulation of stimuli and responses. In other words, we can control and self-regulate our own processes of learning.
The linguistic revolution occurred at the beginning of the 20th century and it is integral to the evolution of critical thought because for far too long thinkers had taken for granted the communications vehicle that drove thinking both subvocally and externally — language. Worse, there had been far too many assumptions about the reliability of language and on the abilities of different people to decode and interpret the language similarly.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) questioned the function of language and its use and misuse in philosophical discussions, in his first major work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In this book Wittgenstein suggests that many philosophical problems are based on a misuse of language; and that a careful logical analysis would clarify the meaning of these issues. In a subsequent updated and greatly revised work published in 1953, he proposed a new type of linguistic analysis based on the extraordinarily significant premise that language is understood not by itself, but only in the context of its use.
In the 1970s emerged the term “metacognition,” literally defined as “thinking about thinking,” or knowing how you know, and over the past few decades dozens of influential educators, psychologists, and philosophers have focused on cognition as it pertains to our knowledge and experience, to skills about using knowledge to solve problems, and about how metacognition concerns monitoring, controlling, and understanding one’s knowledge and skills.
The pursuit of knowledge into how the mind works is likely to be without end, but there are certain common threads that run all the way from Socrates 2,500 years ago to today: questioning is vital, reasoning is dependent on verifiable and provable evidence, and the mind is not naturally capable of self-regulation or self-correcting. As well, effective thinking requires constant analysis and is dependent on processes and structures that are themselves habitually subjected to examination to ensure that logic has not been abandoned.
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