Critical

Don’t take the title as an endorsement of this process. Lots of great comments yesterday about the nature of critical thinking–thanks to the commenters who took their time to pass along their thoughts, give suggestions, or give substantial descriptions of their own intellectual evolution. In light of these comments I thought I’d start a little series on various aspects of critical thinking. I can’t say at this point how often this will take place–that depends on what the newspapers cough up–but with the help of the readers of this site, I hope at least to make some headway.

A few years back I helped the old chair of my department author an assessment rubric on critical thinking. It seemed to me that we were just describing the various aspects of thinking which is “critical.” It struck us immediately that we weren’t going to find a set of mutually sufficient and necessary conditions for critical thinking. I’m even unhappy with the word. A few years later I knew why. In an assessment workshop using a modified version of the rubric I had co-authored, someone–actually two or more–argued that some papers on marketing were insufficiently “critical” because they failed to challenge capitalism. That seemed extreme, and illustrated for me the idea that there’s a lot more to critical thinking than critical thinking.

But back to the rubric. In the course of authoring this rubric–don’t get the idea that this thing was sui generis (we modified and adapted the rubrics of others)–it occurred to me that no single activity would constitute critical thinking in the way that I had come to think about it. Even my courses on critical thinking, when examined in light of the rubric, only cover one of 12 or so components of such a rubric.

I’d call it “rigorous” thinking but it’s too late for that. Now to the first step. This one, for many, is absolutely insurmountable:

>1. know, determine, discover, or wonder what you’re thinking about.

In other words, are you explaining a fact, arguing that some state of affairs obtains, critiquing someone else’s explanation, argument or investigation?

12 thoughts on “Critical”

  1. I am not sure I get it.
    Are you trying to come up with a list of properties of critical thinking that better encapsulates the meaning?
    Was that a rhetorical question?
    Are you looking for feedback on that question? I’m assuming you want feedback.

    from my perspective:
    Item number one doesn’t sound like what you are expounding on in the next sentence.
    I don’t understand how a fact can obtain? What does it obtain? What kind of fact has the ability to obtain?
    – I know what I am thinking about. I think about objects, concepts, and data (to name a few), I think about properties of those things and how they relate to other things.
    – To determine what I’m thinking about doesn’t seem to make sense, because it sounds like I should have the ability to approach a thought as an independent entity in order to (say) approach and determine what it is that I am thinking about. Do you mean analyze what I’m thinking about?
    – To discover what it is I’m thinking about doesn’t make sense unless you mean to discover properties that I had not noticed before, or through some creative process, come up with a sudden comprehension or perception
    – To wonder what I’m thinking about doesn’t make sense unless you mean to wonder ABOUT what I’m thinking about, because to say that I wonder what I’m thinking about sounds as if, again, I should be able to disassociate from myself and view my thoughts as an outsider.
    It seems more appropriate to wonder what someone else is thinking about than what I am thinking about. And to say “I wonder about what I’m thinking about” I don’t know if you mean to be in awe about or uncertain about what I’m thinking about.
    Is this what you mean by ‘This one, for many, is absolutely insurmountable’?
    If you are coming up with a first step, I would say that determining if there is a purpose or a goal would be appropriate. I think that having a goal or not determines how you will think about something.
    “Why am I thinking about this?”
    “What are the properties of this thing I am thinking about”
    “What dependencies does it have, what things depend on it (relationships)”
    At this point I would think that you have to know what the goal is because, for example, the next question might be “does it have a cause?” “what caused this, or what does it cause if anything” which would only be appropriate in certain contexts

  2. Dear Lee,

    Yes I’m looking for more feedback and I appreciate it.

    Saying that a fact or state of affairs obtain is another way of saying whether it’s the case, or more simply, true.

    More on this later.

  3. Dear Lee, again.

    By that I meant one ought to determine in the first place what one’s task is. I’m always surprised at how often writers fail to understand the sort of task that lies before them when they write. Writers often take for granted what they shouldn’t take for granted, or fail to provide evidence when evidence is necessary, or they fail to realize that explanations differ from arguments in fundamental and important ways, that arguments vary in strength in virtue of their relationship to the premises, and so on. Little errors in the beginning become huge errors later on, as the Philosopher says.

  4. I assume by “fact” you mean “alleged fact,” since I am not sure that there is such a thing as a non-obtaining fact. For something to be a fact it would seem that it would be necessary for it to be true.

    “Little errors in the beginning become huge errors later on, as the Philosopher says.”—Is this the philosopher’s slippery-slope?

  5. i think a prevalent source of the confusion surrounding the idea of critical thinking is a conflation of “critical” with critique.” (wow, there were a lot of alliterative c-words in that sentence; joyce would be proud.)

  6. I have never heard anyone say that a ‘fact obtains’ when they mean that a ‘fact is true’. In what field is this mode of speaking commonly used?

    jcasey: “By that I meant one ought to determine in the first place what one’s task is.”
    This agrees with what I said earlier, “why am i thinking about this”, or what is the goal or purpose.

    jcasey: “or they fail to realize that explanations differ from arguments in fundamental and important ways”
    this agrees with what I said about ” what are the properties of this thing I am thinking about”

    jcasey: “or they fail to realize that explanations differ from arguments in fundamental and important ways, that arguments vary in strength in virtue of their relationship to the premises, and so on.”
    this agrees with what i said in “what does this depend on, what depends on this, what are the relationships”

    To understand what the difference between an explanation and an argument takes some understanding of patterns of reasoning. I learned the difference in the book “logical self defense” by Blair. I like to think of the argument schemes as patterns of reasoning. The Explanation versus Argument pattern of reasoning covers writing emails, blog responses and op-ed and really depends on understanding the context. But what about other things such as happened to me today. Your organization wants to implement voice over ip in the network. The network can do it but it the performance will be poor because the appropriate quality of service is not built into the equipment. There are many more tasks that are more important from a pragmatic and practical viewpoint, but voice over ip has a reputation of saving money in some contexts. The decision makers want to be able to say they implemented voice over Ip and claim that reputation for themselves “I implemented voice over ip, therefore by association I save the organization money, gee, what a good boy am I”. This is a pattern of reasoning that is not obvious to people that don’t live with it or try to figure it out by getting educated. In the situation above they would be using a faulty analogy to justify their decision. Ignoring qualifications necessary to make a reasoned critical decision.

    In a situation like this, the Baloney detection Kit doesn’t get you anywhere because you have to get the proponent to understand it and use it. In this case your only hope to deal with is is critical questioning. You have to understand the reasoning (argument) scheme well enough to know how to question it critically. And you have to know how be tactful to avoid a quarrel. This is where knowing how to avoid using ‘you’ statements and knowing persuasion schemes comes in handy.

    I guess to me critical thinking is being able to recognize patterns of reasoning, understanding what the most likely cause is and then deciding if taking some action is warranted, or is ‘worth the trouble’ and what scheme has the most chance of a successful outcome.

  7. I agree with matt in that a necessary condition for a fact is truth. I think the uncertainty about a fact depends on the perspective of the person. If they doubt a fact, they don’t know enough about it. But doubting a fact is necessary in determining whether it is really a fact or not. Once a piece of data is validated then it becomes a fact. Agreeing on the validity may be a sticking point. For example, the president may use some facts to indicate the economy is good shape, but the congress may use other facts or some of the same facts to show that it is not. I think in this example the validity of the ‘fact’ (conclusion) about the economy depends on the premises on which it is built which are individual facts that support the conclusion. In this example we could get into a kind of recursive validation process that could unravel the whole conclusion.

  8. On this last point–“obtains” means “is true.” “Fact obtains” in an earlier version of the post, as Matt pointed out correctly, was redundant. As you have noticed.

  9. “I have never heard anyone say that a ‘fact obtains’ when they mean that a ‘fact is true’. In what field is this mode of speaking commonly used?”

    ‘Obtains’ is typically used in connection with “states of affairs” as the new version of the post correctly reads. This terminology is popular in formal logic, especially modal logic. We may talk about a state of affairs obtaining in one possible world but not another. Modal logic can cover a broad area of logical thinking but it typically refers to discussion of things like necessity, possibility, and contingency. A fact can be thought of as a state of affairs which obtains in the actual world.

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