at Viterbo University
This page was developed by Richard J. Ruppel, Ph.D., now at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.
The Intellectual Foundations of Critical Thinking
A Critical ThinkingModel
Every time you ask a question, you initiate a process that involves critical thinking. For example, when you decided to attend Viterbo, you made use of critical thinking in a number of ways. Perhaps you don’t own a car and you needed to ask, “How will I get to La Crosse for orientation?” Each answer to that question may have provoked more questions. By the time you decided to take a bus, you went through several stages of critical thinking. You collected data when you discovered when the bus leaves your hometown terminal, when it arrives in La Crosse, how far the bus station is from Viterbo, and whether you’d have time to make the first session. You looked at street maps. You calculated an estimated time of arrival (given the unreliability of bus travel, the weight of your luggage, your average walking speed, and the possibility you’d get lost). You analyzed the relative merits of renting a car and the effect the trip would have on your bank account (and, therefore, your social life). You concluded that the bus was the best option. This was a personal decision, more-or-less, and you might have gone through several of these steps on your own. But many of these steps involved consultations with others. This is a crucial feature of critical thinking, which often involves a conversation within a community.
You have been thinking critically like this all your life, so you’ve already gone through the stages of enquiry and discovery that you’ll find below. What you will gain from studying these stages, however, is the ability to make critical thinking a conscious, deliberate, and systematic process that you can apply to all your decision-making and problem-solving. With time, going through this process will become a habit; you will become accustomed to thinking about your thinking: going over your data, discovering your assumptions, and testing your conclusions. You will also become more adept at testing other people’s assumptions and conclusions. And you will find it easier to solve complex problems, to read complicated texts, even to make important personal decisions, both in college and beyond.
Critical Thinking is a key component of a liberal arts education. Every course you take at Viterbo will require you to think critically. Understanding that process – beginning with this description – will give you a crucial head start.
The Intellectual Foundations of Critical Thinking
The etymology of critical thinking goes back to the Greek word for critic, Kritike, the art of judgment. Critical thinking, building on the work of early Greek philosophers, is a mainstay of the intellectual history of the West. 1 Critical thinking is systematic thinking with an eye to improvement through careful examination and monitoring. While we recognize that all reasoning occurs within points of view and frames of reference, critical thinking nonetheless strives for a common understanding based on supportable theses grounded in data. Clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, and logical structure characterize critical thinking. Especially when practiced in a public forum, these characteristics allow thinking to be self-correcting.
The Greeks: Though the conversation on improving thinking goes back further than 600 BCE, Socrates is generally credited as the founder of critical thinking. Socrates is often seen as the first critical thinker for two reasons. First, he was put to death for challenging the ideas and thoughts of his fellow citizens of Athens, that is, thinking critically about Greek politics and morality. Second, Socrates had his story told by one of his students, Plato.
Socrates’ method was to ask probing questions that required a rational response. He used this method not only to question his fellow citizens but also to question authority. This was a dangerous time to question authority in Athens, as the Athenians had just lost a major war to the Spartans.
Socrates was a public thinker, emphasizing the need for thinking clearly and for being logically consistent. Socrates established the importance of seeking evidence, of closely examining reasoning and assumptions, of analyzing basic concepts, and of tracking down the implications of what one says and does as he spoke with his fellow citizens in the market place. To most people, this Socratic approach to questioning has become almost synonymous with critical thinking. To question reflectively commonly-held beliefs and explanations, carefully distinguishing those beliefs by the use of reason and logic, has become known as the Socratic method. It is not hard to understand why this type of activity might get Socrates into trouble with “the authorities.”
Plato recorded many of Socrates’ ideas. He also extended his thoughts on critical thinking and other issues. Plato’s student, Aristotle, continued in this vein. Aristotle extended Socrates’ and Plato’s critical thinking by writing a book on logic— a central tenet of critical thinking.
According to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, only the trained mind is prepared to see beneath the deceptive appearances to the deeper realities of life. 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. It is in this context that we should consider Socrates statement, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
The Middle Ages and The Renaissance: Two contributors to the ongoing conversation on critical thinking were Medieval Franciscan scholars, John Duns Scotus (1270–1308) and William of Ockham (1280–1349). Both taught at Merton College, Oxford University. “Ockham's Razor” is a widely known phrase in critical thinking. It means the simplest solution is often the best solution.
Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian and philosopher of the middle ages (1225–1274) developed his theory of thinking in Suma Theologica and other writings. The technique was to systematically state, consider, and answer all criticisms to his own ideas as he began to write. Aquinas hoped to improve his own thinking by anticipating what his readers might argue against him and then answering those imagined criticisms. This approach to critical thinking was an important step forward. 2
Among the scholars of the 15th and 16th centuries who carried on the tradition of critical thinking were Thomas More (1478–1535) and Francis Bacon (1551–1626), both of England, and René Descartes of France (1596–1650). Bacon laid the foundation for modern science with his emphasis on an empirical approach to science, that is, science based on careful observations rather than on models proposed by and largely untested since the Greeks.
Sir Thomas More came up with a unique way to apply critical thinking. He wrote a novel called Utopia to critique contemporary English politics. By presenting the reader with a Utopian view (literally a view from nowhere), More was able to show the reader what he thought was wrong with England during his time.
Descartes wrote what might be called a text for critical thinking, Rules for the Direction of the Mind. He developed a method of critical thought based on the principle of systematic doubt. Every part of thinking, he argued, should be questioned, doubted, and tested.
A Leap to the 20th Century: John Dewey, in several important books (How we Think (1911) and Quest for Certainty (1929)) continues the work of Plato and Aristotle and the legions that followed them over the centuries. One of Dewey’s key contributions is his focus on consequences. Critical thinking was important for Dewey because it was a method for approaching real problems in the real world.
Five contemporaries concerned with critical thinking are worth noting. Benjamin Bloom developed a taxonomy of cognitive skills that has been a staple of teaching for the past 50 or so years. The model below follows Bloom's Taxonomy. Robert Ennis’ article in Harvard Educational Review in 1964 rekindled American interest in critical thinking. Since the early 1980s, Richard Paul has preached the need for critical thinking to everyone who would listen. Finally, Matthew Lipman, the originator of Philosophy for Children, has introduced children from around the world (especially outside the USA) to critical thinking, logic and philosophy.
Conversations at the Margins: If we view intellectual history as an ongoing conversation, we will note that some voices in this conversation are privileged while others are marginalized. Which voices are privileged and which are marginalized is a complex story.
Women’s voices have not been clearly heard until this century. While there have been great women thinkers throughout history, these thinkers have seldom been valued by the larger culture. Three contemporary works that have extended the conversation on improving thinking are In a Different Voice, Women’s Ways of Knowing, and Caring. 3 The women who wrote these books have enriched our understanding of thinking by focusing on the contextual and interpersonal nature of good thinking.
Eastern voices on improving thinking go back at least as far as Lao-Tzu (604 – 531 BCE) , Confucius (551 – 479 BCE) and Ashoka (273-236 BCE). These thinkers, while making important contributions to the improvement of thinking, have been largely ignored in the West.
A Common Thread in the Conversation on Thinking - Thinking can be Improved: That is one conversational thread that runs from Socrates to Lipman. We can improve our thinking because we can make it public, in writing and in discussion. By exposing our thinking to others, one can see its strengths and weaknesses. Once these strengths and weaknesses are pointed out to us, alternative and potentially better ways to think become possible.
Our goal is to improve our thinking. We will do this by reading, writing, and discussing. Thinking does not improve simply by thinking more. We need to think aloud and open ourselves up to hearing what we are saying so that we can think better. If we learn to think well, we may be able to prevent some mistakes, those that come from acting or writing or speaking too quickly. It is a long process to learn to think well, but it’s worth the effort.
1. In East and West: The reach of reason Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, argues that the Eastern tradition of critical thinking is as old as the Western tradition. Sen reports that the Indian emperor and scholar Ashoka (273-236 BCE) was an advocate of critical thinking and tolerance (New York Review of Books, July 20, 2000, p. 36).
2. This approach to critically think was effectively used by Charles Darwin in his classic study The Origin of Species.
3. Gilligan, C. (1984). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Belenky, M. F. B, Clinch, B. M., Goldberger, N. R. & Tarule, J. M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind. New York: Basic Books; and Noddings, N. (1984). Caring. Berkley, CA: The University of California Press.
Critical Thinking as Conversation: A Model
A liberal arts education may be viewed not as a commodity nor as a four-year experience, but as participation in a community of thinkers. From this perspective, critical thinking can be seen as a spiraling conversation within this community. The following model presents five stages in this conversation. Although the five stages can be seen as discrete phases, it is also true that there is some overlap. Additionally, although there is a logical ordering of the stages, the conversation may loop backward and forward at any given time. For example, when you are evaluating your conclusion (the fifth stage), you may discover inconsistencies which send you back to the second stage, understanding information.
The presentation of the model includes three parts: a definition of each stage; questions to ask at each stage, and brief examples which show how to apply the stage to decision-making, to reading, and to writing.
1. Gathering Information: This stage in the conversation involves the collection of data; it compels thinkers to look closely and listen with care to what others are saying.
- What observations can I make, using the basic questions: who, what, when, where, why, how?
- What are the major facts?
- What is the problem?
Reading: When you are thinking about an essay you have read, you can begin by reiterating what the author has written: identify the main point, list subclaims, and note the details which he/she has given as support.
Writing: In preparing to write an essay, begin by gathering information through brainstorming, clustering, notetaking, listing and other methods of invention. Collect data through research.
Problem-solving: If you were trying to decide on a major, this is the stage in which you would begin to collect information. Some first steps might involve gaining more information about yourself through interest inventories or learning more about different fields by researching what courses you would need to take, as well as job opportunities in those areas.
2. Understanding Information: A second stage of the conversation is to make sure you comprehend what is being said; this will include evaluating the source(s).
- What terms do I need to define or clarify?
- What is the denotative meaning and what are the connotations?
- What knowledge do I already have that I could apply in this context?
- Can I distinguish between opinions, facts, values, and feelings?
- What assertions and evidence can I identify?
- What are the alternatives?
Reading: At this point in your interaction with an essay, you need to verify your understanding by investigating the meaning of terms, by clarifying your comprehension of particular sentences or passages, and by situating this essay in its context. For example, if you are reading an essay on the preservation of a wilderness area, bring your previous knowledge about the tension between preservation and development to bear on this author’s stance.
Writing: Your essay should reflect a clear understanding of the terms, categories, and contexts you are working with. Define and clarify terms with your particular audience in mind. Distinguish between facts, opinions, feelings, and values as you develop a thesis and provide supporting evidence for your assertions. Present the information in a meaningful manner for your context.
Problem-solving: At this point, you may want to begin to discuss your initial findings with others; this could be family members, friends, a career counselor, an academic advisor, and/or someone who works in the fields you are evaluating. What seems unclear to you? What additional information might you need? Remember to consider your sources, and attempt to determine whether you’re dealing with facts or opinions. Opinions can be valuable to consider, but you want to be aware of any potential biases.
3. Analyzing Information: In this stage of the conversation, your own voice actively contributes to the ongoing formulation of ideas.
- How can I separate and classify the tenets (a tenet is a principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true) of information?
- How does the information compare and contrast?
- Do I notice any errors in thinking?
- What can I infer from the details presented?
- Can I identify limitations of the information?
- How is the information connected? What associations, parallels, patterns can I distinguish?
- Is my information useful, reliable, and accurate?
- What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of each alternative?
Reading: The analysis of an essay involves an examination of purpose, audience, underlying assumptions, format, organization, language, style, and argumentative strategies.
Writing: Analysis involves a close examination of the pieces in their relationship to the whole: compare and contrast the beliefs and principles underlying the information you’ve gathered; connect information by making associations and seeing patterns; suggest inferences from the information; identify limitations of the information. Is the information useful, reliable, and accurate?
Problem-solving: Now that you have some initial information, you will need to begin to examine it more closely. What are the pros and cons of the different disciplines based on your earlier research? How do your values, interests, and abilities relate to the various fields?
4. Drawing Conclusions: Now is the time for your unique voice to be heard; working from your analysis, what new ideas can you offer?
- What questions can I formulate? Can I answer any of these questions?
- Can I articulate the significance of the information to a larger audience or place it in a larger context?
- What generalizations can I make from the different facts?
- How can I bring all information together, making connections?
- Can I relate knowledge from several areas?
- What ideas and interpretations does my analysis lead to?
- What logical and reasonable conclusion(s) can I come to based on the information?
- What is the solution?
Reading: Based on your close reading of the text (stages one and two) and on your analysis of the text (stage 3), what do you conclude about the ideas presented in this particular essay? How do the various [rhetorical] elements combine to make meaning?
Writing: The conclusion, the crux of your argument, is what you finally think about the topic at hand. Take the pieces of your analysis and bring them together to create a new idea or interpretation; this is synthesis. This conclusion is reflected in your thesis, drives your argument, and is extended in the concluding paragraph(s) of your essay.
Problem-solving: Instead of looking at individual pieces of data, you now want to look at the “big picture.” What areas of interest can you begin to identify? Is there any pattern or similarity among the areas?
5. Evaluating Conclusions: This stage of the conversation calls for assessment of your conclusion.
- How significant is my conclusion?
- How can I defend my conclusion against alternative conclusions?
- What are the consequences and implications of my conclusions?
- Are there any inconsistencies in my conclusion?
- What are the limitations of my work?
- Have I left anything out?
- What new applications might result from my work?
- How well is the solution working?
Reading: Take a step back and assess your conclusion about the essay. Does your conclusion take into account all the relevant aspects of this essay?
Writing: Assess the new idea or interpretation you have presented in your own writing: have you accounted for all the information, explained contradictions, and defended your conclusion against alternative conclusions? The evaluation of your conclusion also involves concession, a discussion of implications and consequences, and the extrapolation of new applications.
Problem-solving: You next want to examine your conclusions. Is your conclusion consistent with what you’ve learned about yourself and the disciplines/fields you’ve assessed? Based on what you’ve learned, are there now other areas that you may want to evaluate? (If so, it would be appropriate to return to the previous steps.)
Critical Thinking Community Web site
Critical Thinking and Assessment Web site
Assessment Technologies Institute Web site
Robert Ennis's Web site
Peter and Noreen Facione's Web site