Critical thinking is an educational domain concerned with good reasoning. In the broad sense critical thinking includes both formal and informal logic. The narrow sense of critical thinking (as it is often taught in universities) is primarily concerned with (and often equated with) informal logic. Formal logic primarily involves the study of logical systems, logical axioms, logical consistency, and logical validity; and informal logic primarily involves argument identification, argument interpretation, unstated premise identification, and informal fallacies. (See “What is Logic?” for more information.) Critical thinking is generally not thought to be merely about memorizing logical facts. Instead, it is also thought to involve the development of critical thinking skills, the critical thinking attitude, and critical thinking virtues. The purpose of this paper is to briefly discuss critical thinking skills, the critical thinking attitude, and critical thinking virtues.
What do skills have to do with critical thinking?
Knowledge of logic (good reasoning) is not sufficient to guarantee that we are actually able to reason well in day to day life. Critical thinking is not thought to be completely divorced from reality. It is thought that we should not only want to know facts about logic, but also want to be skilled in actually reasoning well in day to day life. Knowing what it means to reason well can help us actually reason well, but it is not enough. Practice is needed to help improve our critical thinking skills. Various exercises given in critical thinking classes (e.g. to interpret arguments and identify unstated premises) give us an opportunity to apply our knowledge of logic and help us learn how to better apply logic to various unique contexts. We can continue to do these exercises outside the classroom and continue to become more skilled as a result.
What does our attitude have to do with critical thinking?
A person can have the knowledge and skill that enables them to reason well, but that doesn’t mean that she will actually reason well. The person with a critical thinking attitude will actually be willing to reason well. (Some people have this attitude more than others.) We could generally say that a person with the critical thinking attitude wants to believe whatever is likely true and is interested in finding out which beliefs are best supported by the information currently available. A critical thinking attitude is related to the motivation to try to reason well, but it can also motivate an attempt to use various strategies to overcome personal limitations. For example, a person with the critical thinking attitude should also realize everyone suffers from cognitive biases that often make reasoning alone inadequate, so she should sometimes be willing to make her reasoning publically known to others who can help find errors in her reasoning process. (See “Cognitive Bias & Informal Fallacies” for more information.) Additionally, a person with the critical thinking attitude should often rely on the expertise of others rather than to try to assess all arguments on her own because expertise is often required to properly evaluate an argument. (A snake oil salesman might persuade many nonexperts that her medical product can cure various ills, but it is unlikely to persuade a medical scientist.)
What do virtues have to do with critical thinking?
A person can have the knowledge, skill, and attitude required to reason well, but still lack certain characteristics that help her reason well in various contexts. These characteristics are also known as ‘critical thinking dispositions’ or ‘intellectual virtues.’ (See “Intellectual Virtue, Dogmatism, Fanaticism, and Terrorism” for more information.) Perhaps the two most important critical thinking virtues consists in the right balance between skepticism and open-mindedness. A person with a disposition to refuse to believe anything that is insufficiently supported is appropriately skeptical, and a person with a disposition to be willing to believe anything that is rationally required is appropriately open-minded. On the other hand a person who has a disposition to believe certain things that are inadequately supported is gullible, and a person with a disposition to be unwilling to believe certain things that are rationally required is close-minded.
Consider a person who believes that she has lucky underwear because she often did well playing tennis when wearing the underwear. That’s an example of fallaciously using anecdotal evidence to one-sidedly support a belief while simultaneously ignoring counter-evidence. She is being gullible insofar as she is believing something on inadequate evidence, and she is being close-minded insofar as she is unwilling to change her mind based on the counter-evidence. She is rationally required not to think she has magic underwear, but she does so anyway.