What is ‘Critical’ About Critical Thinking?
“Dare to think for yourself”.
“What you think is less important than how you think”.
“Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking, while you are thinking, in order to make your thinking better!”
Hannah Arendt claimed that if we were to lose our appetite for 'meaning we call thinking' and stop asking unanswerable questions we would eventually lose not only art but the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded. But what is thinking as critical thinking? Does critical thinking yield any positive results or is it more like clearing the obstacles (one-sided perspectives, biases, fallacies, prejudices) that constantly get in the way of reasoning?
Critical thinking not merely an exercise in logic. As important as it is to internalize certain intellectual standards and hone our reasoning skills, these alone are not what enables us to think critically. What we need to cultivate, in addition to logic, is imagination. It is imagination that allows us to challenge rigid rules and generalizations. It is imagination that allows us to be open to the sufferings and injustices of others. It is imagination that enables us to dissent, to think differently, to open up new possibilities for the future, to judge our actions.
That brings us back to Arendt. For Arendt, critical thinking is necessarily imaginative, because it presses us to make others present to us—not by imagining what goes on inside their head as if we were mind readers or psychologists, but in order to imaginatively construct a public space where ideas can be tested, where our own biases, prejudices and limited perspectives can be questioned over against the judgments of others.
In this sense critical thinking is not just about the attempt to better understand a given subject matter, but also about a deeper self-understanding. It is not the preserve of a few intellectuals or university professors; critical thinking is for everyone. However, critical reasoning as an arête or excellence is not something we can suddenly acquire. Instead, it is a skill that emerges over time through the crucible of experience--one that becomes ever more discerning and acute when it is exercised in many different and unique contexts and situations. To begin to grasp what is critical about critical thinking we might try to imagine the world of human affairs without it.
In the present information age of social media, if we were not able to critically distance ourselves from the profusion of opinions we are constantly bombarded with we would not be able to discriminate a good argument from a lousy one; we would not be able to evaluate the strength of evidence or even the reliability of our own beliefs. We would be unaware of the partiality of our own thinking, and be unable to discriminate between fiction and reality, truth and propaganda. Our convictions would not be founded on reasons or evidence that stood the test of time and counter-argument. They would exist in a private, privileged bubble immune from external criticism or doubt. We would believe that being ‘entitled to our own opinion’ is what made it 'right'—not whether it was true, false, justified or unjustified.
Further, we would have no desire to step outside of our biases or prejudices or imagine the world from the perspective of another. We would trumpet our personal beliefs, brush aside or sneer at other perspectives and refuse to take anyone else seriously who did not immediately agree with us. We would be vulnerable to half-baked religious perspectives, superstitions, conspiracy theories, propaganda, sophistry, and magical forms of thinking. We would be susceptible to believing in frauds, hoaxes and junk science. We would tend toward either the extremities of fanaticism or relativism. Instead of providing reasons for our perspectives we would rationalize and make excuses. We would express ourselves through slogans and thought-terminating cliché’s. We would cease to ask questions about the world, reflect upon the meaning of our existence and our decisions and actions. We would lose the desire to become better and more thoughtful persons. We would become more and more vulnerable to the autocrat and totalitarian leader. We would become incapable of making qualitative distinctions and be wholly guided by unbridled emotions and prejudices.
Sound familiar? It should. That is our world. Not entirely, to be sure, but moving inevitably in that thoughtless direction. Our present world honours technological innovation, instrumental reasoning and engineering over philosophy, ethics and critical thinking. That is unfortunate, but it is not irreversible.
Our world is accelerating toward both nuclear conflagration and environmental collapse. The stakes could not be higher. In such a desperate situation critical thinking is not only necessary, but absolutely critical.