Thinking Critically vs Being Critical

Marc August

by Marc Piane

These are really just philosophical wigglings. If you read my essays with any regularity, I hope you expect nothing less. If you find these kind of musings annoying and self indulgent on the part of the author, I’d suggest you stop reading now. My feelings won’t be hurt. An idea I’ve been pondering is what it means to think critically, the paradox we enter when we do, that it is a key element of empathy, and how thinking critically often gets mistaken for being critical. I can’t really claim any expertise on the subject other than the fact that the school I went to growing up was founded by the American philosopher John Dewey and critical thinking was a key element of his progressive education model. The funny thing is that, in doing research for this essay, I actually had to look up some definitions of what it means to think critically. Critical thinking was such a key part of the fabric of how I was taught (or indoctrinated) to think that I find it difficult to define.

My personal definition of critical thinking is, having an ongoing argument with yourself. I often think of the famous Socrates quote, “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing”, as a basic principle of critical thinking. While this idea might seem a bit nihilistic, I think it reflects the ability of critical thinking to facilitate the constant evolution of thought. It might seem unwieldy, but I think it keeps the mind flexible and fit. It turns out my definition about thinking hard about thinking hard is not far from the definition from other people that maybe think harder about thinking hard. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness…” More eloquent, albeit more wordy, than my definition. Let’s go with it.

This brings us to the paradox we willingly enter into when we endeavor to think critically. Like I said, no one can think critically 100% of the time. It’s just not possible. We’re human. Anyone who claims they do is full of shit. Let me explain. I think that often when we are trying to think critically we are in fact drawn to information that satisfies our confirmation bias. This is not true critical thinking. I think of ego as simply our sense of self in the universe. Necessarily subjective. Like I had mentioned in a previous essay; philosophers, scientists, lawyers, and the like have devised thought experiments, tricks really, that remove specific details from a given situation in an attempt to erase or, at at least mitigate, bias. I call it a trick because we are basically trying to fool ourselves into thinking more objectively. This is where the paradox lies. We need to think critically about thinking critically in order to improve our ability to think critically which we need to, in turn, think critically about. Maybe not a paradox is the classic definition, but I like that word. Does your head hurt yet? There’s more.

I also think that the ability to think critically and examine and scrutinize one’s own ideas actually makes it easier to identify with others and to have greater empathy for our fellow human. I know I’m throwing lots of quotes at you but Socrates, the grandfather of critical thinking, had something to say about this too, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” You’re probably thinking; What does this have to do with empathy? I’d argue that a key element of identifying with the lives of others is really, honestly, and authentically (in the existentialist definition) looking at your own life and acknowledging that your reality is just that, yours and subjective. We all exist in our own reality tunnel, our own collection of experience. Getting our tunnel to intersect with another means trying to see things from perspectives other than our own.

In researching this article I came upon the great Monty Python Argument Clinic sketch. This is one of my favorite Monty Python sketches. At first I just enjoyed and laughed. After the laughter subsided I started to think that perhaps this speaks exactly to my feelings about argument. In it a character pays to have an argument. The problem is that the argument he gets into is all contradiction. 

Customer: An argument isn’t just contradiction.

Mr Vibrating: It can be.

Customer: No it can’t.  An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

Mr Vibrating: No it isn’t.

The customer then goes on to state, “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.” An argument isn’t just contradiction. While critical thinking and argument are not synonyms, I do think that critical thinking is a crucial part of having a productive argument. The customer in the Monty Python sketch said that argument is an intellectual process. My opinion is thinking critically about ideas in that argument is key to the intellectual process.

Alan Watts said “If you always agree with me, I don’t know what I think.” I think this is absolutely true and looking at things from all angles is the best way for human thought to evolve. Working together. The key element is thought is a process, not a product. It is a means, not an end. Agreeing with each other is not a requisite to critical thinking and discussion. In fact, a well reasoned discussion can help to solidify our beliefs. The idea that asking questions is inviting a contradiction is the problem. Thinking critically is not necessarily criticizing in the negative sense. It is not necessarily contradicting. It is merely part of an intellectual process. It is a means of investigation. Seeing critical thinking as a challenge or confrontation is not a new problem. It goes back to the hemlock cocktail and maybe before. Once we get to the “yes it is”, “no it isn’t” place we no longer have argument. We have contradiction. We stop asking questions. Ideas cease to evolve. Empathy becomes just a word.

The Author

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